The Patient Experience: What the IBD Community Says About Remicade

It was the first biologic created to treat Crohn’s disease (and later ulcerative colitis). Remicade (Infliximab) was approved by the FDA in 1998 for Crohn’s and 2005 for UC. The medication set the stage for a new way of treating and targeting IBD. A lot has changed in the last 23 years when it comes to treating IBD with biologics (Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation Biologic Fact Sheet). As patients we’re “lucky” that more options are available, and several medications are on the horizon. But Remicade remains a tried-and-true treatment option for IBD patients.

A few weeks back, I shared an article on my blog entitled, “The Patient Experience: What The IBD Community Says About Entyvio.” The article featured viewpoints, experiences, and tips/tricks from several people with IBD who are currently taking Entyvio or have in the past. That article and this one have NO affiliation or guidance from pharma. This is strictly created from the IBD patient experience.

The discussion on Entyvio was well-received and from there, I decided to do an exposé if you will, about other biologics, too. When I was told I needed to start a biologic while lying in a hospital bed in 2008, my mind was racing. I felt like I had nowhere to turn. There were only two options at the time. I didn’t know what resource to trust or where to go for information. My hope is that these articles help comfort you as you make these important, lifechanging health decisions, and alleviate a bit of the fear associated with being on a biologic drug long-term. Use these candid quotes to serve as your roadmap to navigate the unknown.

Before we dig deep into Remicade from the patient and caregiver perspective—a reminder that much like the way IBD presents and manifests in each of us, each person’s experience with biologics is unique to them. Remember that your experience could be better and could be worse.

What does anti-TNF mean?

Each biologic is associated as a class of drug. Remicade is an anti-TNF, meaning that the medication blocks a protein in your immune system called TNF-alpha. That protein can cause inflammation in your body. People with IBD produce too much TNF-alpha, which can cause our immune systems to mistakenly attack cells in the GI tract. Anti-TNF biologics work to regulate this protein in our bodies.

The Patient Voice

In this article you’ll hear from those who just started Remicade in the last week to someone who has been receiving infusions for 21 years! Thanks to each and every person who offered input, I wasn’t able to feature everyone’s perspective, but your narrative helped guide this piece.

Amanda Rowe started Remicade nine months ago. She was hesitant to start a biologic, but ever since taking the plunge, she hasn’t looked back.

“I haven’t had any issues. I get pre-meds of Benadryl and Solumedrol because I got slightly itchy during one infusion. It’s a nice quiet time to sleep or I bring my phone and earbuds and watch a show. It’s 2 hours where I get a break from hearing, “Mom, I need…” I currently have no active disease after being in a bad flare for two years. I flared that long because I was afraid of starting a biologic. My GI explained everything to me and calmed my fears about possible side effects and I finally agreed. I just wish I would have started Remicade sooner, so I could have felt the way I do now.”

Phylicia Petit has Crohn’s and has been receiving Remicade infusions since she was a teenager 11 years ago, she’s grateful the biologic has worked well for her.

I’ve had a dosage increase and have added mesalamine for better inflammation control. Other than those changes, I’ve been relatively symptom-free, which is a major blessing! I would highly recommend having home health do your infusions. I haven’t had to take off work for my infusions and it’s so nice to be in the comfort of my home…especially with COVID! It’s also cheaper for insurance. I use Janssen Care Path for financial help. It helps to cover your infusion costs. I fortunately have never had any side effects.”

IBD is a family affair for Kara Cady. She has ulcerative colitis; her dad was diagnosed with Crohn’s as a teen and her little sister was recently diagnosed with UC. She just started Remicade last week.

“I’m still on the loading doses. The infusion process is long! It’s about 3 hours for me. I am able to get mine at my GI’s office. I can bring my laptop and work from there. I was super nervous for my initial dose, but my main “issues” are feeling tired, and having a headache and sore throat after. I’m looking forward to getting on my regular Remicade schedule, as I’ve been in flare for about 6 months.”

Laura Steiner is a nurse practitioner with ulcerative colitis who has depended on Remicade for over seven years.

“I have had to increase my dosage and shorten the interval but continue to stay in remission while on it. I’m usually wiped out the day of and the day after. I get my infusions on Fridays, so I have the weekend to recover. The only downside is many major insurance companies are forcing patients to switch to biosimilars, so after 62 doses of Remicade, my next infusion in June will be Inflectra. I’m hoping it will work equally as well.”

Laura is not alone in this fear and dealing with barriers to care and insurance coverage is a reality for many. While working on this article, a social worker from an insurance company reached out to me and said in the last week alone she’s dealt with several cases of people who have had their Remicade denied. She’s helping them through appeals. Until you’re a person who is dependent on a medication for improved quality of life, where timing is of the essence for receiving it, it’s difficult to grasp the magnitude and the pressure of not being able to receive your medication when you need it and risking a flare spiraling out of control or losing your remission.

Meg Bender-Stephanski was on Remicade to treat her Crohn’s for about a year and half. It worked well for her, but she says the infusions were not only inconvenient but costly, so she ended up switching biologics.

I was going to college in Oregon while my main insurance was based in California, and the out of pocket costs the first few infusions in Oregon were around $18,000. It ended up being cheaper for me to fly home every 8 weeks for an infusion than it was to receive it in Oregon! I also really wanted to study abroad, and it was incredibly difficult to figure out the logistics. Remicade did work well for me and sometimes I have regrets for switching off it for personal reasons.”

Advice for Infusion Days

Kelly Dwyer was diagnosed with Crohn’s in 2018, but experienced symptoms for several years prior. She has great advice for gearing up for infusion day and beyond.

  • Take along a caregiver for your first infusion, if you can, just in case you have a reaction.
  • Make sure you make a plan for pre-meds or no pre-meds with your GI before you go to the infusion center, so you don’t get surprised by their policies. Kelly takes Zyrtec the night before, so she doesn’t get drowsy and Tylenol right before the infusion to alleviate the headaches she gets towards the end of an infusion.
  • The first few infusions should be slow infusions, to make sure you don’t have a reaction. Kelly has continued to receive hers at a slow rate (2-2.5 hours) because her blood pressure tends to bottom out when the Remicade is pushed to a higher rate. But for many, a higher rate works and helps the infusion go quicker.
  • Switch arms and spots for your IV. Kelly says she saves her “big veins” for times when the nurses need to do a blood draw before the infusion and have to use a larger gauge needle.
  • Hydrate well the morning of the infusion and bring along a heating pad, as it may help to wrap it around your arm if you’re dehydrated before the IV is started.
  • Openly communicate with your infusion nurses. Let them know if you feel weird or off in any way. Nurses have seen it all and can be very reassuring and helpful, but you need to give them feedback so they can help you and act right away if you’re starting to feel poorly.
  • Your reaction one day may be different the next. Kelly says she doesn’t have consistent reactions each time, so it’s important to be vigilant and always be prepared to expect the unexpected.
  • For Kelly, she doesn’t start to feel the effects of Remicade for a few hours after the infusion. She gradually starts to feel more and more grumpy and tired. She gets a very particular kind of fatigue the day of her infusion. She says it’s a very numbing, all-encompassing, tiring feeling.
  • Be aware of what dosage you’ve been prescribed. Understand there are several variables that your GI can change if the Remicade isn’t working immediately or enough. The interval time between infusions can be shortened, and/or the concentration of the medication can be increased.
  • Remicade is often given with other immunomodulators, like Methotrexate. Talk with your GI about scheduling and timing for the infusions with your other medications.
  • If you’re just getting started on a biologic, your GI will likely tell you to get vaccinated for Shingles and Pneumonia before starting. You’ll also need to do an annual TB test.

Kelly also advises patients to be aware of insurance companies in the United States. Like we touched on at the start of this article, she says many are requiring people to switch from the brand name Remicade to a biosimilar of Infliximab.

“I’m making the switch over at my next infusion in July and my GI and I agreed that we felt confident on the data out of Europe about the efficacy of biosimilars. I recommend everyone with IBD to do their own research and have this conversation with your GI. Be proactive and prepared to discuss options when the time comes with your insurance company.”

Balancing the Logistics of Infusions and Work/Life

Megan Alloway has counted on Remicade to keep her Crohn’s under control for 21 years. She prefers to get her infusions on Friday so she can use the weekends to recoup because it makes her so exhausted.

“While Remicade has been a blessing to me for over two decades, it feels like every time I turn around, it’s time for another infusion.”

An OBGYN with Crohn’s who wished to remain anonymous, has been on Remicade since she was 18. She’s now 35 and still receives her infusions every six weeks. She credits Remicade for giving her a full quality of life and enabling her to stay out of the hospital.

“Since starting Remicade, I have been able to finish college, med school, and residency with my symptoms under control. I’ve stayed out the hospital ever since I started Remicade. My main complaint is how long the infusions take. Different infusion centers have different protocols and requirements, but usually mine take over two hours. It’s annoying to find that kind of time on a weekday and be able to take care of my own patients, but I have to do it for my health.”

Heather Richter agrees the time an infusion takes can be inconvenient, but she’s learned to make the most of the “me” time as an IBD mom with Crohn’s disease.

I’ve learned to embrace the “alone” time. Be persistent at your infusions and if something seems off to you, speak up and make sure you feel like you’re being listened to. My infusion nurse gives me Benadryl and Tylenol beforehand, so if I have the kids taken care of, I find it helpful to nap and rest afterwards.”

Kristi Reppel has been taking on Crohn’s for 18 years. She received Remicade from December 2005 until August 2011. She switched biologics for a lifestyle change and started Cimzia in September 2016. She ended up back on Remicade in December 2016. She currently received 7.5 mg/k every 4 weeks instead of the typical 6-8 weeks.

This biologic works for me. It gets me in remission and keeps me there. I am a lot less symptomatic, thanks to my medicine. The bad part of all this is my veins are scarring over because I only have a few good ones and those are almost gone. The post infusion exhaustion and headache can also be a lot. As an attorney, finding the time to sit through an infusion and schedule it around court room hearings can be rough. I cannot recommend enough about the importance of hydrating with water that has electrolytes like Smart Water around infusion day. It’s made a big difference for me!”

Linde Joy Parcels says Remicade allowed her to reach remission in high school. She had swollen and painful joints, and after starting the biologic, she experienced a complete transformation.

“Unfortunately, I metabolized Remicade too quickly and had to transition to Humira after one year. I loved getting to take a day off school while on Remicade and spent my infusions relaxing with my mom watching soap operas. That was the silver lining for me!”

The Caregiver Perspective—from a wife to moms of pediatric patients

Remicade has been a lifesaver for Rebecca Kaplan’s husband. Before starting a biologic, she says his Crohn’s was not well-controlled. He was on one medication, going to the bathroom 25-30 times a day. By the time her husband started Remicade, the damage had already been done and was irreversible, so they didn’t see the true impact of the biologic until after he had bowel resection surgery.

He’s been on Remicade for 11 years this summer and in that time, he’s been able to graduate with a master’s degree, work full time, work out, play softball, and attend family functions. He’s also put on close to 45 pounds and gone from malnourished and underweight to thriving.

“Remicade isn’t picture perfect – the few days after his infusion I like to say he becomes a toddler who can’t control their emotions. He’s extremely irritable and says it feels like his brain is on fire. He gets sinus infections more often than before (and apparently that’s not uncommon when you are on a biologic), and he still has some symptoms from time to time. But his last colonoscopy showed that he is in deep remission, and I know that he wouldn’t have achieved that without being on Remicade.”

Rebecca waiting in the car (thanks to COVID) while her husband receives his Remicade infusion.

Alexia Anastasia’s 11-year-old daughter started Remicade in February. The list of side effects and hearing a horror story from a friend who “had a friend who had a stroke” made her a nervous wreck. Ultimately, she looked at the research and the long history of pediatric use of Remicade and felt she was making the right decision alongside her daughter’s GI.

“It’s been a game changer. We learned quickly my daughter needs it every 4 weeks after trying to go for 6 weeks. I’m so grateful it seems to be working. Her fecal calprotectin is almost normal from originally being 3,460. Her inflammatory markers are back to normal. I just hope it keeps working and the side effects remain minimal. It’s been a challenging 5 months with this new diagnosis. Now that I can reflect, I’m grateful my daughter’s GI pushed for us to start a biologic immediately. My daughter was withering away before my eyes and now she is back on track.”

Beth Otto-Stapleton’s daughter Penny started on Remicade when she was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease in January 2017 at age four. She was given two infusions a few days apart while hospitalized during her first flare. Unfortunately, that is when Penny suffered heart damage and was diagnosed with heart failure because of the Remicade.

“She now does Vedolizumab infusions instead because it is a different class of biologic. We are thankful as a pediatric patient, Penny can go to a Children’s Hospital for treatments…it keeps the hard parts of the disease there and keeps our home a safe/comfy space. The great part about the infusions is that we also get blood work done and get instant feedback. I always ask the infusion nurse to give her an extra bag of fluids so she’s well hydrated.”

Dermatological Side Effects

While talking with patients about their Remicade experience, skin issues came up in a few conversations. 

Remicade was the first biologic Dana Drengler tried. She says it worked the best and the longest for her. She was in full remission and lived a normal life while on it. Unfortunately, after about 3 years in, she started to develop red spots on her lower legs. They looked like broken blood vessels at first, but then started to spread and get larger, eventually turning into deep and painful ulcers.

“The ulcers covered my lower legs and became super painful, to the point where I couldn’t walk some days. It stumped my doctors, and they only thing they could think of was that it was a reaction to Remicade. They had me stop taking it and within a few months, my legs started to heal. I still have scars 5 years later!”

Mia Frakes has been using Remicade to control her Crohn’s inflammation since 2017, overall, she feels the medication does the trick, but she has what she calls the “oddest side effect”.

“I’ve been dealing with extremely red, dry, and flaky skin in strange areas like behind my ears and my belly button. My GI says she has seen this dry skin in other patients, too. I have to go to the dermatologist, and they give me topical medication to put on the dry areas, which seems to help.”

Madelynn Jessberger was diagnosed with Crohn’s in 2008, she’s been on Remicade the last three years. She was receiving infusions prior to getting her colon removed and was put back on the biologic after. Aside from some aches and tiredness after infusions, she also developed a rash.

“I developed psoriasis all over my body and my GI is unsure if it’s a side effect, a separate autoimmune disease, or an extra intestinal manifestation of Crohn’s. I manage the rash with thick creams and topical medicine from my dermatologist. Everyone is different, this is just my experience.”

Pregnancy + Motherhood and Remicade

Alyssa Leggett started Remicade in August 2018. At first, she was getting infusions every 8 weeks. Then, in 2019, two weeks before an infusion she started feeling fatigued and was dealing with urgency, pain, and diarrhea. Because of those symptoms, her infusions were moved to every 6 weeks.

After I gave birth, my doctor wanted to switch me to the rapid rate infusion. I’ve been doing those since November 2020. They’re about an hour shorter and I don’t have any side effects from them. I feel like I can have a more stable life. I still get symptoms from time to time, but I attribute that to the food I eat. Thanks to Remicade, I reached remission and had a healthy, full-term pregnancy.”

Allie Heiman is grateful for how Remicade has helped prepare her body for motherhood.

I haven’t had any side effects from Remicade and have found the infusion to be easiest in my hand with only minor bruising the next day or two. I started in March 2020 and was cleared to start trying for pregnancy in December 2020. After 13 years of negative scope results and being told I was not healthy enough for pregnancy, I could not be more thrilled with the outcome. I am hopeful to be a mom in the future, and grateful that Remicade made that a possibility with Crohn’s.”

Tayler Jansen is an IBD mom of two. Remicade has been amazing! Remicade and Imuran have kept me in remission for the past 9 years and enabled me to have two healthy pregnancies.”

Shakila Almirantearena has identical 5-year-old twin girls. She was diagnosed with Crohn’s shortly after they were born and is currently in remission. Along with Remicade, she takes Methotrexate.

 “I take Tylenol and Claritin at the infusion center to prevent any rash, etc. I usually take the whole day off work and really allow my body to rest. I haven’t had any major side effects. I’m usually tired the next few days and sometimes get a headache the day after my infusion, but Tylenol helps alleviate any pain.”

Christine Renee has had Crohn’s for 20 years, she’s a mom of two teens and a teacher.

“Remicade was a game changer for me compared to the previous meds I was on. I eventually developed antibodies to it, and it wasn’t as effective. My tips for those getting started are to not be afraid. I was so nervous about starting a biologic, but after the way I was feeling and the tests that my doctor performed, I knew it was the right thing to do. I started Stelara a few days ago and I’m hoping for similar results.”

IBD Parenthood Project

IBD Moms

Mamas Facing Forward

Pregnancy in Inflammatory Bowel Disease and NeoNatal Outcomes (PIANO) Study

Remicade and Pregnancy (MotherToBaby)

Other Helpful Remicade “Hacks”

  • Bring a phone charger to your infusions.
  • Dress comfortably.
  • Hydrate well the day before, day of, and day after.
  • Remember your headphones or AirPods so you can drown out the noise and watch a movie or show. Noise canceling headphones for the win!
  • Pack games and books to pass the time or your laptop so you can work.
  • Have someone else drive you when possible, in case you are drowsy from the Benadryl.
  • Pack snacks and drinks. Many infusion centers will also have this available for you.
  • Have a sweater or blanket!
    • Lauren Hopkins has been on Remicade well over a decade and receives what’s considered a “double dose” every 5 weeks. She’s found her sweet spot and has been able to maintain remission. She says, “Refrigerated Remicade mixed with room temperature saline feels COLD pumping into your veins. It shouldn’t hurt, so if it does, say something to your nurse so they can fix your IV.”
  • Have the Infusion Nurse run saline before and after your infusion to help with headaches.
  • Be your own best advocate. Speak up to your care team if something feels off, if your symptoms are persisting, or if you’re dealing with side effects that make your life challenging.
  • Remember if a biologic fails—it’s not on you, you didn’t fail anything, the drug failed you.

Video: What to Expect at a Remicade infusion(Credit: Crohn’s and Colitis Young Adults Network)

Stuff That Works: Insights on Infliximab

IBD Motherhood Unplugged: “I have IBD and so does my Mom”

In the spirit of Mother’s Day—today’s article celebrates mother and daughter duos with IBD. Rather than focusing on the hereditary factor of Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis, this story celebrates the camaraderie, bond, and connection created when a parent and child both share the same disease. While the chance of passing on IBD when one parent has Crohn’s and ulcerative is relatively low according to the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation (between 5% and 20% of people with IBD have a first-degree relative, such as a parent, child, or sibling who has one of the disease), it happens. My hope is that if you dream of being a mom or a dad, you don’t rob yourself of going after that dream because of the fear of passing on your disease to offspring.

As a mom of two (soon to be three!), I am the only one with IBD in my entire extended family. But, I often worry and wonder if my Crohn’s will be passed on to my children. I know this is a common fear many in the community grapple with. Check out these thought-provoking and comforting firsthand accounts from 8 mother-daughter duos that show how families unite in their diagnosis and lift one another up.

Corri Gardner and her mom both have ulcerative colitis. Her mother’s father also had UC. Corri’s mom was diagnosed with IBD while she was pregnant with her. All she knows since being diagnosed herself is having her mom and grandpa to confide in through the ups and downs of the disease.

“My mom has always been there to validate my fears and feelings on such a deep level since she knows exactly what I’m going through. When I was diagnosed, she expressed how guilty she felt over and over again. I always assure her that I would much rather be on this earth, living with UC, than to not be here at all. If someone is hesitant about having children due to their IBD, I would urge them to not make life decisions based on fear.”

Camryn Asham and her mom both have Crohn’s. She says having a parent with IBD helped her feel less lonely and more understood when she was diagnosed. Like anyone with a chronic illness she’s gone through a range of emotions on her patient journey—everything from anger to grief.

“I’ve had the “why me” feeling, but deep down I know it’s not my mom’s fault and there is no one to blame. I know my mom has felt guilty watching me go through traumatic moments and all the ups and downs. I’ve been able to witness my mom get through the highs and lows of IBD, and that reassures me I can get through any flare up or procedure, too. I know I can always count on my mom for help and support when I don’t feel heard or understood.”

Rachel Martin and her mom both have Crohn’s disease. Her mom was diagnosed at age 14, she found out she had the same disease when she was 22. While the diagnosis was devastating for both, Rachel says she finds comfort in knowing that she has someone close to her who can relate.

“I do feel as though my mom feels guilty for passing Crohn’s. I have a twin sister who does not have Crohn’s and it has been hard seeing her live her life without going through everything that I have gone through. Never in my life would I wish this upon anyone, especially my sister, however I wish that I never had to go through this. I never exactly blamed my mom, but I have spent a lot of time wishing I “lucked out” like my sister did. I know that my mom feels bad that I have had a really hard time coping and accepting that I also have a chronic disease.”

Diagnosed prior to a parent

Mary Catherine Kirchgraber was diagnosed with Crohn’s when she was 10 in 2000. Her mom was diagnosed during a routine colonoscopy when she was 50-year-old in 2013. Since her mom served as her caregiver and advocate since she was a pediatric patient, it’s made for a unique journey and perspective. They both seek medical care through the same GI practice and have been on the same medications. Mary says it’s nice to have someone to commiserate with about frustrations with insurance, feeling poorly, side effects, and more.

“My mom is the toughest person I know and never complains, so she inspires me in a million different ways. I wish she didn’t have to struggle the way I have, but it’s nice to have someone to lean on and ask questions to. My mom has always been my advocate and greatest support. She fought for accommodations at school, taken me to Mayo Clinic, dealt with insurance, and taken me to every doctor appointment and specialist I’ve ever needed. She created binders of medical records for me and often reminds me of my own health history when I don’t remember things from when I was a kid. I am so lucky to have her on my team.”

Sharan Kaur was diagnosed with Crohn’s in 2002, her mom found out she had ulcerative colitis in 2017. She says prior to her mom’s diagnosis she felt alone dealing with the day to day struggles of IBD. Sharan says because of her knowledge and experience living with IBD, when her mom began to experience symptoms, she was able to push for their general practitioner to take action immediately and reach a diagnosis. She is grateful to have another family member who can grasp the severity of the disease and who understands how easy it is to go from feeling perfectly fine one day, to barely managing to get out of bed the next.

“I think we find strength in one another. For years, my mom supported me through my worst days and although she didn’t completely understand how things were before her diagnosis, the support was always there. Finding out she had UC broke my heart because she’s always been so active, truly a supermom. I realized then that this would have to change for her as she would probably go onto face the same daily struggles that I do with fatigue. As an adult I’m sure this change in lifestyle is much harder to accept than it was for me.”

Mary McCarthy was also diagnosed with Crohn’s at age 12 in 1995, her mom didn’t discover she had Crohn’s until 2015 when she was 62 (and her dad has UC!). IBD was foreign to the McCarthy family when Mary was diagnosed though. She says her mom had a difficult time coping with having a child with a chronic illness. Even though her mom was well-versed on IBD by the time of her own diagnosis, hearing the news was still difficult for her.

“We deal with it mostly through empathy and humor. Being able to talk openly about the emotional and physical aspects of the disease helps. My parents and I joke about how we are colonoscopy experts and have seen every gastroenterologist in the city of Chicago. My mom knows exactly what I need before colonoscopies, which is often to get some alone time and get in the zone. We laugh about it now. “Mom, I love you, but I gotta get in zone. You can wait in the waiting room now.” My mom has been there for ALL important moments in my IBD journey. We sometimes reminisce about the complete chaos we went through when I was 12. We may have IBD, but we know life must go on.”

Michelle Schienle and her mom were both diagnosed with Crohn’s in 2015, she was 23 her mom was 52. Michelle’s diagnosis was the catalyst for her mom to seek additional treatment from a new gastroenterologist. As we all know it can be challenging to articulate IBD symptoms to those who haven’t experienced them. Michelle knows she can always count on her mom no matter what she’s going through. Even though she doesn’t blame her mom for passing on IBD to her, she did get frustrated that she didn’t recognize the suffering earlier as a child because that was her mom’s “normal”, too.

“Since she was living her life that way, she thought my problems were “normal”, so I had to wait until I was old enough to advocate for myself to get the answers I needed. I wish she wouldn’t feel guilty for passing it on to me, because it’s not her fault. Seeing my mom push through gives me strength. I’ve seen firsthand how she’s successfully raised a family, had a great career, and traveled the world (all things I aspire to do!) and done it with IBD. It’s a relief not to have to explain the pain and worry in detail because we just know what the other is going through. As unfortunate as it is that we both are going through this, having my mom understand what I am feeling both physically and emotionally helps to validate it. If my children are to ever get IBD, I am now confident that I am in the best position to take care of them because I know what to watch out for and how to be proactive about treatment.”

History repeating itself

Both Ellen Jenkins and her mom were diagnosed with Crohn’s when they were 18 and freshman in college at the same school! Ellen says her mom still feels responsible for her being sick, even though she has never blamed her for IBD.

“Growing up and watching my mom live a normal life despite her IBD comforted me when I was diagnosed. I am so thankful to have someone who understands firsthand what I go through. Although no parent would choose to pass Crohn’s on to their child, IBD has made us closer. I have never been upset that I got it from my mom. Instead, I’m thankful to always have her as an advocate in my corner who truly understands the struggles.”

A heartfelt thank you

As an IBD mom, hearing these experiences and perspectives really puts my mind and heart at ease. As you can see, there’s a common thread throughout. Rather than blame their parent for passing on IBD, these young adults look to their parents as a pillar of strength, a source of understanding, and as partners in taking on their illness. Through the pain and suffering there is also gratitude, clarity, and unbelievable resilience. Just how you have grown and evolved as a person after your diagnosis and throughout your patient journey, your child will do the same.

Special thanks to everyone who made this story possible. Your words, your raw emotions, and your candidness are sure to help many and shed light on the incredible dynamic that is created when a parent and a child both battle IBD…no matter what age their diagnosis comes about.

45 years with Ulcerative Colitis: What a former pediatric patient wants you to know

Being diagnosed with IBD as a pediatric patient looked different in the 1970’s. For 54-year-old Brett L., the start of his patient journey began when he was only nine. The year was 1976. He started experiencing fevers, bloody diarrhea, vomiting, and abdominal pain. As he puts it—the symptoms started a year-long quest to find an answer. A quest that involved frustratingly long waits at doctor offices, endless tests, and medical trials. He was ultimately diagnosed with acute ulcerative colitis at the age of 10. Now, in 2021, Brett has unique insight and perspective to share with our community.

Patient “Number 1”

As you can imagine, Brett spent many years on high dose steroid and sulfur pills. The side effects of the steroids (moon face, weight gain, bloating, mood swings, and ravenous hunger, etc.) added insult to injury. From 7th through 9th grade, Brett missed nearly 60 days of school each year due to severe flare ups and hospitalizations. By the time he was 13, Brett’s parents were desperate for a cure as his condition worsened. With no relief from traditional medicine, they sought out additional care from holistic doctors, nutritionists, even an angel healer at one point! Nothing helped to manage Brett’s IBD.

“In 1981, I was 14. I’d been battling debilitating and severe flare ups that made me so weak I had to crawl to the bathroom or walk doubled over in pain. Each hospitalization was taking its toll. Over the years, though I was growing, I had lost 30 pounds. It was at this point that my doctor proposed something that had never been performed on a pediatric IBD patient—a total colectomy and “pull through” operation that would leave me fully reconnected and waiting for the ileostomy closure…allowing me to eventually go the bathroom normally again after a recovery period of a year or so.  It was risky surgery back then. But not having it was a risk too.  I agreed, and we went ahead with the surgery.” said Brett.

Brett was deemed “patient number 1” for this pediatric procedure and his case study was published in medical journals. To this day he remembers waking up from surgery in the pediatric ICU at Westchester County Medical Center in Valhalla, NY. He recalls counting 18 tubes and lines connected to his body and thinking that he couldn’t believe he chose to do this to himself. The surgery lasted 14.5 hours and the incision ran from his pubic bone to his sternum—the entire length of his abdomen.

Living with an ileostomy as a teen

“I learned to manage the ileostomy with some upsetting and messy mishaps at the very beginning. And in class sometimes the stoma would make embarrassing sounds. I learned to feel it coming and cover it with my hand to quiet it. But without a colon, I was now a healthy 14-year-old. The doctors said that upon examining what was left of my colon, they estimated I had about two weeks left before a fatal perforation,” said Brett.

A year later his ileostomy was reversed, and he was able to go to the bathroom “normally”, again. While he’s grateful for this—it hasn’t been all sunshine and rainbows. Brett says he initially had an abscess at the closure of the stoma. Ever since, he has gone to the bathroom more than normal people. In recent years Brett developed a challenging case of chronic pouchitis that at its worst caused pain and had him going 20-30 times a night.

The good news is that “after about 4 years of this, I finally seem to have treated and solved it myself, with psyllium husk powder at breakfast and lunch times, and 3 Lomotil pills with dinner. I’ve also reduced fluid intake during meals and become more careful about not overeating. I learned some of this in my online research about immediate post-op colectomy patients. The doctors had a hard time helping me with this, but I seem to have resolved it myself.” 

From past to present

Today, Brett is a healthy 54-year-old man and his pouchitis has never been more under control. Through all the ups and downs with IBD, he’s lived a fulfilling life as a professional singer, and as an executive of multiple companies. 

“In my career I’ve been an investigator, a head of marketing and sales, I’ve grown startup companies, and have traveled the world for business and pleasure. I’ve earned an advanced degree from an ivy league school, and I have an amazing 16-year-old daughter who is a gifted, performing singer-songwriter in her own right.”

Brett believes his ulcerative colitis has made him more appreciative of life and the little things.

“I have always been that person who lingers over sunsets, gazes at the moon, and stops and notices the teeny flowers poking through the cracks in the sidewalk, or street art, and the coincidental things one comes across as noteworthy or remarkable. I notice and really drink in the happy, good moments because I know what it’s like to not be able to be out and experience these things. I know I am fortunate to be here to tell my story.” 

Here are some helpful nuggets of knowledge Brett would like both those with IBD and their caregivers to know:

  • Don’t let fear of IBD stop you from living your life and having fun, or asking that person out, or going out with friends, when you are feeling well. As soon as I was feeling well enough to get back out there after a flare up, I lived life to the fullest and played like every other kid. You deserve to be there just as much as every other kid, teen, or adult does. When you are feeling well, try to make the most of that wellness, and not let the fear of what might happen stop you from living.
  • You are not “less than”, because you have an illness. In fact, you may even have an added level of maturity because of your illness that others do not, because of your need to contend with it, and interact more with adults and medical professionals and present your situation to them in a coherent and meaningful way. Look for the silver linings in everything. Notice the small pleasures, they help you get through the down times.
  • To parents—your child is a survivor. It takes a lot to keep them down. They will have ups and downs with their IBD. But 2021 is the best time ever to have to live with this diagnosis. Current treatments and even surgeries have changed the game and the patient experience, for the better and the future is even more promising. IBD can be traumatic. Children and adults can benefit from seeing a therapist to help cope with the lifelong nature and complications of the disease.

Working from home is more than a job perk for those with IBD

The COVID-19 pandemic has normalized talking about chronic illness in the workplace and shed light on not only what it means to be immunocompromised and how it impacts one’s quality of life, but also the benefits and possibilities that working from home provides for everyone involved.

Prior to the pandemic, asking to work from home or setting up accommodations with your boss looked different. It could feel a bit taboo. Maybe you worried how the rest of your team would perceive you as possibly getting special treatment. Maybe you didn’t want to appear as if you couldn’t keep up or do what was expected of everyone else. But one of the positives to come out of this crazy time is that the way we work and how we work has shifted.

I’ve been a freelancer/blogger and stay at home mom since I became a mom in March 2017. That being said I worked full-time in the TV news industry, at a PR agency, and in corporate America at a natural gas utility the first 12 years I had Crohn’s disease. I am well-versed in how to navigate those difficult conversations with your boss, how to balance your health and well-being with your career, and what it means to thrive professionally while making sure your health doesn’t take a hit.

An opportunity for change

If the past 13-plus months have shown us anything, it’s how adaptable and flexible work can be. Businesses and organizations have real-life intel now that can help guide what the future of working looks like, and how employees can best be supported, engaged, and accommodated.

The chronic illness community can use this time as a springboard into the future and communicate their needs and hopes moving forward. According to the CDC, nearly 60% of adults in the U.S. live with at least one chronic illness. Even though that’s a huge percentage, many leaders still don’t know how to properly support employees who fall into this category and those of us who live with a disease such as IBD often question our own abilities and what we’re able to bring to the table compared to our healthy co-workers and counterparts. Working from home through the pandemic has evened out that playing field.

Having the flexibility to work from your couch or run to your bathroom in the comfort of your home versus in the middle of a big work meeting with your peers makes a huge difference. Knowing that you can schedule meetings and availability around blood draws, appointments with specialists, scopes, infusions, etc. offers great flexibility in managing your illness and getting the job done without feeling guilty for taking care of yourself.

How to better understand and support employees

From a chronic illness perspective, we push ourselves in all aspects of life, even when we’re running on empty because we constantly fear being viewed as less than. There are many ways business leaders can better support employees who are taking on a disease like Crohn’s or ulcerative colitis.

As people with IBD we worry about how we’re perceived by others because of the stigma that surrounds chronic illness. There’s guilt. There’s fear of being considered lazy. There’s the worry about coworkers judging you and thinking you’re a complainer or weak, when in fact they may not be aware of your whole back story.

So how can we improve the support of our managers?

Initiate communication: Ask your boss about setting up a 15-minute monthly one-on-one touch base to discuss how you are feeling and if you need additional support. Talk about what the next month looks like as far as doctor’s appointments, labs, tests, etc. I personally always felt better supported and understood by sharing my health struggles with my coworkers—whether it was my co-anchor and meteorologist or the communications team at the company I worked at. When I was hospitalized (which happened on multiple occasions) or needed surgery, I would email the entire team and give them a heads up about what was going on, so they heard it from the “horse’s mouth” and not through office hearsay or gossip. By articulating your patient experience you give others a chance to be empathetic.

Make the invisible—visible: It can be easy for us to downplay our pain or put on a smile when we’re flaring to protect ourselves, even on Zoom calls! The unpredictability of IBD makes work-life a challenge because you can start the workday feeling energized and ready to take on the world and after lunch feel like you can’t even stand up straight and need to lie down. The constant uncertainty of when symptoms are going to strike can be debilitating in and of itself. By being open and transparent in these moments of struggle you help paint a clearer picture of what you’re experiencing for those who don’t live our reality. In corporate America, I used to sit in the boardroom and start a meeting by casually saying “I just want to let you know my Crohn’s is acting up. I’m in a lot of pain. It’s hard for me to sit up straight so I’m going to slouch a bit and I even had to undo my pants!” I approached those moments with humor, but moreso to take off my “mask of wellness” and be transparent that there was much more going on in my mind and body than just the presentation I was giving or listening to. I feel being honest like this made my co-workers helped us build a stronger relationship and rapport.

-Come up with a hybrid schedule: As the world starts to open and companies discuss what the future will look like as far as working from home or in the office, consider what it may look like to work a couple days a week doing each and finding balance. Working from home hasn’t been a detriment to productivity, if anything this time has proved how flexible we can all be in the face of adversity. By creating a space of support and understanding, everyone can be successful. Talk about the options available, your comfort level with returning to work in the office (especially if you’re immunocompromised or haven’t had a chance to be vaccinated), and what the expectations are moving forward.

Improve inclusiveness: When a business or organization makes employees feel embraced, regardless of their health struggles, it speaks volumes. Even those who are completely healthy should see this as a valued characteristic of their working environment—whether in person or virtual. Nobody knows when their life could take a turn for the worse or when an unforeseen health issue could pop up. For many in the chronic illness community, we went from being healthy to waking up with a disease that will be a part of us, always. It’s on leadership and Human Resources to ensure those with chronic illness are provided with the support they need.

Stop celebrating overwork: Touting the employee who works around the clock and answers emails at 2 a.m. sends the wrong message. Instead, find ways to commend employees for different reasons. There isn’t one set of parameters that makes someone a great employee. Having work-life balance and recognizing the importance of having time to decompress, put health first, and spend quality time with family, matters and says a great deal about leadership style. The number of hours worked doesn’t equate to the quality of work or one’s competence. The onus is often on the boss or leader to speak up and set these expectations. Being able to manage your team’s energy will keep morale in check and make employees feel appreciated and more invested in doing their best, because they have the energy to do so and aren’t ready to tap out at any given moment.

Remote work is more than a job perk

COVID has forced the conversation and illuminated the challenges those of us with chronic illness are up against when trying to balance our health, providing for ourselves and our families, and being an invaluable employee. Thanks to the pandemic, employers are now looking to re-evaluate what sick leave and disability policies look like, especially as they relate to working from home. Those of us with a chronic illness may finally feel like we’re on an equal playing field when it comes to job opportunities and not having to worry as much about our bodies cooperating so that we’re able to do it all.

IBD is Not Your Fault

You did nothing to cause your diagnosis or your disease. Read that again. It’s not your fault. No matter what you may see on social media or hear from friends or family, those of us with Inflammatory Bowel Disease did not live “incorrectly” or do anything damaging that “sparked” our chronic, autoimmune issues to come to life.

I was incredibly disheartened recently by a post on Instagram that in so many words claimed that bad habits in life led to a man’s Crohn’s disease. He made blanket statements about how medication and surgery are not necessary and that it just takes a long time and reflection to reverse the damage he caused on himself after years of smoking, binge drinking, etc. The post was not only on his own feed, but also shared by a community IBD page with more than 8,000 followers. After days of endless comments from those angered by his assertions and claims, the post was taken down and the patient “advocate” made his Instagram private, but the damage was already done.

Hold up—what’s with the blame game?!

You may wonder why patient advocates like me get their feathers ruffled by claims like this. I can tell you why. I, along with so many of my counterparts in the IBD community, work tirelessly to educate and inform not only those with Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis about the patient journey, but also caregivers and friends. When misinformation is disseminated it sets the clock back, bigtime. It further stigmatizes our illness, especially when the false statements are said by someone who lives with IBD. Not only does it hurt those grieving and trying to come to terms with their lifelong diagnosis, but it’s a direct attack on those diagnosed as pediatrics and those who did everything by the book (ate well, exercised, got lots of sleep, managed stress, etc.) and STILL got IBD.

If there was a magic bullet or diet that helped “cure” or manage all of us, we would do it. If there was a way to prevent IBD, people would do it. Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis aren’t like lung cancer, which is sometimes caused by smoking or diabetes which is sometimes caused by being overweight or liver disease which can be caused by excessive drinking. IBD is complicated and mysterious. There is not a behavior or habit that is associated with possibly “getting it” one day. The two known factors—hereditary and environmental—leave much to the imagination. I personally have no family history. I was a picture of health until the two months leading up to my Crohn’s diagnosis in July 2005. It felt as though a light switch went off and my world went from being healthy and able-bodied to being chronically ill.

You did nothing wrong

If you’re reading this and wondering what you did to cause your disease, the answer is nothing. If you’re reading this as a parent and feel as though you could have fed your child less processed food or breastfed them instead of giving formula or shouldn’t have had your child vaccinated, please stop believing that. I know we all want a reason. We all want answers and some clarity as to the why—but, at the end of the day, does it really matter? Focusing on the why doesn’t help us focus on the how. HOW are we going to get through this? HOW are we going to manage our disease and live a full life? HOW are we going to cope during flares and periods of remission? HOW are we going to navigate the unknown and thrive? HOW are we going to find the right treatment plan? HOW are we going to target our triggers and learn what to avoid? Focus on what you can tangibly do to improve your patient journey and less on the coulda, shoulda, woulda’s, because just like each case of IBD is unique, so is each back story.

Here I am as a little girl. Long before being diagnosed at age 21. This little girl did nothing to deserve or cause Crohn’s disease.

Stop the finger pointing and the blame game. Stop making the medical community out to be the bad guys and the adversary. Stop acting as though those who depend on medication and need surgery failed in any way.

Start collaborating with your care team and finding physicians who listen and genuinely care about the approach you wish to take to manage and treat your disease, while also understanding that a holistic and “med-free” approach may not be feasible for your type of disease process. Start getting involved and educating yourself about how IBD manifests and the complicated nature of not only Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis, but also the extraintestinal manifestations and mental health aspect that are often not talked about. Even if you’re on medication or have had surgery you can still take whatever measures make you feel better in a complementary way. It’s not all black and white. There’s so much gray area. You can be on a biologic and still try any “elimination diet” you’d like. It’s just a matter of doing what works best for you, without pointing the finger or demeaning others in our community. Start connecting with those who live your reality and lift you up, rather than make you feel like you’re taking the easy way out.

This is 21-year-old me. There were moments where I felt very sick while on this Spring Break trip my senior year of college in March 2005. I attributed the abdominal pain to traveling and eating different food in the Bahamas. Little did I know four short months later I’d receive my Crohn’s diagnosis.

I know that if my 21-year-old self came across posts on social media claiming I caused my Crohn’s and that I could “heal my gut” on my own, I may have believed it. I can tell you nearly 16 years into this, I know without a doubt that is not the case. I am not a failure for taking medication, needing surgery, or trusting my physicians. I credit my 5.5 years of remission to being a compliant, proactive patient who believes in science, educating myself on the facts, and realizing that this disease is bigger than me and a constant learning process. I don’t need to know my why because I’ve done a damn good job of discovering my how’s and you can, too.

IBD Motherhood Unplugged: Exploring Natural Procreative Technology

Chronic illness can feel all-consuming, especially while you’re trying to balance work and your personal life. According to 32-year-old Allison Wade of Texas, living with ulcerative colitis since 2008 prepared her for the struggle of infertility after living through a four-year flare. Yes, you read that right. Allison was hopeful her and her husband, Nick, could begin their journey to growing their family. Unfortunately, just as she felt the relief of getting her IBD under control, she found out she would be dealing with another condition where there is not a “one size fits all solution.”

This edition of IBD Motherhood Unplugged looks at juggling the mental and emotional struggle of coping with and mourning your body failing you not only with ulcerative colitis, but also infertility, while also being your own advocate for your care plan. As Allison says the question of “WHY” she’s unable to achieve something that women have been doing forever, haunts her.

Allison is a healthcare worker. Her world came crashing down during the pandemic when she found out bringing a baby into this world would be more complicated than she ever thought.

“When I received news that I was in remission after the four-year flare, I was told we needed to get pregnant right away to capitalize on my IBD finally being under control. I underwent an HSG procedure to make sure that I didn’t have any adhesions or blockages in my fallopian tubes due to the chronic inflammation in my colon. We were told everything was normal,” explains Allison. “I also had blood work completed to ensure that I was truly ovulating and that was also normal. We tried for a year and were not successful.”

Allison and her husband met with a fertility specialist in April 2020. The nearest fertility specialist was two hours away, so they set up a telemedicine visit. During the initial consultation they were told it sounded like they were dealing with unexplained infertility.

“My cycles were like clockwork, I was getting positive ovulation tests, my hormone levels after ovulation suggested that I was truly ovulating, there was no reason as to why I had never seen two lines on a pregnancy test.”

The fertility game plan

Allison and Nick set up a game plan with their fertility team that involved three rounds of Intrauterine Insemination (IUI) plus Clomid. If she was not pregnant after that, the next step was IVF. Allison says she felt overwhelmed but was confident that they were going to be pregnant after the first month. Looking back, she says she was naïve to think that way.

“Emotionally, each month is a roller coaster that comes and goes quickly. Each month that passes you feel the gravity of emotions that come with each negative pregnancy test. Financially, it has been difficult because insurance does not cover my fertility treatments and rarely covers my medications. Let me just tell you that every ultrasound and every blood draw adds up. I have to remind myself regularly of how it will all be worthwhile in the end.”

Keeping stress in check

As anyone with IBD knows, managing stress is imperative for helping to keep symptoms at bay. Along with the worry about getting pregnant, Allison has the fear of flaring with her ulcerative colitis.

She explains, “The biggest area of stress has been managing all the appointments and arranging my work schedule on the days I have to unexpectedly drive to Houston for a 15-minute ultrasound. I am very lucky that my job has been understanding through this time.”

Not to mention she also has to take time away from work to receive her Remicade infusion.

“I would advise other IBD women to find ways to manage all the stress and emotions that come along with infertility and chronic illness. I highly recommend seeking counseling services. It is nice to have someone to talk to who is not emotionally involved in the outcome. It is a difficult time for all women, however when you also have IBD, I feel like you are now adding all these supplements, medications, and appointments to your existing list of treatments for your IBD. Find a way to organize everything so that you’re able to manage everything without getting too overwhelmed.”

Utilizing Natural Procreative Technology instead of IVF 

After two failed IUIs, Allison knew IVF was on the horizon. She didn’t feel as though all her concerns were being addressed or that her needs fit into the typical cookie cutter approach.

“I felt like we were being rushed to IVF without any real answers as to why my body was unable to conceive. My husband and I were not emotionally or financially prepared to begin the process of IVF, so we decided to get a second opinion and look at other options.”

This is where Natural Procreative Technology or NaPro comes into play. Allison liked that NaPro doctors look to diagnose the root cause of what is causing your infertility, in hopes that you can conceive naturally without the use of IUI or IVF. The success rates are comparable and often exceed those of IVF, without the increased risk of multiple pregnancies or birth defects.

The Creighton Model of FertilityCare System™(CrMS) is the method of observing and charting important biomarkers in the female cycle. The charting and observational work is the basis of evaluation and treatment in NaPro Technology. Allison has been charting her cycles for the last six months. 

“When I went to my first NaPro appointment, the doctor spent an hour talking to me in the office and my husband on Facetime. She answered every question and explained that she would be as aggressive as we wanted her to be,” says Allison. “She wanted me to chart my cycles and to get extensive blood work completed after ovulation to look at my hormone levels. She also spoke to me about diet, stress, activity levels, and she started me on several supplements. When I left that appointment, I was so happy because I felt like she was treating me holistically and was going to find the cause of my infertility.”

Keeping her eyes focused on the future

Allison is going to have exploratory surgery next month to look for scar tissue or adhesions that may be the result of chronic inflammation from her IBD, which could be contributing to her struggle to get pregnant. She is due for her Remicade the same week as her surgery, so she must push her infusion back until her incisions are healed. As a woman with IBD, going through infertility, this is the reality that is often not discussed or thought about.

“While I try to remain as optimistic as possible about creating a baby that is genetically ours and that I can carry, our hearts would definitely be open to both surrogacy and adoption. My dream has always been to be a mother and I will do everything that is possible to achieve that dream.”

Connect with Allison on Instagram: @al_avawade

IBD Motherhood Unplugged: Taking on the trials of Crohn’s, infertility, and adoption

When Megan Cape of Georgia was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease in January 2004 at the age of 14, she didn’t know what the future would hold in terms of pregnancy and motherhood. After years of doctors dismissing her excruciating pain as a stomach bug or a reaction to stress, she finally received an answer. During her initial hospitalization, she had an abscess the size of a softball in her abdomen that was pushing on her spine. She was also going septic. She was rushed to surgery where surgeons removed the abscess and part of her intestine, ultimately saving her life.

Fast forward to her college years and Megan met the love of her life and future husband, Colton. She studied to be a Child Life Specialist, a career near and dear to her heart since she spent so much time in and out of the hospital growing up. One of her worst flares happened on graduation day. She was able to muster up the strength to walk across the stage and grab her diploma, but then had to be carried to the car. That week—CT scans shows she had five strictures (narrowing in the intestine which doesn’t allow food to pass through). At this point, her wedding was less than a month away. Her care team delayed surgery so that she would be able to walk down the aisle. 

“On the day of my wedding, I couldn’t even take a bite of food because the pain was so intense. After our wedding and honeymoon, my health declined quickly and got to the point where I couldn’t keep water down. I was throwing up all day and night and my family was taking turns staying up with me. I had at least one ER visit a week, but, somehow, the doctors kept missing how bad things were and would send me home,” said Megan.

She ultimately landed in the hospital for five weeks, as a 23-year-old newlywed. At the time, she wasn’t thinking about children. Megan was focused on getting better and placed faith in God’s hands that when the time would be right, she would be a mom. That was until she went into her GI doctor following the hospitalization and her second surgery. There, she was told she would never have children. Megan was devastated, as you can imagine. This week’s IBD Motherhood Unplugged sheds light on navigating this heartbreaking realization and how adoption changed Megan and her husband’s lives in the most beautiful way.

The unforeseen miracles in the making

Much to Megan’s surprise, three years into their marriage, she got pregnant the first month her and her husband started trying. Unfortunately, they lost that baby. Heartbroken as they were, they were hopeful they’d get their rainbow baby. Each time, getting pregnant happened easily, but time after time, they miscarried.

“Interestingly, God laid adoption on my heart at such a young age. I always knew I wanted to be a wife and a mom, and I always saw myself adopting. But I still felt so many emotions, wondering if and when it would ever be my turn to carry a baby.”

After four miscarriages, they decided to seek guidance from fertility specialists. It was determined that because of Megan’s Crohn’s and past surgeries, the embryos weren’t attaching correctly to her uterus and blood clots were forming, causing her to miscarry. Her physicians believed IVF was her only option, and she was ready to jump in with both feet. Megan and Colton went through all the testing and blood work, but everything came to halt when her doctor conveyed his worries about complications with egg retrieval and such in Crohn’s patients. Megan said the unknown of how her body would respond to IVF in addition to the daunting cost of it all, caused them to re-think their approach to family planning.

Preparing their hearts for something bigger

While in waiting, Megan feels God kept bringing amazing adoption stories in front of her. Stories that reminded her of when she was a little girl and told herself that would be part of her family one day.

“After years of TTC (trying to conceive) and miscarriages, I approached my husband and brought up adoption. I was truly shocked by his response because, without any hesitation, he said, “Let’s do it!” We both had an amazing peace about it and quickly began the adoption process. We had no idea what all goes into adoption and, woah, it’s a lot!”

Megan says adoption was the best and hardest thing they’ve ever done. She credits much of their “success story” to their amazing support system of family and friends who rallied around them to help raise money, to encourage them through the journey, to let them cry on hard days, and celebrate the exciting milestones.

“Nine months into the adoption process, and a month after being an ‘active’ waiting family, we got the call. A birth mom had picked us! She fell in love with us, our story, and our family after looking at our profile book. We were going to have a daughter in 3 short months!” Megan did not include that she had Crohn’s in their adoption profile book, but shared she was unable to have children. 

The blessing of Vivian Rose

Megan and her Colton’s daughter, Vivian Rose, was born October 14th, 2019. She is the answer to years and years of prayer, their miracle baby, and the light of their lives.

“Managing a chronic illness when you’re a mom is definitely hard at times! Thankfully, my Crohn’s has been under control since Viv was born and I’ve just had a few bad days here and there. Because of COVID-19, my husband has been working from home for the last year. So, on my hard days, he will take Vivian for a few hours to run errands and such so I can rest,” says Megan. “I definitely think it takes a village to raise kids in general, but, even more so, when you have IBD.”

Since becoming a mom, Megan has taken her health more seriously.

“I don’t ever want Viv to say, “Ugh. My mom is sick again.” And I don’t ever want to miss out on her day-to-day life because I’m not feeling well – as unrealistic as that may be! I have been much more intentional about eating foods that make me feel well and give me energy. I also make sure to listen to my body more and I try not to push myself as much as I always have!”

The main IBD-related symptom Megan has struggled with recently is fatigue—the kind of fatigue where you feel like you could sleep for two weeks straight and still wake up tired. 

“I get frustrated with myself, sometimes, because I don’t have the amount of energy other mamas do, but I do my best and I know that’s all I can do.”

The role of faith through IBD and infertility

Megan says she never questioned God’s plans for her life when she was diagnosed with Crohn’s during her teenage years, but infertility made her do so.

“It was, truly, the loneliest and darkest point of my entire life. I had a constant ache in my heart and the sadness I felt was unreal. As one friend after another told me they were pregnant, I felt like I couldn’t breathe. I was so happy for everyone around me, but it did make it that much harder. I felt so left out and so alone. I remember, so clearly, God speaking two things to me during this time: The age 29 and the thought that I wasn’t going to be left out.”

Megan wishes she could go back in time and tell her 26-year-old self what she knows now. 

“I wish I could tell her that everything is going to be okay. I wish I could tell her that 29 is the age she will become a mama to the most perfect baby girl. I wish I could tell her that God has big plans for her family, and he has not forgotten about her, but that His timing is perfect.”

Megan’s advice for IBD mamas in waiting

Megan’s best advice—do not give up. Lean into your spouse because they are not only serving as a caregiver for your IBD, but they are also hurting about the struggle to have a family. If you become an adoptive family, you’ll see that your child is handpicked for you and that the make-up of your family will be knit exactly how it was meant to be.

“We would love to give Viv a sibling, but, at this point, we are just enjoying our girl and soaking up every minute with her! Adoption doesn’t cure infertility – meaning that it is still hard sometimes that we can’t just decide to give Viv a sibling and do so easily! And I will never have a big belly or carry a baby to term. But that’s okay! If God calls us to adopt again, we will do so. We may even go the surrogacy route or Vivi may be an only child. I know, if God wants us to grow our family, it will be made obvious and we will trust Him and follow His lead.”

Megan says she refuses to allow her Crohn’s disease to define her, even though it’s dictated and shaped much of her life journey. Her IBD is the reason she can’t have kids. The reason adoption was laid on her heart at a young age. The reason she’s mom to Vivian Rose. The reason she’s disciplined. The reason she chose her college major. The reason her faith and her marriage are so strong. And the reason she has the perspective and maturity to understand that despite the setbacks and trials placed before her, she still lives a blessed life that she is grateful for.

Connect with Megan on Instagram: @mrsmeggcape

How a physician with Crohn’s in Ethiopia is helping others with IBD cope

She’s a physician in Ethiopia looking to pave the way for those with IBD. She understands the need because she was diagnosed with Crohn’s in August 2016 at age 22 while she was a fourth-year medical student. After suffering from debilitating symptoms for eight months, she finally received a diagnosis. Dr. Fasika Shimeles Teferra says in her home country and in developing countries, she had always been taught that inflammatory bowel disease was non-existent. She felt isolated and alone as she embarked on her journey with chronic illness. There were no resources. No support. She had no clue where to turn when it came to being understood and knowing how to navigate nutrition.

In her school of medicine, an IBD diagnosis was morbid. She was told if she continued to learn about her illness, she’d die from the stress.

“Despite my medical background, I expected death to be imminent. The breaking point which later turned out to be a turning point for me, was when I was suffering from ovarian cyst torsion, explained Dr. Teferra. “Even though I was in remission at the time, every OBGYN who saw me in the ER refused to operate on me. One doctor refused to operate on me because I’m a “complicated patient with IBD”. He wanted to wait to see if pain meds will help solve it.”

Luckily, one doctor decided to operate on her, but unfortunately, she lost her left fallopian tube and ovary in the process. At age 23, she lost half her chance of being able to conceive a child. Her Crohn’s relapsed a few weeks later and depression set in. (Note: Luckily, she is due with her first child in June!)

“I went to my doctor and told him I was quitting med school (I was 5th year at the time and just starting my medical internship). But what he said changed me forever and made me feel less alone. He told me he was treating multiple IBD cases and that my disease was much more common in Ethiopia than most thought. He also told me Crohn’s was manageable with medication.”

Holding onto new hope

With a renewed sense of hope, Dr. Teferra started advocating for herself and looking for local support groups to connect with others who lived with IBD. The problem—she couldn’t find any! She joined a Facebook group based in the United States and recognized the need for support in Ethiopia.

“I reached out to a couple of gastroenterologists here in Addis and told them I wanted to start a support group in Amharic focusing on sharing experiences, supporting one another. My hope was to help others who were struggling with coping with their diagnosis. I thought sharing my story would make a difference in someone’s life.”

Launching Crohn’s and Colitis Ethiopia to make a difference

After speaking with multiple doctors, Dr. Teferra decided to start an organization that would not only focus on support groups, but also advocacy work for policy makers. The last published data on IBD in Ethiopia dates back to 1990s! She recognized this lapse in research led to major gaps in treatment for IBD patients. This inspired her to launch Crohn’s and Colitis Organization Ethiopia in January 2020. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March 2020, it put everything on hold as the world stood at a standstill.

Even though the organization exists, Dr. Teferra is struggling to garner participation in support groups, because sadly the stigma of IBD leaves many in Ethiopia to suffer in silence and shame. She says fellow IBD patients prefer to communicate directly with her, so she has taken it upon herself to meet them and their families to better explain their condition and how to live a full life with it.

“I try and explain to the patient and their family how they can best take care of themselves and how family members can offer compassionate and empathetic support along the way,” said Dr. Teferra. “Many people discontinue their medication the moment they experience a side effect. I’m also passionate about discussing family planning and breastfeeding. Because of my medical background, I am able to give reliable information about IBD and I am able to use my story to guide the narrative.”

Dr. Teferra also has a registered dietitian who serves as a board member for Crohn’s and Colitis Organization Ethiopia. The nutritionist can provide guidance about how to enjoy Ethiopian cuisine and manage diet in the context of cultural foods.

But Dr. Teferra is only one person and can’t address the growing need for support and care. Even though local gastroenterologists have her contact information, and she tries to meet with as many people as possible, as you can imagine, it gets to be a lot.

Bringing IBD to Prime Time in Ethiopia

During an interview about COVID-19 on national television in Ethiopia, Dr. Teferra took it upon herself to also speak about IBD.

“Since it was Primetime, I was able to reach multiple people at once and I was able to send out the message that those with IBD are not alone. I plan to use such platforms to continue to share facts about IBD and that it does exist in Addis. In the meantime, I am working hard to find a researcher who can work on this with us. We cannot challenge policy makers without evidence, and we cannot change the minds of the medical community without research.”

Dr. Teferra says gastroenterologists in Ethiopia can testify that IBD cases are increasing daily. There is lack of medicine, lack of education, and lack of understanding. Many patients struggle to afford medication and choose to discontinue it because of lack of availability.

Overall, Dr. Teferra main mission with Crohn’s and Colitis Organization Ethiopia is to improve the quality of life and health literacy of people living with IBD in Ethiopia and provide the patient community with a better understanding of their condition by empowering them to take charge of their own health.

Connect with Dr. Fasika Shimeles Teferra on Twitter: @DrFasika.

Email: fasikateferramd@gmail.com

IBD Motherhood Unplugged: Womanhood Questioned by Crohn’s Disease

Motherhood is so much more than a word—it’s an expectation and an identity. It’s a right of passage many girls dream of when they think about their future and what their family will look like. But family planning, pregnancy, and motherhood are far from a given, especially for those with chronic illness. As an IBD mom of two with one on the way, I’ve recognized that while my story and my experience may comfort and guide others—it’s only that, one story. I fully understand I am extremely lucky not to have the struggle of infertility or physical limitations to hold me back from having children, despite my Crohn’s.

This week kicks off IBD Motherhood Unplugged, an ongoing series that will be shared periodically in the months and years ahead on Lights, Camera, Crohn’s. The series will feature guest posts from women with Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis who may not physically be able to carry a child, who battle infertility, who grow their family through adoption and surrogacy, who have children following loss—the list goes on and on. Ultimately, I want everyone to feel seen, heard, and understood. There’s not one cookie cutter approach to becoming a mom or having a family.

The first article is by my dear friend and fellow patient advocate and thought leader Tina Aswani Omprakash. Tina is a 37-year-old woman in New York, living with perianal, fistulizing Crohn’s Disease. She’s endured more than 20 surgeries and lives with a permanent ileostomy. Since she was a child, she thought she could put off motherhood and did so through many years of virulent disease. At one point, as a young adult, she needed to go on a disability and be taken care of by her mom. When she got married to the love of her life, Anand, nearly 11 years ago, the questions started.

“Being of South Asian descent, the nosy, busybody aunties at weddings and cultural events would always find ways to jeer and sneer at the fact that I hadn’t had a child yet. And after I started Stelara 5.5 years ago and tasted remission for the very first time in a decade, I too began to wonder: is it time for me to consider my own child?”

I’ll let Tina take it away and explain her struggles with family planning and finding out pregnancy wasn’t in the cards. Her heartfelt words and openness about feeling excluded from being an IBD mom, shed light on an important topic and aspect of our illness that is often not discussed or talked about. We hope in sharing this—if you are going through the same situation, struggles, or worries, that you know you are not alone.

Genetic counseling, surrogacy, and reproductive endocrinologists, oh my

In April 2016, I went to see a reproductive endocrinologist, who did a transvaginal ultrasound. Based on his medical expertise, he thought he could retrieve maybe three of my eggs, which was incredible news given everything I had been through surgically. He had proposed 2-3 rounds of IVF for hormone stimulation and egg retrieval but there was no guarantee that the eggs retrieved would be viable to be combined with my husband’s sperm. He didn’t think carrying the baby was a good option for me given all the scarring from surgery and fistulae. Moreover, fertility is often affected by j-pouch surgery and later excision.  As such, he offered me the option of surrogacy and asked me to seek genetic counseling due to the hereditary nature of my Crohn’s Disease.

Anand and I went through months of genetic counseling, an expensive process that didn’t lend to any substantial findings. Crohn’s, as many doctors have explained to me, is spread out over several genes and one gene cannot be targeted necessarily as a form of gene therapy. That left us both stumped as his family has a history of an autoimmune condition called ankylosing spondylitis and I have various skin and bowel autoimmune conditions on my side of the family.

During this time, we also looked into the surrogacy process. Since the reproductive endocrinologist recommended that I not consider a pregnancy myself given all the surgeries, fistulae, and pelvic cysts I’ve had, we obliged. But considering all the legal and surrogacy fees, we were looking at $100,000 for one surrogate pregnancy (at least), which was an extraordinary sum of money for us. So, we decided to table having a child for the time being and think over adoption, another expensive proposition.

Tick, tock, tick, tock…

Two years passed and we came to realize that there is no easy solution. During that time, the IBD Parenthood Project shared excellent knowledge for women with IBD to conceive and carry a pregnancy to term safely. And I thought, let me ask my GI doctor now about his thoughts. Unfortunately, he reiterated the same thoughts as the reproductive endocrinologist shared: for someone with my surgical and fistula history and aggressive family history of Crohn’s disease, it may be best not to try. He also said the risk of me using hormones for egg retrieval would risk a blood clot in a patient with my history.

Part of me was still in denial that motherhood may never be a possibility. Within weeks of my conversation with my GI doctor, I was diagnosed with mild endometriosis by a premier OB/GYN surgeon in NYC. I asked him, “What do my options for pregnancy and fertility look like now?” And he said very openly and honestly, “Bleak at best. Let’s say you do carry the pregnancy and don’t lose the baby, Tina, will I have to cut through bowel and scar tissue to get to your baby?” After a brief pause, he said, “I would recommend adoption if having a child is something you really want to consider.”

While, on one hand, I genuinely appreciated his honesty, on the other hand, the statement, “cut through bowel and scar tissue to get to your baby” seared through my mind for months after and has left its mark even today. I needed to hear it; I needed my bubble to pop. But the statement no doubt cuts and ravages every minutiae of my being as a woman. Not having the privilege to choose to have a baby was suddenly taken from me in that one fell swoop and it left my head spinning.

Losing Motherhood to Crohn’s Disease

My God-given right as a woman was taken from me in that instant. As if having six fistulae and Crohn’s wreaking havoc on my pelvis and reproductive system wasn’t enough, let’s take Tina down another notch. Let’s take away her right to choose to have a child.

Even though voluntary childlessness is always a choice, now I didn’t even have that choice. Childlessness was thrust upon me like a stab wound in the back. All I was left with were unaffordable options of surrogacy or adoption.

So why not adoption? It’s simply too expensive and I do wonder about whether I’ll be able to even take care of the child given my constant roller coaster of health issues and medical appointments. Hiring full-time help seems out of reach, too.

Include Women Who Aren’t Mothers

That day with the endometriosis surgeon was nearly three years ago. And I’ve done a lot of work in therapy to process much of it. But I can’t say I don’t feel left out every time I see a mom scolding her child or complaining about her child(ren)’s mischievousness because I, like many other women with chronic illnesses, will never be able to experience the joys and sorrows of motherhood.

As happy as I am for my friends with children, there is a deep void I’m reminded of every time someone else gets pregnant, hosts a baby shower, or sends along amazingly cute photos of their child(ren). I will never be able to have that, no, but I wish I could still be included in the mommy paradigm as a cool aunt or as a godmother. But I’m often not, and that makes me feel sad and excluded.

Dealing with the Cultural Aspects

In American culture, it’s hard enough as it is to be a woman of my age without a child, but in Indian culture, you’re really considered a pariah of sorts. I’m often asked the question of when I will bear a child now that Anand and I have been married for so many years. I usually find ways to dodge those questions by changing the subject or by simply saying, “whenever the time is right.” It’s not a conversation I want to be having with acquaintances nor do I want to be fodder for gossip.

But when it comes to my close friends saying, “Tina, gosh, you would have made an amazing mother, you have so much good to impart on to the world,” it feels good and bad all at once. I’m flattered that someone would think I could do a fine job as a mother but saddened by the fact that I will never know that for myself.

Becoming a Mother Hen

Alas, today in 2021, I continue to focus on my advocacy work and my graduate program, in attempts to focus my attention elsewhere. And in the words of my therapist, “if I cannot be a mother to a child, I can at least be a mother hen to my IBD community, helping to educate and guide patients of underserved populations who would otherwise feel bewildered.” I take a lot of solace in that and recognize that I wasn’t supposed to be here today with all the near-death experiences I’ve had with my brand of Crohn’s disease. All I can express is my gratitude for being alive today, for being able to do this work, and for being able to be a mother hen in my own way to my community.

To my fellow IBD women & chronic illness warriors: please know you are not alone. Please know it’s okay to be sad, angry, and terrified. Many of us are struggling deeply with the idea of motherhood as our clocks keep ticking. Do your research, learn what your options are and make the best decision with your specialist(s) regarding conception and pregnancy. And if having a child is not in the cards, that’s okay too. Never forget (and I need this reminder too) – not having a child doesn’t make you less of a woman.

Connect with Tina

Blog: Own Your Crohn’s

Instagram: @ownyourcrohns

Facebook: @ownyourcrohns, Own Your Crohn’s Community (Private group created for the Global South Asian community living with inflammatory bowel diseases)

Twitter: @ownyourcrohns

Digital Dating Tips for IBD’ers: How I Met My Husband and What I Learned

Before the dating world was about swiping right or left, I met my husband online. It’s something I was a little embarrassed about sharing for a long time, especially while being a morning news anchor. The year was 2013, while online dating was becoming more common, it was still a little taboo. At the time, my Crohn’s disease was a secret from the public. Much like the backstory of my health, I wanted to keep my love story under wraps much of the same way.

So, when I signed up for eHarmony on a whim after attending my co-anchor’s wedding, rather than putting my location as Springfield, IL (where I lived and did the news), I told a little white lie on my profile and said I lived in St. Louis. I know, I know…a little shady! But hear me out. I chose to do this to disguise my identity and vowed to myself that I’d be upfront and honest with whoever I spoke with about where I lived from the initial conversation. I also told myself I’d hold off on sharing that I had Crohn’s until I met someone worth my time and deserving of my energy. It wasn’t something I would share over email or on the phone prior to meeting.

Finding Love in Three Days

I was on eHarmony three days before I met Bobby. Yes, three days. I feel incredibly fortunate that after years of dating and not finding the right person that all it took was a couple emails and some phone calls. As soon as Bobby and I started talking I gave him an “out” and said I understood if he wasn’t interested in long distance (90 miles apart), but he said he didn’t care and wanted to meet me. He drove to Springfield on a Wednesday after his workday and took me to dinner. Little did we know that would be our last first date.

From there he visited me the following week and we went out for Mexican. Two dates in, I didn’t feel ready to disclose I had IBD. But as the days turned to weeks and I started feeling closer to him, I knew it was something I had to get off my chest.

Disclosing to My Boyfriend (now husband) That I Have Crohn’s

On our third date (almost a month of talking/hanging out) we went to a boathouse and had lunch outside on a gorgeous St. Louis August afternoon. I was nervous, but at this point in my patient journey (8 years in) I felt confident about my IBD elevator speech. After the appetizer arrived, I let him know I had Crohn’s disease. I explained what it was, how it had affected me, the medication I was on, but more so than what I was saying, I was paying more attention to his verbal and non-verbal cues. I had been with guys in the past who ghosted me in times of major health emergencies. I had been made to feel like my chronic illness was a joke or an excuse. And I wasn’t going to put up with any of that bs again or be made to feel like a burden.

Photo taken after I told Bobby I had Crohn’s.

In that moment, Bobby made me feel comfortable and he didn’t seem phased by what I had shared. Not in a dismissive way, but in a way that made me feel like just with the distance, my disease wasn’t reason enough in his eyes to explore other options.

Advice for Navigating Online Dating with IBD

  1. Don’t make your IBD the headline on your profile. While your IBD is a big part of who you are, it’s not your whole identity. It’s not necessary to include you have a chronic illness on your dating profile unless you feel so inclined. Personally, I wouldn’t give someone the privilege of knowing that side of you unless you feel they are worthy. At the same time, if you have an ostomy and you prefer to share photos of yourself like that on your profile—more power to you!
  2. The cliff notes version of your health story will do. When you decide to share that you have IBD with your partner, don’t be doomsday. Don’t go on…and on…and on…about how debilitating and horrible it’s been and how miserable you are. Give a high-level elevator speech that “dumbs it down” a bit. You don’t need to downplay how hard it is but allow your partner to take some initiative and educate themselves and ask questions when they have them. How you share and present your illness to someone who may have never heard of IBD will have a lasting impact.
  3. Don’t settle. Trust your gut. If a partner is making you feel uneasy or unhappy, don’t make excuses for them. Read between the lines on a person’s dating profile—see if you think their personality traits and interests will compliment you and your needs. Not everyone is nurturing and empathetic. If you see red flags that your partner lacks in those areas, think about whether it’s going to be a healthy relationship for you to be a part of.
  4. No need to be shy! When we’re battling our health, often the thought of being vulnerable and open with a stranger can seem overwhelming. IBD is complicated and the stress of a new love interest can make us feel a bit out of control. But it can also be an exciting, sweet distraction from health challenges. Love gives a sense of normalcy. Just because you have IBD doesn’t make you unworthy of deserving love. Think about the type of partner you want holding your hand as you battle a flare from a hospital bed.
  5. Love doesn’t need to stop because of the pandemic. I’m an old married woman now (ha), going on eight years since I was on eHarmony and matched with Bobby, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. There are so many sites and apps these days, I don’t even know all it entails. Gone are the days of only eHarmony, Match, and Plenty of Fish. 😊 If you’re feeling lonely and isolated like so many of us during this pandemic, and you’re single with IBD, don’t feel like you have to press pause on finding a connection or your person.

What IBD’ers Have to Say About Finding Their Match

Erica: “My husband and I met on Coffee Meets Bagel in 2017. We texted three weeks before meeting. I told him I had Crohn’s after texting a couple of weeks before we met. I had to reschedule our first date because of a health issue and didn’t want him to think it was because of him. I also felt like he should know what he was getting into.”

Michelle: “I met my husband in 2015 when Hinge came out! I was having a flare and threw up on our first date! I met him when I was going through getting diagnosed and he was so supportive through it all.”

Christine: “Disclose early on! I disclosed at about two months of dating with my fiancé and I felt like things could go further. I think it’s something the other person should be aware of. Not everyone is ready for that you need to know that you will be supported through that journey! We connected through Facebook! Sounds crazy, but here we are!”

Sarah: “Dating/meeting people is so hard nowadays and then throw in a chronic illness and it doesn’t make things easier! Personally, I prefer to be up front about my UC because if the person is going to like me or if this is going to work out, they are going to have to be on board with my UC, too! Whether I like it or not, it’s a part of who I am.”

Ryann: “I met my husband in 2017 and I told him on our second date. Our friend set us up and she had already shared that I had IBD with him. Previously, I had told other guys on our first or second date. One guy came back and apologized for being so weak and not contacting me again after that date. I didn’t reply, more because I didn’t blame him, but also because I found him to be incredibly dull! This was back in the beginning days of Tinder!”

Natasha: “I like to share early (in or around the first date) about my health so I don’t develop an attachment if they aren’t comfortable with chronic illness. Usually, it leads to a good conversation either way. Recently, I shared about my Crohn’s over text message and the guy was very inquisitive and only wanted to learn more, about me and about Crohn’s! I also have a pic of me with my ostomy in my dating app profile. It’s subtle, but if you know it’s there or know what an ostomy is, you’ll know immediately what I have.”

Payge: “My Tinder profile pictures had me with my bag and my current boyfriend googled what it was before he messaged me. He told me when he knew what it was, he instantly thought ‘I want to take care of this girl’…that’s how it went for me!”

Allison: “You don’t have to share any more than you’re comfortable with—if you want to disclose in your profile, great! If you wait until date number five, that’s okay, too! There are no hard fast rules for when or how you should share your story with someone. It’s YOUR story and every situation is different. Anyone who responds negatively or acts as if your illness will be a burden is NOT worth your time. The right person won’t care. Remember—nobody is perfect. Your vulnerability might allow the other person to share something they’re also trying to figure out the right time for. I’ve been online dating for five years now, met my current boyfriend on Hinge in September.”