IBD Motherhood Unplugged: My dog had IBD

Many of us in the chronic illness community rely on our four-legged friends for comfort, support, and unconditional love. Animals are members of the family. February marks two years since my dog, Hamilton James, crossed the rainbow bridge, and the void and pain of his loss remains. As I write this, I’m facing the bookcases in my family room—an entire shelf is dedicated to him, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

My dear friend and former college roommate, Lindsay, and her husband, Kevin, ironically had a dog with IBD. Yes, that is possible. This week on Light’s Camera, Crohn’s, we look at how IBD presents in animals and learn firsthand how my friends went above and beyond to bestow the same love, patience, and affection that they had been lucky enough to experience from their Foster Brown.

Love at first sight

One day Lindsay was perusing social media and came across a post on Facebook. The post featured a photo of a darling dog in Chicago and stated he had been re-homed five times and was only five months old. In that moment, Lindsay’s life changed. She knew she had to rescue that dog. And she did. One of my favorite traits about Lindsay is her sense of humor and genuine empathy for others. She decided to name him Foster Brown as a cheeky reference to his past. His gotcha day was January 5, 2012.

From that moment on, “Fost” and Lindsay became inseparable. Her love for Foster always reminded me so much how of I felt about my Hami. They were both Chihuahua-Terrier rescue pups who were with us before we met our husbands and before we had our children. They were part of our past and were with us through all of life’s major milestones. Heartbreaks, career changes, moves, marriage, pregnancy, motherhood, you name it.

Lindsay even found out Foster’s entire genetic make-up. Here was the breakdown:

62.5% Chihuahua

12.5% Miniature Pinscher

25% Breed Group(s): Terrier, Sporting, Sighthound

According to Fetch by WebMD, there is no one cause of IBD in dogs and the condition is not clearly understood by veterinarians. “IBD is a condition in which your dog’s intestine or digestive tract becomes inflamed consistently. The continuing inflammation damages the lining of their digestive tract in a way that prevents food from being properly digested. It can also lead to other health problems if nutrients are not absorbed as they should be.”

It’s suspected that IBD may be the body’s response to underlying conditions. Causes may include: genetic markers, food allergies, parasites, bacteria, or a weak immune system.

Certain dog breeds have a greater likelihood for getting IBD:

  • Weimaraner 
  • Basenji
  • Soft-coated wheaten terriers 
  • Irish setters
  • Yorkshire terriers
  • Rottweiler
  • German shepherd 
  • Norweigian lundehund
  • Border collie
  • Boxer 

IBD symptoms in canines

As a pet owner, you may wonder how IBD presents. According to AnimalBiome, dogs with IBD often deal with the following symptoms:

  • Chronic intermittent vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Loss of appetite
  • Picky eater or “not wanting to eat what they used to eat”
  • Nausea
  • Frequent lip licking
  • Increase in drooling especially when they’re presented with food, but they don’t eat it
  • Burping, extended neck
  • Heartburn, acid reflux
  • Flatulence
  • Gut grumbling, rumbly in the tummy
  • Bloating

When Foster’s health took a turn

Foster had always been healthy and energetic prior to these issues… aside from a few dental problems here and there which is common for small dogs. He used to be able to run 5 miles alongside Lindsay! Much like IBD symptoms in humans, Foster’s symptoms were gradual. Everything started going downhill the summer of 2020. His veterinarian noticed abnormalities in his blood work before symptoms began. Foster’s symptoms included weight loss, extreme hunger, restlessness, pica, and loose stools.

“During the last three months of his life, he started having rectal prolapses which typically resulted in a trip to the emergency room. There was once or twice that I was able to reverse the prolapse by putting sugar on it per vet recommendation.”

After several panels of labs and tracking medication, food, and triggers, Lindsey’s vet diagnosed Foster with IBD with lymphangectasia after he underwent an x-ray and ultrasound.

“I could tell that he wasn’t feeling well when he had loose and inconsistent stools. The other behavioral symptoms were trickier to identify because there had been so many changes- several moves (2016, 2017, 2020) and two babies (October 2019, July 2021). Looking back, it’s easier to tell that he was very sick. He was much pushier with seeking out food (hunger) and I didn’t realize until after he passed that I NEVER swept the floor- he ate everything that hit the floor including dust, hair, dirt (pica). I was very cognizant, however, that his need for affection changed. During his last couple years, he wasn’t nearly as cuddly and stopped sleeping under the covers.”

Treating IBD in Dogs

Foster had a morning and night pill box. Yes, you read that correctly. His vet was constantly adjusting his medications to reduce his symptoms and to attempt to stay ahead of other health-related problems. Much like we struggle to gain access to medication through specialty pharmacies, the same is the case with canines. In true IBD fashion, Lindsay would go through Walgreens, 1-800-PetMeds, a specialty online pharmacy, and the vet office to ensure Foster’s disease management was possible.

Some of his medications required refrigerator storage and another pill needed to be frozen because it upset his stomach otherwise. There was also a powder that was sprinkled on Foster’s food once daily. He ate a prescription low-fat food to avoid flare ups and it broke their hearts to deny him tasty treats like cheese and whipped cream that he was accustomed to.

The importance of caregiving for IBD carries over to canines, even moreso than adults since animals are completely reliant on their owners to ensure their health, safety, and well-being. Since each dog and their case of IBD is unique, it can be a game of trial-and-error to find the right treatment plan. 

“My husband, Kevin, was diligent in administering his medications twice daily, while I focused on tracking symptoms, communicating with our vet, and ensuring that Foster’s medications were stocked and placed in his pill box. My dad (a former paramedic) administered his weekly b12 injections; he also took Foster to the doctor/ER when I was tied up with my young children. Luckily, my parents were living with us during Foster’s final months and they both were critical in managing his wellbeing and health- helping with the kids so I could take Fost to appointments, pick up medications, administer medications, etc. Foster and I were beyond lucky to have lots of wonderful support.”

The final days

In the last months of Foster’s life, there were nights that he had to stay in the bathroom for “the time being” … don’t worry, he had a comfortable dog bed. He would cry and cry and cry because he wanted to come to bed, but it wouldn’t have been sanitary with the issues he was having.

“This was absolutely heartbreaking and sparked high levels of sadness and anxiety for me as well. After several emergency visits for problems that had no medical solution, I decided that Foster would never spend another night in the bathroom. On his final night, he slept in our bed thanks to some old towels and the creative use of one of my son’s diapers.”  

Advice for fellow fur mamas/dads whose dogs have health issues

In addition to caring for Foster and her two children, Lindsay is a practicing clinical psychologist in Indiana. She offers the following advice for caregivers of pets with chronic health conditions:

  • Check out Lap of Love. It’s a wonderful resource for navigating and coping with a pet’s chronic health problems. It has tools to evaluate quality of life and supportive information that helped prepare Lindsay for the loss of her fur baby. 
    • “I wish I would have recognized that the level of disruption to our family’s routine was related to the severity of Foster’s medical condition. Lap of Love was so helpful in finally recognizing that his suffering had become too much for him to bear and for us to stand witness. We didn’t fully recognize how sick he was until he was gone. You just get into this routine of caring for them and doing whatever it takes and almost forget that keeping them here might be prolonging their suffering. It’s hard because they can’t tell you with concrete words.”
  • Be open and specific about the support you need. It is immensely emotional and stressful to care for a chronically sick pet and have their life in your hands, be sure to lean on others and openly communicate during the difficult moments.
  • Be honest with yourself about your pet’s quality of life. Lindsay and her husband were grateful Foster didn’t go during an emergency. On his last morning, they were able to stop for a tasty meal that would surely have triggered a flareup. Even though he was only 11 pounds, Foster scarfed up every bit of his warm Egg McMuffin.
  • Discuss the financial aspect of your pet’s care with your vet. Since medical bills add up quickly. Most people don’t have insurance for their pets and even when they do, reimbursement is often spotty. Be open and check in as needed so you can work collaboratively with your vet to create a treatment plan that fits your financial situation. 

Foster passed away peacefully in a fleecy blanket while being loved on and hearing what a good boy he was and how lucky Lindsay and Kevin were to have him.

“I hated to hold his life in my hands, but I would never take back the amazing years Foster and I had together. It was just me and Foster before I met my husband and had kids and I could never thank him enough for his unwavering love and friendship. You’re a good boy, Foster, and momma misses you more than you could ever know.”

Foster Brown August 4, 2011-November 2, 2021

The Patient Experience: Living with IBD and additional chronic illnesses

Imagine having a laundry list of medical conditions, along with your IBD. For many, it’s a stark reality. In a poll I recently conducted on Instagram, 64% of our patient community responded that they live with multiple chronic illnesses. This week—we hear from several women about what it’s like to juggle IBD and more.

As someone with Crohn’s disease I learned a lot by interviewing others and hearing about their personal struggles and triumphs as they face the unknown. Whether it’s trying to pinpoint which symptoms pertain to which illness a person is living with to coordinating a care team and living through a nearly 2-year pandemic that has shed light on how the world perceives our community—it’s heavy. It can be discouraging and it’s a lot. At the same time, finally getting answers gives some people hope and a feeling of relief.

As Brooke Abbott so eloquently puts it—it can be a domino effect. She started experiencing IBD symptoms when she was 18, she was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis in 2008 at age 24. Brooke also has IBS-D, Psoriasis, Ankylosing Spondylitis, trigeminal neuralgia, erythema nodosum, and asthma. Being a mom of color with multiple conditions in a world where patients are also “othered” has not been an easy journey. Finding a care team was a challenge for Brooke. She experienced unconscious bias, sexism, and racism when she was newly diagnosed. Not to mention irregular healthcare coverage.

“It reminds me of babysitting multiple children. The one screaming and crying got my initial attention. Once they were settled, I’d move on to the next child that needed my immediate attention. It’s a balancing act and I try to be as flexible with myself and give myself as much grace as possible. A breakthrough flare of one can ignite the flare of the another. Being diagnosed wasn’t the gut punch. It’s the days when my life is paused to cater to another illness after I just finished catering to another.”

Natasha Weinstein was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease in 2004 when she was only 11. Since then, she’s been diagnosed with IBS, Fibromyalgia, Arthritis, Migraines, Asthma, Carpal Tunnel syndrome, Tarsal Tunnel syndrome, Dermatagraphism, Vertigo, Ehlers Danlos Syndrome, Endometriosis, Pelvic Floor Dysfunction, Depression, Anxiety, OCD, and multiple vitamin deficiencies. She says juggling all these health conditions feels like a full-time job that she can never escape.

“It feels like my body is constantly falling apart. I feel like I live at the doctor, but I am grateful to be where I am today. I have an incredible job, a supportive family and understanding friends. My medically complex health has taught me resilience and strength, despite the frustrating and emotionally breaking days. Being chronically ill gives you a unique perspective on life. Add in MULTIPLE conditions and it’s a whole new ball game.”

Rocio Castrillon has been living with Crohn’s disease for 18 years. She also has Anemia, Asthma, Cataracts, Fibromyalgia, Glaucoma, Hypothyroidism, Uterine Fibroids, and Uveitis.

“Having multiple conditions is complicated particularly if one affects the other. I have learned to manage my conditions as best as possible, but my greatest fear is the flare of one of them at any given time, so I feel like I’m always waiting for something to happen. It’s extremely challenging to manage multiple providers, conditions, and medications. And they are all invisible illnesses. So, no one can “see” what I’m going through even though I may be suffering tremendously. That’s one of the hardest things for me…living a life full of chronic disease(s) in silence.”

Sarah Holleman was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease and Antiphospholipid Antibody Syndrome (APS) in 2018. It is also called Lupus Anticoagulant, but you don’t have to have Lupus to get it (although many people with Lupus get APS). Sarah went from being a healthy 28-year-old to having two chronic illnesses and seeing four specialists on a regular basis.

“It is utterly exhausting. Dealing with insurance, waiting rooms and doctors’ appointments is all-consuming. I had a healthy baby boy in May 2021, but going through a pregnancy with two chronic illnesses was challenging. My GI monitored my IBD symptoms, which fortunately stayed in remission. For APS, I had to switch from my oral medications to twice daily self-injections until the last few weeks when it went to three times a day.”

Trying to find balance

Laura Steiner was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis in 2012, she also has IBS, Asthma, hidradenitis suppurativa, IBS, and a few other inflammatory skin conditions.

“It can be confusing and frustrating balancing all of the different symptoms and having all doctors on board with everything. It also sometimes limits the available treatment options because for example, Inflectra that I am on for my UC is also used to treat HS, but since I’m already on it there is not much more the dermatologist can offer me for relief. UC is the only condition that tends to really interfere with work, so that is my #1 priority to manage, the rest I can deal with and manage.”

Meredith Ditty was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease at age 20 in 2011, she later found out she also has Primary Schlerosing Cholangitis (PSC), a liver disease that people with IBD develop. She also has Anemia, Gilbert’s Syndrome, Psoriasis, and Ovarian Cysts.

“I was so young, other people were living a normal life and I was stuck dealing with all of this. Thankfully, I had a great support system and had emotional, physical, and financial help, to get me where I am today.”

Emily Adams has Crohn’s disease and Lupus. She became symptomatic with both in 2020 at 26 years old. Her IBD has been flaring since July 2020. As you can imagine, being diagnosed during the pandemic made the process extra stressful and worrisome. Emily has been hospitalized five times in the last two years without visitors.

“Before I was diagnosed with Crohn’s and Lupus, I was very healthy. I was training to run my third half marathon and I was in my third year of teaching 5th grade science. Since getting sick I have had to stop working and I’m now on disability and I had to move in with my sister, as living alone was too difficult for me. My life went from complete independence to needing my family every day for help. Honestly, getting sick has made me more patient, empathetic, and kind. I’ve had a lot of time to think and reflect because my life is a lot slower these days. I appreciate the small things because now the small things are the big things.”

Alyssa Pinkham was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease in 2020 and was recently diagnosed with Gastroparesis and GERD. She’s dealt with anxiety issues and learning disabilities for more than a decade. She often struggles with knowing which condition is causing her abdominal pain. Alyssa credits coming to the realization that she was experiencing additional health issues to the friends she’s made through the online chronic illness community.

“It is difficult to navigate multiple chronic illnesses of the digestive system. They oftentimes have overlapping symptoms and if one condition is doing poorly, usually the others are doing poorly as well. It is also difficult having multiple gastroenterologists for the different conditions. In my case, they are on opposite sides of the state. It’s a challenge for the gastroenterologists to communicate their specific treatment plans with one another and with me so that they can provide an effective treatment plan that will put my Crohn’s and gastroparesis in remission. The lack of communication is frustrating and exacerbates my anxiety. When my anxiety isn’t being controlled it sets off my Crohn’s and gastroparesis conditions, which leads to more anxiety. It’s a vicious cycle.”

Katie Schimmelpfennig was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease in 2011, she was 21. Then, in 2015, she was diagnosed with nodular scleritis, an inflammatory condition that impacts the white outer coating of the eye. If left untreated, it can cause vision loss.

“It’s hard having two chronic health conditions and continues to be a challenge. I started therapy about a year ago. I wish I started sooner. Talking with someone has helped me. I struggle with feeling like my body is broken. I feel like I’m letting myself (and others) down because I’m sick more times than not. The book, “This Too Shall Last: Finding Grace When Suffering Lingers” by K. J. Ramsey was helpful to me. She writes about how our culture treats suffering like a problem to fix and the shame that comes with that all through a Christian point of view. It brought me comfort, understanding, and even some more acceptance for what I’m living right now. I would highly recommend checking it out.”

Feeling unsupported through the pandemic

Ableism existed long before the pandemic, but it seems that unfortunate mentality and attitude has been exacerbated since the start of these unsettling times.

Rocio explained, “While there have been many accommodations that have been made during the pandemic for the general public (i.e., curbside pickup, free delivery, etc.) I wish this had been the option for us long ago. Working from home is yet another dynamic that has allowed everyone to have the flexibility that many of us with chronic diseases need on a daily basis. It has become acceptable and more of a norm now, yet any previous requests for similar accommodations for us have always been denied or frowned upon. I’ve truly seen who supports and cares about others and who is selfish and out for themselves.”

Mo Lynn was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease in October 2019, when she was 23 years old. She also has Polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), endometriosis, and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD).

“The world, the workplace, and the US health care system are not built for people like me. Throughout the pandemic, it’s been made clear to me that a lot of people find the deaths of people like me with chronic illnesses or disabilities as inevitable and meaningless. Never mind the value I bring to my family, my friends, and society. There will always be people who think that the lives of the chronically ill /disabled are meaningless.”

Katie says, “I choose to believe that most people are good and kind, doing the best they know how to do at the time. But it’s hard, really hard–especially for the chronically ill right now. I don’t want covid. I don’t want mild covid. I don’t want severe covid. I don’t want to give covid to someone else. I don’t want long covid. I know what it’s like to be sick for days, months, and years. When I personally know people who are choosing not to get vaccinated, it hurts. It makes me feel like they don’t care about me. When I see people not wearing a mask, or their nose hanging out, it makes me feel like they don’t care about me or the health of their community. So, my perspective on the world around me: we need to do better. We need to be better.”

Brooke says looking through social media at peoples’ selfishness and carelessness has made her sad and frustrated with the evolution of humanity.

We talk a lot about community and inclusivity on our platforms, but when it’s time to perform action to ensure that all are safe and healthy, we fail to do so if it feels inconvenient for us. Watching people fail their neighbors by simply wearing a mask, stopping the spread of this highly contagious virus is just heartbreaking. It’s also frustrating to watch people waste their health by risking it for a party, or a concert or a bar night.”

Rapid Fire Chronic Illness Tips

  • Having chronic illness equates to a lot of trial and error. From finding your care team to what works best to manage your health—be patient as you find what helps you get your disease(s) under control and recognize that what works for one person won’t necessarily work for you.
  • Seek therapy and don’t look back. When you are constantly at battle with your body and worrying about the what if, it can be overwhelming and all-consuming. Give yourself permission to take time to put your mental well-being first.
  • Keep your GI as the team lead or quarterback of your care. Let them guide the decision-making and set the stage for your care plan. Build your care team around your GI.
  • Rather than focusing on remission, focus on the thing that is ailing you the most and heal that. Once that is settled, move on to the next thing.
  • Try to let go of the guilt and shift your mindset about how your caregivers are sacrificing for you. Instead, think about their genuine care and concern for you despite your illness. They show up day after day because of their unconditional love for you.
  • See all your doctors in the same network so they’re able to share reports and test results easily. Making information accessible to your care team takes the burden off your shoulders to play telephone and relay information back and forth.
  • If you’re being dismissed or feeling unheard by your care team, remember you aren’t married to them. Find a new team. The time and effort are worth it. Ask for referrals.
  • If friendships and relationships feel toxic to you, let them go. Use your medical misfortunes to your advantage. You have an innate superpower to see peoples’ true colors—if they genuinely care, if it’s a relationship of convenience or actual care, and you see who shows up and who disappears to the background.

If you’re tired of being sick and tired, please know you are not alone in feeling this way. There will be days when managing multiple health conditions are extra tough. Anger, frustration, and sadness are all normal and justified. When you live with multiple health conditions—or even *just* IBD it’s like a daily game of Jenga. One wrong move, one decision, can inadvertently cause the tower to come crashing down. It’s a fragile balancing act that comes with its fair share of setbacks and challenges but also provides a unique perspective and appreciation for life and taking on each day without taking anything for granted.

IBD Motherhood Unplugged: I have Crohn’s and COVID

Well, after dodging the son of a bitch since March 2020 and doing all I could to stay well, I have COVID. My husband and I started with symptoms New Year’s Eve. Quite the way to welcome in 2022, let me tell ya. As an IBD mom of three little ones who is immunocompromised from my medication, I, like so many others have been worried about this since the moment the pandemic began. One of my greatest fears became my reality. My husband tested positive the day he was scheduled for his booster. I’m triple vaxxed (since late July!) and that still wasn’t enough to protect me. I do believe the vaccines lightened the load of the illness and I’m grateful we had them.

Like I do with all my blog articles and reporting, I prefer to be transparent and honest about my personal experience in hopes of helping others. I’ve been keeping track of my symptoms daily and monitoring how the illness has manifested in me since it began. In this article, I’ll also share how I was guided by my gastroenterologist and pediatrician in navigating this once my family was exposed and became positive. As of now, miraculously, all three of our children (ages 4 and under), have tested negative and appear healthy.

Discovering I was exposed

So many emotions ran through my mind. Fear. Dread. Anger. Frustration. Disbelief. Shame. Worry. I cried lots of tears. My youngest is not quite 6 months old. Like any parent, I have tried my best to shield him from all types of illness since he entered this world. More than myself I’ve been concerned about how his little body would handle COVID. My family of five was directly exposed for 44 hours straight. We all had the same exposure and the damage had been done. What was supposed to be a time to celebrate with loved ones over the holidays turned into a nightmare real fast. It’s been a waiting game. I’ve felt a lot of emotions since my symptoms creeped up the night we returned home.

Here’s how my COVID has played out:

Friday, December 31st—headache, brain fog

Saturday, January 1—headache, runny nose, fatigue, no appetite

Sunday, January 2—headache, runny nose in the morning only, a dry cough, a little difficulty breathing, no appetite

Monday, January 3—headache, runny nose in the morning only, bad cough with phlegm coming up, congestion, hoarse voice, no appetite

Tuesday, January 4—TESTED POSITIVE (no surprise there) Runny nose like a faucet in the morning only, migraine with auras, no appetite, bad cough with phlegm coming up, hoarse voice.

Wednesday, January 5—Runny nose in the morning only, headache, hoarse voice, same cough. Smell and taste lessened. All three kids tested negative through pediatrician.

Thursday, January 6—Less congested, subtle headache, hoarse voice, same cough, no appetite, fatigue, taste, and smell gone.

Friday, January 7—Can finally breathe through my nose, subtle headache, no taste or smell, no appetite, congestion.

Saturday, January 8—headache, no taste or smell, congestion.

Sunday, January 9—FINALLY no headache, feels like a head cold, no taste or smell. My voice is back to normal, feeling a lot more like myself.

Managing Crohn’s Through COVID

As someone who has lived with IBD for more than 16 years, feeling unwell and juggling unpredictable symptoms doesn’t feel like anything new. But, knowing how to keep the focus on managing my Crohn’s while having “normal people sickness” is often challenging, especially since COVID is so unique in how it presents differently in people and comes in waves. When my gastroenterologist learned I had tested positive she offered up the monoclonal antibody infusion or a 5-day course of Pfizer’s new over the counter pill, Paxlovid. Since I was unable to get tested until day five of symptoms and since my case was mild, I chose not to do either. Personally, the thought of sitting around all the germs in a hospital (even though I’m positive for COVID) didn’t sound appealing to me. There is just so much sickness going around right now. I felt more comfortable taking the illness on myself since it was not severe and have been taking Vitamin D, Vitamin C, Zinc, and my prescription prenatal and folic acid.

One big question many of us in the community have is what to do about biologic therapies when we test positive. I am on Humira, and my next injection is due today (January 10). I was exposed to COVID two days after doing my injection. My gastroenterologist told me I would be fine to stay on schedule since my symptoms were mild and since I did not have a fever. She went on to say that if I am not having pulmonary issues (which I’m not), that I should proceed with my scheduled injection.

Luckily, my Crohn’s felt non-existent the entire time I’ve been sick with COVID. It was almost like my body was solely focused on the upper respiratory issues. Oddly enough, and this may be TMI…but I always tell people in our community nothing is TMI… today (Sunday) I experienced a burning sensation in my abdomen for about 30 minutes, felt some nausea, and had several bathroom trips. It was almost as though the COVID was leaving my body, because the last 10 days I haven’t felt anything like this and now I feel a lot better.

Mom Life with COVID

What’s really made this entire ordeal torturous for me is having to do my typical stay-at-home mom life with a 4.5-year-old, almost 3-year-old, and 5-month-old, while having COVID and Crohn’s disease. Unfortunately, even though my husband was symptomatic and positive he had to work from home, so it’s been me in the trenches, wearing a mask from 6 a.m. til the kids go to bed, and not getting a moment to rest or recuperate.

What anyone with a family and COVID can attest to is how challenging quarantine is when you can’t have your village of support help you with the little ones or get any type of childcare break. Typically, Reid goes to preschool three days a week and Sophia goes twice a week. Even though their school days are short, and I’m used to having everyone home, I’ve grown accustomed to a little bit of downtime with the baby. Between Christmas break and our quarantine, our entire family has been home since December 20th. Even through I’ve been sick and on the struggle bus, my day-to-day actions have not been able to change at all. To say I’m running on E is an understatement. Don’t beat yourself up over screen time and not being able to entertain your kids, it’s survival mode at its finest. As an IBD mom, the fatigue that comes with our illness is nothing new, the only saving grace with COVID is knowing there should be an endpoint. While long COVID exists of course, I’m not sure I’d be able to even tell the difference since I already live with chronic illness.

Breastfeeding with COVID

Ladies, I thought breastfeeding through colonoscopy prep and not eating for the days leading up was intense. This has been a whole different level of effort. To protect the baby, our pediatrician recommended my husband and I wear masks in our house. People complain about wearing a mask to get groceries. Try wearing it in your own home, morning-noon-and-night for 10 days, nursing a baby while your nose is running like a faucet, you feel unwell, and fear you’re going to pass along COVID to your small baby because you’re in such close proximity. At times I’ve felt on the brink of having an anxiety attack because the mask and my breathing made me feel like I was gasping for air while trying to feed him.

That being said, I’ve never felt more grateful or fortunate to be breastfeeding my son. It does my heart good to know he’s getting my antibodies in real-time as my body fights COVID. While breastmilk of infected mothers does not contain COVID-19, it contains antibodies against it.

I found promising articles and research about the benefits of COVID-positive moms continue to breastfeed their children:

Can Mother’s Milk Help Fight COVID? New Evidence Suggests ‘Yes’

Liquid Gold: How Breast Milk Could Pass Along COVID-19 Immunity

FAQ on COVID-19: Breastfeeding safety for mothers

Luckily, thus far, my baby hasn’t shown any symptoms and continues to thrive beautifully as we gear up for him turning 6 months this week. I’ve prayed hard over him daily and I’m hopeful I’m nourishing him and providing him with the best protection possible by nursing him through this pandemic.

Recommendations Moving Forward

As I write this it’s 9 pm on Sunday night. I’m much more at ease and honestly since I’ve been sick since New Year’s Eve, the entire start of 2022 has been a blur. I’m sitting on the couch, fire going, taking a deep breath, and trying to relax. Now that hindsight is 20/20 here’s what I wish I did before and what my recommendations are:

  • Order rapid tests proactively: Part of the reason we were exposed initially was because my loved ones could only get their hands on one test (which was negative). We made the trip home only to find out two days later that my dad had been positive the entire time. I ordered four tests on 12/30 and they just arrived yesterday. Prior to all this, my kids and I had never been tested. It’s much smarter to have tests ready to go at home so you aren’t scrambling and forced to make a judgment call that could put you in the line of fire.
  • Get 3-ply surgical masks for little ones: My kids have worn cloth masks up until all this, but when they return to school later this month, I plan to send them in surgical masks for added protection. I don’t expect my little ones to wear N95s. Not only are surgical masks more convenient than constantly having to wash them, if they lose their masks or misplace them in the wash, I don’t have to run around trying to find a mask that’s clean and ready to go as we are rushing out the door.
  • Connect with your care team when symptoms start: If you have a chronic illness and especially if you’re on heavy duty medications (like biologics) I can’t stress enough how important it is to stay in open communication with your care team so they are aware of the situation and can guide you through it. COVID is nothing to mess around with. It’s not *just a cold*, trust me. I spoke with my GI and my pediatrician almost daily this week through the patient portals.
  • Don’t take unnecessary risks and let your guard down: We are all exhausted from this nightmare, and I get how we all want to enjoy life and not live in fear. But one risky decision—something as simple as going out to dinner or seeing family that you miss, can end up with a great deal of sickness that you’ll quickly realize wasn’t worth it. Get vaccinated, get boosted. We’ve lost two family friends this week alone who were unvaccinated and died of COVID. It’s beyond heartbreaking.
  • If you lose your taste and smell like me, I’ve been told the sooner you start smell training the better: My friend recommended I order four essential oil scents off Amazon—Clove, Lemon, Eucalyptus, and Rose. They arrive to me on Wednesday. I have also been told by multiple people to eat Hot Tamales Candy and spicy, potent foods to get taste buds reactivated and to drink celery juice. Smelling perfume, cologne, garlic, dish detergent, and candles several times a day for 20-second increments is also a way to help bring it back.
  • Chart your symptoms each day: It’s helpful to keep track of your symptoms each day in the “Notes” section of your phone, otherwise it’s hard to remember what you’ve dealt with. It takes out the guesswork when talking with your doctors and helps you see how you’re improving or getting worse.
  • Disposable everything: We’ve been using plastic Red Solo Cups and writing our names on them, paper plates, paper towels, you name it. Get the germs out of your house and avoid using shared hand towels, toothpaste, etc. with those you live with.

Paying It Forward with IBD

When you hear the term “pay it forward” you may envision someone in a drive thru line surprising the person behind them by covering their order. Those words have held a different meaning for me as a person with IBD. When I had bowel resection surgery, I’ll always remember how my husband’s cousin and wife surprised us and showed up to the hospital with coolers of food and drink for my immediate family. It was an act of kindness and generosity that meant so much. That was six years ago, and we still talk about it.

Fast forward to present day and a friend of mine locally who has battled Crohn’s disease for decades had surgery. He’s a husband, a father of four, a successful businessperson, and leads our local Crohn’s and Colitis chapter as President of the Board. Through the years my husband and I have connected with him and his wife at Foundation events.

Staying connected through the pandemic

He recently posted on Facebook that he would be having his 8th Crohn’s-related surgery. He’s taken on Crohn’s with resilience and grit since being diagnosed more than 21 years ago. Thanks to the pandemic, the last time we had seen him, and his wife, was at the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation Gala in November 2019. Despite two years passing without seeing one another in person, there’s something special about the IBD community and the family feel it creates.

When you’re knocked down by a disease over and over again and you’ve had surgery, you’re able to relate to the struggle, while also understanding how beautifully amazing recovery can be when you get a fresh start. While surgery is not a cure, it affords many of us with the opportunity to stay ahead of our disease and take out the portion of our intestine that is diseased and causing us problems.

A call to help

After I saw the social media post giving friends and family a heads up of the surgery happening in two weeks I grabbed my day planner and marked my calendar so I could be reminded of when to reach out to my friend in the days ahead, to pray, and to start thinking of how I could help his family of six during this uncertain and challenging time.

I immediately thought about his sweet wife trying to steer the proverbial ship for the family for months on end. Four young mouths to feed. I texted them both and said I would be bringing over a homemade meal. My text may have seemed out of left field, but I wanted them to feel supported and help in a way that doesn’t seem like a big deal, but has a lasting impact. Rather than asking how you can help, if you can help, or that “you are there if they need anything,” just come right out and say what you are going to do.

We picked a day for me to stop by with a homemade dinner and when we saw one another and were able to chat for a few minutes in person it warmed my heart. I could tell the gesture was so appreciated and that it brightened their day as much as it did mine. We all know how monotonous recovery can be, so having someone stop by—even for a few minutes—helps break up the boredom.

Hanging out at the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation Gala in 2019. As my friend endures his recovery and now another surgery on the horizon, it’s friendships like this that deserve extra thought and care.

Passing along the appreciation

Fast forward to this week and while I was feeding my baby, an email popped up on my phone from a friend of mine in the patient advocacy space. She wrote:

“Dear Natalie,

Thank you for your tireless dedication to the patient community that you serve. I am deeply grateful for the opportunity to work with you, and always appreciate your willingness to jump in and help my clients transform healthcare. Patient Authentic wouldn’t run without you! Please accept this gift as a small token of my appreciation for your commitment to making the world a better place and your support throughout this past year. Wishing you a wonderful holiday season and a joyful new year!”

This was such a sweet surprise and brought me back to this notion of “paying it forward” in the patient community and going out of your way to brighten someone’s day. When you live with chronic illness, and never know what the day will bring, it’s wonderful to have moments of reprieve where you feel thought about, appreciated, and seen for all that you endure and all that you go through.

Paying it forward to someone with IBD this holiday season and beyond

It’s not about the monetary value, but rather the effort and thought.

  • Send a card expressing how you are thinking or praying for someone, rooting them on, supporting them through the ups and downs their disease creates.
  • Offer to help watch the kids so they can have an hour to take a walk, run an errand, or just relax.
  • Ask if you can join them for a doctor appointment, to get lab work, go to an infusion, be there at their home when they do an injection—anything to be there as a source of support. I recognize with COVID you may not always be allowed, but it’s worth an ask. By doing a “ride-a-long” with a friend or family member, you’ll get a small taste of what their reality is like. It’s often the drive to and from appointments and procedures that makes our minds race and can get emotional.
  • A simple “tell me about how your Crohn’s has been?” or “how has Crohn’s been impacting your day to day?”…or “what is it like to live with Crohn’s?” means a lot…don’t waste your breath only asking “how are you?”…because most people with chronic illness take this as an opportunity to downplay their struggles or sugarcoat the reality. Dig deeper and ask empathic questions that show you really care.
  • Share content of fellow advocates on social media—whether it’s a blog, a podcast, a reel, a post on Instagram—being a patient advocate takes a lot of time and effort, it’s rewarding when you see your words and your work reach more people and even better when you learn how a story you wrote or a post you shared touched another person’s life and impacted them in a positive way.

Over the weekend a fellow IBD mom friend of mine was hospitalized from a flare and faced with the need to start a biologic. When she got home with her family last night, she sent me an email with an update and ended it by saying “thank you” for being a mentor/friend/support in her corner. It’s moments like this that validate why I do, what I do.

IBD Motherhood Unplugged: My daughter was diagnosed with Crohn’s as a newborn

Less than one percent of the world’s population has it. I’m talking about Infantile VEO-IBD, or “Very Early Onset” IBD. What’s that you may wonder? It’s a rare and often fatal subset of Crohn’s disease that impacts children ages two and under. This week we hear from a mom whose daughter Riley was diagnosed with Infantile VEO-IBD as a newborn, she’s now 18 months. During her first year of life, Riley spent 27 weeks in the hospital. Jana Gilkey opens up candidly about what it’s like to be this type of IBD mom, what she wants others to know about her daughter’s patient journey, and how you can best support families with medically complex children.

Clinical characteristics of Infantile IBD are different from those of an adolescent or adult-onset case with features that are more aggressive & rapidly progressive. There is no known treatment plan and no known cure. Much of the treatment and therapies available are considered research and trial based and are not currently approved by the FDA due to the young age of those diagnosed.

Jana says she could tell something was off from the moment Riley was born. At first as an exclusively pumping mama, she thought her daughter had a dairy intolerance, so she cut every common allergen from her diet.

“We saw our first pediatric gastroenterologist when Riley was one month old. As a mom, my intuition was screaming at me that something was terribly wrong. We saw a few different pediatric gastroenterologists and by month two of life, her symptoms had only progressed. By the time she was 3 months old, she was not stable enough to stay home and had completely stopped eating by mouth. What little we could get her to eat, she was unable to keep down. She was diagnosed with failure to thrive and rapidly declining on all accounts.”

Riley was hospitalized for the next three months. Every day brought new symptoms and complications. She had been evaluated for every condition and received her first PICC Line in which she received continuous TPN & Lipids due to not tolerating any kind of substance in her stomach. Riley also received a series of blood, iron, and albumin transfusions. 

Receiving the Infantile VEO-IBD diagnosis

An upper and lower endoscopy revealed lesions throughout Riley’s entire GI Tract. Bingo.

“I began to scour the internet on anything and everything I could find on Infantile VEO-IBD. There was a white board in our hospital room. I wrote down everything I could find on that board. I drew myself diagrams and made notes on doctors to try and connect with. I recorded nearly every second of my daughter’s day those 3 months of our first hospital stay. I ordered books and searched and listened to every podcast I could find on children diagnosed with autoimmune diseases in the first few months of life. I fell asleep most nights watching YouTube videos on nearly every kind topic you can imagine regarding genetics, the immune system, how the body processes monosaccharides, how the brain communicates to the GI tract, and everything else in between I could find to better understand, educate, and advocate for my daughter.”

Like anyone with IBD can relate to—the unpredictability and uniqueness of each person’s experience with IBD makes a diagnosis extremely challenging to cope with.

“While all of my research and studies have been vital to my education and understanding, the very best education (and support) we have received has been from those who also walked a similar journey battling Infantile VEO-IBD.”

How it feels to watch your baby fight a chronic illness

The way Jana describes what it’s like to be a mom watching your child fight an uphill battle against their health had me crying. She explains her experience and perspective so beautifully, yet it’s heart-wrenching to read.

“Most of the time it feels like frantically trying to catch little fireflies that show a glimmer of themselves and then seem to disappear just before jarring them all up. Impossible to fix and yet, aren’t good moms supposed to fix things for their babies? It feels like trying to catch water in the cup of your hands. It just keeps slipping through, no matter how tightly you squeeze. To me, watching my daughter endure such chronic pain and struggle, feels like a constant dance between surrender and war.”

You can feel the pain and the love in her words.

“When Riley was first diagnosed. I was ready to fight, on a mission to find a cure, fly her anywhere, climb the highest mountain, swim to the bottom of the ocean to find that one special pearl that could bring her healing. I believed (and still believe) that the healing remedy for her is out there. However, I have since come to terms that the journey we are on is not a sprint. It is a marathon. I surrender to the things which I cannot control or change. But I will never stop fighting for better. I am willing to run this marathon for the rest of my life so that, Lord willing, my daughter or maybe even those that come after her don’t have to.”

How IBD has “given” to Jana’s family more than it’s taken

Jana says Riley’s disease has changed everything about her outlook on health and her overall perspective on life in general.

“I believe it has given to our family more than it has taken. Riley’s battle with Crohn’s Disease may have robbed us of nearly all of her first year of life on what “could have been.’’ However, it has given us as a family the opportunity to choose what is and what can be. We have been given the opportunity to choose joy during uncertainty and at times chaos.”

Through the pain and tears Jana has realized that we do not own our health but steward it.

Photo cred: Alisha Gilkey

She says, “health is not ours to claim but to honor and look after. While it may at times feel as if I have somehow failed my daughter’s health, this is not true. I have honored it with all it has brought. It was never within my control to begin with. I believe the same is true for others within the chronic illness world. There is a lot of room for grace here.”

A life-threatening setback

Riley recently was unable to absorb any nutrients in her GI tract. She started refusing to take anything by mouth and was provided nutrients intravenously through a catheter in her chest the first 10 months after her initial Infantile VEO-IBD diagnosis. The hope—once the right combination of medications was found to wrangle Riley’s disease under control that a gastrostomy tube (g-tube) could be placed.

“One of the many risks of living life with a central line can be infection of the blood. Riley was at high risk for infections due to the medications she was receiving for treatment in addition to being immunocompromised. Unfortunately, Riley developed a blood infection on three different occasions and one put her body in a state of shock.” 

Jana says thanks to the grace of God, Riley recovered and does not have any known organ damage at this time. The last four months she’s been home and started to tolerate food in her GI tract. She’s completely weaned from being fed through her veins!

Photo cred: Alisha Gilkey

“While we are still searching and longing to find remission for her, she is able to finally have a little more freedom to be the toddler she is. We still have some hard days, but we do feel hopeful we are on the path to remission and will soon see her body heal. Each day that she feels better, we see more of her personality. It is so fun to finally get to know her and see her able to explore more of her world!”

Treating and managing Infantile VEO-IBD

In her 18 months of life, Riley has been on a laundry list of medications and treatments and endured countless procedures and surgeries.

Medications/Treatments

Proton Pump Inhibitors

Liquid, Topical, & Inhaled Corticosteroids

Biologics

Chemotherapy Trails

Glycopeptide Antibiotics

Additional Daily Dietary Supplements

TPN & Lipids

Surgeries: 

Multiple Invasive & Non-Invasive Diagnostic Tests and Scopes

Gastronomy Tube Placement 

Catheter Placements & Removals 

Riley becomes a big sis

This past August Riley became a big sister to Josephine. Since Riley’s health has not been stable enough to travel or be around people because of the pandemic, Jana is FINALLY able to travel back home for the holidays with her family of four. Many of their loved ones met both daughters for the first time this past week at Thanksgiving. Jana says while the lows of Crohn’s disease have been really low, it makes the highs feel that much higher. As she juggles life with a medically challenged child and a healthy child alongside her husband, she’s trying her best to enjoy being a “mom” instead of solely a caretaker.

Photo cred: Alisha Gilkey

“While it is very busy, I will say, that in a way my second born has helped us all to take a breather as a family. It’s helped to remind me that I am their mother still and more than a caretaker to both of them. Up until recently, our life has been about keeping Riley here with us. Thankfully, she is in a much better place, and I can also focus on raising her and her baby sister together! This would all be so much more tough without our wonderful support system we have. My husband is unbelievably helpful in addition to my own mother who has been with us every step of the way in this journey.”

Jana says having tangible support is a huge stress relief. By tangible she means, physical help with chores around the house like doing dishes, the laundry, and even having family members learn how to manage a g-tube so her and her husband can take a nap every now and then.

Photo cred: Alisha Gilkey

“None of it is how I envisioned our life going and it sure isn’t perfect, but I would not trade either of my girls for one second. I believe every child comes to the world at the time they are destined to come. I know they are meant to be here at the time they are and together.”

How IBD has impacted motherhood from a parent perspective

Jana says she no longer looks forward to the expectations she may have had for her children. Instead, she looks forward to watching whatever they choose to paint the canvas in front of them.

“It’s actually so much more exciting to not have expectations, just enjoying what I can from each day with them, and on the edge of my seat to cheer them on in whatever they do. They are God’s children, and it is a great honor and challenge for me to be able to steward them well. I trust He will fight for them and will always be with them even when I can’t.”

The journey over the past 18 months has helped Jana gain a better understanding of fellow moms as well.

“What may be best for one family may not be best for the next and that is something to celebrate really – not be judgmental or weary of. Moms have way too much on their backs to place any judgement. The children we have been given were given to each of us as individuals for a reason and no one else. There is no longer room for guilt or judgement here, just grace and support.”

Best ways to support families with medically complex children

When loved ones and friends go through health hardships, we often want to help in some way. But unbeknownst to us some of the ways we approach the conversations can be off-putting without even realizing it. Jana says knowing so many people (many whom they have never met) are praying for Riley, interested in her journey, and supporting them, has been incredibly overwhelming.

“I met so many truly inspiring families and individuals over the last year and a half since Riley’s diagnosis. Sometimes, it can be exhausting to share our story, as there is so much to explain. But, each time I share, I am reminded that we are not alone in this. That is really a huge encouragement when times have felt isolating.”

Photo cred: Alisha Gilkey

Jana has come to realize that when it comes to health and those walking through a medical journey, that what we may know or what they choose to share about their story is often just the tip of the iceberg to what they are going through.

“Offer grace, not judgement. Offer time, not advice. People genuinely mean it when they say, “Let me know how I can help.” These questions are well meaning but they put the ball in the court of the person who may be enduring rather than the one seeking to support. It’s often difficult to understand what your own needs may be when in seasons of crisis.”

Instead seek to understand. While it feels natural to ask questions like, “Are you/they feeling better?, “How was your day?”, or “What can I do to help?” These types of questions can feel broad and difficult to answer in the world of chronic illness.

Jana recommends asking questions to seek understanding. She says asking the right questions can be helpful for those we want to support.

Here are some examples:

  • Can you tell me about your day today?
  • I spent some time researching the diagnosis you shared with me, and I have a few questions…would you mind if I asked you so I can better understand what it looks like for you?
  • I would like to know more about what the days look like for you. Would you like to share?
  • How does your daughter’s diagnosis and patient journey affect you?

Want to do something spontaneous, without asking? Go for it. Deliver a meal, write a letter, offer your time in a way that does not require a friend who may be in crisis to ask things of you. Pain can often feel like a burden and be very isolating. Having someone ask to better understand and invite themselves into our pain helps to lift that burden – just knowing someone else sees.

My thoughts on a colonoscopy pill prep as a first timer

‘Hello darkness, my old friend. I’ve come to talk with you again’. Ahh, the dreaded annual, routine, colonoscopy. I got a little spoiled because my last scope was July 2019. I decided to hold off in the thick of the pandemic out of safety concerns and did a fecal calprotectin test instead. Then, I got pregnant…so I had quite the enjoyable hiatus.

This time around, I decided to try SUTAB, a 24-pill prep + Magnesium citrate, rather than my typical Miralax-Dulcolax-Magnesium citrate. Without insurance and utilizing the patient savings card that’s online, SUTAB can be costly. I went here and printed out a coupon, I was able to get it from the CVS Pharmacy in Target for $50. While it’s more expensive than most preps, to me, it was worth the try.

Thoughts on doing a pill prep

So, this entire experience was a bit complicated for me. The night before my scope, I was miserable from the Magnesium citrate and the initial 12 pills. First off, I’ve come to learn that most GI’s do not make you take magnesium citrate on top of the typical prep. I’m just one of the lucky ones. Magnesium Citrate has always made me vomit, even if I take Zofran before. Prior to this prep, I always did the lemon flavor. I switched to the cherry flavor this time, GAME CHANGER. I had no problem getting it down…but it only stayed down for about an hour or so.

I threw up an unbelievable amount multiple times and never had a bowel movement. After not eating a solid meal for three days I was anxious and worried that I wouldn’t be cleaned out enough and that I was going through this hell for nothing. Sadly, Reid and Sophia witnessed it all go down and it broke my heart that they had to see me so sick and weak on the bathroom floor.

I relied on many members of the IBD community and medical professionals on social media to help guide me through the unknown. I took a Zofran and went to bed. I never woke to use the bathroom. I set my alarm for 3 a.m., took another Zofran, did NOT take the second 10 ounces of Magnesium citrate, and timed the remaining 12 pills every 3 minutes (rather than taking them back-to-back). I found that tip on Twitter and it made a huge difference! I decided not to take the second bottle of Magnesium citrate because in the medical instructions from the SUTAB box it says *not* to take any additional laxatives.

My scope was scheduled for 8:30 in the morning. I finished the pill prep at 4 a.m. and between then and 6:45 a.m. when we got on the road to hospital, I got completely cleaned out. I didn’t get nauseas, and everything fell into place. Now, I credit this with the fact I barely had anything in my body, which makes the prep much easier in my opinion.

If you would have asked me my thoughts on SUTAB vs. my typical go-to, Miralax + Dulcolax + Magnesium citrate the eve of the scope, I would have told you I would never do a pill prep, again. But once I took the Zofran, didn’t take the Magnesium citrate, and timed out the pills, only having to chase with pure water was amazing and very simple. All you have to do is drink 16 ounces of water with the 12 pills, and then an additional 32 ounces of water spaced out after. You can have more water if you want it.

My mom was laughing because she was watching me do multiple loads of laundry, make my son’s school lunch, pump milk for my 4-month-old, shower and get dressed…all on 4 hours of sleep, while in the middle of colonoscopy prep. As an IBD mom, I felt empowered in that moment of all I was capable of doing in the midst of what previously had been a nightmare.

Unfortunately, what is generally the “easy” part of the process—the hospital portion and the actual scope was very emotional and painful for me. My GI had ordered my usual routine labs to be drawn through my IV (to try and save me a trip) but I was so dehydrated from the prep and breastfeeding that the nurses could not get any blood. It took sticking me 8 different times. I felt like a human pin cushion. The IV was placed in a very tiny vein in my hand and the Propofol burned SO badly going in that I almost couldn’t handle it.

I kept asking for my husband Bobby to be allowed in recovery and felt like no one was listening to me. The nurse was gruff and kept poking me, even after I told her I would just go to a lab this week once I was hydrated. The blood pressure cuff even bruised my arm. I cried a lot of tears and the experience brought me back to a traumatic 2008 hospitalization for an abscess in my small intestine that involved 8 tries to get an IV.

My recommendation—do NOT allow labs to be drawn after you are done prepping for a scope. Save yourself the pain and the prodding. I overhead the nurses talking (outside the curtain) of my “room” saying they refuse to ever do this again to a patient and that we should all just go to labs to get bloodwork, rather than trying to get it done when we’re all terribly dehydrated. I had so many band-aids and gauze all over both my hands and arms, the nurses even sent me home with more gauze and band-aids in case I bled in the car. Fun times.

The best news

Luckily, the heaviness of this entire ordeal lifted a bit when my GI walked into the recovery room and said, “your small bowel and colon could not be more gorgeous. It was so pretty in there!” Best compliment you can give a gal with IBD!

She said even my anastomosis site (where my large and small intestine were reattached in 2015) …looked perfect. She explained how ulcers develop and indicate lack of blood flow. No ulcers, mucosal healing, and no biopsies needed. I feel incredibly fortunate that I have been lucky enough to hold onto my remission that came about because of my bowel resection surgery in August 2015.

I understand that “remission” is a complicated term in the IBD world. It doesn’t mean symptom-free, it doesn’t mean a cure…to me, it means I have many more days that I feel well than when I don’t. It means my Crohn’s disease doesn’t have to dictate or rule my life and that I’m able to be present for my family and for myself. It’s knowing that remission can go away in the blink of an eye. It’s happened to me before, and I know it will happen again. But for now, I’ll take a deep breath and enjoy this reprieve from the havoc I know my disease is capable of causing and continue to do all I can to stay well by staying on my biologic, keeping tabs on my lab work, and checking in with my GI whenever I feel like something may be starting to go awry. Remission is not something to be taken for granted. I often get asked what I do to “stay” in remission, I honestly don’t feel like I deserve much of the credit other than being a compliant patient and being very in-tune to how my body speaks to me through symptoms.

Moments that helped me get through

When my kids kept bringing me play food to help me feel better when they realized I couldn’t eat “real food” all week.

How my mom flew in from Chicago to help with the kids and to be an added support (like she does for every scope, procedure, and hospitalization).

When my husband, Bobby, came home late from work and rather than sitting at the kitchen table to eat, I caught him standing at the sink with his dinner plate and back turned so he wouldn’t be eating in front of me.

Knowing I was going to have a breakfast date with Bobby at our favorite spot and keeping my eye on the prize after going so many days without eating solid food.

Using my frozen breastmilk stash the day before and day-of the procedure to ease the burden of having to use energy and my body to feed Connor.

Reading all the comments on Instagram and hearing from friends and family near and far over text message and through phone calls really helped lift my spirits and conquer this as an exclusively breastfeeding mama.

Long story short—Aside from checking with your GI and getting a prescription for SUTAB, I would recommend trying the pill prep and from a patient perspective remind you to do the following:

  • Have your GI provide you with a prescription of Zofran (if you don’t have one already).
  • Take Zofran 30 minutes prior to taking the pills.
  • Set a timer on your phone and take one pill every three minutes.
  • While the pills are large, they are no bigger than a Prenatal vitamin and are doable.
  • For my self-imposed liquid diet this is how I plan it out for a Friday morning scope:
    • Last solid meal Monday evening
    • Tuesday-Wednesday full liquids
    • Thursday-Friday am clear liquids…and don’t forget my favorite tip of all…GUMMY BEARS! They are considered clear liquids, just steer clear from the red and purple ones.

7 Tips for Keeping IBD at Bay on Big Days

Whether it’s a holiday like Halloween or a wedding weekend (both of which I experienced the past few days), it’s important to stay ahead of IBD symptoms and be proactive in how you approach the big moments and the big days in your life so you can enjoy them. The unpredictability of Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis can feel suffocating when you are hoping and praying your body doesn’t betray you on the big days.

Here’s how I mentally and physically prepare so I can stay ahead of my Crohn’s and be in the moment with family and friends.

Be extra cautious with what you drink and your diet. Caffeine and alcohol are triggers for me…and for many people with IBD. The day of my brother’s wedding I refrained from drinking coffee and alcohol so I didn’t have to worry about needing to run to the bathroom in my bridesmaid dress or have to think about how bloated I could get from the abdominal pain a few drinks can cause. My Crohn’s felt non-existent the entire day, thank you Jesus!

When I am traveling and away from home, I am extra mindful of what I eat and keep it on the safe side, especially if I’m going on a road trip with my family or flying the friendly skies. You know your triggers, try to steer clear from them as much as you can. If I am celebrating a holiday at home or at my parent’s house, I tend to be a little “riskier” because of the comfort level I have using the bathroom there, resting, etc.

Be choosy about your shapewear. I don’t know about you, but ever since my Crohn’s diagnosis I’ve never liked Spanx, belts, or anything restrictive around my waist. I rarely ever wear jeans with a button. For my brother’s wedding I wore Spanx that were biker shorts that went up to the bottom of my bra and it was a game changer, especially being 3 months postpartum! I didn’t have any stomach or bloating issues. Highly recommend the Spanx High-Waisted Power Short.

Pack pain medication and maintenance meds. Just because you’re away from home celebrating a holiday or a wedding, doesn’t mean it’s time to be flippant about managing your disease. When I’m packing, I always take more than I need when it comes to pain medication, even if I haven’t needed it or used it for months. Bring extra strength Tylenol and any prescription pain medication you may need along with your “typical” medication (if you take it). Be mindful of how long you are traveling and if you could face delays, etc. If you are flying, always keep medication on you, so it’s right where you need it and so you don’t chance anyone taking it out of your luggage.

With my Humira I look ahead when I have a big event and plan accordingly. For my wedding for instance, my injection was due two days after I tied the knot. My GI had me move up my dose to the day of the rehearsal dinner so I could have some extra coverage.

Try and get as much rest as possible. With IBD we all know fatigue is one of our most difficult symptoms to handle. Throw in travel and being out of your normal surroundings and life can really feel like an uphill battle. Allow for downtime and breaks throughout the day if you’re able so you can give your body time to adjust to the hustle and bustle.

Practice deep breathing and mindfulness. If you feel symptoms creeping in try and take deep breaths and ground yourself. Lay down and gently put one hand on your chest and your other hand on your belly. Feel your stomach slowly rise and be present in the moment. Close your eyes—remind yourself that pain is fleeting and go to your happy place. Diaphragmatic Breathing, also known as deep breathing or belly breathing, helps to manage stress.

Don’t suffer in silence. This is the hardest part of all. I always struggle articulating when I’m not feeling well on the “big” days. I never want to damper the mood or make people worry so I internalize my pain and put on a smile. As a mom of three little ones, especially on holidays like Halloween and Christmas I never want to allow my disease to take away from the special, memorable moments. But this can make the struggle even worse. I find quietly telling my husband or my mom that my “Crohn’s is acting up” that it takes some of the weight off my shoulders so they at least know why I may need help, may not be as talkative, or may not seem to be acting myself.

Use these times as a “teachable” moment. Before I started sharing my story publicly, you’d never hear me tell someone I barely knew I had Crohn’s disease. But now, I find it extremely helpful to drop that line whenever I can. You’ll find making others aware can bring about much needed support, understanding, and even intrigue. Telling others I have Crohn’s disease feels like a normal, casual part of conversation now for me. At my brother’s wedding my IBD came up several times in conversation—with the hair and make up people, to my cousins coming up to me and saying, “I have co-workers with Crohn’s, and I tell them all about your blog.”

While IBD is not our identity, it’s a large part of who we are and impacts many of the decisions we make each day that can influence everything from what we eat or drink at a party or social gathering to how we participate in milestones and festivities. Taking the guesswork out for others takes a bit of the pressure off and can make you feel less overwhelmed and more comfortable and at ease.

Inaugural Autoimmune Summit just what the patient ordered

This post is sponsored by the Autoimmune Association. All thoughts and opinions shared are my own.

An educated patient is an empowered patient. Over the weekend the Autoimmune Association presented its Inaugural Autoimmune Summit that aimed to do just that. The virtual two-day event featured 23 educational sessions and more than 50 autoimmune experts including physicians, nurses, policy experts, and of course, patient advocates.

The Summit covered a wide variety of important topics that impact patients and caregivers who live with autoimmune conditions. I had the opportunity to moderate a panel discussion about fertility, family planning, and pregnancy alongside Dr. Marla Dubinsky, Chief of Pediatric Gastroenterology at Mount Sinai and Co-Director of the Susan and Leonard Feinstein Inflammatory Bowel Disease Clinical Center and Mariah Leach, a mom of three who lives with Rheumatoid Arthritis and Founder of Mamas Facing Forward. As an IBD mom of three chidren myself, I’m extremely passionate about sharing guidance and support for fellow women on this subject.

During the discussion, Dr. Dubinsky touched on many aspects of the journey to motherhood and beyond with IBD, but one comment she made resonated with me. She said the greatest gift a woman can give their child, is to stay on their medication, and allow their baby to thrive in an uninflamed environment. As someone who needed and depended on my biologic with all three of my pregnancies that comforted me greatly and really struck a chord.

Other topics of discussion during the Summit included tips and tricks for managing multiple specialists to clinical trials, health equity, advocating on Capitol Hill, and complementary medicine.

A dream come true

Lilly Stairs, Vice Chair of the Board of the Autoimmune Association and Summit Lead, lives with Crohn’s disease and arthritis. As a patient advocate, she understands the vital importance of providing those who live with chronic health conditions to share their voice and articulate their needs and struggles.

“It has been a dream of mine and the Autoimmune Association’s to plan an event that unites community members from across autoimmune conditions. Our patient odysseys share deeply rooted similarities. By coming together, we can accelerate autoimmune education, awareness, advocacy, treatment, and someday, cures.”

Goals of the Summit

The goals for the Summit were three-fold. Organizers and presenters like myself hope you walked away feeling connected to people across the patient community, while learning tangible tips for managing your autoimmune conditions. Lastly, the hope is that attendees and Summit participants feel energized and excited about what the bright future holds for those living with autoimmune diseases.

Lilly went on to say, “Events like the Autoimmune Summit are essential engagements for patients and caregivers to participate in. These events provide tools to navigate life with chronic illness and empower patients with the knowledge they need to be “CEO, secretary, and treasurer of your care” as Hetlena Johnson, Lupus Patient Advocate so eloquently stated in the Managing Multiple Autoimmune Conditions panel.”

Events like this are a reminder that we are not alone in our journeys. Even though chronic illness can be extremely isolating, events like the Autoimmune Summit offer the opportunity for connection that often feels like much needed chicken soup for the soul. The camaraderie that is possible even though Zoom has a lasting impact on helping to lift the burden and self-doubt many patients face.

From the Speakers

Tina Aswani Omprakesh participated in a panel on complementary medicine and autoimmunity. As an ostomate who juggles Crohn’s disease, Gastroparesis, and IBS, she knows firsthand how imperative it is to take on illness with multiple approaches.

“This is an important subject that’s often not discussed in the autoimmune space. The reality is that many patients are thinking about exploring it but don’t know how to navigate it in a way that can help complement their existing therapies. These conversations are essential to proliferate both credible information and sources of complementary therapies so patients can truly live their best lives possible.”

Molly Schreiber lives with Type 1 Diabetes, Rheumatoid Arthritis, and POTS. During the Summit, she spoke about what it’s like to manage multiple autoimmune conditions.

“Anytime I can share my story, my hope is that attendees feel less alone in their battle with chronic illness. We may have different health conditions, but our fight is often the same—pain management, medical providers who listen, and affordable medications we can easily obtain.”

Alisha Bridges is a patient advocate who lives with Psoriasis. She participated in a breakout session geared towards dermatology. She says having the chance to speak at the Autoimmune Summit was an honor.

“I hope my story helped viewers to better understand the unique challenges of living with psoriasis as a woman of color especially in the clinical trials sphere. These conversations are imperative to elicit change for better care of patients of all backgrounds.”

Curtain Call

It’s our hope attendees discovered tips for managing autoimmune disease from patient advocates like myself who understand your reality, while also learning about the latest research and future treatments on the horizon.

Did you miss tuning into the first-ever Autoimmune Summit? No worries! All the presentations were recorded and will be shared in the weeks ahead. I’ll be sure to share the Fertility, Family Planning, and Pregnancy discussion I was a part of on my social media channels as soon as the video becomes available.

Thank you to all who tuned in, to all who participated, to the organizers, like Lilly, and the generous sponsors who made this happen. It’s amazing to see what’s possible when patients have a proverbial seat at the table alongside medical professionals and digital health companies. Our voices matter and time and time again we’re being heard loud and clear.

Follow the Autoimmune Association on social media

Instagram: @autoimmune_diseases

Twitter: @AutoimmuneAssoc

Facebook: Autoimmune Association

IBD Motherhood Unplugged: Scopes, Scans, and Breastfeeding

The date for my next scheduled colonoscopy is on my calendar. Even though my scope is one month away, I’ve already started the mental prep of what’s to come. When you’ve had too many colonoscopies to count you know what to expect…which is both a blessing and a curse. This time around I’m exclusively breastfeeding my 3-month-old son. So, like any IBD mom may wonder, how does that correlate when you’re taking prep that cleans out your system and are put out for the procedure?

I checked in with Dr. Aline Charabaty, Assistant Clinical Director of the Division of Gastroenterology at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, and Clinical Director of the Inflammatory Bowel Disease Center at Johns Hopkins-Sibley Memorial Hospital, as well as my own gastroenterologist (GI) so I knew what to expect and so I could pass along the information to you.

Juggling Kids and Prep

I’m already anticipating the hustle and bustle that I’ll be dealing with as I guzzle down the disgusting concoctions with my 4-year-old and 2-year-old running around as I care for our newest addition. Luckily, my mom flies in for every single colonoscopy (even before I had kids!) to offer emotional and physical support. Now, she gives me a hand with my kids, and this allows my husband, Bobby, to take me to the procedure and celebrate with me after it’s over. Highly recommend you line up childcare when prepping for a colonoscopy so you can focus on yourself and not deal with the stress of mom life on top of it.

Snuggling with my son, Reid, while I did my prep in 2019.

Dr. Charabaty understands what a challenge this can be and has fantastic advice for IBD moms on prep and procedure days:

  • Tell yourself you are doing the right thing taking care of your health, to stay well for you and for your kids.
  • Explain to the kids why mommy is a bit tired today, why she is not sharing their food and why she is going to the bathroom a lot.
  • Enlist help!! Have someone you trust, and who the kids know well, to keep them company and look after them while you are prepping the day before and on the day of the procedure. You need a responsible adult who is fully awake and alert to be with the kids and keep them safe during these days.
  • If your child is old enough to understand, have them play an active and fun role in this prep, for example reminding you to drink fluid during the day from a special cup they chose for you.
  • Hug your children often in between trips to the bathroom, to keep you going.
  • Give yourself plenty of rest after the procedure so you can be fully present to your children the next day.
  • Skip co-sleeping the first night after the procedure, as you might not wake up as usual in the night.

In the days leading up to my scope, I put myself on a self-imposed liquid diet 3-4 days ahead of time to ease the prep. It’s hard enough when I’m not trying to nourish a little person, along with myself. Anyone who has breastfed a child knows how hungry it can make you. My GI told me that despite only having liquids I would not need to supplement with formula. At the same time, she suggested I drink Ensure Clear Protein, which will not affect the prep and will help it. To combat dehydration, she reminded me to drink plenty of water up until two hours before the procedure.

“Breastfeeding women lose an average of 25 ounces of fluid a day through their milk. During the colonoscopy prep, make sure you drink plenty of fluid to keep the prep going and the milk flowing! Consider breastfeeding or pumping just before leaving for the procedure and as soon as you are recover and are awake after the procedure, to minimize discomfort of full breasts and minimize disruption in the usual breastfeeding/pumping schedule and optimize the volume of milk recovered,” explained Dr. Charabaty.

If nursing gets to be too much while I’m in the thick of my prep, I plan to tap into my freezer supply of milk so that my mom or husband can feed the baby while I’m holed up in the bathroom. By being proactive and thinking of these moments ahead of time, it’s one less thing to worry about and stress over.

Is Pump and Dumping Necessary?

Since we all know what colonoscopy prep makes us do, my initial thought was that I would need to pump and dump so my son wasn’t pooping up a storm along with me. I envisioned myself on the toilet with my pump nearby…talk about a living hell! Luckily, my GI said there’s no need to pump and dump with the prep or with the procedure since my care team uses Propofol and Dr. Charabaty agrees.

“Preps like Miralax, Golytely, Moviprep, Fleet phosphosoda, and Dulcolax, are not absorbed from the gut and do not enter the breastmilk; so, no need to pump and dump with preps, save every drop of this precious liquid! There are older recommendations to pump and dump the milk 4 hours after receiving anesthesia; however, review of the data show that most drugs used for anesthesia (midazolam, fentanyl, propofol, ketamine) do not cross into the breastmilk or if they do, the concentration for the drug in the breast milk is too low to affect the baby.”

Click here to lead the latest recommendations from the Association of Anesthetists that supports this guidance.

What about prep for MRE’s and CT scans?

“Radiological contrast agents used in CT and MRI are safe during breastfeeding, but be cautious with Technetium containing contrast that is used for nuclear medicine procedures. Some recommend pumping and dumping for 12 hours; other recommend pumping for 72 hours. Store the milk and only give it to the baby after it has been stored for 72 hours.”

The bottom line

“You can continue to breastfeed baby as usual following the colonoscopy (or endoscopy), as soon as you have recovered from anesthesia, and you are awake enough to hold the baby! Talk to the anesthesiologist before and after the procedure for advice, in case different or unusual medications were needed during the procedure. If you feel tired or sleepy, let someone else handle the feeding. Kudos for taking care of both your GI health and baby’s health!”

As an IBD mom having this intel is extremely comforting and puts my mind and heart at ease as I prepare for another colonoscopy, this time with another little one in tow.

IBD Motherhood Unplugged: Fully Vaccinated and Pregnant with COVID

It’s safe to say IBD mom, Amanda Pennewell, is grateful she’s days away from welcoming baby number four into the world. Despite being fully vaccinated, she came down with COVID when she was 34 weeks pregnant. Amanda was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease 20 years ago when she was only 8 years old.

Amanda is no stranger to being on a biologic during pregnancy. She was on Humira with her twins and over the course of the last two years she was on Stelara with her second pregnancy and her current one. It’s one thing to be an immunocompromised pregnant woman, I can attest from personal experience, it’s extremely worrisome when living through a pandemic and worrying about your IBD and the possibility of COVID turning your life and that of your unborn child upside down.

Coming Down with COVID

One second Amanda’s oldest daughter, Brooklyn, was at a friend’s birthday party being her energetic, sweet, self and when they arrived home, she laid down on the couch and said she was freezing. Brooklyn had a low-grade fever. A few days prior her 17-month-old, Caroline, also had a fever.

“I didn’t think anything of it until a friend from school called to tell me her son tested positive for COVID after being seen for a low-grade fever that lasted six hours or so. My husband went to get some at home rapid tests from Walgreens. It was late, and I was supposed to have him help me with my Stelara injection that night. I figured I needed to wait until I could contact my GI doctor to inject if it was positive. It was.”

Amanda was in a state of shock. Her and her husband had both been fully vaccinated for months. At the same time, given the nature of mom life, once her daughter tested positive, she felt it was inevitable she would, too.

Navigating a biologic, pregnancy, and COVID

When Amanda’s GI heard she had COVID, she recommended she delay her Stelara injection for the time being to see how she did during the quarantine period. Amanda’s initial symptoms were a sore throat and a headache.

“I kept in touch daily with my GI doctor and her nurse via phone and email. They were very worried about me—especially because I was about 34 weeks pregnant. I ended up waiting two weeks after my daughter and I tested positive before I did my Stelara injection. I had been symptom-free for a week at that point, and they knew I would be okay to inject then.”

Along with herself and her daughter, Amanda’s husband and dad also tested positive. But Amanda says out of everyone in their inner circle, she felt the worst.

“My symptom list continued to grow each day. The first day the sore throat and headache were my only symptoms. I then developed a cough and muscle soreness and pain. I took about four-six baths/showers each day and took Tylenol to remain functional. I had extreme fatigue and ordered a pulse oximeter to monitor my oxygen level. I had a low-grade fever. I also lost my smell and started to lose my taste. My OB doctor had called me and said I was eligible for a monoclonal antibody infusion, and they would recommend it for me since I also have Crohn’s disease.”

Amanda took a few days to think it over and discussed the infusion with her GI, who recommended she receive it as well. After getting the 30-minute antibody infusion, Amanda felt worse. Her fever spiked and she was shaking. Luckily, by the evening she turned the corner and started feeling significantly better.

Advice for Fellow IBD Moms

COVID caused Amanda to miss one of her high-risk ultrasounds, but she was able to get a scan at 36 weeks. She’s grateful baby girl is looking great and measuring right on target despite all she’s been through during this pregnancy.

“My advice to fellow pregnant IBD moms would be to stay in close contact with all of your doctors, even if you think they can’t help you. I normally just try to keep my primary and my GI doctor informed when I’m sick with something, but since I had to cancel my OB appointment, they knew I was exposed and then knew, I was positive. They were the ones able to set up the infusion for me. Had I not called, I wouldn’t have known about the infusion and that it was available for me. I don’t want to think about what could’ve happened if I hadn’t had that option.”

Amanda is hopeful her daughter will come into the world with solid antibodies given that she was pregnant with her when she received her second Pfizer vaccine, plus the fact she had COVID and received the monoclonal antibody infusion.

Connect with Amanda on Instagram: @thepennegram