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

Participating in PIANO: Why I choose to be a part of research while pregnant and beyond

As an IBD mom I see it as a responsibility and an opportunity to participate in research studies while I am pregnant and as my children grow. I’m currently 20 weeks pregnant (tomorrow!) with my third baby and this time around I’m enrolled in the Pregnancy in Inflammatory Bowel Disease and Neonatal Outcomes (PIANO) study. The project was conceived, lead, and executed by Dr. Uma Mahadevan, Professor of Medicine at the University of California San Francisco in 2007.

Since the project launched, more than 1,800 women have participated in the registry. Of that number, over 900 stayed on biologics throughout their pregnancies. I’m thrilled to be a part of this initiative. If my pregnancies and children can provide clarity for a future generation of IBD moms, the extra effort on my part is more than worth it. Thanks to women before me who have been on a biologic and been a part of research while pregnant, I have peace of mind knowing that staying on my Humira is best for me and for baby.

Without studies that indicate how babies in utero respond to medication exposures we would be in the dark about what is best for mom and baby not only during pregnancy, but with breastfeeding.

“There is so much misinformation about pregnancy and IBD including being told not to conceive at all or to stop medication. This is incorrect and dangerous. PIANO was started to provide reliable data for women with IBD considering pregnancy so they and their providers can make an informed choice for themselves and their babies,” said Dr. Mahadevan. “Every pregnant woman with IBD has benefited from the generosity of PIANO moms who contributed their outcomes, good or bad, to the pool of knowledge we have. Every PIANO mom who contributes benefits not herself, but future mothers with IBD. It is an invaluable and precious gift.”

What PIANO measures

There are four main areas the PIANO study looks at:

  1. Whether the level of biologic drug transferred across the placenta to the infant by the time of birth predicts the risk of infection or other adverse outcomes
  2. Whether the achievement of developmental milestones is affected by medication exposure
  3. Whether the rates of birth defects, adverse pregnancy outcomes and complications of labor and delivery are affected by IBD medications
  4. Whether second trimester drug levels can be used to adjust drug and minimize transfer across the placenta to the baby

Since I am just now reaching the halfway point of my pregnancy, I have only had to fill out questionnaires. You are required to do so during each trimester, at the end of your pregnancy, and then at 4, 9, and 12 months post-delivery. Along with that, you can provide follow up until your child is 18, once a year. During this trimester I will also provide blood work and a fecal calprotectin. On delivery day, bloodwork will be taken from me, my baby, and my umbilical cord. Depending on my son’s blood work at delivery, I may be asked for more when he’s 3 and 6 months. If at any time I am not comfortable with him getting his blood drawn, I can always opt out. The cord blood is similar to the baby blood at birth so that is adequate. I can also choose to stop the annual questionnaire at any time.

If a woman receives the COVID-19 vaccine during pregnancy, the PIANO study is also measuring the antibody levels found in the cord blood (on the day of birth) to confirm that the benefit transfers to the baby. Breastmilk will also be measured for the transfer of protective antibody against COVID.

The Findings Thus Far

In a presentation this past fall, Dr. Mahadevan shared findings from PIANO.

“We looked at pregnancy, birth and developmental outcomes in the infants at one year, based on exposure to drug, and found no increase in negative outcomes and no reduction in developmental milestones. Biologic‑exposed infants did have some statistically increased improvement in developmental milestones compared to the unexposed group. Overall, what this study suggests is that women with inflammatory bowel disease should continue their biologics and thiopurines throughout pregnancy to maintain remission, given no evidence of harm, and evidence that  disease activity can increase miscarriage.”

The study also found that disease activity can increase preterm labor and birth, all the more reason for women to stay on their medication and not try and go med-free while pregnant.

Looking to the Future

Currently, there is no end date for the study. As long as there is funding, the project will continue. Dr. Mahadevan says with all the new medications coming down the pipeline there is a need for safety data. She says, “The infrastructure of PIANO allows us to study new medications as they come to market, even before they are approved for IBD.”

To participate in the study women must have IBD and live in the United States. Interested in learning more or getting enrolled? Email PIANO@ucsf.edu or call 415-885-3734.

Why this public bathroom triggers me: Tactics for coping with the mental health aspect of IBD

I paid for my groceries and casually pushed my cart full of food through the automatic door when I saw it. The bathroom where I experienced one of my scariest and most painful moments. The bathroom I had to run into after pulling over on my way home from work because I was in such debilitating pain, I couldn’t handle sitting upright in my car to make it the extra five minutes home. The bathroom where I lost all feeling in my arms and legs and where my fingers locked into painful contortions. I couldn’t even hold my phone to call my boyfriend (now husband) to tell him we needed to go to the hospital. The bathroom where I unknowingly happened to call my mom after accidentally hitting “Recent Calls” with my elbow. All she heard on the other line when she answered was me screaming. She didn’t know if I was getting raped, she didn’t know what the hell was going on and she was in a different state. God was watching out for me because she was able to call Bobby and let him know I needed help and I needed help fast.

He rushed to the grocery store and whisked me out of the bathroom and straight to the hospital where I found out I had a bowel obstruction.

I’ve been going to this same grocery store for nearly seven years. It’s been nearly six years since that dramatic experience occurred. But even now, five years into remission, I always go out the other doors because seeing that bathroom is a trigger. A trigger to one of my lowest points in my patient journey with Crohn’s disease. A trigger that caused my IBD to act up right in that moment this past week.

I was forced to go out of the grocery store that way as part of COVID-19 safety procedures to keep all incoming traffic through one set of doors and all outgoing traffic to another.

Coping with psychological triggers

When those of us in the IBD community hear the word “trigger”, food usually comes to mind. We casually say “oh that’s a trigger food for me”, but we often don’t pay much attention to the physical triggers in our lives that can exacerbate our symptoms—such as locations like that grocery store bathroom, relationships with certain friends and family members, the pressure of being enough and doing enough in comparison to our peers, the list goes on.

I interviewed Dr. Tiffany Taft, PsyD, MIS, a Research Assistant Professor at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, and a fellow IBD warrior to get some clarity on this subject and to learn more about what steps we can make right now to protect our mental health and prepare for the unknown.

NH: As chronic illness patients–how can we best navigate triggers that instigate a stress response? (Other than avoidance)

Dr. Taft: “While avoidance feels like the safest option when it comes to situations that trigger our stress response, it simply kicks the can down the road in terms of the effects these situations have on our bodies. People living with chronic illness may collect multiple situations that trigger the stress response – doctor’s offices, hospitals, certain tests or treatments, making avoidance very risky if it means not managing the illness and staying healthy.

Try the “Exposure Hierarchy” exercise: Dr. Taft recommends making a list of activities or situations that are stressful, ranking them from the least stressful to the most stressful and picking 10 things. Rate those 10 things from 10 to 100 (100 being the worst). After making the list, she has patients start with number 10 and practice that task several times over the course of a week.

Before that, though, she teaches relaxation strategies such as deep breathing and grounding to help when the anxiety goes up. She says, “With repeated exposures to the feared situations and working through the anxiety, each time we do activity 10 again, it will feel easier and confidence grows. Once the patient is ready, they repeat with 20, 30, etc. until we get to the dreaded 100 which will actually feel less scary because of all the other work we did before.”

**NOTE** If you feel you have symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) which include vivid nightmares, flashbacks, and feeling on high alert most of the time, you should seek treatment with a trauma therapist. The good news is research on treatments for PTSD show they are just as effective when delivered via tele-medicine.

NH: Can you explain (in layman’s terms) what goes on when we’re “triggered”?

Dr. Taft: “Triggered is setting off our body’s fight-flight-freeze response, and results in a cascade of physical sensations and emotions. The most common ones are muscle tension, sweating, shallow breathing, and heart racing. Unfortunately, this response can also trigger our guts to start acting up because of the brain-gut connection. It’s a completely normal process but when you have IBD it can trigger symptoms. Your thoughts may be all over the place and littered with “what if’s” and “I can’ts”. Your mind may revisit the worst aspects of past experiences or come up with even more catastrophic possibilities in the future.”

NH: As people with IBD–I know many of us are nervous about flaring and needing to be hospitalized all alone during this pandemic, while being at greater risk for getting COVID. Do you have any advice on how to cope/mentally deal with that worry/concern?

Dr. Taft: “Facing a flare and hospitalization was stressful in the “before times” so facing this during COVID19 is an extra level of stress. While we have video chat, it does not replace the comfort of physical closeness and touch we would get from supports who could be in the hospital with us. The good news is hospitals have figured out COVID quite well and the odds of contracting it while hospitalized for IBD are lower than they were at the start of the pandemic.”

If you’re facing hospitalization, think about your resilience in these circumstances. There were probably times you felt like you couldn’t handle it, or it was never going to end or get better, but here you are today reading these words. You made it through. It may not have been pretty, it was probably incredibly hard. Anxiety has a great ability to negate our memories of how much we’ve navigated in the past.

Feeling anxious? Do this: Write down the ways you coped before, what worked and what maybe didn’t. Evaluate your thoughts about being hospitalized. Are they accurate? Are they helpful? What are some alternatives that could help you feel less anxious? If that doesn’t work, sit with the anxiety, and try some deep breathing to calm your nervous system. The sensations will likely pass and then you can retry evaluating your thinking when you aren’t feeling so keyed up.

NH: What advice do you have for people during these already complicated and challenging times when it comes to managing mental health?

Dr. Taft: “This is truly a unique time in that we are all in this COVID19 boat together. We all came into the pandemic with our own life challenges, and those probably haven’t gone away and even may have been made worse. We’re coping with a lot of information, new rules every other day, grim statistics, and people bickering over who’s right or wrong. I’ve told every patient I see to turn off the news. Get out of the comments on social media when people are arguing the same points over and over.”

Steps you can take in your day-to-day: Dr. Taft advises not to spend more than 15 minutes a day on the news, so you can stay informed but not get into the weeds. Take social media breaks, especially if your feed is full of the same tired arguments. Focus your attention on meaningful activities that align with your values. Those are what will bring you some stress relief. And those are unique to you, so no list on the internet of how to cope with COVID is going to solve everything. Sometimes these lists make us feel worse because we’re not doing most of the recommendations. Be as kind to yourself as you would be to your best friend or a beloved family member. Nobody has it figured out right now even though some people like to say they do.

Four IBD Physicians Talk COVID: What You Need to Know

Since the words “quarantine”, “self-distancing”, and “COVID-19” became a regular part of our vocabulary three months ago, there have been many fears, and a lot of gray areas for everyone, especially chronic illness patients on immunosuppressive therapies. I had a chance to connect with well-respected and prominent physician voices in the IBD community to get to the bottom of what we need to be doing right now, and how to best handle the days and months ahead.

One of the most common questions—who is at most risk in the IBD population for getting COVID-19? You may be surprised at the findings and discourse.

“We have been reassured that with the exception of steroids, patients with IBD are not at increased risk for bad outcomes with COVID. The risks are similar to the rest of the population,” explained Dr. David Rubin, MD, Professor and Chief of GI, The University of Chicago Medicine. “Older age, co-morbid conditions like obesity, diabetes or other medical problems, and smoking cigarettes put patients at increased risk.” COVIDarticle

Every study and case series has demonstrated NO increased risk for infection, COVID, or bad outcomes with biological therapies. This includes the work of the international registry (COVIDIBD.org and now published in Gastroenterology), the mixed immune patients of all kinds reported from NYU in the New England Journal of Medicine, and other series from Italy and China.

“We have good data now that IBD patients, even those on immunosuppressive therapies are not at increased risk of COVID. However, getting sick with COVID might mean holding off IBD meds, which could potentially trigger a flare,” said Dr. Aline Charabaty, MD, Associate Professor of Medicine, Clinical Director of the GI Division, Director of the Center for IBD, John Hopkins School of Medicine at Sibley Memorial Hospital in Washington D.C.

Don’t let your guard down

Dr. Charabaty advises everyone to continue to exercise common sense and be cautious for the upcoming months, otherwise we are at a risk of a second wave of COVID-19.

“Follow responsible physical distancing: avoid unnecessary travel, work from home if possible, and minimize outings in crowded places. Continue to wear a mask, wash hands/use disinfectant, in other words continue to follow COVID-19 precautions when out, or if you have to go to work.  The risk of exposure depends on the incidence of COVID-19 in an area, but also feeling overconfident in an area of low incidence can lead to unnecessary exposure,” she added. coronavirus-4937226_1280

Dr. Peter Higgins, MD, PhD, M.Sc., Director of IBD program, University of Michigan, recommends patients on steroids continue to stay home and avoid outside contact, but for patients not on steroids, the outdoors with a mask, away from crowds, can be therapeutic.

“The hard part is knowing when there will be crowds of people, and avoiding dense gatherings,” Dr. Higgins said. “Having open space and good airflow seems to be protective. Being in close quarters, especially with folks who are breathing hard (exercise, singing) seems to increase risk.”

Small Gatherings with friends and family (less than 10 people)

Dr Charabaty recommends the following:

  • Before gathering with family, make sure no one has had recent symptoms or exposure to someone who has tested positive.
  • When indoors with family staying 6 feet apart isn’t always feasible, wash your hands frequently and wear a mask if sitting close.
  • The idea is to share fun family moments, but remain cautious and protect yourself and loved ones.

“I would limit the number for gathering based on how much space you are entertaining in. Certainly, the more people there are, the more limited the physical space per individual there is to share,” said Dr. Neilanjan Nandi, MD, FACP, Associate Professor of Clinical Medicine, Penn Presbyterian Medical Center. “With that in mind, I would ask people to not invite more people than they can physically safely distance themselves from. If we’re too close, we spread the virus. If we have distance, then we decrease the odds.”

Luckily, the summer months are perfect for outdoor festivities and gatherings with friends and family. Being indoors in close quarters is taking a calculated risk. It’s hard to know if everyone at a gathering is uninfected without a lot more testing or strict quarantine from every visitor beforehand.

Outdoor patio seating, should you, or shouldn’t you?

The waters get a bit murky here. The consensus is to get takeout and find a picnic spot far from others or to eat at home.

Dr. Charabaty says she tells patients and her family to avoid or limit outdoor dining. She explains, “It’s difficult for people handling and serving food to follow hand washing and social distancing when service is busy. I see many restaurant workers wearing gloves, and touching many different services, which gives a false sense of security. It’s not the cooked food that is an issue, it’s more the handling of the plates, glasses, and silverware.” Outdoor dining

Be mindful of how far tables are spaced out and call ahead to see what measures the restaurant is taking before you go.

Health pundits have pointed out that bathrooms are a point of contact for any infection to be transmitted. This is something to keep in mind, especially for those of us with IBD, who may need to frequent the bathroom more than most. “Hand dryers may aerosolize, and toilet flushes can create microscopic fecal plumes,” says Dr. Nandi. “Notably, coronavirus is present in stool at magnitudes lower than respiratory droplets, so their impact on developing clinically relevant disease is unknown. It is restaurant goers who are coughing and sneezing and then using the bathroom that may cause more concern. If you need to use the bathroom while out, use paper towels and close the toilet lid when flushing.”

Navigating everything from medical appointments to hair cuts

“I understand people wanting to go to hair salon; if you need to , and no one in your house can cut or color your hair, call ahead to make an appointment to minimize wait and exposure, and pick a day and time that are not busy,” said Dr. Charabaty. “If your visit to the physician is routine, you can discuss with your physician how soon you need to be seen. If it’s a sick appointment or a follow-up that you already needed to delay, then again, wear your mask, remove it only when needed; and wash your hands often.”

Before You Go: Ask medical offices and salons what precautions they are taking:

  • Does the office call patients ahead of time to check if they have symptoms suspicious of COVID?
  • What measures are being taken in waiting rooms?
  • Is everyone required to wear a mask?
  • Ideally you want to see lots of free, no-questions-asked testing in your local community/county to monitor COVID rates
  • A low level of new cases (less than 3 per week) in your local county
  • Lots of serious precautions taken, including possibly outdoor haircuts (common during 1918 flu pandemic), fans to increase airflow, and glove, gown, mask, and face shields on stylist/dentist/eye doctor to protect them as well as you. Recent exposures in Missouri reinforce this.

The future of telehealth

“I expect telehealth will continue- our estimate is that about 30-40% of routine visits may be virtual which is great, but this needs some careful reflection,” explained Dr. Rubin. “We need some thoughts and plans for better home monitoring and some additional guardrails to know when in person visits are needed and when providers or patients should request them. We don’t want to make mistakes and let patients slip through the cracks of virtual visits without physical examinations and adequate disease and therapy monitoring.”

The return to work

Ways to minimize exposure in the workplace and the questions to ask:

  • What measures is your employer taking to ensure responsible physical distancing?
  • Are employees required to wear a mask?
  • If working outside the home, leave clothes and shoes in the garage or the basement. Strip down and scrub down right when you get home.
  • If spouse has symptoms or if they’ve traveled to a high-risk area, they should quarantine.
  • Ask your boss if you can continue to work from home or increase the frequency of doing so to limit your exposure. Provide a note from your GI to Human Resources that explains why you are immunocompromised.
  • Monitor yourself or your spouse closely for fever, symptoms (including both respiratory and GI symptoms) and if possible, pulse oximetry to measure blood oxygen levels (a decrease is worrisome).

Dr. Higgins explains there are “high and low” risks work environments. High risk involves a crowded open space office full of cubicles, working in an ER/ICU/healthcare, assembly line/meatpacking plant, air travel, frequent contact with large numbers of people (bus driver). Lower risk jobs involve outdoor work, low density office spaces with closed doors/good airflow, and solo car travel. photo-1531493731235-b5c309dca387

“When it comes to spouse related travel, I would have them again speak with their employer about the necessity and yield of the trip. Much of what we can do currently can be done via teleconferencing,” said Dr. Nandi. “While the personal touch is always preferred, today’s times do necessitate that we be conservative and protect ourselves and our families. If travel is necessary, the spouse testing upon return is a good idea. If not possible, then conservatively a self-quarantine would be recommended. Of course, this presents marked strain on the functionality of any family. this emphasizes the need for greater and better testing capability.”

Remain cautious, don’t get too comfortable

Even with states re-opening, it’s on us to remain cautious and minimize unnecessary exposure while being able to provide for our families. We all have cabin fever going on, but we are all responsible to prevent a second wave of COVID by avoiding being complaisant.

“While it is reassuring to know that in general our patients with IBD do as well as the general population (or possibly better), it is prudent to continue our caution until we get to an R0 of <1.0 (meaning one infected person infects less than one additional person) by ongoing efforts to flatten the curve and/or a vaccine,” says Dr. Rubin. coronavirus-line-art-5019475_1280

This too shall pass

“It is sad and frustrating that this pandemic has occurred in our society, but I view it as a unique opportunity to get better connected: first with one’s self ; second with our immediate family and friends and third, with our natural environment,” said Dr. Nandi. “In my opinion, our Western society’s luxuries can often prevent us from enjoying the simplest pleasures in life. Thus, I take this time as an opportunity to spend quality time with my family, read more books, try new recipes, and workout more regularly. Because, I know in time, this too shall pass – and the opportunity that it presents will disappear as well.”