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

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Twitter: @AutoimmuneAssoc

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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

IBD Parenthood Project: How to Take on a Postpartum Flare—The Fear and the Reality

This post is sponsored by the American Gastroenterological Association (AGA). I am a paid program Brand Influencer; this post is sponsored and includes my own personal experiences.

While bringing a child into this world is one of the greatest miracles one can witness, it also brings about a world of worry for women with Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD). From the moment family planning begins, throughout pregnancy, and during postpartum, when you live with Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis it can feel like you’re just constantly waiting and wondering when the other shoe is going to drop. The looming fear of a flare during pregnancy and once baby is here is valid, and it’s real.

The unpredictability of IBD is amplified ten-fold when you have another life to care for and another life on the line. As a mom of three kids, ages four and under, who’s lived with Crohn’s disease for more than 16 years, flaring and being forced to leave my family to be hospitalized is something that’s always in the back of my mind. I know in my heart of hearts, it’s not a matter of if, but when. So how can we thrive through the unknown and not allow this fear to rob us of the joy of motherhood? The American Gastroenterological Association’s IBD Parenthood Project aims to serve as a resource every step of the way to help you feel less alone and more in control of your wellbeing.

Reading Between the Positive Pregnancy Lines

When you receive a positive pregnancy test, your world changes forever. It’s at this point that your IBD directly impacts another life. Prior to becoming a mom, I used to wait until the last possible moment to head to the emergency room. For one of many hospitalizations in my 20’s, I waited so long that my dad had to carry me as a grown woman through the hospital doors like a groom carries his bride. Fast forward to present day, and I’ve learned that it’s in my best interest to wave the proverbial white flag when I start experiencing symptoms that are sidelining me more than they should. The moment you relinquish control of your illness and see it less as an adversary and more as an ally, is the moment you won’t constantly feel pushed up against a wall. While it’s not easy to admit you are struggling, it’s empowering to know you’re being proactive and doing all you can to thrive.

When I write my gastroenterologist (GI) on the patient portal and express concerns about how I’m feeling, she calls me back and we come up with a game plan that makes the most sense. After I had my daughter, Sophia, I started feeling abdominal pain shortly after bringing her home. My GI knew I was breastfeeding and called me with safe options so that I could continue to do so. Because we nipped that minor flare in the bud, my remission was maintained, I didn’t land in the hospital, and I was able to be home and be present for my growing family.

I delivered my third baby, Connor, in July, and since then I’ve noticed an uptick in bathroom trips and abdominal pain. Since Connor is my last baby and I know I’ll never feel as well as I did when I was pregnant, it’s a bit more emotional for me. Luckily, with all three of my pregnancies, my Crohn’s was completely silent. I felt like a “normal” person. Knowing that it’s just me and my Crohn’s from this point forward hits differently. There have been countless days where I have been forced to keep a baby carrier in the bathroom, readily available, with space for my two older children to stand or play while I sit in anguish on the toilet wondering if this is it as I look with tear-filled eyes at my three healthy children before me. I won’t be surprised if I reach out to my GI in the days ahead for guidance, just to be cautious. I have a heightened awareness right now about the extra bathroom breaks and the gnawing pain that’s coming and going after I eat. Whether you are beginning the family planning process or postpartum, ongoing communication with your GI through all stages of having children is so important.

Addressing the Fears of IBD Women

The IBD Parenthood Project aims to address misperceptions about IBD and fears many women with IBD can experience through all phases of family planning (conception, pregnancy and after delivery).

Patients can find answers to common questions like:

  • Can I get pregnant with IBD?
  • Does IBD affect my fertility?
  • Will I pass IBD on to my baby?
  • Can I stay on medicine during pregnancy?
  • What if I flare during pregnancy?
  • Is it possible to have a vaginal delivery?
  • Can I breastfeed while on medicine?
  • Does my medicine change how I vaccinate my baby?

When it comes to the postpartum period, there’s a guide for postnatal care. The toolkit is a direct response to survey findings that reported women with IBD want more and better information about managing their disease. Being proactive and advocating for yourself throughout the pregnancy journey and as an IBD mom will not only make you feel empowered, but provide you with a sense of control, despite the unpredictability of your disease.

Thriving in the Face of the Unknown

Whether you were diagnosed with IBD prior to starting your family or after you delivered, Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis force us to wake up each day without knowing what the next hour will bring — all while raising children. Trust that your IBD will serve as a foundation for strength and that your kids will be your greatest motivators to push through and see the beauty that exists in your life despite your chronic illness. The IBD Parenthood Project is an exceptional tool that’s a reminder we are not alone in our worries, our dreams, and our struggles. I’m grateful our community has a resource that removes the gray area so many of us have encountered as IBD moms and helped be a light to lead us on our way to successful pregnancies, families, and motherhood journeys.

IBD Motherhood Unplugged: My Personal PIANO Study Results

As an IBD mom of three who stayed on my Humira (adalimumab) injections until late into my third trimester with all my pregnancies, I recognized the importance of contributing to ongoing research about the safety and efficacy of biologics. When I was approached to participate in the PIANO (Pregnancy Inflammatory bowel disease And Neonatal Outcomes) study for my pregnancy this past year I jumped at the opportunity. While I knew staying on my medication until 37 weeks pregnant would pass Humira through to my baby and that it is considered to be safe, I didn’t know much beyond that.

My son Connor is 8 weeks today. The day of my C-section blood samples were taken from him, me, and my umbilical cord. The purpose of the samples was to measure the concentration of the Humira at the time of delivery. The process in the hospital was simple. Detailed instructions were mailed to me at home ahead of time. When I walked into the hospital for my scheduled C-section my husband and I handed over a small box that included three vials, an ice pack, and proper packaging for the transfer from St. Louis to California to the nurse who was prepping me for surgery. Once all the samples were ready to go my husband made a quick stop at FedEx to hand over the package and voila the science of it all was on its way.

The Results

The past few weeks we’ve anxiously awaited the results. This week, we received them. I have an almost 4.5-year-old son, a 2.5-year-old daughter, and a newborn. With each pregnancy—Crohn’s-wise, the experience was flawless. I felt like a “normal” person. Foods that typically trigger me, didn’t cause any issues. If I wanted a cup of coffee, I didn’t pay the price. It felt glorious to have zero abdominal pain for all those months and know that my babies were thriving in utero. I credit my own health and deep remission and my children’s health to the fact that I chose to follow my care team’s recommendations and stay on Humira until the final weeks of my pregnancies.

When the results popped up in my email inbox, I was nursing Connor. I felt a few emotions, more than I had anticipated. I hesitated to open it. Even though I could see Reid and Sophia watching TV and know how healthy they are, it still made me feel a rush of mom guilt to know that I needed a heavy-duty medication to bring all three of my children into this world and that even though studies like PIANO have shown the safety profile, that as IBD moms we still worry and wish we didn’t need to do injections or get infusions while a life is growing inside of us.

I texted my husband Bobby while he was at work and expressed how I was feeling. His response, “It’s all good babe, I’m sure it’s emotional but kids are all healthy and in good shape so just thankful for that. You did good.” Having a supportive partner through your patient journey and especially through parenthood makes all the difference.

Here are my PIANO study findings. I stopped medication at 37 weeks, and my last injection was 16 days prior to C-Section and this blood test.

My blood—7.3 mcg/mL

Connor’s blood—6.8 mcg/mL

Cord blood—5.9 mcg/mL

When I saw the numbers, my eyes filled with tears. Even though just looking at the numbers didn’t mean a whole lot, it just showed me that my baby had medication in his system, and it made me feel sad. I knew this would be the case—but I want to be transparent that it did upset me, even though I know it was for the best and have seen how my other children have thrived despite their exposure.

I waited to share this so the PIANO study’s lead organizer, Dr. Uma Mahadevan could weigh in and provide further explanation for not only myself, but for our community. She told me that in the PIANO study,  the concentration of Humira for baby on average is 9.4 mcg/ml (range 2.5-26) and for moms 25 mcg/ml (range 0-56.4). As stated above, I was at 7.3 mcg/ml and Connor was 6.8 mcg/ml.

“Cord blood is the blood from the baby that is left in the umbilical cord and placenta after birth. It comes from the baby, so those concentrations are similar. Beginning around week 14 of pregnancy the placenta has a receptor called FcRn. This grabs antibody by the “Fc” portion and pulls it actively from mom to baby. This is most efficient in the third trimester when 80% of antibody transfer occurs. Since Humira is an antibody, it gets pulled across the placenta as well.”

Dr. Mahadevan went on to say that baby often has more drug at birth than the mom, but that was not the case for me. The PIANO study has shown several positive outcomes for IBD moms:

  • There is not an association between the amount of drug present in a baby at birth with infections.
  • Even though there was no increased risk of infection seen based on exposure to anti-TNF or on drug level at birth, in theory these babies (like Connor) are considered immunocompromised until no drug is present. For Humira that’s about 3 months, for Remicade (infliximab) that’s about six months.

“My advice to moms is that all the risks to the baby seem to come from disease flare rather than from medication. In a large French study, the risk of infection in baby was in moms who flared in the third trimester, not based on anti-TNF exposure. Risk of pre-term birth is increased with disease activity, not with anti-TNF medication. Risk of miscarriage comes with disease activity, not anti-TNF use. There is a clear and significant risk from having a flare during pregnancy. Compared to babies of IBD moms not exposed to medications, there is no evidence of increased harm to the baby (at least out to 4 years of age) from TNF exposure,” explained Dr. Mahadevan.

Hearing this was music to my ears and was extremely comforting. Point being—there’s a much greater likelihood of pregnancy complications if your IBD is not managed and if you flare than if you stay on your medication and keep your IBD controlled.

“We have completed our breastfeeding study which showed very minimal transfer (a fraction of what transfers by placental blood) and no evidence of harm to baby for breastfeeding when a mother is on anti-TNF.”

Knowing this about breastfeeding gives me great peace of mind as I continue the journey with my son, while still managing my Crohn’s by taking my Humira.

I also want to add that Dr. Mahadevan and her research team have been a huge support to me throughout the entire study. When she read a draft of this article and saw how I felt when I received the email with the blood results, she asked for recommendations about how to better deliver the findings to women. This meant a lot—I suggested sharing the range in blood concentration similar to how lab results are delivered on a patient portal and following up with an email or phone call to explain what the numbers mean further. Those touchpoints of support can make a big difference. I also shared my results over the patient portal with my GI and she called me to discuss them as well, which was helpful.

Interested in participating in the PIANO study? There’s always a need for more women to enroll! So far, 1,700 women have done so. There’s especially a need for women on newer drugs like Stelara, Entyvio, and Xeljanz. Click here to get involved.

IBD Parenthood Project: Proactively Planning Your Roadmap to Motherhood

This post is sponsored by the American Gastroenterological Association (AGA). I am a paid program Brand Influencer; this post is sponsored and includes my own personal experiences.

Whether you’ve been daydreaming about being a mom since you were a little girl or found your lifelong partner and are exploring the possibility of a future that includes pregnancy and motherhood, creating a family when you have IBD takes a bit more planning than for the average person. My journey to motherhood unfolded differently than I had anticipated. For as long as I can remember, long before my Crohn’s disease diagnosis at age 21, I aspired to one day have children.

After I received my IBD diagnosis in 2005, and then when I was put on a biologic in 2008, my mind often raced when it came to reaching the milestone of motherhood. But being that I was only in my early 20s and single, I didn’t feel much pressure and figured I would cross that bridge when it was time for me to walk it.

Fast forward to June 2015, I had just gotten engaged to the love of my life, Bobby. Less than a month later I was hospitalized with my third bowel obstruction in 16 months. Surgery was the only option. On August 1, 2015, while planning my wedding, I had 18 inches of my small intestine removed, along with my appendix, Meckel’s diverticulum, and ileocecal valve. Up to that point, surgery had been my greatest fear, but my care team comforted me by saying the bowel resection would provide me with a “fresh start.” A fresh start that would help when it came time for family planning. A fresh start that put me into remission for the first time in my decade-long battle with the disease, paving the way for married, family life.

Leaning on the IBD Parenthood Project for Guidance

When you’re a woman with IBD who hopes to be a mom one day, it’s not unusual to feel lost and confused about how to navigate family planning, pregnancy, and beyond. Even though the thought of having a family can feel daunting—believe me I get it—with proper planning and care, women with IBD can have healthy pregnancies and healthy babies. But sadly, many women with IBD decide not to have children based on misperceptions about their disease and pregnancy. The number of women with IBD who are voluntarily childless is three times greater than that of the general population. It’s heartbreaking to think of all the women with IBD who could be moms but are not because they aren’t aware resources like the IBD Parenthood Project exist.

Openly communicating your future plans with your care team long before you want to start trying for a baby helps set the stage for what lies ahead and enables your gastroenterologist (GI) to tailor your treatment plan accordingly. When I had my post-operative appointment with my GI in November 2015, eight months before my wedding, my husband and I let her know we wanted to capitalize on my surgical remission and get pregnant as soon as we could after our wedding day. With that intel, my GI put me on a prescription prenatal vitamin, folic acid, and vitamin D, along with my biologic. Now as a mom of three healthy children, who had three healthy pregnancies while living with Crohn’s, I credit my GI for her proactive efforts that set me up for success and deep remission over the past six-plus years. Prior to trying to conceive, I also scheduled a colonoscopy to further confirm that my Crohn’s was under control. My GI would walk in after each procedure with a big grin on her face and would give us a thumbs up and say we had the green light to try for a baby. Having her stamp of approval made me feel much more at ease.

Time is of the Essence

I know I was extremely fortunate with the timing of my surgery and remission and the fact that I did not have any issues getting pregnant. It can be much more challenging and heartbreaking for others. If you’re flaring or symptomatic, the likelihood of those issues presenting in pregnancy is significant. When it comes to the “rule of thirds”— one third of women with symptoms improve, one third get worse, and one third experience the same symptoms as prior to pregnancy — you want to be mindful of how you’re feeling. I understand remission doesn’t happen for everyone. I get that it’s hard to be patient when all you want is to have a baby and your biological clock is ticking. But don’t rush into a pregnancy unless your health is in check.

As a trusted voice in the GI community, the American Gastroenterological Association is dedicated to improving the care of women of childbearing years living with IBD and is committed to redefining industry standards to further optimize health outcomes for mother, baby, and provider. That’s why it created the IBD Parenthood Project as a resource for women and HCPs through the pregnancy journey. 

While various providers can be consulted during pregnancy (OB, dietitian, lactation specialist, psychologist, NP, PA, midwife, and pediatrician once the baby is born), an OB and/or maternal fetal medicine specialist should lead pregnancy-related care and a GI with expertise in IBD should lead IBD care. Communication among these providers, as well as any other providers involved, is very important. During the family planning process and pregnancy, think of yourself as the point person, leading the charge and making sure each member of your care team is in the know.

Be Overly Transparent

If pregnancy and motherhood is something you are hoping to embark on as part of your life journey, be proactive and articulate your needs and wants, even if they are years down the road. The IBD Parenthood Project toolkit does most of the homework for you and lays the groundwork for your roadmap. It’s empowering to be prepared and to be well-versed on how to best manage pregnancy while taking on IBD.

Now that my family of five is complete, when I reflect on how we came to be, I’m grateful for the resources and support I had every step of the way and that my Crohn’s disease didn’t rob me of the future I had always hoped for.

The IBD Parenthood Project: The Love-Hate Relationship of Breastfeeding

This post is sponsored by the American Gastroenterological Association (AGA). I am a paid program Brand Influencer; this post is sponsored and includes my own personal experiences.

Breastfeeding is a labor of love. Like many women, it doesn’t come easy for me. As an IBD mom who already fears passing my disease down to my kids, there’s added pressure and stress. In the United States, an estimated 1.6 million people have Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis. Of those, roughly half are women, and most will carry the diagnosis during childbearing years, throughout all phases of family planning: trying to conceive, pregnancy and postpartum. As an IBD mom of three going through postpartum right now, one of my biggest stresses and focuses revolves around breastfeeding.

-What if I take this pain medicine for my Crohn’s? Will I need to supplement? 

-What if I have a postpartum flare, will my milk supply go away?

-What will happen if I’m hospitalized?

-Will I flare once I stop breastfeeding and my hormones regulate?

-If I stop too soon, will my child end up having an increased risk of IBD?

…the list goes on…

The journey to motherhood for women with IBD requires several complex decisions and coordination among specialty care teams from the stage of family planning until postpartum and beyond. The IBD Parenthood Project aims to address common misperceptions and fears women with IBD and their providers experience throughout all phases of family planning (conception, pregnancy and after delivery). By eliminating the gray area and serving as the gold-standard for navigating pregnancy and motherhood with IBD, our patient community can rely on this support that helps uncomplicate the journey.

This beneficial and much-needed initiative was created by gastroenterologists (GIs), maternal-fetal medicine (MFM) subspecialists, and patients and is led by the American Gastroenterological Association (AGA) with support from the Society for Maternal-Fetal Medicine, the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation, and patient support network, Girls With Guts. The IBD Parenthood Project launched in January 2019, just as I delivered my second child. To this day, I feel so grateful to have this information and confidence in my choice to become a mom even though I’ve lived with Crohn’s disease for more than 16 years. It’s empowering to know despite the unpredictability of IBD, this initiative allowed me to feel like I’m in the driver’s seat when it came to creating my family and knowing the choices I’ve made were and are supported by science and medical facts.

To the random lady in the church elevator who asked me if I was breastfeeding my son Reid when he was a month old, and I was a first-time mom.

To the lactation consultant after I delivered my daughter Sophia, who told me since I have Crohn’s, it’s imperative her gut only be lined with breastmilk.

To the nurse coaching me nonchalantly about breastfeeding my son Connor and underestimating the challenges it can present…who I later found out “only” breastfed one of her children for 2 weeks…

To anyone who is struggling with the physical, emotional, and mental stress of something that sounds “easy” and “natural” — simply feeding your baby — I get how complex and taxing it is. I’m in the thick of it now with my son who was born July 14. So far, he’s only had breastmilk…both from nursing and by a bottle. But it’s not pretty for me. The engorgement, the round the clock pumping, the soaked t-shirts, the night sweats, the discomfort to even wear a bra or sleep on my side. It weighs on me. There’s the outside pressure and the pressure I put on myself to keep going, even though I don’t enjoy it. It’s super rewarding to see Connor thriving and making gains all because of me. But there’s also a lot of stress to be a child’s only source of food, especially as an IBD mom.

Different feeding approaches with all my babies

With my firstborn in 2017, I wasn’t well-versed on the benefits of breastfeeding and feared not only further exposure to my biologic, but also flaring, so I only breastfed my son for 3 days in the hospital so he could get colostrum. By 2019, I was well-versed on the positive impact and the safety profile associated with breastfeeding while on a biologic, so I breastfed my daughter until she was 6 months old. I had hopes of making it a full year, but unfortunately my milk supply disappeared once my menstrual cycle started back up. This time around, I felt the anxiety about having to breastfeed creep up when I was only a few months pregnant. Between research showing that breastfed babies have a lower risk of IBD, coupled with antibodies from the COVID-19 vaccine, I feel the need to do all I can to protect my son from the what if, even if it feels mentally, physically, and emotionally taxing each day.

The Fourth Trimester has several challenges for women that often go undiscussed. However you choose to feed your child is your business and should be based on what is best for you and your family. This is a judgement free zone. I’ve fed my three babies differently. But the pressure mounts when you yourself have an illness with no cure and feel as though breastfeeding can help improve your odds of not passing it on to your offspring. In my mind, down the road, I don’t want to ever think I coulda, shoulda, woulda done anything differently when it comes to protecting my offspring from IBD.

The IBD Parenthood Project tackles some of the common questions related to breastfeeding as an IBD mom. There’s a downloadable toolkit that features patient-friendly information and easy-to-digest lists of key questions to ask your doctor as you’re thinking of becoming pregnant and beyond.

What I Want Fellow IBD Moms to Know

Navigating motherhood while taking on IBD is overwhelming. With proper planning, care and coordination among treating healthcare providers, women with IBD can have healthy pregnancies and healthy babies—and breastfeed if they choose to do so. For me, breastfeeding provides a sense of normalcy and gives me a renewed sense of love for what my body is capable of, despite having Crohn’s disease. Give yourself credit for going through pregnancy with IBD, delivering a baby, and continuing to nourish your little one with your body when they are in the real world. The blood, sweat, and tears are inevitable.

Just this week I experienced awful abdominal pain. The kind of pain where you can barely breathe, your hands start to tingle, and you go back and forth about whether a trip to the emergency room is imminent. As I rocked myself on the toilet and heard my newborn crying in the bassinet my mind raced. My 4-year-old stood before me. I could see the fear in his eyes. My immediate thought was—what can I take to get this pain under control—will it affect my ability to breastfeed? In that moment, the pressure to think outside of myself and manage my disease felt suffocating.

There comes a point when the mental health and wellbeing of the mother must come first so she is able to be the best version of herself for her kids. If breastfeeding is taking away from the joy you could be experiencing or the connection you are longing for with your child, don’t feel guilty. Whether your child is exclusively breastfed, or formula fed, or receives a little of both, they will thrive. I’m personally all about flexible feeding. A little nursing, some pumping, and some formula has worked best for me. When the time comes, and I need a break or feel too consumed by being the sole provider of nourishment for Connor, I’ll feel confident in supplementing with formula. There’s no shame in my game and there shouldn’t be in yours, either. Take advantage of invaluable resources like the IBD Parenthood Project and be confident in each of your personal health decisions when it comes to whether or not you want a family and how you choose to feed your baby.

IBD Motherhood Unplugged: Completing My Family Through Surrogacy

When IBD mom Jessie Magaro was pregnant with her first child, she knew early on she wouldn’t be able to carry another baby herself. Between the hormones from IVF and her Crohn’s disease raging, there was no way her or her doctors felt comfortable embarking on another pregnancy.

Before she got pregnant, Jessie had been in remission for more than 12 years. With pregnancy and IBD, there’s the ‘rule of thirds.’ One third of women will see their symptoms improve, one third will stay the same, and one third get worse. Unfortunately, Jessie fell into the last category. Since having her daughter, Mary Ligon on New Year’s Eve 2018, Jessie’s gotten an ileostomy and has grappled with her Crohn’s being out of control. When her and her husband started thinking about baby number two, she knew surrogacy was her safest and smartest option.

“My daughter Millie (born in April 2021) needed me more to be there as her momma once she got here than she needed me to carry her. Not only was my baby safer, but I was in a much better position health-wise to care for both my daughters.”

The Surrogacy Process

Surprisingly, the FDA controls surrogacy and has specific requirements for the IVF part of the process. Jessie recommends making sure your fertility clinic is well-versed on how everything goes down. Surrogates and biological parents go through medical testing and psychological evaluations prior to the transfer of the embryo.

“This was probably the hardest part for me mentally and emotionally. I was so frustrated and hurt that I had to pay someone a pretty penny to tell the government that I was mentally ok to have my own baby. It was just pouring salt into an already large and festering wound. Can you imagine having to have a stranger tell you if it was ok or not for you to bring your own child into this world?”

It’s important to note that surrogacy laws vary state to state, but in Georgia (where Jessie lives), you must adopt your baby back from the surrogate, even if the child is 100% genetically yours.

“You hire an attorney (one for yourself and one for your surrogate) and they actually file a lawsuit claiming your parental rights to the unborn baby on your behalf. I had to go before a judge and field questions on why I was pursuing surrogacy and whether or not I felt my husband and I were able to take care of the child once it was born. Again, insult to injury.”

There are several ways to go about surrogacy:

  • You can hire an agency to find you a surrogate and manage the process
  • You can use a friend or family member (they will still have to be medically and psychologically cleared by the clinic)
  • You can try to find one via word of mouth in your community.
  • There are tons of Facebook groups where you can “match” with one (local, regional, national, interest groups i.e., christian, altruistic, low comp, natural minded, etc). 

“Normally, you would be able to attend all OB appointments with your surrogate, but Covid made things a little trickier for us. We were unable to attend the transfer, which was sad, but I was able to go to a fair amount of the appointments. My husband unfortunately wasn’t allowed to attend any. We both were allowed to be in the room for the birth though and that was the most important thing to us.”

The experience of having a surrogate

Jessie says had she not been able to carry her first child that she feels surrogacy would have been harder on her. She feels so fortunate that she was able to experience pregnancy once.

“I had already gotten to a place mentally and emotionally where I knew the only way to get my daughter here safely was by having someone else carry her. I wasn’t ever triggered per se by seeing a pregnant belly because I knew she was safer inside our surrogate. I had so much PTSD and trauma from my first pregnancy as well that looking at another pregnant person never made me think “oh man I wish that was me again” if that makes sense. I did/do still deal with mourning though over how pregnancy played out for me and that I was unable to carry safely again. I also find myself spiraling occasionally thinking about how much it cost us to get our children here versus someone who could just have them themselves naturally. It’s been a massive financial burden/sacrifice for my husband and I (but oh so very worth it).”

The Financial Cost of Surrogacy

When looking into surrogacy, Jessie tells me you can ballpark around everything costing $100,000. There are many factors involved that play into whether that number is more or less depending on if you’ve already gone through IVF and have embryos. Much like IVF, there are some grants available for surrogacy, though much less common.

“The ways to bring the cost down for surrogacy would be to do an “independent journey” like we did where you don’t use an agency. You can also use a surrogate (whether it’s a friend, family member or even a stranger) who does not want to be compensated or wants very little. Medical bills will bring the cost up or down significantly depending on insurance plans and same with your legal fees as those will vary based on the surrogacy laws in your state.”

Defending her Decision

While Jessie says it was empowering to make the decision to utilize a surrogate to do what was best for her health and for her family, it’s been frustrating to constantly feel like she still needs to defend her decision to other people and even some doctors.

Whether it was …

“Aren’t you worried about having another child when you’re so sick?”

“Why don’t you guys just adopt??”

“Aren’t you worried the surrogate will want to keep the baby?”

“Aren’t you worried she won’t know you/you won’t be bonded to her??”

“Just one kid is great you should just be ok with having just the one”

etc …

“I know most of the time these comments don’t come from a place of mal-intent, and I try to use them as an opportunity to educate if it feels productive, but everyone is different what they’re open to accepting in their heart and their mind. In my mind, the girls are going to know the stories of how they came to be eventually, and hopefully they’ll see how wanted and loved they were. How unbelievably hard they were fought for. And how many people played a part in bringing them into this world.”

Managing IBD and Motherhood

Prior to looking into surrogacy, Jessie and her husband had to discuss at length if they would be able to handle a second child with her IBD. They also had to loop in their families knowing they would need their help when they couldn’t manage everything on our own.

“My husband and I say all the time, in all seriousness, that my illness has become a third child in a sense. There’s not a day, hardly an hour, that I don’t have to think about my Crohn’s or manage something with it in some way. It’s a difficult balancing act every day when I wake up trying to prioritize who needs the most at what moment (my kids, myself, or even my husband). I deal with a lot of guilt and grief with that. That I’m not the mom or wife I want to be … that I’m not able to give everyone what they need and deserve.”

Jessie often thinks of the oxygen mask analogy and says as an IBD mom it’s imperative to make sure her proverbial mask is on and secured first before she can help anyone else, which is very hard to do as a mother. 

Meeting Millie the Day She Was Born

It makes Jessie emotional to think about what it was like to walk into the hospital with her husband and know they were about to meet their daughter. They were able to be in the delivery room when Millie came into the world.

“I had an overwhelming sense of gratitude looking at our surrogate knowing what SHE went through and had sacrificed to get her here. All the anxiety I had been suppressing for months and months from having someone else carry her, to giving up all control, to doing it in the middle of the pandemic, to being so scared something would go wrong like it so often had for us in the past. It just all came pouring out of me uncontrollably as she was pushing. The moment she was placed in my arms it just felt like a lightning bolt connecting us. I felt bonded to her instantaneously. She was mine and I was hers and there was nothing on this earth I wouldn’t do to protect her.”

Jessie knew from the start of this journey that her surrogate would be a lifelong friend. Their families grew close through the process, and they live nearby one another. She says she’ll always hold a deep place in her heart for her and is incredibly grateful to be a family of four.

Six years since my bowel resection: What I wish I knew then

Six years ago, I was shaking like a leaf getting rolled into the operating room for bowel resection surgery. Six years ago, I felt overwhelmed by the thought of my body getting cut into, by the realization of my body having scars, by the fear of the unknown, and feeling as though I had failed myself and those close to me. The first decade I had Crohn’s disease, I always thought of surgery as the last resort. With each flare up and hospitalization, my biggest worry was needing a surgery of some sort. I constantly wondered about becoming one of the 50% of people with Crohn’s who ultimately end up with surgery. August 1, 2015, I became part of that statistic, when I had 18 inches of my small intestine, appendix, ileocecal valve, and Meckel’s Diverticulum removed. Surgery went from being an option to a necessity.

Looking back now—I want you to know if you need surgery, it’s not a reflection of failure on your part as a patient. While it may feel like the world is crashing down around you, you’ll see the pain, the fear, the recovery—it’s all fleeting. Time waits for no one. Before you know it, you’ll be like me. I blinked and it’s been six years. The scars and memories remain, but as more and more time passes, they become less of a big deal.

I’ve had several fellow IBD’ers reach out with questions recently about bowel resection surgery—everything from bleeding to bloating, asking me about my experience, and surprisingly it’s hard for me to remember those details!

I credit bowel resection surgery for removing a decade of disease from my body (not curing me) but giving me a fresh start and ultimately putting me into surgical remission. Remission that has been maintained for six years now. Prior to surgery, the first ten years I had Crohn’s, I was never in remission. Since surgery I was able to get to a place in my disease journey where family planning and pregnancy were possible without any complications or waiting. I’ve been able to bring three babies into the world and haven’t needed to be hospitalized for my Crohn’s since becoming a mom. I went for a walk with my husband and three kids yesterday (August 1, 2021) and found myself reflecting and feeling a great deal of gratitude as I thought about the stark contrast of where I was six years ago in comparison to now.

August 1, 2021. 6 years post-surgery.

Tips for Surgery: Before and After

Take a before photo. The day before my surgery, I took a photo of myself standing in front of the bathroom mirror in my bra and underwear so that I could remember what my body looked like before it had scars. I took the picture for myself and have never shared it. When I look at the picture now, I see a girl with sadness in her eyes and a longing for days without pain. I see a girl who is petrified of what could be and praying for relief. I see a thin, untarnished body on the outside, but one that is very sick on the inside. I highly recommend you take a photo of yourself prior to surgery so you can capture that moment. One day you’ll look back on that time and be able to see how far you’ve come. You won’t think of your scars in a negative way, but rather a reminder of all you’ve overcome. I don’t even notice my scars when I look in the mirror now.

Communicate with your surgeon. If your surgery isn’t an emergency and you have some time to talk with your surgeon, make sure you do. Talk with your care team about what the surgery will entail—how many inches of intestine will be removed, if an ostomy is a possibility, where they will do incisions, etc. This will help you mentally prepare for what’s to come. My surgeon came into my hospital room prior to my bowel resection and asked me where I would want the incisions. We knew I would have the laparoscopic incisions, but we discussed a horizontal vs. vertical incision as well. I said I wanted the incision to be as low as possible—he told me he would do a “c-section incision” …which worked out wonderfully for me. I know of many people who have had a couple inches of intestine removed and have a large vertical scar (I had 18 inches taken) and that type of incision was not necessary.

Once you’ve had surgery push yourself to get up and get moving. Don’t overdo it, but every step, every movement will help you heal. Before you know it, you’ll be able to bend down and tie your shoes, walk a little further, and stand a little taller. After my surgery it was a struggle to walk around my family room, then before I knew it, I was walking outside…each day making it to one house further around the block. Before I knew it, I was able to take long walks. When you’re laughing, coughing, sneezing, or driving, have a small pillow nearby to hold against your incision, this will alleviate a lot of the pain. The first two weeks is the hardest. Once you hit the 2-week mark, you’ll feel a ton better. You’ll be able to drive and get around with minimal pain. Just hold on to that thought those initial days when it’s emotionally and physically pretty brutal. I remember crying my first night at home because I was so overwhelmed by the pain and my inability to get out of my own bed. At the time a family member was battling ALS. Her fight and knowing that her health was deteriorating daily, while mine was improving with each hour that passed, gave me perspective and brought me back to earth.

Trust in your care team. Once you have surgery, then the priority is to determine how managing your IBD will look moving forward. I, like many, had this false sense of security after surgery that I felt so great, I wouldn’t need to go back on my biologic…or any medicine for that matter. After a lot of tears and discussion, I followed my GI’s recommendation to re-start Humira and add a bunch of vitamins and supplements to the mix (Vitamin D, Calcium, Folic Acid, and a prescription prenatal). I give my GI a lot of credit for being proactive and having a “come to Jesus” talk with me, if you will. She warned me my Crohn’s disease is aggressive and by going med-free, my risk of being back on the operating table 3-5 years down the road would go up exponentially. Six years later, I’m so glad I listened.

Be patient with your healing. I’ve had three C-sections and bowel resection surgery, and the recovery is very different. I try to explain this to women who come to me with questions wondering about the two. With a C-section you have incisional pain/burning, but with an IBD-related surgery you also have to heal from the inside, too. Organs are cut, removed, and reattached. Your digestion needs to recalibrate. It’s a lot more intense of a recovery than a C-section (which I’m going through right now). Be patient with your body. Ease back into normal activities. After my bowel resection surgery, it took me nearly 8 weeks to return to work full-time at my desk job. Prior to returning to the office, I worked half days for two weeks from home because it took time to heal enough to sit upright in a chair. As your digestion re-works itself, it’s not unusual to have an accident or not be able to ‘hold it’ the same as you could prior. For me, this was temporary. But in those initial weeks and months, it’s a good idea to have a change of clothes in your car or packed with you and to be mindful of where the nearest bathroom is. I had one accident during my recovery—luckily, I was home alone (working a half day), it was mortifying, and I was by myself. Don’t try and rush back to normalcy, give yourself time to heal mentally, physically, and emotionally.

3 weeks post-op, laughing through the pain during engagement photos.

If you find out you need surgery—it’s understandable to be upset. But also give yourself a chance to think of all that could be possible. Try and focus on the promise of how surgery could help you get into remission or at least help you in having more “feel good” days. It’s normal to grieve and to be tearful and fearful, but I hope you find comfort in knowing once you wake up from surgery, you will be on the road to a recovery that paves the way for feeling empowered against your illness. And from that point forward you won’t be as scared of future surgeries because you’ll have a better idea of what to expect and a better understanding of how it feels to be well after being in pain for so long.

IBD Motherhood Unplugged: Breastfeeding and the COVID-19 vaccine

After a lot of thought and consideration, I decided to hold off on getting my COVID-19 vaccines until after I delivered my son. Before we dig deeper into this topic, I want to clarify that this was solely my choice, everyone needs to do what they are most comfortable with. Since the pandemic began, unprecedented pressure and stress has been placed on pregnant and lactating women to make one decision or another. For me, as a stay-at-home mom, who continued to keep a low profile while pregnant, I felt more at ease waiting to get my vaccines until after my son was out of my body. My care team made up of a maternal fetal medicine doctor, OB, and gastroenterologist all supported my choice to wait.

My main reasoning was limiting the variables of exposure. All my kids were exposed to Humira while in utero. While there are long term studies that show the safety and efficacy of biologics in pregnancy, you never know. If down the road my son had any health complications or issues, I didn’t want to have to grapple with whether my biologic or a vaccine contributed or were to blame. As an IBD mom, we deal with enough guilt as it is.

So, I chose to wait. Anxiously. Patiently. Luckily, I delivered my third child, Connor Christopher, July 14th, and did not encounter any COVID-19 scares while pregnant. Once I was home from the hospital following my C-section, I talked with my gastroenterologist and OB about getting my first COVID vaccine and scheduled an appointment at Walgreens ASAP.

Getting the first jab

Wednesday, July 21, I finally got my first dose! A little late to the party, but I’m currently exclusively breastfeeding (and pumping), and I’m hopeful that once I’m fully vaccinated (two weeks after my second dose in August), my son will receive antibodies from the vaccine that way. It felt a bit surreal to finally be at a point where I felt comfortable with my personal choice to get the vaccine.

According to the CDC, since January 2020, there have been 34 million cases and 607,000 deaths. As of July 21st, 161.9 million people are fully vaccinated—that’s 48.8% of the total population, or 57.1% of the population older than age 12. Virus variants threaten new outbreaks among the unvaccinated.

Much like making decisions to manage IBD, it’s imperative our community looks at the benefits vs. the risks of getting the vaccine.

Words from leading medical experts in the IBD community

This past week Dr. David Rubin, MD, Professor of Medicine, University of Chicago presented, “Updates on COVID-19 for Patients with Inflammatory Bowel Disease”.

“Everyone needs to be vaccinated, this includes pregnant women and new moms. The Delta Variant is VERY contagious. The data in IBD is reassuring when it comes to immune responsiveness compared to the general population, especially with the two dose mRNA vaccines. Antibodies against many things are transmitted in colostrum, and that may be the anti-SARS-CoV-2 spike antibodies too, which may provide protection to the baby. It’s definitely NOT dangerous to breastfeed after vaccination.”

Speaking of the Delta Variant, according to Dr. Rubin’s presentation as well as guidance from the CDC, “Delta was 1% of COVID-19 cases during the week of April 10th. By the week of July 3rd, Delta is estimated to account for 57% of new COVID-19 cases. Within a matter of 12 weeks of being introduced to the US population, it became the dominant variant here.

Dr. Uma Mahadevan, MD, University of California San Francisco agrees, saying given the ongoing crisis with COVID-19, all eligible people should get vaccinated.

“Breastfeeding mothers can get vaccinated per CDC guidelines and there is data that the antibody from the vaccine crosses to the infant via breastmilk, possibly providing them with protection as well! For many infants of moms with IBD, they have detectable levels of biologic agents in their blood for the first 6 months of life. Having antibody against SARS-Co-V-2 may provide them some protection against getting ill if exposed to the virus.”

Dr. Meenakshi Bewtra, MD, MPH, PhD, Penn Medicine, has IBD herself and has been a vocal advocate for our patient community since the start of the pandemic. She implores everyone to get the vaccine, immediately.

“Don’t wait. In fact, I, every doctor I know, American College of Gastroenterology, and Maternal Fetal Medicine recommend getting the COVID-19 vaccine while you are pregnant. Why? Because we’ve seen what happens to pregnant women who get COVID. There are women who got the vaccine in trials; there were women who got vaccinated while pregnant (>10,000 at this point)—we have a lot of data. The evidence is crystal clear. The same holds for getting it while breastfeeding. COVID is real, it’s out there; you can get sick and die; you can transit it to your infant or others in your house. There is absolutely no reason why anyone should not be getting vaccinated unless you know you have an allergy to something in the vaccines themselves. Your protective antibodies can pass to the infant.”

COVID-19 in the IBD Community and Vaccine Response

Thanks to the SECURE-IBD database, we have more guidance about how those of us with Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis have responded and continue to respond to not only COVID, but the vaccine. People with IBD do not have an increased risk of getting it. Aminosalicylates, biologics, and immunomodulators show no increased risk of severe COVID- 19. Steroids are associated with worse outcomes. And biologic therapy is associated with decreased risk of severe COVID-19 outcomes.

One of the main concerns many of us in the chronic illness community on immunosuppressive drugs have wondered about is the efficacy of the vaccines in our body. Good news—a recent study of 246 patients with IBD who received both doses of the vaccine showed similar adverse events as in the general population. Sore arm, headache, and fatigue are the most common adverse effects of the vaccine. All I had after my first Pfizer vaccine was a sore arm. More importantly, the study showed no increase in IBD flares.

The Prevent-COVID study shows even more promising data with more than 1,700 participants with IBD. Click here to see results of the study—everything from rates of vaccine side effects to lab titers three months out.

As of now, there’s no recommendation or approval regarding a booster vaccine. Pfizer announced that their clinical trial data showed that a third shot may increase antibody levels, but nothing has been published yet. Without more research, it’s unclear if an increase in antibody levels will provide greater protection from the virus than two doses.

Get Involved in COVID-19 Vaccine studies

University of Chicago Inflammatory Bowel Disease Center COVID-19 Vaccine in IBD Study

  • This study is analyzing the durability, safety, and efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines in patients with IBD, If you are interested in participating in the study (whether you have already been vaccinated or not) please email: covidvaccine.ibd@lists.uchicago.edu.

Prevent COVID Research Study

  • If you are 12 to 17 and have received your first COVID-19 vaccine in the last 90 days, you may be able to take part in PREVENT COVID, a research study to learn about the vaccine experiences of people with IBD. Click here to learn more.

CORALE-Vaccine IBD

  • The purpose of this research being conducted at Cedars-Sinai is to understand the effects of vaccination against COVID-19 in people with IBD. To achieve this goal, a national and local group of adults with IBD who are eligible to receive any available vaccine against COVID-19 are being recruited. Within this group we will evaluate the antibody levels of the body’s response to the vaccine. Questions about the study? Contact the CORALE-V IBD Research Team at Cedars-Sinai at ibdresearch@cshs.org or call 310-423-5643.

Washington University in St. Louis: COVID-19 Vaccine Response in Patients with Autoimmune Disease

  • School of Medicine researchers are leading a clinical trial to evaluate the safety and effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines in people taking immunosuppressive drugs. Such drugs are prescribed to treat autoimmune diseases, including arthritis, Crohn’s disease, and psoriasis. Researchers will enroll up to 500 adults ages 18 and older in the St. Louis region. They are recruiting health-care workers at the School of Medicine and patients seen in Washington University outpatient clinics. Eligible patients who have preregistered for the COVID-19 vaccine will be contacted to assess their interest in being recruited into the study. For information about participating in the trial, email covaripad@wustl.edu, or contact either Alia El-Qunni at 314-249-1151 or Lily McMorrow at 314-280-3894.

V-Safe

  • Use your smartphone to tell the CDC about any side effects after getting the COVID-19 vaccine. The tool uses text messaging and web surveys to provide personalized health check-ins after you receive a COVID-19 vaccine. Depending on your responses, someone from the CDC may call to check on you. Participation is voluntary and you can opt out at any time. Sign up at: www.vsafe.cdc.gov.

Additional information for your consideration:

Coronavirus disease 2019 vaccine response in pregnant and lactating women: A cohort study

CDC: COVID-19 Vaccine While Pregnant or Breastfeeding

Parents Magazine: The COVID Vaccine and Breastfeeding: What Nursing Moms Need to Know

University of California San Francisco: No Sign of COVID-19 Vaccine in Breastmilk

Study Finds COVID-19 Vaccines Safe for IBD Patients