Turning Over a New Leaf: The Lifestyle Changes This Single IBD Mom Made to Manage her Crohn’s

**Disclaimer: This article is in no way meant to offer medical advice or guidance. Medication to treat and manage IBD is NOT a failure. Please understand this is one person’s experience and journey. Prior to going off medication, consult with your gastroenterologist and care team.**

She was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease in 1991 at 19 years old. As a veteran patient and IBD mom of two teenagers, Kelli Young says the COVID-19 pandemic, along with turning 50, inspired her to dig deeper into her health journey and look beyond the “cookie cutter” approach to treating IBD. After multiple surgeries and decades of biologics and other medications, she was determined to try a different approach.

Much like many of us in the IBD community, we often choose to hide our disease from others. Kelli says 15 years of that strategy often left her feeling misunderstood. Once she started sharing and opening herself up to support, her world changed for the better. Anytime someone is sympathetic and says, “you poor thing,” Kelli reminds them that Crohn’s disease molded her in the person she is today and that everyone has problems, hers just happens to be IBD.

“Having lived more than half my life as an IBD patient, I knew I didn’t want to live the second half of my life the way I did the first half.”

Taking a closer look into food sensitivities

It’s no surprise the importance of diet has become a larger part of treating IBD in recent years, but there’s still a lot of gray area.

“Diet is often the one thing that the medical profession overlooks or provides the same generic diet to everyone, assuming everyone is the same. Diet is the #1 factor that affects your health in every way imaginable. Your energy, sleep, weight, sex drive, bowel movements, heart rate, and mood, just to name a few.”

Prior to changing her diet, Kelli connected with her longtime friend of more than 20 years, Dr. Sean Branham, a chiropractor who specializes in functional medicine. Dr. Branham ordered the Oxford Food Sensitivity Test. The test measures inflammation in the body on a cellular level. Food sensitivities are unique to each person, so it’s impossible to determine what your sensitivities are without getting tested. Reactions can also be delayed or be dose dependent.

Kelli says, “The Oxford Food Sensitivity Test looks at all types of white blood cells (Neutrophils, Lymphocytes, Monocytes and Eosinophils) and measures release of all pro-inflammatory chemicals like Cytokines, Histamines, Prostaglandins and Leukotrienes. Certain groups of foods are pro-inflammatory to humans because we may not contain all the enzymes to thoroughly break them down (like dairy). Other foods are pro-inflammatory because of their processing, like many different forms of sugar. Some are inflammatory due to genetic modification like gluten. Some healthy foods can create inflammation once digestive damage has been done and these partially digested foods leak across the digestive barrier and trigger an immune response.”

Customizing diet with Food Sensitivity results

Kelli’s tests results showed mushrooms, cashews, trout, mangos, green peas, coconut, among other foods, triggered an immune reaction. Once Kelli had her Food Sensitivity results in hand, her and Dr. Branham started to customize her diet.

“We first started by removing the bigger classes of pro-inflammatory foods like; dairy, sugar, gluten and soy and then assessed specific foods that were causing a problem for me individually.”

Along with removing these food groups from her diet, Kelli did a whole-body digestive cleanse that involved a specific diet with supplements, a shake, and a cream to rid the body the body of toxins, decrease inflammation, and cleanse the liver and digestive tract.

“Testing revealed that there were more than just digestive issues going on. I also had a blood sugar regulation problem, Estrogen dominance, nutrient deficiencies, a need for: digestive enzymes, immune support, and microbiome support. Once I completed the cleanse, we customized a supplement regimen specific to me based on my test results. We started with what Dr. Branham considered the most important things first and then as we corrected those issues, we moved on and tackled the next issue and so on.”

Celebrating a “new way of life”

As a single mom of a 19-year-old and a 16-year-old who have supported her through her IBD journey every step of the way, Kelli calls these lifestyle changes her “new way of life”.

When my son was between the ages of 8-12 years old, he was showing IBD symptoms, but he didn’t have IBD, he was experiencing empathic pains. He watched me, a single mother, battle with the daily struggles. I tried to hide it, but he saw right through me. Today he is 16, growing, thriving, and enjoying his healthy mother. My daughter, 19, the age at which I was diagnosed, is thriving as well. I am now able to truly be present in both of their lives.”

When Kelli and her husband divorced, her children were only 8 and 5 years old. As an IBD mom it made an already challenging time that much more complicated. She never dreamed she’d be at this place in her life health-wise.

“Back then I wondered how I was going to give myself my own shots, how I was going to care for two small children 50% of the time when I was always sick. Being a single mother with IBD forced me to take a good hard look at my life, not only for me, but for the sake of my children. My motto used to be “expect the unexpected” and “no expectations.” Today, I no longer worry about the future bad days or wonder if I’m going to be around to be a grandmother someday. Yes, it’s difficult at times to follow such a structured lifestyle, but it’s even more difficult living a life being chronically ill.”

Going off all meds

Kelli has been off all IBD medication since May 2021. She says her GI of 30 years is reluctantly supporting her decision to go this route on her patient journey. Kelli had a colonoscopy in June 2022, and after the scope in recovery he said, “Well Kelli, your new way of life is working. I’ve never seen your scope results look this good.”

While this lifestyle may seem “extreme” to some or difficult to follow, Kelli says she was sick and tired of being sick and tired.

“The definition of “remission” varies depending on who you ask. I am celebrating three years of a “disease free” diagnosis. The Crohn’s will ALWAYS be very much part of my life, but now, the only time I have a “bad day” is when I cheat on my new way of life, eating something I shouldn’t be eating, not getting enough sleep, not exercising, and not managing my stress.”   

A Special Report: Changes to Lights, Camera, Crohn’s

It’s been 6,207 days since my life changed forever. On July 23rd, 2005, I was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease at age 21. Since that time, I’ve evolved and changed in ways I may not have if it weren’t for my IBD. After living in silence with my condition while working in television news for a decade, I decided to use my love for storytelling and speaking to be the voice I needed to hear upon diagnosis as I navigated the many crossroads of young adulthood (finding love, a fulfilling career, and having a family).

July 23rd also marks the day I launched my blog, Lights, Camera, Crohn’s. Since 2016, I have shared fresh content, every single Monday (sometimes even twice a week!). 336 articles on my site alone. More than a quarter-million visitors and more than 387,000 views.

It’s been a labor of love and a mission project that continues to fill my cup and implore me to constantly want to learn more and shed light on topics that are often not talked about. Every day of every week since my blog began, I’m constantly thinking about story ideas, topics of interest, people to interview, ways to word content, images that are needed…the list goes on.

This photo was taken at a wedding July 23, 2016, right after I pressed “Publish” on the first Lights, Camera, Crohn’s article. I found out I was pregnant two days later.

The weekend I started my blog in 2016, I was one month into married life and found out days later I was pregnant with my first child. Since then, I am now a stay-at-home mom of three children (ages 5, 3, and 1). Life has gotten way more hectic and busier with each year that passes, but I’ve held tightly onto fulfilling my promise to the patient community, and to myself, to deliver new content each and every week. I’ve been organized through the years—often having an article written days before my Monday deadline, but this past year, with another baby added to the mix, it’s been more of a stress on me. I’ve spent many Sunday nights finishing my articles. At times it’s felt like a lot to juggle. I haven’t wanted to let anybody down, including myself. And I haven’t wanted my content to start lacking in any way.

Don’t worry, Lights, Camera, Crohn’s is not going anywhere

My blog has grown into more than I ever thought possible. It’s so rewarding to know my words have helped comfort and guide so many in the IBD community. I need to cut myself some slack and give you a heads up that moving forward there may not always be an article on Mondays. It pains me to say that, but at this point in my life, in this season of IBD motherhood, I need to start taking time to rest and relax. Since having my third baby last summer, I get my kids down for the night and START to work around 830 pm. It’s just constant. I truly rarely get a break. I’ve been in remission since August 2015, and I don’t want the stress to get the best of me.

You may not be aware—but my blog is only one aspect of my advocacy work. I also spend a great deal of time working with digital healthcare companies, patient-centered non-profit organizations, sitting on advisory boards and patient engagement teams, communicating with patients in need online and over the phone, and do freelancing work on the side, all without childcare.

I laugh as I write this because I already have three articles lined up for August…so there will be months where there IS an article every Monday. Just not always. My commitment and desire to serve as a patient leader is not waning in any way—I just want to be honest with you, my loyal readers, that this mama needs to lighten the load and take a little self-imposed stress off my shoulders.

I started contemplating this a few months ago, and almost changed my mind this week about sharing, but it’s time. We had an AMAZING 6-year streak of constant new content. I’m excited to see what this coming year brings in the way of patient stories, research, and perspectives. Having extra time to work on articles will really allow me to do more special reports and expand my “IBD Motherhood Unplugged” and “Patient Experience” series.

Thank you for giving me so much to talk and write about, always. There are endless topics that need to be brought to the forefront and I love providing a platform for others to share their journeys and experiences with the community. As always, please reach out if you have a story idea you want me to cover. Lights, Camera, Crohn’s has truly evolved from being a blog about my IBD experience to an award-winning and well-respected site that has highlighted hundreds of different patient stories and physician perspectives—and I love that. There’s no greater compliment then when I hear a gastroenterologist uses my blog to educate their patients.

Excited to see what 2022-2023 brings! Thanks for the love, support, and understanding and for making the first six years of Lights, Camera, Crohn’s what it was.

-Natalie

My partner has IBD and so do I

Love can be extra complicated to find, trust, and open yourself up to when you have IBD. This week on Lights, Camera, Crohn’s we hear from five different IBD couples (dating and married), but they aren’t your typical couples. In these cases, both partners have IBD.

Emily + Jason

Emily Geist and her husband, Jason, of Pennsylvania had an unusual diagnosis journey. Their children were surprisingly diagnosed before they were! Their oldest daughter was diagnosed with IBD in 2014 when she was four years old. Then a few months later, their middle daughter was diagnosed with IBD at just 21 months old. Through the process, Emily and her husband were asked if they had any family history of IBD and the answer was “no” at the time.

Their diagnoses made my husband and I rethink the “sensitive stomachs” that we thought we had. We had previously talked with our health care providers, and no one thought of IBD, given our mild symptoms. Since I was pregnant with our third daughter when our second daughter was diagnosed, it took some time for me to see a GI and be diagnosed in 2016 with ulcerative colitis. My husband’s symptoms were more significant, and he ended up getting diagnosed with ulcerative colitis the same year as me.”

Emily says they were in shock after all four of them were diagnosed with IBD within a two-year period, not to mention having a newborn thrown into the mix!

“I joked that my husband and I were perfect for each other – so perfect we both had the same chronic disease and didn’t know it for the first 8 years of our marriage.”

She is grateful in a way for their delayed diagnoses as a couple, since passing along IBD when both partners have Crohn’s disease or ulcerative greatly increases.

“It was a blessing, in a way, that we had our family of three beautiful girls before we even knew we both had IBD. If my husband and I, and the two older girls had been diagnosed before I became pregnant with our third daughter, I am not sure what we would have done. And this thought hurts my heart, knowing the uniquely amazing kid we have in our third. We have watched our youngest so carefully for signs of IBD. Last fall, based on some very minor issues that might have been ignored in any other family, she had scopes and we found out she also has IBD at the age of six.”

Emily says Jason and her approach medical issues differently. He is calm, she’s a bit anxiety ridden. It’s always like that, right?!

“This works in my favor often as he can help calm me down. I lean hard on him during tough times. While we both have IBD, I think much of Jason’s empathy and support come from other health challenges he has faced. Jason was hospitalized as a teen for a (benign) sinus tumor and associated surgery. He also had cancer and underwent surgery and chemo for it. (We were married during his first round of chemo – but that is a whole other story!) He remembers what helped him in both of those situations and uses it to help our daughters and myself.”

Emily and Jason are on two different 5-ASA medications. Jason and two of the girls are on sulfasalazine, one daughter is on Remicade, another on Humira.

“There are two things I tell my girls: (1) Everyone has something…everyone has a challenge they work to overcome…and ours is IBD. (2) It takes intense pressure to create a diamond, we can deal with our ‘pressure’ and use it to become something rare and amazing.”

Amanda + David

Amanda Vogel moved to Colorado Springs in late August 2021. Two weeks after moving there, she started talking to a guy named David through a dating app. It just so happens they lived across the street from one another, so they planned to meet at a restaurant the following day.

The day we were supposed to meet, he texted me and said he had to cancel our date due to “stomach issues.” I immediately thought to myself, “Hmm, I wonder if he has Crohn’s disease”? I brushed it off, we continued to text back and forth and made plans for that weekend. While we were texting, I made a joke about him canceling on me again and that’s when he told me he had Crohn’s disease. I was mind blown and told him how I have Crohn’s myself. I shared with him my blog post from March 2020 and felt an instant connection. We were both diagnosed with Crohn’s disease at age 13 and both have the same incision on our stomachs.”

Amanda couldn’t believe these incredible coincidences or the odds of their paths crossing.

“It’s mostly an understanding of each other’s dietary preferences, with some gentle encouragement to try things in moderation here and there. Also, a no-explanation-needed approach to random stomach stuff that can pop up anytime.”

While she says there is a “baseline” of empathy and understanding, which is amazing, it’s surprised her how differently IBD presents in each of them.

“The most surprising thing has been being so close to someone else with the same diagnosis but with very different day-to-day and long-term symptoms, medications, and little personal details of the whole patient experience. It’s helped me understand that one of the frustrations of IBD is how differently it can affect people, which can make it difficult for others to really understand. For me, that translates to empathy in the form of knowing Crohn’s can interject itself into our day whether we expect it or not and making sure to accept that without blame or guilt.”

These lovebirds joke about one day doing a “couples colonoscopy.” David is on Humira, and Amanda has an appointment in upcoming weeks with her new GI to discuss treatment plans moving forward.

“Anyone that would treat you like a burden due to a health problem that you’re doing your best to manage is not someone who deserves to be in a relationship with you. There are plenty of loving, understanding people out there, IBD-savvy or otherwise. Love yourself and the rest takes care of itself.”

Anika + Louis

Anika and her boyfriend, Louis, of Virginia, were friends for years before they officially started dating. They were out with friends one night and she mentioned she had ulcerative colitis. He replied that he did, too.

“When we started dating, I was less than a year into my diagnosis and I felt less alone when I found out he had it, too. Before I began my clinical journey to a diagnosis, I had never heard of UC let alone knew anyone under the age of 70 who had it. There are so many things that I assume I would have had to explain to a partner, that I didn’t have to explain to him because he had a similar experience.”

She says as long as they’ve been together neither of them has felt ill on the same day.

It’s usually clear if one person is sicker than the other, so the less-sick individual takes more of the heavy lifting. I recently had to undergo a colonoscopy and without me asking he took off work so he could drive me to and from my appointment. He religiously read the prep materials the doctor had given me to make sure I took the right medication at the right time and even did all my prep shopping (buying me Jellos and Gatorades so I had prep friendly snacks). I think in general he’s an extremely empathetic person, but the fact that he can also relate is unbelievably nice.”

Both of these lovebirds take four mesalamine pills a day. They tease each other that if they forget their medication they can just borrow from the other person since they’re on the same prescription. She wants everyone with IBD to remember they are not a burden and deserve to be loved like everyone else.

I don’t think you should ever think of yourself as a burden, and I know that’s a lot easier said than done. I believe that if someone loves you, like fully loves you, they will love you no matter what and be there to support you in anything you have to deal with. If someone shows early on that they are not compassionate or caring or can’t show up for you, then that’s a blessing that you found out early on and not when it’s too late. You deserve someone who loves you for all that you are.”

Brittany + Morgan

Brittany Wheaton and her boyfriend, Morgan, of British Columbia, both didn’t have IBD when their paths first crossed in 2018. Morgan was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis in 2013, but Brittany didn’t have answers for the symptoms she’d been experiencing since 2016. She says her boyfriend tends to be private about sharing about his ulcerative colitis, so he didn’t share his health situation with her until a few months after she had been diagnosed and he was sure they had a future.

Since I was diagnosed while we were together, Morgan walked through the process with me and figured out the connection when he learned my new GI was his long-term GI! He didn’t grasp the connection between Crohn’s and UC right away as his awareness of his disease comes from his GI and doctor only – I’m more literate and curious about it!”

When it comes to having kids one day, Morgan has zero concerns. He’s confident that the medical supports are increasing every day and is excited about the prospects of new drugs and treatments if they are in the position of becoming parents to a child with IBD.

“He also reminds me regularly that we would be the greatest advocates and supporters to that child. We live in Canada, so we have the reassurance of universal healthcare which is such a privilege. I am more apprehensive about kids, particularly as I spent the past two years in a severe flare that I was worried might end my life. I struggle with the guilt of knowing I could pass these difficult experiences on by no ill-intention of my own. I also worry what pregnancy would be like on my body and have concerns around not being able to sustain a pregnancy due to my difficulties with nutrition. I also acknowledge that choosing to not have a child due to the risk of IBD can fringe on eugenics and is quite ableist.”

Brittany and Morgan often talk about how despite their IBD they have been fortunate to live beautiful, fulfilled lives and have gotten unique lessons and learnings about themselves and each other through their personal limitations.

“We choose to live in an apartment because we’d rather spend our healthy time having fun and relaxing rather than maintaining a stand-alone home; we’ve planned and started saving for retirement and periods off work at 29 and 34 because we know it’s likely inevitable; we have stringent boundaries around stress and taking on too much because the busyness isn’t worth the cost of our health; we have decided to do everything we can do to maximize our rest and fun, and minimize the stress of a too-full life because we know how fragile life really is, and have seen what is really important to us as IBD has taken it away before for periods of time.”

Brittany and Morgan place importance on being independent as patients but are grateful to have each other to understand the language of IBD and take advantage of having a partner who intuitively gets it.

The day that we decided that we would be together for the long-haul, we committed to always putting our health first. Having a partner who understands that my physical and mental well-being and his physical and mental well-being need be our priority has provided such a rich and earnest connection without shame or guilt. It’s so beautiful to have a partner who encourages me to take care of myself rather than forcing his way in and trying to micromanage it for me. I feel empowered and trusted, and when I’m in a place where I need the external help, he’s always ready and waiting to step in.”

Brittany and Morgan are both on a 4-week cycle of Entyvio and the nurses at the clinic think it’s a hoot! Morgan is also on azathioprine. Since she was diagnosed while knowing Morgan, they both see the same GI.

“It was funny telling our doc because he (and pretty much everyone) suspects we must have met because of our conditions, but we just ignorantly both swiped right and found out the details later! Our general practitioners find it so interesting that we found each other and ask a lot of interpersonal questions about how we pull it off!!”

IBD is a part of who they are, and though Brittany is not thankful for the disease, she’s thankful for the lessons the IBD experience has brought them both. She says the emotional infrastructure of having IBD has made them better matches for each other!

Rebecca + Joey

When Rebecca Goodrich of California first met her husband, Joey, he opened up about having Crohn’s disease early on. At the time, she did not know she also had IBD. He candidly shared about his experiences with medication, flare ups, and traveling with Crohn’s. Rebecca was curious and eager to learn more about his patient journey, and at the time started to think she may be in denial about her own health.

I knew what IBD was and was honored that he felt comfortable sharing his experiences with me. I was also so impressed with how determined Joey was to care for his body through healthy habits (sleep, hydration, meditation, etc.). When I was diagnosed, he was incredibly supportive—always reminding me through the tough moments that ‘this too shall pass’.”

She went on to say Joey has a way of keeping her grounded when she gets worked up about procedures or an uptick in symptoms. He takes Humira, she takes Lialda and Mesalamine enemas. Her current GI is Joey’s previous doctor.

“My advice for finding love with IBD is to be with someone who loves you for you. There’s no such thing as perfect, we all struggle with something. I am incredibly grateful to be married to someone who truly “gets it,” for my loyal Labrador Sherman-Shell, and for my family who has been there since the beginning.”

Looking in the rearview mirror as an IBD mom

I can remember the moment vividly. Leaving a gastroenterologist appointment three months post-surgery and crying walking to get sushi with my husband on a chilly November day in the middle of the workday. When I walked into that clinic appointment, I was hopeful I would never need a biologic medicine again. We were planning to start trying for a family after our June wedding, but my doctor knocked me back to earth and told me my Crohn’s was too aggressive and I’d be setting myself up for disaster if I attempted going med-free. 

The tears flowed. I felt like a failure. I worried about bringing babies into this world while on a heavy-duty drug and if my surgery would provide me with the remission I had never achieved the first ten years of having IBD. I was so upset my husband-to-be and I both called into work and took the rest of the day off. Over sushi we talked about our future family and my health. Everything seemed at our fingertips but out of reach at the same time. That was November 2015. Sometimes we don’t realize how far we’ve come unless we look in the rearview mirror.

Now July 2022, we’re gearing up to celebrate our third child’s first birthday (July 14). We had his first birthday party over the weekend. It’s been a surreal and incredible ride since that November day. I often find myself looking at my three children and still feeling surprised my body was able to create them and bring them safely into this world.

Knowing this is our last baby and the last “first” of everything is bittersweet and amazing all at once. I feel an immense sense of relief and comfort being at this stage and knowing I don’t need to count on my body to sustain life through pregnancy or breastfeeding anymore. I’ve made it an entire year exclusively breastfeeding and if you would have asked me if that would ever be possible a year ago, I would have said no way. 

One of my fears is when my next flare will be and leaving my children for days on end while I’m in the hospital. While I know it’s a not a matter of if, but when, it puts me at ease that my children are almost out of the baby stage, and I can begin to explain my health struggles and why I may not always be like other moms. When my oldest was born I hoped to stay out of the hospital until he started walking. He starts kindergarten next month. I can only hope I stay flare-free until my other two are that old. 

Learning as I went as a woman with IBD

When I think back to that November day and the tough love my GI professed, I’m so grateful I followed her lead and trusted her approach in managing my Crohn’s. Back then, I wasn’t a patient advocate. The only IBD mom I knew was my cousin’s wife. I navigated the waters of family planning and my first pregnancy all alone without much guidance. Each pregnancy I became more well versed on how to juggle IBD and family planning and everything that comes along with it, but I think back to how isolating and overwhelming it can feel when you dream of having a family, but don’t know how to make it happen when chronic illness is in the mix. 

No one knows how their family will play out or if fertility or loss will be a part of their story. It’s sad how many women with IBD choose to be voluntary childless, not because they don’t want to be a mom, but because of the limitations of their IBD and overall well-being getting in the way. A day doesn’t go by that I don’t recognize how lucky I am that I “get” to be a mom. Not every day is wonderful, but even in the trenches as a stay-at-home IBD mom of three littles with almost no breaks, I do my best to remind myself of that day my husband and I got sushi and dreamed of living the life we are living today. 

Hey IBD Mom: Yes, you. Take a breath

This week I was feeding my 9-month-old a smoothie in his highchair before I had to run to grab my older two from preschool. I realized it was an injection day, so I figured I would do my shot while the baby was in the highchair to get it out of the way. It seemed like no big deal in the moment. But as I sat there and saw the baby food next to my Humira on the kitchen table I started thinking about how life as an IBD mom may feel normal to us, but what we do each day goes above and beyond.

Then my mind started wondering. I thought about how I had taken my oldest to his outdoor fieldtrip last week and refrained from having my morning coffee or eating breakfast so I could curb my Crohn’s from causing me problems. I thought about how my 3-year-old is so intuitive if she thinks I’m in pain, she grabs my belly and pretends to put the pain into her belly, telling me “I love you mama, take a breath.”

Take a breath. Boy oh boy do mothers in general need to stop and take that advice or what? Motherhood whether you have IBD or not is the most beautiful, exhausting, and rewarding challenge. No matter what season you are in it comes with triumphs and challenges it comes with happy tears and sad ones, too. It’s a constant game of trying to manage your emotions and tap into your patience, or whatever is left of it each day. We come to forget that we are also growing up in many ways, just as our kids do.

Motherhood and IBD is a balance of wanting to be all the things but knowing that at any given moment your body can throw your life and plans upside down. There are unspoken limitations.

It’s silently worrying and praying what will happen to your family if you go down and end up in the hospital.

It’s trying to stand tall when all you may want to do is rest on the couch.

It’s seeing your children thrive and feeling so much pride you constantly feel like you can cry tears of joy at any moment.

It’s getting scared when your little one randomly says their tummy hurts.

It’s knowing that your disease robbed you of a great deal—physically, mentally, emotionally, but it didn’t rob you of the greatest gift of all, being a mom.

It’s recognizing all that is still possible, even with this grueling disease.

It’s showing up each day, not only for yourself but for your family.

It’s taking the pain and feel-good days and focusing on one moment in time that feels slow but is going by in a flash.

Take a breath. You deserve it. We weren’t meant to mother alone. Lean on your village. Voice your struggles. Cry if you want to cry. But also, don’t put yourself to unattainable expectations. You have a chronic illness and you’re a mom. Don’t push yourself to the brink. Some days will be adventure-filled, others will be spent on the couch—and that’s OK. Your children are learning from you and gaining innate intuition, and that’s a gift. They’re witnessing that health is not something to be taken for granted. They’re watching you even when you think they are not. What may feel mundane to you, is not. As an IBD mom you are juggling countless extra balls in the air that healthy mothers don’t have to think about. Give yourself credit where credit is due and take a breath.

Now and Then: Advocating for Ukranian IBD patients through the war

Click here to read Part 1: The Humanitarian Disaster in Ukraine and What this Means for Those with IBD

Elena Sotskova is a financier who has lived with ulcerative colitis for 21 years, her friend, Artem, works in IT and has Crohn’s disease. Elena and Artem teamed up with several other IBD patients in 2018 to launch Full Life, an organization created to show those living with Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis are not alone in their struggles. They launched a website that features helpful articles for patients, they conduct “patient schools,” and connect with doctors in different regions of the country to offer additional guidance and support for patients.

“The biggest problem in Ukraine, is that we do not have treatment programs for patients with IBD. We do not have insurance to cover medicine, and all patients buy medicines at their own expense. As people across the world living with IBD know, these medications come with a hefty price tag, making it impossible for people to afford proper treatment. This forces many Ukrainian patients to refuse treatment and eventually become incapacitated. This was an issue before the war and even more so now,” explain Elena.

Therefore, one of the main tasks of Full Life is to collaborate with public authorities, such as Ministry of Health, and advocate for rights of patients while working diligently on programs for affordable and accessible treatment.

“We had made such progress for the IBD patient community prior to the war. But I’m afraid now the war has set us back and we have to start all over again.”

The inspiration behind Full Life

Elena tells me she was inspired to create Full Life because after living with ulcerative colitis for more than two decades she’s learned coping skills and how to manage her disease. She thinks about her younger self and the pediatric patients who feel isolated, panicked, and depressed in their journeys.

“My task as a mentor is to lead by example and show that you can live a full, enriched life with this disease. I love communicating with young patients and helping them see all that’s still possible for them to enjoy and achieve.”

Full Life also provides psychological and mentoring assistance to IBD patients in Ukraine.

During this pre-war protest, Artem’s sign read “No drugs = No future”

“Prior to the war and now—the main issue is continuation of treatment. We only have one way to get treatment covered and that is through participating in clinical trials. We have about 11,000 patients with IBD in Ukraine and one third of those patients participate in clinical trials so they can treat their disease. Because of the war, many clinical trials and centers for these programs came to a halt.”

Of all the biologic drugs to manage IBD utilized across the world, the only one available in Ukraine outside of a clinical trial is Entyvio.

How the war impacted Takeda (maker of Entyvio in Ukraine)

“Unfortunately, because of the war, Takeda pharmaceutical’s company was forced to close its warehouse in Kyiv, and patients who took Entyvio are left without treatment. I am in touch with Takeda representatives, and they promised to resolve the issue of access to treatment soon.”

I also reached out to Takeda here in the United States and was told by their media relations department that they are continuing to evaluate the situation closely and are making every effort to protect their colleagues in Ukraine along with continuing to supply patients in Ukraine and elsewhere in the region with their much-needed treatments. I went on to ask how that is possible with so many people fleeing their homes and becoming refugees.

“We know that many patients are displaced, and this is an extremely difficult time for patients, their loved ones, health care providers, and countless others. Access to medications can be an issue. We are working hard as a company to offer medications to those in need through the appropriate providers of care. We also want to make sure that patients have access to direct support. Since the conflict started, we have worked with stakeholders in the country to ensure the supply chain resumes. Those under the Patient Assistant Program for IBD treatment have received their medication in Ukraine. We have also set up a web page for displaced patients with relevant contact information per therapeutic area. We encourage patients and providers in Ukraine to reach us at https://takeda-help.com.ua/#/,” said Megan Ostower, Global External Communications, Takeda.

The challenge of logistics when it comes to drug access and delivery

Most patients from Ukraine rely on mesalamine (Salofalk, Pentasa, and Asacol). Elena has been on mesalamine since she was diagnosed.

Elena with her daughter early on in her patient journey

“It’s not cheap for me, but it’s the only way I can lead a normal life and keep my illness under control. Before the war, patients had access to mesalamine at local pharmacies or they could order it abroad. Now, most pharmacies in Ukraine are shut down and there’s a huge problem with logistics. It is impossible to deliver drugs from Europe. So now, it’s nearly impossible for us to even get mesalamine.”

One of the first places Elena and her team turned to for assistance was the European Federation of Crohn’s and Ulcerative Colitis Associations (EFCCA). She says they have promised humanitarian aid from Europe.

“We are constantly in touch with Poland, Estonia, Italy, and Spain. Every country wants to help support Ukrainian patients. But Full Life does not have an account in foreign currency, only in UAH (Ukrainian currency). We never anticipated our country and people would be attacked and that there would be a war.”

I reached out to Bella Haaf is Deputy Director of the EFCCA.

She said, “Please be aware that the situation is very difficult out there. We are trying to support the patients associations as much as possible, but we are unfortunately faced with a lot of red tape. As a patient association, it is not legal for us to purchase IBD medication and ship it to our colleagues, which would be a simple solution. So, in the meantime, we are talking to the ministry levels, NGOs (non governmental associations), physicians, and pharmaceutical representatives. Unfortunately, we have experienced little progress. We had hoped to do a private collection of IBD medicines, but again this is legally not possible.”

Elena’s advice for IBD patients in Ukraine and refugees

Elena hopes all Ukrainian IBD patients fleeing the country bring their medical documents (even just a photo on your phone to prove diagnosis).

“To do this, patients need to state their diagnosis when they cross the border and advise medical professionals they need continuous treatment. If you couldn’t bring your medical documents, try and remember what doctors in Ukraine diagnosed you and prescribe your medicine. If there are problems with getting treatment in EU countries, contact Full Life and we will work to solve your issue through local patient agencies.”

For now, each day of destruction and heartbreak leaves the people of Ukraine feeling helpless, especially those with a chronic illness that requires daily management and care.

“I think now neither I nor other Ukrainian patients will be able to write a happy story. We all have the worst period of our lives right now, as our country is in war. We are now very upset and depressed. But we are glad that our American friends remember us and are worried.”

The pharmacy crisis

“What will happen next, I do not know. There are no pharmacies in the village where we live and work. The logistics from Kyiv are very difficult. No delivery companies work.” Today (March 31) Elena’s husband is headed to Kyiv to try and get her medication, which of course comes with many dangers and risks. I will share an update once one is available.

Elena tells me only about 30 percent of pharmacies remain open in Kyiv right now and that there is a “catastrophic shortage of pharmacists left” since so many fled the country.

“Now in those pharmacies that work, there are huge queues, and almost no drugs, because they cannot deliver for various reasons. If I stop taking my drug, I’m afraid it will soon be exacerbated disease. You know how stress affects our disease. This war has caused terrible stress and so many patients have it worse. There are areas in Ukraine where there is no medicine, no food, no water. For example, in Mariupol, we don’t even know if people are alive there. So many have died each day from shelling hunger, and disease. Who could have imagined this in our time?”

Using plastic bags as ostomy bags

Sadly, Elena says many of the patients she’s connected with through Full Life are no longer in touch.

“I don’t know if they are alive. For ostomy patients, they are left without their necessary means for hygiene. Some of my peers have been gluing small plastic bags around their stomas. I am currently talking with patients and taking note of all their needs. There is a doctor in Lviv who treats patients with IBD and that is where we are having all IBD humanitarian aid sent. The Patients’ Association in Poland is actively helping coordinate the delivery of medicines and hygiene products from Europe to Ukraine as well.”

Elena says she is constantly in contact with European Associations, and they all promise to help.

“I try to be in touch with our patients, I try to support them somehow, but it is difficult. The prospects are unclear, it is unclear when this war will end.”

Regardless, Elena works tirelessly to be a pillar of support for others, even as she worries about her own wellbeing. I feel fortunate to have connected with Elena in recent weeks. Her updates and perspective are a reminder of how far IBD treatment still needs to be come in other parts of the world and of the extreme challenges so many people with chronic health conditions are facing in this war.

“As for our progress in receiving humanitarian aid, we are currently waiting on a small package from Greece. The first of two. The second parcel should arrive later. Dr Falk (a pharma company) also donated Budenofalk and Salofalk to us. And on Friday (4/1), a German non-governmental organization plans to send more of these medicines to Ukraine.Our Ministry of Health sent a letter to the Polish Ministry of Health with a list of drugs that Ukrainian patients with IBD need. We are waiting for a
reaction from the Polish side.”

The Full Life organization is a member of the Charitable Society “Patients of Ukraine” and they collect help for all patients and can be of support. Click here to see Facebook posts.

Follow Full Life on Facebook

Full Life’s Patient Group

Stay tuned to Lights, Camera, Crohn’s for continued updates and keep Ukraine and its incredible people close in thought and prayer. Thank you to Elena for her openness and willingness to email me back and forth as she lives through these extreme challenges. We’ve built a friendship from afar and I’m grateful she’s sharing the IBD patient experience through war so the rest of us can have this unique understanding and perspective.

A letter to my 5-year-old son, from your mom with Crohn’s disease

The week before my oldest son, Reid, was born I penned him a letter entitled, “A letter to my unborn son, from your mom with Crohn’s disease.” When I wrote that article, I was 38 weeks pregnant. As a first-time mom, living with Crohn’s disease, I had a mix of excitement, anxiety, and fear about taking the plunge into parenting. Tomorrow (March 29th) Reid turns five. Now as I reflect on my experience of living as an IBD mom for half a decade, I want to share what I’ve learned along the way with you and write him another letter to mark this milestone.

Dear Reid,

Where do I begin? Five years ago, you changed my life in the most beautiful, exciting, challenging, and everchanging way possible. You made me a mom. After more than 11 years of fighting Crohn’s disease and constantly feeling at war with my body, I was able to nurture you, help you grow full-term with a flawless pregnancy, and bring you safely into this world. I feel like I blinked, but I also feel like I’ve known you my whole life.

We’ve been through a lot together, little buddy. As a stay-at-home mom I’ve been by your side through everything. I’ve witnessed every moment of you growing up and I feel eternally grateful for that opportunity. Before you were born, I used to pray that I wouldn’t be hospitalized with a flare up until you could walk. I imagined you as a toddler walking into my hospital room. I feared what it would be like to spend countless days away from you, Facetiming with a smile through the tears or trying to recover from surgery with a little one depending on me at home.

But those fears never became realized. We’ve made it five years, flare up free, baby boy. That’s not to say I haven’t had painful days, procedures, and worries along the way. But you’ve been my greatest motivation since you came into this world. You’ve patiently sat day after day on the bathroom floor when mommy’s tummy wasn’t feeling well. You’ve comforted me on the couch when I don’t have the energy to go outside. You’ve cheered me on as I drank colonoscopy prep each year. You’ve handed me candy and told me it was medicine to make me feel better. You’ve attended countless doctor appointments and lab draws. You’ve snuggled me when you know I’m unwell. You’ve sat next to me with a toy pretending to do an injection alongside me on Monday nights, staring at my face to see if I was hurting. You’ve taken your own shots at the pediatrician like a champ because you’re so desensitized.

You constantly see me through a lens I’ve never been seen through before. I catch you watching my facial expressions. I know when you’re worried about me. I melt when you randomly ask me how my tummy is feeling and if I’m feeling happy, but also feel a sense of sadness that you even need to have that thought cross your mind. You are an empath with a heart of gold. While I wish you didn’t need to witness and experience these difficult moments and I try my best to shield you from my struggles, I know in my heart, and I’ve witnessed firsthand how my disease has shaped and continues to shape our family in positive ways.

As you gear up for kindergarten this fall, I will miss our days…even the long ones! You’ve been a constant in my life since the moment I held you for the first time. Your personality as a baby seemed quiet and shy, boy did you have me and everyone else fooled! You’re so silly, so smart, so thoughtful, so outgoing. You’ve given me a run for my money more times than I can count, but I love that you are so steadfast in knowing what you want and sharing that openly with me.

As an IBD mom I find myself looking at you, and at your sister and brother, on the daily wondering and worrying deep down if one day you’ll get my disease. Every night we say our same prayer, the same prayer I’ve said to you all your life, hugging and rocking back and forth.

“Dear God, keep my baby healthy, safe, and strong. Guide him and protect him. Let him continue to be a light for everyone he meets. I love you forever and ever and ever, I love you forever and ever. I love you forever and ever and ever, I love you forever and ever.”

When I pray for *healthy*, I mean no IBD…but you don’t know that yet. You are a picture of health in every sense of the word. Someday when you’re older you’ll know what I’ve been up against my entire adult life, but my hope is that it will inspire and empower you to be strong through the unpredictable peaks and valleys life will throw your way.

I still haven’t explained fully to you that I have Crohn’s disease. I’m not sure it’s necessary to even say “disease” to you. As you grow up, I’ll tell you more. But for now, I don’t want you to worry or wonder. I hope we get another five years hospital visit-free.

Thank you for showing me all that’s possible and for making me a mom. Five years of loving you, guiding you, and watching you thrive has been magical. When I was pregnant with you there was a Florida Georgia Line song called “H.O.L.Y.” that always made me cry thinking of you—because of the line, “you’re the healing hands where it used to hurt.” The other day I was driving home from the grocery store and that song came on the radio. I hadn’t heard it in years. Instant tears. Instant gratitude.

I love you, Reid Robert. I wish I could bottle up your laughter and littleness. I find myself really staring at you lately in awe that we’re at this point already. You are everything I ever dreamed of and more than I ever hoped for. Thank you for being the sweetest motivation and distraction and for being wise beyond your years. I am so so proud of you. I appreciate you reminding me without knowing it that I am so much more than my disease.

“Mama”

IBD Motherhood Unplugged: I was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis while pregnant

When you think about IBD and motherhood, you may instantly imagine a woman who has dealt with her disease for years before getting pregnant. But that’s not always the case. This week on Light’s, Camera, Crohn’s we hear from IBD mom, Angela Knott. She was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis when she was 17 weeks pregnant with her second child in December 2020. While a circumstance like this is rare, it is possible and complicated.

Between navigating the pandemic and a chronic illness, this diagnosis rocked her world. Angela was living in Australia (away from all family and friends) because her husband is a U.S. Navy pilot. They were on orders for a pilot exchange program in Adelaide, South Australia. Angela and her family now live in Texas.

She reflects on her journey as a woman and mother with ulcerative colitis and how it felt to receive a chronic illness diagnosis while trying to bring a baby safely into this world. Prior to being diagnosed with IBD, Angela was in perfect health. She never had a cavity or even broke a bone. She grew up being extremely active and is in excellent shape. Her first pregnancy in 2018 was flawless and uneventful. She carried her daughter to term and had no issues. But everything started to change when she was 15 weeks pregnant with her son.

During this time, I experienced severe fatigue, anemia, stomach pain, stomach cramps, and weight loss (I lost 15 pounds over two weeks). After a few days of symptoms, I went to my doctor, and I told him all about my symptoms and how I was concerned something might be off with my pregnancy. He told me I was lactose intolerant and that I needed to limit my dairy intake. I did this for three days and then I went back to the doctor because my symptoms were getting worse.”

Angela was then tested for salmonella poisoning and two days later, the test result was negative. By this time, she had already lost 10 pounds and she was becoming scared that something was wrong with her baby. She got a second opinion and was told she likely had irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). That doctor wrote a referral for a gastroenterologist.

“That same evening, I ended up in the hospital due to my symptoms worsening and I was scared my baby’s health was declining since I was so ill. I was told to immediately go to the Women and Children’s Hospital to have the baby monitored (in Australia, this is a hospital for pregnant women, children, teens, and babies). I was more concerned about my baby’s health rather than my own which, is why I went to a hospital that assisted pregnant women.”

While at the hospital, Angela’s baby was monitored and doing well. She was given IV fluids to help with dehydration and she started to feel better. She went home and rested, again being told she likely had IBS.

“Shortly after getting home, I started vomiting and this continued for the next two hours. After speaking with my husband, we decided I needed to go to the ER because something was seriously wrong, and I needed treatment.”

Seeking emergency care during Covid

Due to Covid restrictions in December 2020, Angela’s husband had to drop her off at the emergency room and could not go in, only adding to an already stressful and worrisome situation.

“After reviewing my blood work and hearing about my symptoms, a gastroenterologist at the hospital stated I may have colon cancer, ulcerative colitis, or Crohn’s disease. I knew what IBS was, but I had never heard of UC or Crohn’s before. On top of being told I may have an autoimmune disease or cancer, he told me I needed to have an endoscopy to check for potential inflammation in my colon and that this procedure could result in me miscarrying since I was going to be put under. I had never been so scared in my life.”

Angela underwent the endoscopy in the morning and sure enough, she was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis. She was close to having a toxic mega colon.

“It was a blessing that I went to the ER when I did because if I had waited a day longer, my colon would have become toxic, and my organs would have potentially shut down thus impacting my baby’s life. Later that afternoon, I met with another gastroenterologist, and he gave a thorough explanation of UC and my treatment options. He explained to me I would need Remicade infusions every 6 weeks throughout my pregnancy until I was 36 weeks pregnant. Within the next hour, I received the Remicade infusion.”

She stayed in the hospital for one week and was released on December 23, 2020. Angela received another infusion on Christmas Eve and stayed on a special diet for the next week. Within two weeks, her symptoms had drastically decreased, and miraculously remission seemed to be on the horizon.

“When I started the biologic, I was extremely nervous about how it would affect my baby’s health as well as mine. I was told it was safe for pregnancy, but it was scary knowing that my baby would be exposed to an immunosuppressant drug. I was very cautious during my first pregnancy as well as the first few months of Henry’s pregnancy, so it went against everything I had prepared for and wanted. On the flip side, I also was concerned about how malnourished I was from being so sick. I didn’t want to cause any more issues to my body or cause something to go wrong with my pregnancy.”

Initiating Remicade while pregnant

When Angela was 28 weeks pregnant remission became a distant thought, as her body was rejecting the infusion and she started flaring, again. She had a flexible sigmoidoscopy which showed she had severe amounts of inflammation in my colon.

“At 30 weeks pregnant, my bloodwork showed that my colon was nearing toxic levels and that I needed to have my baby early to ensure my organs didn’t shut down. A few days later, I was admitted to the hospital and my baby, and I were monitored for a week. I was given fluids and steroids to assist with the inflammation (a steroid shot was also given to me for my baby’s lungs). At this point, I had to switch OBs and delivery hospitals since I was admitted to a hospital that dealt with high-risk patients. This was the best decision possible since I was given an amazing team of doctors and specialists.”

Angela and her son were monitored closely. Four medical teams were on board to do all they could to ensure a healthy delivery—NICU, colorectal team, OB, and gastroenterology.

Her miracle baby, Henry, arrived 8 weeks early via an elective c-section April 1, 2021. Angela had a classical c-section (vertical incision on her abdomen) because after she delivered the colorectal team had to check her colon for inflammation.

Luckily, the inflammation was “only” considered mild to moderate. Angela’s bloodwork the day before had showed her colon was near toxic levels. She had been prepped for a possible ostomy. Fortunately, she still has her colon.

How Henry was after birth

Angela’s son was born extremely healthy and came out breathing on his own. He spent the first six weeks in the NICU to assist with growing and feeding and remained in the hospital for an additional week.

“I received another Remicade infusion a few hours after delivering as well as an additional infusion a few days later. Within 24 hours of delivering Henry, I felt like my old self again (pre-UC diagnosis) and I was almost immediately in remission. It was determined my UC was most likely dormant for years and my pregnancy triggered it. Additionally, my initial pregnancy flare started shortly after my second trimester and the Remicade failed when I started my third trimester. My medical team thinks my pregnancy hormones caused a lot of my issues.”

Postpartum as a newly diagnosed IBD mom

In the months following Henry’s birth, Angela was relieved to be feeling more like herself. The fear of a looming flare worried her as a stay-at-home mom. She ended up losing 30 pounds during her pregnancy and was recovering from a very painful c-section.

“Fortunately, I did receive counselling services throughout my pregnancy (after I was diagnosed) and postpartum which helped.”

Due to being on so many different medications and having a stressful birth, Angela had a low milk supply and therefore breastfed, pumped, and supplemented with formula the first few months.”

“I was grateful my baby and I are alive; every day I rejoice thinking of how far we have come, and I am extremely grateful he is healthy and happy. I now have a deep understanding of how short life is and I no longer stress about life’s minor hiccups. I constantly count my blessings and greatly appreciate my health which I took advantage of before my chronic condition. I am a mentally strong person now and I have amazing coping skills because of my diagnosis.”

Angela still receives Remicade infusions every 6 weeks and is extra mindful of her health. She works out a few times a week, eats healthy, watches her stress levels, and makes sleep and rest a priority.

“I am doing everything I can to stay in remission and have been flare-free for almost a year. Every three months, I see my gastroenterologist and have bloodwork taken to ensure my health is on track. Prior to staying home with my kids, I was a teacher and I plan to return to the classroom soon. I am blessed to know I have biologic options to help me stay in remission so I can be successful in the classroom.”

Despite only being diagnosed with ulcerative for 15 months, some days Angela feels like it has been years.

Here’s Angela’s advice for other women dealing with an IBD diagnosis prior to getting pregnant, while pregnant, or after delivering:

  • Seek out mental health assistance during challenging times and find a support group either locally or through social media to connect with others who live with IBD and understand your reality. Angela’s favorite Facebook group is: Ulcerative Colitis Support Group, which has 36,000 members.
  • Ask all the questions. Don’t hesitate to reach out to your care team whenever you’re unsure about something or want clarity. Do all you can do educate yourself on your condition.
  • Get a second opinion. Don’t feel bad about seeking care from multiple specialists to ensure you are making the best decisions for yourself.
  • If you’re a faithful person, lean heavily on prayer and trust that God will watch over you through the highs and the lows of your illness.
  • Communicate as best you can with family and friends. Angela is grateful for the love and support of her husband.

Connect with Angela on Instagram: @angiemknott

IBD Motherhood Unplugged: Being an Ostomate through pregnancy and beyond

Pregnancy and motherhood look differently for women who have an ostomy. And not just physically. But also, emotionally, and mentally. The path to motherhood is unique for those of us in the IBD community and we’re living at a time when more research about pregnancy and breastfeeding is right at our fingertips, all of which sets IBD moms and moms-to-be up for success.

Whether you’re on the brink of needing an ostomy and fearful of what this means for your future. Whether you’re a mom of a young girl and worry about whether your daughter will ever be able to be a mom. Whether you’re newly diagnosed and can’t imagine your damaged body bringing a life into this world. Whether you just took a pregnancy test after a bag change and can’t believe it’s positive and don’t know what to do next. These transparent and real-life patient stories will bring you hope and help empower you in coping, preparing yourself, and working with your care team, if carrying a baby is something you hope to do one day.

This week we hear from several ostomates—some who are moms, others who are pregnant right now, and two women who got pregnant after having a proctocolectomy (removal of rectum and colon).

Krista Deveau was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis as a child. After having two bowel resection surgeries and her ostomy surgery over the course of 10 years, she was worried about whether being a mom would ever be an option.

The reason for getting a temporary ileostomy and avoiding even more scar tissue, was because of I wanted to start a family with my husband in the years to come. To my surprise and my GI’s surprise, we got pregnant much easier than expected, truly a blessing because this isn’t always the outcome for everyone.” 

She’s now 24 weeks pregnant and expecting her first baby in June! Krista says this is the best she’s ever felt. Her symptoms have been silent aside from having phantom rectum/poop and passing mucus more frequently lately.

Krista is on a dual biologic treatment plan (Stelara and Entyvio) every 4 weeks. She plans to stop her Entyvio treatment at 32 weeks and resume her infusion in the hospital after she delivers. She’s still in the process for determining her game plan with Stelara. She also takes prenatal vitamins, vitamin D, and b12 shots. She expects she’ll need iron infusions before baby arrives.

As of now, she plans to do a vaginal birth. Due to not having perianal disease and already having significant scar tissue and adhesions from previous surgeries, her care team determined this plan with her. Like any IBD mom-to-be, she worries about the ever-present threat of a postpartum flare, having to be hospitalized and be away from her baby, and possibly passing her disease onto offspring.

Katie Cuozzo was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease when she was 5 years old. She’s had concerns about not being able to get pregnant for as long as she can remember. Now, she’s 34-years-old and a mom of three girls. Her oldest daughter was 18 months old when she received her ostomy, so she’s been pregnant with and without a bag.

“The only difference that I noticed between pregnancy with an ostomy versus without was how to dress. As my stomach was getting bigger, it was a little harder to disguise my bag. I would mostly wear baggy clothing. With my first pregnancy, I was able to deliver vaginally, I had c-sections with my younger two.”

Katie’s perianal disease got significantly worse after delivering her firstborn. Originally, she was planning to have a temporary colostomy, but her symptoms didn’t improve so she decided to get a total colectomy. Despite her IBD causing her so many issues, Katie was able to conceive on her own without any problems.

She remained on her medications during all three pregnancies. She took Cimzia during her first pregnancy and Stelara during her other two pregnancies. Katie also continued to take her prenatal vitamin, vitamin D, vitamin b12, and calcium supplements. She also breastfed all her children.

“As I was planning for ostomy surgery, my surgeon told me that if he did a total proctectomy- removal of my rectum, my chance of fertility would decrease significantly. I made the choice to keep my rectum in place until I was done trying for more kids. I am now at a place in my life where I am beyond blessed with my three daughters and am ready to have my final surgery to remove my rectum, knowing that I will likely never be able to have more kids.”

Katie says she was amazed at how great she felt while pregnant. It was the first time in a while she was having regular, normal bowel movements and was able to eat anything and everything without having abdominal pains and needing to run to the bathroom.

Katie Nichol was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis in 2018 when she was 30 years old. She went through an emergency subtotal colectomy surgery in October 2019 to remove her diseased large bowel/colon and an ileostomy was created.

I was told that I would keep my rectal stump to further my chances of being able to have children in the future, but my doctors told me to seriously think about having my family before my next operation, either a total proctectomy or j pouch surgery. Personally, I never thought I would ever be able to get pregnant after surgery as it was such a big life change and a lot of trauma had happened in my abdomen with surgery.”

Katie and her husband had been trying to conceive since before her IBD diagnosis. She didn’t know anyone in real life with a stoma. It made her anxious as she was unsure how her body would respond if she got pregnant and how it would affect her stoma, intestines, and overall health.

“After receiving my ileostomy, I felt so much healthier, happier, and started to think that my body would be able to conceive and start our family. My IBD team and surgeon kept saying at appointments post op that if I wanted a family I would need to start trying in the next couple of years before my next operation.”

Katie says her surgeon wanted to ‘preserve her pipes’ and advised her that a vaginal birth may cause some damage from pushing. Her care team warned her about the possibility of her rectal stump or stoma having the chance to prolapse, so she went ahead and scheduled a c-section.

 “One surprise I used to get was when the baby was lying to my stoma side (right hand side) it would sometimes look like I had a hernia around my stoma sight, but the baby was underneath my stoma, this freaked me out a good few times, but it was amazing to see the baby move and my stoma still standing strong on my stomach.” 

Katie took prenatal vitamins, iron, and was on a rectal foam for her rectal stump while she was pregnant. Since her stoma surgery, she is no longer on medication. Now she takes suppositories for her rectal stump before bed.

Receiving a Total Colectomy as a mom of two

Kimberly Hooks was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis in 2011. She was 28 years old. Her oldest daughter, Briana, was five years old when Kimberly received her IBD diagnosis. After nine years she was able to reach remission and became pregnant with her second child. Kimberly had a three-stage J-pouch procedure between the fall and spring of 2020. She was an IBD mom of two while all of this was going down.

“I honestly did not want to accept that I had to have three surgeries. I was utterly devastated when I found out that I had to have a total colectomy. My surgeries were scheduled during the height of the pandemic in 2020. Mentally, I could not wrap my head around the fact that I would not be there for my family, especially during this critical time in our lives. I felt hopeless; I felt defeated as a mother and wife.”

Kimberly’s colectomy was unexpected. She did not have time to process anything.

“We often put ourselves last; however, I was not given a choice in this case. The reality was I had two more surgeries to undergo, and I understood that I have a family that loves and supports me. I realized this was my time to ensure that I did what I had to do to heal, recover, and finally be the best mom and wife I could be.”

The experience impacted Kimberly and her family in the most positive way. Her husband and daughters rose to the occasion day after day to offer love and support and saw Kimberly as their hero. She was discharged from the hospital after getting her ostomy on Mother’s Day and her daughters made her signs and gave her flowers.

“All the while, it was me who had to accept that living with an ostomy is something to be proud of. At first, mentally, it was a hard pill to swallow, but after awhile I realized that my ostomy bag saved my life; I will be forever thankful!”

Pregnancy after a Proctocolectomy

Kayla Lewis was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease at age 10. When she was 24, Katie had surgery and received her ileostomy. She says that’s the first-time fertility and her future as a mother crossed her mind. Then, in 2017 she became incredibly sick. She tried what she thought was a temporary ostomy for six months. Then in a follow up scope her GI perforated her bowel.

“When I woke up, I was informed that my entire colon was scar tissue so much that the camera could barely go into the bowel before perforating it. At that point, I was told my options were to leave the colon and rectum or schedule to have both removed, but either way, the ostomy was suddenly permanent. I did not want to resort to that initial surgery till I knew I had exercised all other options available to me including meds, treatments, and diet. Being that surgery was my only hope at gaining life back, I never fully questioned how it would affect my fertility. I did briefly ask the surgeon if I can still have kids one day. He responded with a simple ‘yes’ and I left it at that.”

Even though Kayla says she still would have continued with her proctocolectomy regardless, she wishes she would have thought to ask more questions. Thanks to her ostomy, Kayla has been in remission for 5 years. She felt like family planning could be on her own terms.

“Being 12 weeks pregnant with an ostomy has been much smoother than I had envisioned for myself. I work as a nurse in an operating room, so feeling nauseous and vomiting was my biggest concern early on. I have a small body frame, so maybe once the bump starts to show, I will experience stoma changes. Hopefully, nothing more than just cutting the wafer a bit smaller or larger.”

Currently, Kayla takes Imuran and Allopurinol daily and injects Stelara every 8 weeks. She also takes a prenatal vitamin.

“I was always told that when the time comes for me to become a mom, it would have to be via c-section and not vaginally. I knew this well before my ostomy, because I was warned how difficult it could be for me to heal from tearing as well as could trigger a flare. After my proctocolectomy, I knew without a doubt, I would need to schedule a c-section to play it safe.”

Lori Plung was diagnosed with Crohn’s Colitis in 1980. She was 16 years old. Two years after her diagnosis her disease became severe. As she reflects, she remembers being very worried about ever being healthy enough to be a mom.

“My mom was told by my GI at the time that he didn’t have a good feeling about me being able to have children. This was not shared with me at the time, and this was well before surgery was mentioned to us.”

In 1988, Lori had a proctocolectomy. She remembers lying in the hospital bed before her surgery and a local IBD mom and her toddler coming to visit and show her all that’s possible with an ostomy.

“I believe what was missing, was a conversation with my doctors about how my anatomy would change after surgery and the possibility of scar tissue building up near my ovaries, fallopian tubes, and uterus. Therefore, making it harder to conceive. When it was time for us to try for a family, we couldn’t conceive on our own. In the back of my mind, I knew my insides were shifted around and I had a strong suspicion that mechanically things were not working correctly. We tried for about 6 months and started investigating fertility options. We didn’t wait the full year as often recommended because I was feeling well —and as we know with IBD, when the disease is under control, It’s the optimal time to be pregnant.”

Lori went through many fertility treatments and said no one blamed her proctocolectomy as the culprit. She ended up having scar tissue on one of her fallopian tubes. She got pregnant with her first child through IUI (Intrauterine insemination) and her second through IVF.

She remembers telling her husband she didn’t want their kids to have memories of growing up with a “sick mom.” She had three more IBD-related surgeries, numerous hospital stays, and says her energy was drained, but she prided herself on her inner strength and determination to always push through no matter what.

Lori says if she could talk to her former self, she would tell herself not to feel guilty about needing to stay home and do quiet activities because she was having a hard Crohn’s day.

“Not to be hard on myself when we sat and watched Barney (my daughter Dani’s favorite) or Teletubbies (my son Jesse’s favorite) because I was too exhausted to move. Not to feel guilty when everything fell on my husband, especially through each surgery and recovery. It’s ok to ask for help and not feel guilty.”

Lori’s kids are now 23 and 26. She still can’t believe she’s been able to be a mom and be there every step of the way as her kids thrived through each stage and season of life.

Advice for fellow ostomates about pregnancy

  • If you have an ostomy, you can have a baby. Don’t let your ostomy hold you back. Work with your care team to know when the right time is and if there would be any issues with getting pregnant.
  • The body has a way of coping no matter what. Your past trauma prepares you to handle the unknown and celebrate every win—big or small, along the way.
  • Keep the faith. You may run into roadblocks but exhaust all options before you throw in the towel. Miracles happen every day, stay hopeful.
  • Find a care team well-versed on IBD. A medical team who understands your complexities and who is supportive will make your experience with pregnancy and an ostomy a positive one. Have all hands-on deck and connect with your IBD team, surgeon, ostomy nurse, and Maternal Fetal Medicine (MFM) group. It will give you a sense of security as you embark on this wonderful and exciting adventure. Your ostomy nurse will be a huge resource—as your belly grows, so will your stoma.
  • Be mindful of ultrasound gel. Be prepared at OB-GYN and MFM appointments by bringing extra bags and wafers. Try and make sure your ostomy is empty prior to ultrasounds and then fold it up or hold it up to keep it out of the way. Ultrasound gel can make the adhesive come off. Many of the IBD moms I spoke to said they change their bag after every ultrasound to make sure all the gel is off their stomachs, so the new bag can stick on properly.
  • Stoma size and output. Don’t be alarmed if the size of your stoma changes as your baby bump grows. Stomas go back to their pre-pregnancy size after babies are born. For some, output can get thicker, and you can have more gas, but that’s likely due to being able to tolerate more fruits and veggies. As your belly grows, your bag may dangle rather than being tucked away and become a bit uncomfortable.
  • Remember everyone’s journey is unique. While each of these amazing women are sharing positive pregnancy experiences, don’t forget all the roadblocks, flares, and health issues they had to overcome to get to this point.
  • Ostomies gave you life and enable you to bring life into this world. For many IBD moms it’s surreal to experience your body go from attacking itself to nurturing and creating a life. Pregnancy provides a renewed love and appreciation for all that our bodies are capable of, despite our IBD.
  • Connect with other ostomates over social media and through support groups. Don’t hesitate to reach out to women who are living your same reality on social media. We’re all a family. Peer to peer support is amazing, reach out to fellow IBD moms. Here are the Instagram handles for the women featured in this article. Give them a follow!
    • Krista Deveau–@my.gut.instinct
    • Katie Cuozzo–@kati_cuoz
    • Katie Nichol–@bagtolife_
    • Kimberly Hooks–@kimberlymhooks
    • Kayla Lewis–@kaylallewis_
    • Lori Plung–@loriplung