One in three people with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) has iron deficient anemia. This common, but often underrecognized and undertreated extra-intestinal manifestation impacts so many of us. You may wonder why. The reason is three-fold.
First being that long-term irritation and inflammation in our intestines can interfere with our body’s ability to use and absorb vitamins and minerals properly. When our intestines don’t absorb enough iron, folate, B12 and other nutrients, our bodies are unable to create more red blood cells. Those with IBD are also at risk for blood loss—both visible and microscopic and we often don’t eat as much iron-rich foods. So, what can we do to boost our reserves and increase our energy? How as patients can we better advocate for ourselves to stay on top of screenings? This week on Lights, Camera, Crohn’s an in-depth look at anemia in both adult and pediatric patients and input from Dr. Alka Goyal, who recently co-authored a major study on pediatric anemia.
Symptoms to watch out for
As someone who was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease in July 2005, I experienced anemia long before my diagnosis. I often wonder if my anemia was a warning sign of the larger issue, my IBD. In fourth grade, I fainted on the teacher’s desk while waiting for her to look at an assignment. Throughout my life I’ve experienced light-headedness, weakness, black outs, and extreme fatigue. My symptoms were never addressed prior to finding out I had Crohn’s. A simple lab test would have shown all along. When I was diagnosed with IBD and hospitalized my hemoglobin was a 7. To give you an idea, people are given blood transfusions once they drop to 7 (or below). Throughout my 18 years with IBD, my hemoglobin was rarely ever in “double digits”—and I took over the counter iron supplements for years.
Once I had my bowel resection surgery in 2015, my iron panel slowly started to improve. It takes time. Last month, I had my “highest” hemoglobin since diagnosis, ever—12.9 (which really isn’t that high, but I’ll take it!). It’s difficult to put the fatigue caused by anemia into words, but you can physically tell such a difference when your iron panel is where it needs to be.
When you have anemia, you have less blood carrying oxygen throughout your body. The most common symptom is feeling tired or lethargic. Other symptoms include dizziness, headaches, feeling cold, pale skin, being irritable, and shortness of breath. Not everyone experiences symptoms, so it’s important as a patient to speak with your GI about making sure that when you get labs, an iron panel is part of the workup.
Screening for Anemia
Anemia screening is driven by patient symptoms and/or a care provider’s recognition of lab abnormalities. It’s important to note that anemia is not *just* a low hemoglobin, all the lab figures matter. With iron deficiency anemia (IDA), red blood cells are smaller and paler in color. Your hematocrit, hemoglobin, and ferritin go hand in hand. Ferritin helps store iron in your body. Iron deficiency anemia is the most common type of anemia and is caused by a lack of iron-rich foods, malabsorption, and blood loss.
Other types of anemia include vitamin deficiency anemia and anemia of chronic disease. Vitamin deficiency anemia is a result of poor absorption of folic acid and vitamin B12. My GI has me on daily folic acid. Luckily my B12 has never been an issue, but it’s worth a discussion with your care team. If you’re deficient, you can receive B12 injections. Diseases such as IBD and other inflammatory diseases can interfere with the production of red blood cells. When this happens anemia can often only be resolved once remission is reached or inflammation calms down.
In order to address the need for improved patient management, the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation created the Anemia Care Pathway (ACP) to standardize clinical management of anemia in IBD. This pathway helps to identify high-risk patients so that timely intervention and care can be provided. The hope is that this pathway will improve patient outcomes and our quality of life. Patients are assessed based on the severity of their anemia and iron stores to determine the type of iron therapy (intra-venous or oral) that is best suited.
The importance of accurately diagnosing the type of anemia you have
According to the PubMed study, Management of Anemia in Patient with Inflammatory Bowel Disease, despite iron deficiency anemia impacting one third of IBD patients, “more than a third of anemic ulcerative colitis patients are not tested for IDA, and a quarter are not treated with iron replacement therapy.” While oral iron tablets are effective for treating mild IDA, it’s not for everybody. The study also notes, “it is important to recognize that ferritin is elevated in chronic inflammatory states and among patients with active IBD, ferritin levels less than 100 are considered to be diagnostic of iron deficiency.” Iron infusions have a solid safety profile and can be used to help boost your iron stores and prevent future iron deficiency.
While treatment goals are well-defined, selecting a treatment is often not as straightforward. The PubMed study previously mentioned recommends that all IBD patients with IDA should be considered for oral supplement therapy, whereas someone with clinically active IBD, or someone who is not tolerant of oral iron, with hemoglobin levels below 10 g/dl be given IV infusions therapy. While oral iron is safe and affordable, some people experience GI issues from oral iron, it can also increase inflammation and contribute to flares in patients who are not in remission.
“Though intravenous (IV) iron is substantially underused, it’s considered first-line treatment for patients with active disease, severe anemia, oral iron intolerance, and erythropoietin (a hormone secreted by the kidneys that increases the rate of production of red blood cells in response to falling levels of oxygen in the tissues.)
Anemia in pediatric IBD patients
The most common cause of anemia in children with IBD is iron deficiency. It results from chronic blood loss, poor absorption, and less intake of foods that are rich in iron due to poor appetite, food selection or intolerance. According to the World Health Organization’s definition of anemia, prevalence in the pediatric IBD population ranges from 44% to 74% at diagnosis and 25% to 58% at 1 year follow-up.
Anemia can be both a biomarker of disease activity and a subtle or debilitating extraintestinal manifestation. According to, Anemia in Children With Inflammatory Bowel Disease: A Positi… : Journal of Pediatric Gastroenterology and Nutrition (lww.com), “newly diagnosed children with IBD are more likely to have IDA in contrast to anemia of chronic disease. No significant improvement in the hemoglobin was observed when patients were assessed after 13 weeks of induction therapy with conventional drugs that included nutritional therapy, azathioprine, steroids, and 5-ASAs. Despite the recognition of anemia, fewer than half of anemic patients received indicated iron therapy.”
Dr. Alka Goyal, MD, Clinical Professor of Pediatrics, and Interim Associate Chief of Clinical Affairs at Stanford University of Medicine, co-authored this study on pediatrics and tells me the key message is that anemia is the most common extraintestinal manifestation in patients with IBD.
“More than 2/3rd of children with IBD are anemic at the time of diagnosis. The treatment of IBD alone does not resolve anemia, which can be associated with a variety of symptoms. Persistent anemia indicates a more aggressive disease course,” said Dr. Goyal.
Hemoglobin levels across genders and race
According to the study, hemoglobin levels are similar in preteen boys and girls; however, after menstruation, the cutoff hemoglobin in girls is lower than in boys and is even lower in pregnant versus nonpregnant women. The African American population tends to have lower hemoglobin concentration compared with Caucasians.
“Although the normal range of hemoglobin varies with age, gender, and race, a hemoglobin level below 10 g/dL is considered to be consistent with moderate anemia and below 8 g/dL as severe anemia, whereas in young children below the age of 5 years and pregnant women, a hemoglobin level below 7 g/dL is deemed as severe anemia.”
Dr. Goyal says it’s important to monitor anemia regularly in all patients with IBD.
“Anemia can be an early indicator of active disease or an impending flare of IBD. When the body has inflammation, the iron stored in the body cannot be metabolized to help manufacture more hemoglobin and additionally there is suppression of normal blood production, resulting in anemia of chronic disease.”
Other causes include vitamin deficiency, medication side effects, or breakdown of red blood cells due to other inherited or disease-related complications.
“Patients should be monitored not just by symptoms, but also by blood tests like complete blood count, Ferritin, and markers of inflammation like CRP every 3 months when they have active inflammation and every 6 months when patients are in remission,” Dr. Goyal explains.
Bringing a dietitian on board to help
Registered dieticians who specialize in IBD can advise patients and families about foods that contain iron naturally. The iron in meats is more readily absorbed than that present in a plant-based diet.
Dr. Goyal says another important concept is food pairing.
“With food pairing, iron-rich foods like spinach, kale, and Swiss chard are ingested with citrus fruits, melons, or vegetables like bell pepper, broccoli, beans, carrots, tomato, etc. Avoid simultaneous ingestion of foods rich in dietary fiber, soy, cereals, coffee, tea, and animal protein like milk, and eggs. Children should consume at least three servings of iron-rich foods like fortified cereals, red meat, tofu, etc. The recommended daily intake of iron in healthy children is 7-11 mg daily,” says Dr. Goyal.
Treating anemia in the younger IBD population
When it comes to treating anemia, Dr. Goyal has helpful tips. She says it’s important to recognize and treat anemia along with the treatment of IBD and vice versa.
Oral iron can be tried in mild anemia when the hemoglobin is above 10 gm/dl, preferably given with juice or citrus fruits.
Avoid taking oral iron multiple times a day or in high doses.
Brush your child’s teeth after taking liquid iron.
If your child experiences side effects including abdominal pain, nausea, or constipation, and/or has no significant improvement with oral iron, it is safe to give intravenous iron.
Timely treatment may save a blood transfusion. excessive unabsorbed iron is not healthy for our digestive system, so avoid overdosing on oral iron.
Patients with persistent anemia lasting for three or more years were noted to have a higher prevalence of more severe and complicated disease (stricturing and penetrating phenotype) with a greater need for surgical intervention.
Whether you’re an adult patient or a caregiver to a child or young adult with IBD, be mindful of the importance of keeping tabs on whether anemia is creeping in and hindering you or someone you loves quality of life. Have the conversation with your GI and make sure you are being vigilant and proactive about doing all you can to prevent, manage, and treat anemia.
When you have IBD and you start to notice GI symptoms going awry, it’s easy to allow your mind to start racing and your worries to become all-consuming. This past week I did an in-person patient advocacy speaking engagement, came home, and started feeling extremely fatigued. Within an hour, I vomited, and the diarrhea began. Not to be TMI (is that even a thing when you have IBD?), but this wasn’t just “normal” diarrhea. It felt like I was prepping for a colonoscopy. Straight water-like diarrhea that hit me like a ton of bricks. I couldn’t stop. In that moment, I thought about how I was on an antibiotic for a sinus infection and bronchitis and knew that alone, with Crohn’s disease, put me at greater risk for C.diff.
For those who don’t know, “C.diff” or Clostridioides difficile is a bacterium that causes an infection of the large intestine (colon). Symptoms can range from diarrhea to life-threatening damage to the colon. According to the Mayo Clinic, C.diff typically occurs after or during the use of antibiotic medications. In the United States, about 500,000 people are infected each year.
The risk of C.diff and IBD
When I couldn’t stop going to the bathroom, I immediately contacted my GI. Being that it was 4 pm on a Friday, the timing of it all was challenging. She called me from home and said she normally wouldn’t be too concerned, but the fact I had just finished a course of prednisone while being on doxycycline put me at greater risk. She warned that if I had diarrhea the following day or if I had a fever at any time, that I would need to get tested for C. diff and go to the hospital. She put in orders so I would be able to do so and told me to contact the Fellow on staff if I had concerns over the weekend.
Saturday came and with the bathroom trips came unbelievable abdominal pain, reminiscent of what a bowel obstruction feels like. I could barely walk and was grasping my abdomen in pain hunched over. I had already called and spoken to the Fellow on call three different times. In that moment, my husband called his mom so she could watch our three kids and we rushed to the emergency room.
A study by the University of Michigan recently looked into the relationship between IBD and C.Diff. The study found that people with IBD are at an increased risk for C.diff, even if we haven’t taken antibiotics. It’s believed something about the IBD gut supports C.diff colonization and growth, but the actual relationship is still a bit mysterious. This study looked at a mouse model and found, “inflammation and changes in the gut microbiota associated with IBD promote C.diff intestinal colonization.”
For those of us with IBD, our immune system mistakes normal intestinal microbes as harmful invaders and attacks them, leading to inflammation in our guts. The cause of C.diff is similar, with the immune system, microbiota, and C.diff itself playing a role in infection.
The burden of C.diff on the IBD population
According to an interview in Pharmacy Times, we’re at greater risk for C.diff when our IBD is active. This is because active inflammation changes the flora in our microbiome and puts us at greater risk for developing infection. In this piece Bincy Abraham, MD, MS says we see C.diff in both ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease patients but tend to see it more in those with UC since the colon is directly impacted.
Get this—A database of patients with IBD showed 10% will have at least one C. diffinfection over the course of their lifetime. Half will have more than one. WebMD shares that C.diff infection begins with frequent, watery, foul-smelling bowel movements and cramps in your abdomen. When I was unsure if I had C.diff that was the number one question I kept getting asked. People told me the smell was very unique—like a barnyard, sour smell. Thanks to my sinus infection congestion, I had no idea what it smelled like. But—it’s important to look out for that if symptoms present. Medical professionals told me they can tell right away by the smell, if it’s C.diff.
Symptoms of C.diff
While watery diarrhea with a strong odor is the main indicator—there are other symptoms to watch out for:
-Abdominal pain and cramps
-Fever (I had the chills, but my GI assured me that was due to dehydration from the diarrhea)
-Nausea and/or vomiting
-Loss of appetite
-In severe cases, blood or pus in stools
For anyone with IBD, these symptoms are reflective of what we experience with an IBD flare. So, it can feel especially concerning in the moment as you try and figure out what’s going on.
My rough ER experience and finally getting tested
I always him and haw and dread the thought of seeking medical care at the ER. It brings about so many emotions and past trauma. But in this case, I knew I needed to wave the white flag and get to the bottom of what was happening. After waiting four excruciating hours in the ER, I wasn’t sure how much more I could take. I was moaning in pain and hobbling back and forth repeatedly to the bathroom. Bobby was using a wheelchair to push me around. The nurses in triage were incredibly unprofessional and lacked any empathy. It was like nothing I’ve ever experienced. I was basically reprimanded for showing emotion about my pain and told others had it worse. It was despicable. She waved her “RN” badge in my face and said she had a woman die from a pulmonary embolism while in the waiting room and she didn’t make a peep. As I was crying, I yelled back, “I’M NOT A WIMP! I have Crohn’s disease!”
Once I was finally brought back to a room, the same nurse acted sweet as sugar. Gag me. The ER doctor had no clue what was going on. I was taken for a CT scan with contrast while in the waiting room and the young doctor walked up to me all cocky and said, “ So, you have an ileostomy.”…I said, no I don’t have an ostomy. He then proceeded to say, “Oh, so you had a reversal.” NO. I had bowel resection surgery. The fact the doctor was clueless to IBD and thought that because I had an anastomosis indicated a reversal (even though I have Crohn’s) was scary. I was given Zofran, fluids, and Dilaudid and was told it was most likely a stomach bug, but that they would like to do a stool sample to rule out C.diff.
Unfortunately, since I had literally shit my brains out in the ER for hours, I had nothing left. I hadn’t eaten in almost 30 hours. By the grace of God, around midnight, I was able to go. I was so grateful to have a stool sample and get some answers. The shift changed and a new doctor walked in. She was empathetic, kind, and knew her shit about IBD. I felt an immediate sense of relief. She told me they were going to do one more round of Zofran, fluids, dilaudid and add in Benadryl and Droperidol for anxiety and to calm things down and if that didn’t help, I would be admitted. Luckily, that heavy hitting dose of IV fluids and meds did the trick and I was finally comfortable and able to go home around 1:30 a.m., knowing that I’d get the C.diff result the next day.
Despite testing negative for C.diff, my diarrhea and excruciating abdominal pain lasted from Friday at 2 pm until Tuesday evening. This stomach bug was no joke and I always feel when you have IBD with a stomach bug, it’s next level.
The Patient Experience: What you had to say about C.diff
I ran a poll on Instagram, 307 people with IBD responded. Of that group, 37% have had C.diff. On Twitter, 147 people responded and 28% shared they had C.diff at some point during their patient journey. I was blown away by the hundreds of DM’s I received on Instagram when I asked for advice and was freaking out about the possibility of having it. I learned a great deal from all the insights shared. Here are some of the messages I received that I feel can benefit our community moving forward:
“I went through a case of C.diff this summer after two rounds of antibiotics and a round of steroids at the same time. I was miserable, only eating boiled potatoes with a little salt and bananas. Once I got meds (dificid), I saw improvement quickly. I also take Visbiome probiotic (prescription strength) and taking that regularly helped me in a period of waiting for results.”
“I had C.diff back in 2015…awful. It was so brutal. I was sick for over a month with it, just couldn’t shake it even with the crazy dosing of antibiotics.”
“Keep an eye on your temperature and if you’re running a fever with the diarrhea—that’s a big indicator.”
“I had C.diff on and off for four years and just got a fecal transplant in November and have been “cured” since. I’ve never thought C.diff was like the stomach flu/norovirus. C.diff to me is more like a bad IBD flare with some fever/chills and diarrhea that’s very distinct from whatever your “normal” IBD diarrhea may be.”
“I battled C.diff for a year. Ask for Vancomycin right away. It’s the best medication for it. Having Crohn’s and C.diff is a horrible combination. It caused me a lot of issues.”
“I had C.diff earlier this year. My symptoms included a very smelly gas, low-grade fever, abdominal cramps, and mushy stool. Pedialyte, broth, and tea helped a lot.”
“Every time I take antibiotics, I take saccharomyces boulardii (probiotic). The specific strain helps prevent C.diff.”
“C.diff is MISERABLE. I can normally smell if it’s C.diff. I’ve had it five times. Go to the ER and do not wait. It’s so horrible. It’s exhausting and being that sick is the worst. The pain is awful, too. No one ever discusses how much pain it puts people in.”
“I’ve had C.diff so many times. Output is like colored water, and I go 20-plus times a day. Mine way always a weird yellowish color. Going to the ER means a quicker diagnosis and for me I end up inpatient, too. With C.diff I’ve found liquid Vancomycin works best as it’s absorbed faster, the pills just went straight through me.”
“C.diff is super hard to get rid of, so fast treatment is key. I had a recurrent infection for nearly a year. I took Vancomycin 4x/day for a few weeks and eventually tapered down. I think it was just a nasty strain, but I eventually kicked it out.”
“C.diff is a doozy to have. The hardest part for me was keeping family and friends away as it’s super contagious, too. I remember a lot of Zofran. IV fluids and sleeping as much as humanly possible. Use wipes instead of toilet paper so your bum doesn’t get raw.”
“My brother had C.diff and the only thing to get rid of it was very strong antibiotics. Every time I’m on an antibiotic, it makes me very sick and puts me in a flare and I have choice but to start probiotics.”
“C.diff is rough and highly contagious. I had it right before I went on Humira. Make sure to bleach your bathroom and not to prepare food. My GI was super concerned about me giving it to my husband. My treatment was Vancomycin 125 mg orally 4x a day for 10 days.”
“I have been battling reoccurring C.diff for almost 2 years. Coming up on my second Fecal Transplant as the first failed. I was in a flare and absolutely nothing was working. Finally discovered underlying C.diff. Vancomycin changed my life. Within 48 hours I went from 15-20 bowel movements a day to 1-2.My doctors are baffled by how well I respond to it.”
“I’ve had C.diff more than once, the first time I waited almost too late to seek testing and ended up with dangerously low potassium, EKG changes, and was hospitalized. The second time I didn’t even know I had it until I was being worked up to join a clinical trial for my UC and had to do treatment, again. Liquid IV packets help ward off dehydration.”
“My son who has Crohn’s has had C.diff two times. Vancomycin with a long, slow taper was key to get rid of it both times. Wipe the bathroom down with bleach constantly.”
“C.diff is the actual worst. If you have it, skip Flagyl and go straight to Dificid. Flagyl made me SO sick. Like so much worse and it didn’t get rid of it…and that’s the case for multiple other people I know who’ve had it.”
“I had C.diff. I played the waiting game, and it was miserable. If your stool is completely watery and very foul smelling, then it’s C.diff.”
“I take Culturelle Probiotics Digestive Health Extra Strength whenever I’m on an antibiotic to prevent it.”
“I had reoccurring C.diff during the pandemic, a few months after my bowel resection, and for recurring months after. They would usually do a fecal transplant, but they were on hold because of COVID. It took months to get better.”
Kick C.diff to the curb
Ironically, while C.diff can be brought on by antibiotics, the only way to get rid of it…is to take more antibiotics. The three most prescribed are Vancomycin, Flagyl and Dificid. In severe cases, especially when toxic megacolon becomes an issue, you might need surgery to remove the damaged portions of your bowel. Other options for reoccurring infection include Fecal Microbiota Transplant (FMT), where donor stool is introduced in your colon. Probiotics and antibody therapy are often used as well. Certain antibodies are known to provide immunity against the toxins produced by C.diff. A combination of the medications actoxumab and bezlotoxumab can lower your changes of the infection coming back.
When I received the negative C.diff test result I felt such relief. So many of my symptoms aligned with the tall-tale signs, I wasn’t sure what to expect. The entire process has been such a learning experience and I hope that you’ve taken away some helpful nuggets of knowledge should you ever question you have C.diff yourself.
Parenthood when you live with a chronic illness like IBD can make you feel anxious, worried, and uneasy. As an IBD mom of three, I often connect with and share the stories of fellow women with Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis who have brought life into this world, despite their disease.
This week on Lights, Camera, Crohn’s we hear from a soon-to-be IBD Dad, Brad Watson-Davelaar. He was diagnosed with Crohn’s in 2001 at age 17. His name and face may look familiar, as I featured him in an article entitled: IBD Dads: What these patient heroes have to say about fatherhood. In that article, Brad was recently married and discussed his hopes for the future. Those hopes came to fruition, as he and his wife are awaiting the arrival of a baby girl in late June!
Leading up to the pregnancy, Brad was a bit scared of what fatherhood would look like while living with an unpredictable disease. Like many of us, Brad fears when his IBD will rear its ugly head again and cause him not to be as present as he wants to be, hindering his ability to be a “proper teammate” for his wife.
“Prior to my wife being pregnant, I think I was scared. I’ve wanted to be a dad for some time, but with the way my health has been over the last several years, the prospect of having kids while I was in that physical state freaked me out. Not because I didn’t want kids, but because I was worried I wasn’t going to be enough for them.”
Finding out he was going to be a dad
When Brad found out his wife was expecting he was elated. They had been trying for a few months and he was only a couple months post-op from his ileostomy and barbie butt surgery. While Brad knows life as an IBD Dad will have its ups and downs, he knows the highs will far outweigh any of the difficult days.
“I’m so thankful for Shawn, my stoma, for coming in and giving me a new lease on life. I feel ready to tackle this new chapter of our life and all that comes with it. The good, the bad, the ugly, and the beautiful.”
Since he’s lived with IBD for nearly 22 years and has been an ostomate for 6 months, Brad feels his patient journey has conditioned him to deal with the unexpected. He hopes to connect with fellow IBD dads who have paved the way before him and shown all that’s possible.
Discussing IBD with his daughter in the future
As his daughter grows up, Brad plans to be an open book about his battle with Crohn’s.
“I want to help her understand what IBD and ostomies are. Especially ostomies. It will take time, but I believe in being open and not hiding things. I want her to see that my IBD does not define me and show her how important it is to advocate for yourself.”
As Brad and his wife gear up to become a family of three, they are overjoyed and excited about the new chapter in their lives that is about to begin.
“I’ll be there to look after this wee little one, which will fill my heart with warmth. Being able to focus on her achievements will be a brilliant way to get through the rough days. In the past, it was the little things that got me through. Now, I’ll have all the little moments to continually push me.”
His wife, Sydney, feels so lucky to have Brad by her side as they experience this adventure.
“He had struggled so much over the last couple decades, especially these last couple of years and his perseverance and strength through it all makes me know that nothing is too big for him to overcome. I know he is going to be an amazing dad with so much love, nerdiness and laughter. His Crohn’s is a part of him, but his IBD does not define him. I know no matter what we can get through it together. Brad’s last surgery has definitely given him a new lease on life. With a baby on the way, his ostomy will help him be more present, active, playful, adventurous and helpful. I cannot wait to see him hold our little girl for the first time,” she said.
Raise your hand if you were told ‘diet doesn’t matter’ when you were diagnosed with IBD? Personally, the dietitian who visited me while I was hospitalized after my initial Crohn’s disease diagnosis in 2005, scared the bejesus out of me. I’ll never forget her sitting by my bedside with a clip board rattling off all the foods I would never be able to eat. Fruits, vegetables, anything raw, fried foods, wheat…the list goes on. I felt incredibly overwhelmed and defeated in that moment. Even though it was nearly 18 years ago, it’s a moment in my patient journey that is still upsetting to think about.
When Brittany Rogers, MS, RDN, CPT was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis in high school after suffering in silence for five years, she was 20 pounds underweight, exhausted, in pain, and experiencing frequent and urgent trips to the bathroom. She was put on medication and given little to no direction in the way of diet. Inspired by a nutrition class she took in high school and coupled with her own experience with trigger foods, Brittany pursued a degree in nutrition and became a registered dietitian. She strongly believes that learning about nutrition in college and applying that information to how she managed her IBD drastically changed the trajectory of her disease and quality of life.
The driving force behind Romanwell
Managing diet when you have IBD is complex and dietitians treating people with IBD need to be well versed in the latest research to provide safe and effective care. If you’re lucky enough to live near an IBD center, you may be able to see an IBD dietitian for a few visits through your doctor’s office. However, most people don’t have access to these centers of excellence and need more than one or two appointments per year to come up with a personalized nutrition plan to reduce their symptoms, improve their quality of life, and restore their relationship with food. Brittany’s practice, Romanwell, is tackling this issue head on by making expert IBD dietitians accessible to anyone, no matter where they live or work.
“I started Romanwell to be able to provide an exceptional level of care to people all over the country. I don’t want anyone else to suffer with symptoms the way I did for so long. Nutrition and lifestyle factors, such as stress, play a huge role in the symptoms we experience as patients. Unfortunately, people often don’t get the guidance they need to help them feel better,” said Brittany.
Diet research is quickly evolving and more and more providers are acknowledging the role of diet in managing IBD. However, there’s still a long way to go before GI’s everywhere start to refer patients to IBD dietitians routinely.
“If someone’s provider doesn’t have a referral for them, the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation has a directory of IBD providers including a number of dietitians that they can search for and reach out to. The American Gastroenterological Association (AGA) is also putting together a directory of dietitians that will make finding a GI-specific dietitian much easier. Patients can also always reach out to me and I am happy to point them in the right direction if our practice can’t meet their needs,” she explained.
The unique support of an IBD dietitian
In an ideal world, patients would get support from an IBD-focused registered dietitian starting the day they’re diagnosed. Examples of where it would be helpful to work with an IBD focused RD include:
At diagnosis, IBD dietitians can help answer questions around what they can eat, talk about the definitions of trigger foods, pro-inflammatory foods, & anti-inflammatory foods, and examples of each. They can talk about foods associated with an increased risk for active disease, foods associated with increasing the risk for colorectal cancer, and what to eat during active disease & in remission.
If someone needs IBD-related surgery, dietitians can help them optimize their nutrition before & after surgery to reduce the risk for postoperative complications.
If they’ve lost weight without trying or have a decreased appetite, they’re at risk for malnutrition and would benefit from working with an IBD focused registered dietitian.
Anytime they’re having symptoms- dietitians can help manipulate their diet to reduce symptoms & improve overall quality of life
If someone want to improve their relationship with food, or have a history or active eating disorder, Romanwell can help them expand their diet, include more cultural foods in their diet, and use non-diet evidence-based approaches to reduce symptoms. Dietitians can also help people work on improving their relationship with food, their body, and their food-related quality of life
And, anytime someone has questions about their diet, or are worried about their nutrient intake, they should have access to an IBD-focused dietitian.
“We offer programs rather than individual sessions in our practice which gives us the time to help our clients make sustainable changes to their diet and lifestyle that will last them a lifetime. We build relationships with our clients, take the time to understand their needs, cultural influences on food, food preferences, and implement 100% personalized programs that work for them in their life. 95% of our clients work with us for 12 sessions, which we typically run over 3-6 months. In the beginning of a client’s program, we deep dive into their medical history, labs, supplements, labs, diet and their relationship with food and their body, and then set goals for the end of the program. We meet weekly or bi-weekly to make progress towards the clients goals, and are available via messaging throughout the client’s program to answer any and every question that comes up in the moments when they arise.”
Those of us in the IBD community know how isolating and upsetting it is when you’re in the middle of a flare. Brittany’s goal is to ensure that every client seen at Romanwell feels seen and understood and realizes that they’re not alone in this.
“I want patients to feel as though they’re our only patient and that they’re not alone in this. We believe all patients deserve that level of responsiveness and empathetic care. We want them to feel and know that we care about them and want the best for them,” she said.
Creating evidence-based research that’s digestible for patients
When Brittany started Romanwell, she noticed that no one was talking about the research around diet and IBD on social media and translating that research and know-how into approachable and actionable content that people could easily learn from and implement in their daily lives. You may hear the term “medical nutrition therapy”—this is evidence-based diet and nutrition treatment for a specific medical condition(s) provided by a registered dietitian.
“I started publishing research summaries and tips on my Instagram pages (@weareromanwell; @brittanyb_therd) and people seem to really resonate with the content. Reading research articles is intimidating! It’s hard enough for someone with a scientific or medical background to stay on top of all the findings, let alone someone from a non-healthcare background. I try to create content that summarizes what we know (and acknowledges what we don’t) from the research and always try to find a way that someone could get immediate actionable value out of the content – be that by tips or recipes or swaps for trigger foods, etc.”
When working with clients, Brittany finds it helpful to know that oftentimes education on diet is insufficient in encouraging behavior change- instead, she’s found is that people also need help applying that information to their life.
“For instance, research suggests Crohn’s disease patients who consume the most fruit and vegetables were actually 40% less likely to flare than those who consume the least. Patients we work with often have already seen a dietitian or have received a handout on what to eat that may include this recommendation of eating lots of fruits and vegetables. And although this is great information to share with Crohn’s disease patients, sometimes it’s not very helpful because they often want to consume more fruits & vegetables, but don’t feel safe doing so because it triggers symptoms, or they’re afraid of causing a blockage,” Brittany said.
When implementing this recommendation with her clients, she shares the study, but then looks at a person’s individual diet, asks them which fruits and vegetables they enjoy, and makes a plan together with the client to slowly add in more servings week by week in a methodical manner, sometimes adjusting the texture or amount of what they are eating.
“By the end of the program, most patients are consuming at or above the recommended fruit and vegetable intake and have a huge list of meal/snack ideas they enjoy and that are tolerated so they feel confident the diet is sustainable.”
Working to improve access for patients
The key to helping as many patients as possible get access to the care they deserve is getting their GI providers to refer patients to IBD dietitians and getting health insurers to cover the cost of those services so that patients can make meaningful and sustainable changes that will benefit them for a lifetime.
“I think there’s enormous potential for providers to help their patients have better outcomes by working closely with IBD dietitians and for health insurers to lower their costs by equipping patients with the tools and resources they need to stay out of the hospital. We’re trying to make this a reality by showing that our clients do in fact have better health outcomes after completing our program. We collaborate with every client’s existing GI care team to make sure the patient is getting the support and guidance they need.”
Romanwell is also measuring their clients’ outcomes and recently presented a poster at the Crohn’s and Colitis Congress showing some preliminary results. They’re hoping to submit the results to a peer-reviewed journal later this year.
“Our goal long term is for every patient with IBD to have access to an IBD registered dietitian and for programs like ours to be covered by insurance so everyone can access them,” said Brittany.
Counseling on the complimentary role of diet and lifestyle alongside medication
There’s a tremendous amount of information out there about the pros/cons of certain medications and/or alternative approaches to treatment that can be really confusing, misleading, and scary when you’ve just been diagnosed with a lifelong chronic condition. Some people worry about the side effects of medication and want to “heal their gut” using diet alone.
“We would never judge people based on the information they’ve read or the opinions they’ve formed about what’s best for their care, but we want them to know the evidence-based information so that they can make the best decision for themselves. We want patients to feel as good as they possibly can for as long as possible, so we love it when patients use nutrition along with medication and lifestyle factors to help them feel their best. We don’t believe it has to be either diet or medication, they work beautifully together!”
Looking to the future
Romanwell recently hired a second dietitian and has plans to hire more this year and next year.
“Our goal is to be able to thoroughly train dietitians in how to deliver exceptional care in a way that really helps patients achieve their goals. Unlike the training one might receive to practice inpatient or outpatient dietetics, our training program includes aspects of health coaching, counseling, motivational interviewing, intuitive eating and a weight-neutral approach to health. Since we’re a telehealth practice, we’re able to see clients on their terms and schedule, but that also means we can hire dietitians anywhere around the country which gives us access to much more talent than we’d be able to find locally.”
Romanwell pays for dietitians to pursue licensure in a number of states, so they can see as many patients as possible.
“I can’t even describe in words how incredibly fulfilling it is to get to help others with IBD. It’s been such an honor to help IBD patients get the care they deserve. I’m so grateful I get to do this for my job!”
Managing a chronic health condition often means receiving medication through an infusion or a self-injection. If the thought of getting or even giving a shot brings on tears and fears, you are not alone. It’s no surprise, two-thirds of children and one-fourth of adults have apprehension and anxiety around needles. So, what do you do when your child needs to take self-injections to manage their IBD? It’s a complicated and emotional process for everyone involved.
This week on Lights, Camera, Crohn’s we hear from a certified Child Life Specialist, a former pediatric patient who experienced self-injections, and two mothers whose children were diagnosed with IBD at a young age.
Phylicia Petit is a Certified Child Life Specialist at a Children’s Hospital in Minneapolis, Minnesota. She says being truthful with your child about the self-injection helps to build trust.
“Prepare your child for what they may experience in an age-appropriate manner. Use soft language. For instance, instead of saying “don’t move,” say “hold still.” Avoid phrases like “you’re almost done” and “it’ll just take 3 seconds”. Instead, praise your child for what was done well. Say, “you did a great job holding your arm still” or “thank you for telling me how you felt during that.”
Phylicia also says if you are calm and relaxed, your child will be calmer and more relaxed.
“Children often feed off their parent’s emotions. Use gentle and helpful words such as, “do the best work that you can do,” “you did it!” and “your job was to hold still like a statue, and you did that so well.”
Setting a routine
By giving the injections at the same time of day and in the same place, children cope best when they know what to expect. Children’s bedrooms are a place of comfort, so use a different space.
Phylicia says that by offering choices, it gives your child a sense of control. You can achieve this by saying “do you want the injection in your right leg or left leg?” and “do you want me to count to three?”
Reduce the pain
No matter your age, most people don’t enjoy needles. You can help reduce the pain for your child by using numbing cream. Contact your local pharmacist or GI to discuss topical anesthetics.
Buzzy uses vibration and ice to distract the brain from feeling pain.
Shot Blocker uses several blunt contact points to saturate the sensory signals around an injectionsite to distract from pain signals
“Don’t forget, you are a comfort to your child. Comfort positioning can be used by parents and caregivers during injections to reduce stress and anxiety in your child and help safely immobilize an arm or leg,” said Phylicia.
Comfort and distraction items:
Favorite TV show
Squeezing a squish ball
Have your child sit up. Children are often more scared when they are lying flat. If you need help holding your child still, try holding them in your lap in a firm, but comforting position.
Practice deep breathing. Take a big breath through your nose, then blow out through your mouth. Have your child do this 3 to 5 times. To make this more visual for a little one, you can use a paper flower, pinwheel, or bubbles, and practice this before, during, and after the shot.
“As a former pediatric patient there were a couple of things that helped. Finding ways to numb the spot prior, whether it was ice or a numbing cream. Using a room, I could distract myself in (typically with a TV). If I was able to do it myself, I would set up the space, so I was comfortable. If my mom helped this still applied, but we talked through the entire injection to occupy my mind. It came down to comfort and finding ways to manage my anxiety around the shot. Over the years, it got easier, especially when we switched from the auto-injector to the manual shot,” said Natasha.
Here are Stacy’s tips for caregivers when it comes to injections:
Acknowledge that as a mama this is going to be hard. “You are going to feel sad and wonder why you and your child have to go through this. It’s going to be hard to watch them have anxiety about the shot and to feel pain. Get support for yourself for this.”
Try not to let your child see your pain. “Even though you are feeling this way, you know that giving them their meds is going to (hopefully, although it might take a few different meds to find the one that works) make them feel better and happy and more like themselves so approach your child with compassion and assurance about the potential of the meds to make them feel better.”
Try to have a calendar that shows when the shot is due but don’t talk about it too much if they are not bringing it up. “Remind them the day before or the morning of the shot and set a time to do it.”
There are practical things that may work to ease the pain of the shot. “Ice before and after. Rubbing the site after it goes in. Emla cream is a great numbing cream. My son is 22 and has been getting infusions, injections, and blood tests since he was 2 and numbing cream is our friend. We also used the Buzzy. It’s held on the skin before and after the shot and it stimulates the skin to reduce pain.”
Offer a reward. “At times I offered something post shot that motivated him when he was younger. Perhaps being able to watch a little more TV that day. Or a small new toy. Or a food treat that they can have, and it could be special for the shot day.”
Look into having a home nurse, if needed. “My son has been on so many of these meds since he was 7. When he was on Humira from age 9-10, it was before the citrate free (pain free) version and the Humira shot was very painful. It became too hard for me to do it and was too difficult for our relationship. It is rare that you can get insurance to cover a home nurse to do this, or to bring the child to get the GI office nurse to do it. We were able to pay a nurse to do his Humira shot for a brief period of time until he adjusted to it. It helped a lot.”
Cindy’s 12-year-old daughter was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease four years ago. She helps her daughter with weekly Humira injections and also offers helpful advice from a caregiver’s perspective about what it’s like to give your child an injection and cope with the difficult experience.
Don’t let your nerves show. “When I became responsible for giving the injections at home, I was nervous about doing it and it was important to me that I not transfer my own personal anxiety to my daughter. To this end, I really wanted to practice giving shots on anything other than her, so that when I had to inject her, I felt comfortable with what I was doing. Unfortunately, I only came upon the advice later, so it didn’t help me at the time…but I heard to use an already used syringe on a naval orange for practice.”
Do the injection in a neutral space. “A psychiatrist advised us to do injections in a neutral place. I had been giving my daughter her injections in bed because to me, this was the place where she was most comfortable. Unfortunately, she developed sleep problems, and our psychiatrist helped me understand that a negative association with the injection is not something that you want to combine with a happy place. In the summer, we inject it on our back porch and in the colder months we usually do it in our guest bedroom.”
Syringe instead of auto-injector. “We also find the syringe to be so much better than the pen. The pen made us feel tense and the lock was Pavlovian. The syringe allows for more control. No sounds. Go fast or go slow. My daughter takes a lot of comfort in her Buzzy.”
It gets easier. “Not better…but easier. For the first couple months, we had to physically restrain my daughter when injection day rolled around. It was soul shattering. However, we all did become used to what needed to happen and now (while not fun at all, it is a non-event). We do the injection now and move on with our day. We are thankful for the ease and convenience of injecting at home, and always thankful this medication is preserving my kid’s quality of life.”
It’s considered the most common surgical procedure for ulcerative colitis patients when medication fails to keep IBD under control. The ileal pouch anal-anastomosis (IPAA) or j-pouch, is created after a surgeon removes your colon and rectum and uses the end of your small intestine to form an internal pouch, which looks like the shape of J.
This week on Lights, Camera, Crohn’s we hear from a colorectal surgeon and IBD patient himself, along with several women with j-pouches about their experience, what they’ve learned along the way, and what they hope others know who are living similar realities.
What does the j-pouch procedure entail?
Before we dig deeper, a short “lesson” on what the j-pouch procedure involves. It’s typically a one, two, or three stage process.
According to the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation:
The first surgery removes your colon and rectum and preserves your anus and anal sphincter muscles. The ileum is made into a j-shaped pouch and connected to the top of your anal canal.
A temporary ileostomy is typically created to give your newly formed pouch a chance to heal. A loop of your small intestine will be pulled through an opening in your abdomen, called a stoma, to allow waste to exit your body into an ostomy bag.
During this time, you will need to always wear an ostomy bag, and it will need to be emptied several times a day.
You will have your second surgery eight to 12 weeks later, once the pouch has healed.
The second surgery will reverse the temporary ileostomy and reconnect your small intestine. Your internal pouch will then collect waste and allow stool to pass through your anus in a bowel movement.
Some surgeons choose to perform this surgery in just one stage, in which the pouch is created and joined to the anus without a temporary ileostomy. This is done less often than the two-stage procedure because of an increased risk of infection.
This topic resonates with Dr. Stefan D. Holubar, MD, MS, FASCRS, FACS, IBD Surgery Section Chief & Director of Research for the Department of Colorectal Surgery at Cleveland Clinic, for many reasons. He was diagnosed with Crohn’s colitis when he was 7 years old and was on and off steroids (the only treatment at the time) for many years.
“I had learned to live with chronic embarrassing urgent incontinence, as well as being small and skinny, and with a swollen face from the steroids. I was offered an end ileostomy as a teenager (not a J-pouch as it was Crohn’s) and was lucky to get a second opinion with the famous Dr. Daniel Present (RIP) at Mount Sinai. I went on NPO and TPN for one year which helped get me into remission and grow about a foot in one year. Somehow, I made it through college and got into medical school, but it turned out I hadn’t had a colonoscopy in about a decade.”
Over Christmas 1999, Dr. Holubar had a colonoscopy and received a call a few days later while he was skiing that he had colon cancer.
“That same day, the tumor swelled from the biopsies, and I developed a large bowel obstruction. I had emergency subtotal colectomy w ileosigmoid anastomosis without an ileostomy. After chemotherapy and completing medical school, I needed the rectum removed (due to risk of rectal cancer) and underwent a modified 2-stage J-pouch without ileostomy one month before surgical residency. I’ve been great ever since, not perfect as I have had some complications over the years, but great, with three kids, the best job and wife in the world.”
During the second half of medical school, Dr. Holubar was considering going into GI or Medical Oncology and learned that colorectal surgery was a specialty.
“Once I learned Colorectal was a specialty and they are the IBD experts, my future path was set in stone. It’s rare to know that you want to be a colorectal surgeon that early in training. I’m blessed to share my successful story and give patients with complicated IBD like me hope every single day of my life. My experiences have also influenced me to do clinical research to try to change care more broadly and ideally, globally. My IBD history is a source of endless inspiration for our innovative work.”
I asked Dr. Holubar what advice he has for patients who are on the fence about getting a J-pouch. His most important advice—is to seek expertise.
“I would recommend looking for surgeons who specialize in IBD. J-pouch surgery is a niche these days (hence “IBD Surgeons”), and your care team should be expert in taking care of the complications that may develop. A majority (>90%) of patients with a pouch would do it again and/or recommend it to a friend or family member.” (Fazio et al., Annals of Surgery, 2013, PMID: 23299522).
Dr. Holubar wants to highlight a couple important points in terms of this article:
Only about 10% of people who are deemed candidates for a pouch choose not to have it, for personal reasons such as work, or lifestyle-related reasons such as lack of access to a toilet for many hours at a time, or those who prefer a one-and-done approach (Holubar, Inflamm Bowel Dis, 2009, PMID: 19266572). We have a new article on this, but it has only been published as an abstract so far (Total Proctocolectomy with End-Ileostomy Versus Ileoanal Pouch for Ulcerative Colitis: Who Doesn’t Pouch, And How Do They Do? Dis Colon Rectum 64;5; Meeting AbstractPOD169)
On the other hand, the overall long-term pouch survival is about 90-95% which is very high (in other words, it works out most of the time, but not always) (Fazio et al., Annals of Surgery, 2013, PMID: 23299522).
In the current digital era, we are blessed to have support groups on social media and active discussions on #SoMe4IBD. That said, it’s important to know that not everyone who has a pouch – whether the experience is great, or they have complications – is vocal on social media. It’s important to check with your care team to discuss the best treatment options for you.
When it comes to the risk and benefits of having a J-pouch, Dr. Holubar says each patient needs to chart out the pros and cons of end ileostomy (or rarely a continence ileostomy aka Kock pouch) vs. IPAA as the risk-benefit profiles are quite different.
“The main benefit is that a patient can maintain transanal defecation and avoid a permanent ileostomy and care of the ileostomy. An added “benefit” of having a pouch is that you can almost always go back to an ileostomy if it doesn’t work, or you are not satisfied with the function. Going back into the belly is of course with some risk of further surgical complications,” he explained.
The j-pouch patient perspective
Jackie was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis in March 2009. She was 24 years old and had been given a multiple sclerosis diagnosis before that. At the time, her care team was concerned a biologic could set off her MS.
“Less than a year after my diagnosis, I was told that I’d run out of medication options and I’d need to have my colon removed and opted to schedule surgery at that time to work towards a j-pouch,” said Jackie.
Getting acclimated to having an ostomy didn’t come easily. She says her biggest obstacle was getting over her own biases.
“I didn’t know anything about ostomies except from what I read online from other patients at the time and the consensus in the online forums was not good. I was nervous, but I learned almost immediately that I felt better, was healthier, and could do more. After my first surgery, I traveled across the country and hiked through some parks in Oregon. None of that would have been possible before my ostomy. It only took a few experiences like that to realize how much the ostomy had really given me.”
Of course, there’s a learning curve. There’s new terminology to learn, you must find what works on your body, and that can be frustrating.
“I was curious from day one. I knew that I was sent home in the appliance the hospital had set me up with, but I wasn’t convinced that was the best one for me, so I took it upon myself to test lots of brands and products to get the one that worked best for me.”
Jasmine was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis in 2017 when she was 19. She was a freshman in college. Two years later she dealt with a flare she started Entyvio, but the drug failed her shortly thereafter. She switched to Remicade in January 2020 and had the same problem, even after receiving the highest possible dosage every 4 weeks. Her health continued to rapidly decline, and she was hospitalized in March 2020.
“This was the first-time surgical intervention, an ostomy, and a j-pouch were mentioned to me in a real way, however, the doctors continued to say they felt cautiously optimistic Remicade would pull me out of my flare. Throughout these months, I tried a variety of diets including SCD and AIP, visited multiple dieticians and nutritionists, met with natural health doctors, sought out second opinions, and followed a robust supplement regime that was continuously updated by my functional health doctor.”
Despite every effort, by April of 2020, her health was the worst it had been her my entire life. Weighing 105 pounds, she lived in constant, excruciating pain, unable to sleep or eat, too weak to stand in the shower for longer than five short minutes.
“IBD completely ruled my life. When I spoke with my doctors in early May, they told me I had two options: I could try Stelara, the last drug available to me, which my team was 99% sure would not work and would result in emergency surgery since the drug takes months to kick in and provide relief. Otherwise, I could have surgery immediately. My options hardly felt like options when both resulted in the same outcome, just at different times. I opted to have surgery sooner rather than later. If it was inevitable, I wanted to begin the process and start feeling better as soon as possible, rather than continuing to needlessly suffer.”
A few days later, Jasmine met with a surgeon, and less than a week after that appointment (and the morning after her college graduation), she was rolled into the operating room to have my colon removed.
“No life experience prepares you to look down and see an internal organ on the outside of your body. A stoma is far outside the lines of normal human experience, and despite all the preparation in the world, your brain can’t fully process what it will be like until it’s happened. I found the transition to be difficult; while the nurses in the hospital were helpful, the nurses sent to my home barely seemed to know what to do. I had to teach myself how to empty the bag, and at first, it often took me an hour to change the ostomy. However, with time and as my body healed from surgery, I became more confident and able to quickly take care of the ostomy in under five minutes,” said Jasmine.
Even though the physical acclimation was challenging, Jasmine says the mental acclimation was even harder.
“At the time, I was 22 years old and had never in a million years imagined my life to involve a bag of waste attached to my stomach. I felt like I was constantly grieving the life I’d imagined and the life I’d never get to live. The ostomy felt like a reminder of all that had been taken from me that I couldn’t ignore, concrete proof of how different I was from all other 22-year-olds and how far my life had diverged from the normal college experience. I spent many days looking in the mirror and crying at what I saw, struggling to accept the ostomy as the life saver it was. Over time, as I began to regain more freedom and control over my life, eating the food I wanted, sleeping through the night, exercising, and traveling, I slowly began to make peace with the ostomy through the lens of all it enabled me to do.”
Aimee was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis in 2011 when she was 22 years old. She struggled responding to medical intervention and dealt with severe abdominal cramping and high levels of blood in her stool which destroyed her quality of life.
“I had to give up my job, my life, my apartment, my social life and moved back to my hometown to be taken care of by my parents. In one hospital admission 9 months after first symptoms, the surgical team advised I do the ostomy to avoid a tear or rupture to the colon which could lead to emergency surgery or worse, sepsis.”
The ostomy relieved Aimee’s constant cramping and she felt instant relief from her chronic pain. Going into surgery the plan from the start was to do a three-step surgical journey over 12 months that resulted in a j-pouch May 2012.
“There is so much help in the hospital that it was only the day I was leaving that it hit me that this was going to be something that would be hard to get used to. I was 22 and I was embarrassed to tell everyone and conscious of my looks, so there was a vanity piece that was hard to overcome. When I was home, I felt alone. I wanted to manage the bag all by myself, I didn’t allow anyone to see the stoma or my bags or anything. Looking back at my young self, I wish I had let my family and friends in more to help me, I didn’t need to hide it.”
Elissa was initially diagnosed with ulcerative colitis when she was 14 years old, back in 1994 and years later, Crohn’s, in her small intestine. Her diagnosis journey was a difficult one. She was told she was lactose intolerant, had food allergies, IBS, anxiety, and a nervous stomach.
When Elissa was 20, she underwent emergency surgery to remove her colon. She was one of the first patients to participate in a clinical trial for Remicade back in the day. Unfortunately, the medications kept failing her, she became dependent on high doses of steroids, and she had precancerous cells in her colon.
“I was in college at the time and didn’t feel comfortable telling most people. There were a few occurrences of my bag leaking (one especially memorable experience in the middle of a fraternity party), and I was mortified. However, my recovery also highlighted the thoughtfulness and generosity of my best friends and family members who would drive me to the pharmacy to pick up medical supplies, drive me to doctor appointments, even just sit with me and rest. People really come out of the woodwork – sometimes asking for help is the hardest part.”
At times Elissa felt very alone. She wishes she had known the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation was available, along with support groups. She says, now, there are so many amazing resources available for people in recovery, including the forum j-pouch.org.
Dani was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis in 2005, when she was just 8 years old. She was initially managed on oral medication then switched to biologics and went through Remicade, Humira, Xeljanz, Stelara, and Entyvio.
“I always knew that surgery was on the table, and I felt like I was always buying time until a new medication came out. In January of 2021 I became extremely sick and was admitted to the hospital for IV cyclosporin to try to lessen my immune response. I was ok enough to leave the hospital and was feeling ok for about four days out of the hospital and then I started to become sick again. My surgeon came around a few times to check on me and introduce himself. He said, “I just want you to know that I’m not the scary man with a knife.” At that time, I didn’t know he would be my surgeon. When I started to get sick again after leaving the hospital, I knew that surgery was going to be the next step.”
From then on, Dani met with her GI doctor and Colorectal surgeon (who work together), and they scheduled her for a subtotal colectomy a few weeks later. She began the 3-step surgical process in March 2021.
“It was a huge adjustment. I constantly felt my bag and it felt so foreign to me. At the same time, it gave me an independence that I had never had before. My plan was to go through all 3 j-pouch surgeries to have an ostomy for nine months and then have a j-pouch. I felt confident that I could adjust to an ostomy again if necessary and that I wanted to give a j-pouch a try.”
Dani got her take down surgery J-pouch in December 2021.
The hope of reversing from the start
Jackie: “The plan was to reverse, but I did have a major panic moment a few months before I was supposed to have another surgery. A friend of mine who had started his journey to a -j-pouch around the same time I did, was one step ahead of me in his surgical sequence, and he was having some major problems. I figured the ostomy was the devil I know, better stick with what you know, because I was afraid of what the other side looked like. But I knew myself, and I knew I had to at least try for a reversal, otherwise I’d spend the rest of forever wondering how it would have gone.”
Jasmine: “From the start, the colectomy was presented to me as a step toward the larger goal of getting a j-pouch. I went into the first surgery planning to try the j-pouch.”
Elissa: “I knew the ostomy would be temporary, but I really had no idea what to expect as far as recovery was concerned. My doctors and surgeons did not explain any potential complications. I wish I had known more questions to ask.”
For Elissa, a pouch was created at the time of surgery that removed her colon. Three months later, she had reversal surgery during college spring break – unfortunately, the reversal failed, she caught an infection and ended up in the ICU. The ostomy was placed again for her body to recover from an additional open abdominal surgery. She then went on to have a successful reversal in July of 2000.
Making the decision to go for a j-pouch
Jackie: “I knew that I could have chosen to keep my ostomy, but there was a real sense of “why wouldn’t you get a j-pouch” from the medical team. There was an undertone in what they said and did that insinuated the j-pouch was the more ideal situation and that I should clearly want to go that route. At the time, I was still regularly following most professional medical advice and didn’t really question it. But the option to keep the ostomy was never really discussed and it was always assumed I would reverse it.”
Jasmine: “Because I was young, otherwise healthy, and it had been confirmed many times through testing that I had ulcerative colitis, rather than Crohn’s disease, my doctors said I was a great candidate for j-pouch surgery. In general, my surgeon told me that close to 90% of j-pouch surgeries are successful, and I felt confident trying based on my background and the conversations with my medical team. By the time I’d had surgery, I’d only had ulcerative colitis for three years and had been in remission for two of them. The j-pouch felt like the best avenue for a life as close to normal as possible given the circumstances, and at 22, with (hopefully) a lot of life ahead of me, that sense of normality was important to me.”
How it felt leading up to reversal
Jackie: “I kept reading about all the things that could go wrong and it really freaked me out. I knew people personally who had some complications and it made it seem less like a potential statistic and more like a reality. The reality is that more people do well but are not often talking about it online. At that time there weren’t enough stories about people thriving after j-pouch surgery. I knew what life with the ostomy was like and I knew I could do that. Welcoming another major surgery and another major change just seemed really overwhelming.”
Jackie started the process in March 2010. She unfortunately had a few complications along the way which resulted in more surgeries and a longer sequence to the j-pouch, so her takedown occurred in mid-2012.
Jasmine: “I often worried something would go wrong that would prevent me from getting a j-pouch. Everything that could go wrong had gone wrong for me to even end up 22 and colon-less, and it was hard for me to imagine something could go “right.” I felt very distrustful after the variety of promises made to me by my medical team over the past year that never came to fruition and struggled with cynicism about what might happen. Coupled with all the negativity online about life with a j-pouch, I became very apprehensive about something either going wrong with my surgeries or my j-pouch failing.”
Jasmine’s j-pouch was created in December 2020 with a diverting loop ileostomy and was fully connected in February 2021.
Dani:“I had read about ‘butt burn’ and that when you first get a j-pouch you are going to the bathroom frequently, so I was concerned about that. I had just gotten used to being able to go where I wanted and not worry about the bathroom, and I was concerned that I was going to be putting myself back into a position where I was more limited.”
What j-pouch recovery was like
Jackie: “The takedown was one of the easier surgeries to recover from for me because that was the only thing they were doing in that surgery. Sometimes surgeons combine steps that can make certain parts more difficult to recover from, but for me it was just hooking up the plumbing, which had already been healing internally for months. Despite the complications I had that resulted in more surgery, it gave my body more time to heal, which I think is part of why my j-pouch has been so successful. The hardest part was understanding that the j-pouch can take a year or so to settle, which means you may still have some accidents here or there in the beginning. It wasn’t an immediate magical fix, but over time I learned to understand my j-pouch and to predict its behaviors.”
Jasmine: “J-pouch recovery is an exercise in endurance and mental fortitude, but I didn’t find it as terrifying as it seemed from reading online. From the beginning, I felt like I had far more control than I did with ulcerative colitis. There was almost no urgency, and I could take a minute or two to finish what I was doing before going to the bathroom, rather than having to drop everything and run. Although you do go to the bathroom quite often at the start, having that control makes a huge difference. One of the harder parts of recovery is the acidic stool – waste in the small intestine has more stomach acid in it, which usually gets broken down by the colon, however, without a colon, that acid creates burning on the skin. My skin was constantly raw and sore the first few weeks no matter how much butt cream or fluffy toilet paper I used. Sometimes the burning pain was so bad it would wake me up at night, but now, almost two years out, I rarely have butt burn.”
Aimee: “This was the hardest surgery because it was so long and so much handling of my intestines, my bowel lost function, so I vomited for eight days after my surgery. My doctors considered TPN, but luckily peristalsis started again, and I could eat!
Elissa: “Honestly, recovering from surgeries itself wasn’t too bad, especially after years of IBD flares. Getting rid of my colon provided almost immediate relief. I just had to be patient and let my body heal.”
Dani: “The recovery was the easiest in terms of there weren’t new incision spots. I had to get used to seeing my stoma hole as it closed in naturally and I was still very sore. I also was going to the bathroom frequently and wasn’t sleeping through the night for the first few weeks, which was hard. I was frustrated that I felt like I always needed to be near a bathroom, but that feeling was temporary. “
Pros and Cons of life with a j-pouch
Jackie: “Honestly…it has been so good. I have a total rockstar j-pouch. I eat anything I want (popcorn? yes! all the nuts? yes! spicy food? Yes, please!), I can hold my bowels for hours upon hours. I rarely have any urgency and in general have peace of mind that I can live my life, go where I want, and UC no longer can control that. The cons exist, but for me, they’re small. I’ve had pouchitis a few times, which feels like UC again, but it’s treated with antibiotics and then you’re back on your feet! I have accidents at night maybe once a year. I still use the bathroom more often than a person without IBD, but it’s mostly because I choose to for peace of mind. My digestive tract in no way resembles a normal one, it’s different how everything works now, but it’s not a detriment in my life.”
Jasmine: “My j-pouch has given me a level of freedom I never thought I’d experience with IBD. I don’t currently take any medications, and I don’t worry about flaring or failing a medication the way I would with my colon. Although I know there’s always the possibility of needing medication in the future, I’ve been given more freedom and autonomy over my life than I ever thought possible. I eat what I want when I want. I sleep through the night. I sit through meetings and classes without thinking about the bathroom. I go out with friends, travel, and exercise. For me, the j-pouch has brought me closer to my pre-IBD or deep remission self than anything else, and although there are permanent tradeoffs to having such major surgeries, I don’t regret my decision in the slightest. There is an adjustment phase and a new normal, but that new normal has enabled me to integrate IBD my life, rather than having my life completely consumed by my illness.”
Aimee: “I have had fistulae since at the anastomosis, so they have been tricky to manage, but Humira has been wonderful to me, keeping them at bay and giving me energy to live a full life. I also need to have the scar tissue at the anastomosis stretched surgically every 6 months.”
Elissa: “J-pouch life has been amazing! I was in the bathroom 20+ times a day before my surgeries and felt like a shell of a human being. I’m now 42 and have had my j-pouch for 22 years. I can do pretty much anything a “normal” healthy person can do, just need to take occasional extra precautions like electrolyte replenishment or dealing with occasional pouchitis or Crohn’s flares. (My Crohn’s diagnosis came after my j-pouch surgery).”
Dani: “The first few weeks/months with a j-pouch were tough. Your body needs to figure out how to function with a new man-made organ. I was only comfortable laying down for the first few weeks after the surgery. I really hit a turning point when I was able to start taking Imodium and Metamucil. They were helpful for me in the first few months and now I don’t need them. Three months after my final surgery, I had moved out of my house and was starting a new full-time job. So, the initial discomfort and increase in bowel frequency were very temporary!!”
What j-pouchers wish they knew prior to their reversal
Jackie: “I always say its trading a large set of problems for a smaller, more manageable set of problems. UC was awful for me and ended up being life threatening. It was no way to live. My j-pouch has given me my life back, but it’s not a cure. It’s not perfect. I still have some small problems here and there, but it’s all manageable and in no way resembles life before surgery.”
Jasmine: “It’s hard to find information on j-pouches, and I think many of us turn to the internet to learn about what life with one might be like. I personally found the internet to contain a lot of negative information, making me more fearful going into the surgeries than I would have been had I just listened to my surgeon. I would recommend limiting time spent online and trying to connect with individuals who have j-pouches/ostomies through your doctor or the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation. These resources provide a more accurate peek into life with a j-pouch and can allow you to ask questions and connect with someone who’s been through the same thing. Most people who are healthy aren’t online complaining about their j-pouch, which skews the sample of information accessible to the rest of us. Whenever I started to feel overwhelmed by everything online, I reminded myself of something a nurse once said to me: the internet is a showcase of the best and the worse situations, more often than not, you’ll end up somewhere in-between.”
Aimee: “I was told this would be the end of treatment and medicine which wasn’t the case. As I had Crohn’s, not UC, I had many more hurdles ahead. Also, a new pouch is new so it’s behavior post op, is not your life. Your body adjusts to the pouch and output goes slower as the post-op weeks go by. The j-pouch is an alternative to an ostomy bag, but has to be adjusted to also. It’s different from having your colon. After a few months though, you will have longer periods between toilet runs and sleep through the night. I go 11pm to 6am with no pooping, which is so much better than those few months post-op when I thought oh dear, this is hard!”
Elissa: “When I had my surgeries, I was 20. No doctors discussed potential fertility issues. My daughter was born via IVF 9 years ago, though all additional efforts have failed. This is something I wish I had known about – I always wanted kids and would have frozen my eggs. Obviously, every person is different. Also, I still go to the bathroom 6-7 times a day. This is apparently normal (though again, everyone has different experiences).”
Dani: “I can eat salad for dinner with no problem!”
Advice for ostomates on the fence about going for a j-pouch
Jackie: “If you feel healthy and strong both physically and mentally, I would say, try it. I know it’s more complicated than giving a new restaurant a try, but I knew that I’d always have wondered. I knew on the bad days I would have idolized a life with a j-pouch, and I needed to know that it either would or wouldn’t work. I felt like the worst-case scenario was that my j-pouch would fail, and I’d return to an ostomy, which I already knew I could do, and I liked those odds.”
Jasmine: “I think it’s a personal decision dependent on the history and circumstances of each person’s illness. Going through the j-pouch surgeries means additional time spent in the hospital and recovering, which is worth it for some, but not others. Although I can share my experiences, everyone’s body is different, and you can’t always predict how someone else will respond. I think the best thing to do is find a colorectal surgeon skilled in these procedures and discuss whether they think you’re a viable candidate. Finding a skilled surgeon is the best way to hedge against future problems and increase chances of success. Beyond that, I would advise talking to as many people as possible with a j-pouch and permanent ostomy, to get questions answered and hear the pros and cons of each route. Having this information should help you feel more confident in your decision, and if you’re still undecided, you can always put off the decision until you’re ready.”
Aimee: “Tell them to get support, don’t expect instant results, give yourself time to adjust to yet another way of going to the toilet…reach out to the online community.”
Dani: “I think this is a very personal decision and there is validity to both sides. An important thing for me was to remember that people are more likely to write online if they have a bad outcome rather than a good outcome. Everyone’s instinct is to research things online and at some point, I felt like reading everything (both good and bad) was too overwhelming.”
Post-op expectations with a j-pouch
Like any surgery, recovery takes time and patience. The Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation shares the following on their website:
Some patients may experience an increased number of bowel movements, sometimes up to 12 times per day. This will typically decrease over time.
Some male patients may experience sexual dysfunction as a result of nerve damage.
Some female patients may develop scar tissue that surrounds their ovaries and fallopian tubes, which may lead to infertility.
Both men and women should discuss sexual function with their surgeon and ask when it is safe to resume sexual activity.
Ask your healthcare providers what supplies you may need at home, especially if you have a temporary ileostomy.
Your healthcare team will advise you on how to manage your temporary ostomy and how to keep it clean.
Jackie: “This is a weird one, but I had to use brain power the first time I had to poop after my takedown. It had been almost 2 years since I had used my butt, and I had to really think about how to use those muscles again. It was a little funny at the time.”
Jasmine: “In terms of recovery, the most important thing to remember is j-pouch surgery completely alters one of the body’s major systems and adjusting takes significant time. Recovery doesn’t happen overnight, and it can feel frustrating. I tried to give my body some grace and the time it needed to heal, while reminding myself that life with a j-pouch during the first few week’s post-op isn’t indicative of what living with a j-pouch will be like long-term.”
Aimee: “It’s a journey. I have a few good months, a few bad months. Part of me knows that quality of life could be better with an ostomy, but I’m not ready to say goodbye to my pouch yet. I have been unlucky with the scar tissue, but those small procedures are like going to the dentist for me, I’m so used to them.”
Elissa: “Do it! Healing takes time, but you will feel like a new person. Life is too short to be in pain all the time. So many improvements have happened over the past 10-15 years and awareness is absolutely the key. “
Dr. Holubar wants to remind patients, “The J-pouch cannot save your life – it is a lifestyle operation like cosmetic surgery in some way. Overall quality of life is excellent with both a pouch and with a permanent end ileostomy. Finally, we should think of surgery as an excellent “medical” therapy in patients suffering from colitis despite modern medicines. One of my expressions is that a good ileostomy (or pouch) is better than a bad colon, rectum, or anus (and a good ileostomy is better than a bad pouch). The great news is you cannot make a wrong choice.”
It’s safe to say every prep for a colonoscopy is a shit show. The show just looks a bit different each time. I completed another annual colonoscopy this past Friday, and the process still keeps me on my toes, even after more than 17 years of living with Crohn’s disease. As those of us with IBD know, it’s so much more than the prep. It’s the anxiety of wondering if our disease is active. It’s the worry about whether our IBD is going to act up and be triggered by the ungodly amount of laxative we are ingesting in one sitting. It’s the fear of going through more trauma getting an IV and dealing with nurses and a care team we’re unfamiliar with. It’s resenting the fact that you’re a young person needing a colonoscopy…and the list goes on.
I did my second-ever pill prep (SUTAB) this time. I find swallowing 24 pills to be easier than guzzling anything that tastes unpleasant. There was a bit of a monkey wrench in my game plan this time around, when my gastroenterologist’s nurse informed me over the Patient Portal that magnesium citrate saline is recalled. Because of that, my doctor created an additional prep to make up for that. For some reason, the 24 pills deemed worthy for the rest of society to take to get cleaned out isn’t good enough. I received instructions two weeks prior to my scope that quite frankly scared the bejesus out of me.
Along with the 24 SUTAB pills and 96-plus ounces of water, patients are expected to:
Take 1,500 to 1,600 mg of magnesium citrate pills, twice (This adds 12 pills to the prep, and they are horse pills)
30 ml of Milk of Magnesia
Two enemas…yes, you read this correctly.
…the moment I received this news, my chest tightened, and I started to freak out. Regardless of the prep you choose (you’re “allowed to choose any one you like:”) …this is also “required”. Knowing this ahead of time made my mind race and I kept going back and forth about whether I was going to put myself through it or be my own advocate and go a bit rogue. It’s a bit daunting when the instructions are in CAPS and there’s the threat of needing to do everything over again.
Here’s what I did for my prep
It’s easy to talk a big game and say “there’s no way I’m doing this” …but at the same time, there’s a worry that looms that if you don’t, you may need to do another scope because you aren’t cleaned out enough. I’ve always been a bit of a rule follower, so it tends to take a lot for me to go against the grain.
I always do a self-imposed liquid diet to give me some buffer in case I encounter issues with the prep. My last meal is generally the Sunday night before a Friday scope. I allowed myself some crackers on Monday night, but other than that, I was strictly liquids all week. It’s brutal, but it always pays off in the end.
I bought magnesium citrate pills, the SUTAB pills, and the fleet enemas. I didn’t bother getting the Milk of Magnesia.
I took the first 1,500 mg (6 pills) of magnesium citrate, starting at noon the day before my 11:30 am colonoscopy. To me, it was a lot easier doing the pills than having to drink an entire bottle of magnesium citrate, which immediately causes me to vomit. I then timed out the 12 SUTAB pills, by setting a timer on my phone. I took one every 2-3 minutes. All you do is take the pills with 16 ounces of water and then follow that with drinking 16 ounces of water two more times over a couple of hours. I was “done” with my prep by 4 pm the day before my scope and wasn’t running to the bathroom too much.
I went to bed and set my alarm for 5 a.m. with the intention of doing the other 12 SUTAB pills + the additional 6 magnesium citrate. At this point, I was still on the fence about whether I would try an enema.
I walked downstairs in my dark house as my family slept and turned on a few lights so I could lay all the pills out on the kitchen counter. It was just me—all these enormous pills—and my thoughts. I got the 12 SUTAB down and after about 30 minutes I started feeling ill. I ran to the bathroom and vomited quite a bit…at the end I puked up bright red blood. It was petrifying. I screamed for my husband while I was on my hands and knees on the bathroom floor at 6 am. He ran down the stairs and could see how much anguish I was in. I immediately called my mom who is a nurse and she told me not to take anymore pills and that my prep was done.
My mom, who lives out of town, has been with me for every single prep since diagnosis, but this time around, she wasn’t since it’s so close to the holidays. Not having her by my side added a bit to the stress. I asked her if I should do the enema and had some choice words. She told me not to do it. I agreed. Hospitals are running low on enemas right now, so the instructions said to “bring an enema to the hospital in case you need it.”
Speaking up prior to the procedure
My scope wasn’t until 11:30 a.m., unfortunately it was very busy at the hospital, so I didn’t get mine until 1:15 p.m. When you haven’t eaten in nearly a week and your head is pounding from dehydration, every minute feels like an eternity. When the nurse finally got me from the waiting room, we got to the endoscopy suite and while I was still in my street clothes, she asked me if I had my enema with me. I froze in my tracks. I told her I forgot it on my counter (I purposefully forgot it on my counter) …and I proceeded to go into an explanation about how ridiculous it is to expect this of patients, how unnecessary and over the top it is and that I refuse to do it. She asked me if I did the enema earlier in the morning, I said no. To my surprise, she completely empathized with me and said she couldn’t agree more that it’s making all their procedures run late, that no other GI’s require it, and that she knows after 17 years with Crohn’s I know what I’m doing. She was whispering in cahoots with me, and it felt SO good to feel validated and heard.
When I told her I had difficult veins, rather than rolling her eyes or downplaying my fears, she listened and was so kind. She took a close look at all the options and ended up choosing a vein in my right hand. She got me with the first stick and immediately all my anxiety around the IV went away.
I informed my GI and anesthesiologist that I had vomited blood while doing the prep. They let me know that was from throwing up and it caused the capillaries in my esophagus and stomach to break and bleed. Because of that I was told prior to my procedure that in the event there was blood down below, an endoscopy would also need to be performed. Luckily that was not the case! I was given an antacid in my IV to help resolve any possible issues. I made the mistake this time of not taking my prescribed Zofran to prevent nausea. If you have a history of vomiting with prep, I highly recommend getting a script and taking this 30 minutes prior to starting your prep. In the moment, I was already taking so many pills I didn’t feel like adding one to the mix, but I wish I had.
The colonoscopy results
When I woke up from that amazing propofol nap I was thrilled when my GI gleefully walked into the recovery room with a huge smile on her face and told me that my small bowel and colon were “pristine”, that everything looked gorgeous, and that I was still in remission. The discharge notes state there is “normal mucosa in the entire examined colon” and that my “end-to-side ileo-colonic anastomosis” (where my small intestine was reattached to my large intestine from my bowel resection surgery in 2015) is characterized by “healthy appearing mucosa”. No biopsies were taken and the “quality of the bowel preparation was excellent”.
Remission is a complicated term and one I don’t take lightly. I reached surgical remission in 2015, after a decade of ups and downs. While I’m so grateful to continue the 7-year-streak of remission, I’m aware that tomorrow things can change. All any of us can do is focus on the right now and try not to dwell on what could be or what can happen. Remission is just a word—I didn’t do anything to deserve it, no one does. So much emphasis can be placed on being in remission, and I get that it can feel like a big deal—but IBD, whether you’re in “remission” or not is unpredictable, so there’s no sense in thinking you’re in the clear or invincible just because you’re told you’ve reached it. Remission does not mean you are completely free of symptoms.
My tips for going through a colonoscopy
Schedule your scope during an early time slot. Not only does this allow you to eat a lot sooner, but you’re also more likely to be taken right on schedule and not face any delays. For my 11:30 a.m. scope, I wasn’t at a restaurant until 3 p.m. I will say as an IBD mom, the 11:30 a.m. time was ideal in the fact I was able to get my two older kids ready for school and drop offs had already taken place before my husband and I left for the hospital.
Arrange childcare as you’re scheduling your scope. It’s challenging as an IBD mom or dad to have to worry about who is going to take care of your kids during procedures. Get the available dates for your colonoscopy and figure out childcare as you’re scheduling so there’s one less moving piece to deal with. My mother-in-law watched our kids from 9:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. and it was comforting to know I had nothing to worry about while my husband and I were away.
Add in some buffer with a liquid diet for a few days. I’m not saying you need to go crazy with the liquid diet, but even doing one extra day of liquids will really ease your prep when it comes to what you need to pass. It also gives you a bit of leverage if things don’t go as planned when you’re trying to get it all down.
Listen to your body and do what you’re comfortable with. While there are guidelines and recommendations if you are vomiting, feeling sick, struggling to make it through the prep, just do what you can. Don’t push yourself to the brink of putting your health at risk. The SUTAB pills specifically say “Do not take other laxatives” … so how is a patient supposed to feel when their GI tells them to do a laundry list of additional laxatives?! The general population does the prep, without any add-ons. We should be able to do the same. I had to chuckle when I was told my prep was excellent, when I went off the grid and did what I felt was best. Before my procedure I smiled at my doctor and told her I did my best…and that’s all they can ask for.
Get labs ahead of time. The past few years my care team has tried to save me a trip to the lab and tried to get lab work through my IV. Each time, it’s been a nightmare. Last year the nurse in recovery stuck me 8 times and I was so dehydrated she never got any blood. She was unkind and rough and left me in tears. That was it for me. This year, I did labs the Monday before my scope. Having that checked off my ever-growing patient to-do list eased my anxiety and the nurse who did my IV said because she didn’t need to get labs through my IV, the needle could be a lot smaller—score!
Count the pills. I noticed this time I was given one extra SUTAB pill in my prescription bottle. I triple counted to make sure. There should be 24, total. Make sure not to take any extra.
Be cognizant of the time of year you get your scope. Get tests and procedures done prior to the end of the year when you’ve most likely reached your deductible, so you save money. I have a bone scan scheduled this week as well, crossing everything off the list when it’s covered.
Always remember gummy bears are a liquid. I share this year after year but so many people still seem unaware that this is the case. The day prior to a scope you need to steer clear of red and purple gummy bears, but you can eat gummy bears throughout a liquid diet and the day before your scope. The ability to chew something and have something sweet is a gamechanger. It’s a great way to chase prep that doesn’t taste good, too. This time around my sweet daughter took it upon herself to take all the red gummy bears from the bag so I wouldn’t accidently eat one…she made a pile of red gummy bears and proceeded to eat all of them.
Check about patient savings options. SUTAB is a bit pricier than other preps, you can save by going to http://www.sutab.com and printing off a coupon that brings the cost down to $40 with most insurances. Look into this regardless of what prep you do to make sure you’re not overpaying.
Feel empowered in what you’ve endured. Going through colonoscopies with IBD is not for the faint of heart. Chances are you have your own routine and know what works for you. Stick to it and speak up if something doesn’t sit right with you. Plan that post- scope meal ahead of time and reward yourself afterwards. You’ve been through a lot and deserve to recover and rest.
You’re told by your gastroenterologist you need a biologic to treat your IBD and that medication is received through infusion. Thoughts race through your mind–what’s it going to be like hooked up to an IV receiving your medicine? It’s completely normal to feel anxious, nervous, and uncertain. I’ve done self-injections since 2008, and never have needed to receive my medication through infusion, but I know that’s not the case for many.
This week on Lights, Camera, Crohn’s we hear from patient advocate Jenna Ziegler. Jenna was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis in 2014 and has recently added enteropathic arthritis and a rare autoimmune non-alcohol-related liver disease called primary sclerosing cholangitis (PSC) to the list.
Over the years, Jenna has learned how to prepare for infusions so that she can walk into the outpatient center with confidence. Check out her empowering tips for doing so—whether your infusions are at a medical center or at home!
Do Your Prep Work
Know if you’ll be given Benadryl. Some biologics require pre-medications that help prevent adverse reactions. These meds may include Tylenol, prednisone, or Benadryl. Find out ahead of time if you’ll be given Benadryl. Knowing you’ll be sleepy at and after your infusion can help you decide if you’ll need a driver and if you need to make arrangements for the rest of your day.
Plan out the rest of your day. You may be tired after your infusion—especially if you’re given Benadryl! Weeks before your infusion, make proper post-infusion arrangements .Maybe you’ll want to take the day off work or arrange for childcare so you can take a long nap or reschedule that evening’s outing to another day. Jenna encourages you to schedule time in your calendar to recuperate after the infusion.
Know your dosing and required blood work. By knowing your dose and what labs that will be drawn, you’ll feel more in control of your day. Ask your doctor for your dose and what (if any) labs the nurse will draw at your infusion. Then, when you arrive, you can double check that these things are correct.
The Day Before Your Infusion
The day before your infusion is critical: make sure you’re drinking enough water!
“Infusions require IVs, so it may ease your nerves to do everything in your power to make your veins as plump and visible as possible. I drink one gallon of water the day before my infusion. I chug 32 ounces every three hours and set reminders to keep me accountable. When I do this, my infusion nurse almost always gets my IV in with one poke! Also, a nurse told me that sodium retains water, so eating salty snacks the day before will also help keep water in your veins. Of course, run this by your doctor first!”
The Day Of your Infusion
Today’s the day! Here are three tips to help remove some of those infusion-day nerves.
1. Eat a proper meal. The day of your infusion, you want to fuel your body with healthy foods. This means a balanced meal with both protein and carbs. This is especially important if you’ll receive Benadryl or get blood drawn!
2. Dress in layers. One of the best things you can do for yourself is make sure you’re comfortable for your infusion.
“I find infusion centers very cold, so I suggest you dress in layers—just make sure you choose something where your veins are easily accessible. I tend to wear warm shoes, comfy pants, a long-sleeved shirt over a tank top, and a sweatshirt. Cozy and practical!”
3. Bring entertainment. Different biologic infusions vary in length, so if you’ll be there for a while, bring something to keep you entertained! Some of Jenna’s personal favorites are: books, journal, laptop, headphones, and snacks. If you receive home infusions, be sure to gather your supplies by your couch or the location in your house where you plan to receive the medication.
At Your Infusion
When you arrive at your infusion center, you’ll check in, probably sign some forms, and your nurse will show you to your chair. It’s okay if you’re feeling nervous. But remember, as the patient, you are empowered. Here are Jenna’s top tips to ease your nerves.
Ask for a warm blanket and pillow. Not only will this help you get comfortable, but placing a warm blanket over your arm will help prepare your vein for the IV.
Tell the nurse which arm/vein you prefer. Don’t be afraid to tell your nurse which vein you want them to poke. They’ll probably ask, but if they don’t, don’t be afraid to voice your preference.
Take your Benadryl slowly. If Benadryl is one of your pre-meds, they’ll probably either give you a pill or push it through your IV. If it’s via IV, ask the nurse to go slowly. Pushing the syringe too fast may make you feel lightheaded or nauseous. Again, don’t be afraid to speak up.
Confirm the info on your medication bag is correct. When the nurse is hooking your medication bag to your IV, it may make you feel better to see the label for yourself. Ask the nurse to show it to you, and you can personally ensure it has the correct patient name, medication, and dose.
After Your Infusion
You did it! Your infusion is over. Best of all, you’ve already planned out the rest of your day, so now you don’t have to stress about your to-do list.
“I encourage you to listen to your body—you might want to take a nap, take a hot bath, or have a relaxing night in with your family and pizza delivery. You’ve had a long day and you deserve to destress and relax.”
Remember, You Are Empowered
Over time, getting your infusions will become easier. Normal. Routine. And, one day, maybe even relaxing.
“I would have never thought that I’d find peace in my infusion days—these days that once made me nervous and stressed. But I now see my infusion days as relaxing, self-care days. This will come with time, and it starts with one thing: remembering that you are strong, empowered, and your own best advocate.”
Managing and treating inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) with medication is often necessary for those who live with Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis. But for many, it’s a difficult decision that often comes with pushback and worry. This week on Lights, Camera, Crohn’s we hear from well-respected registered IBD dietitian and ulcerative colitis patient extraordinaire, Stacey Collins, about how she breeches this subject with patients and caregivers and how she utilizes her own patient journey to help empathize with those who are struggling to take the plunge.
Holding space and helping patients accept their reality
When it comes to needing medication, oftentimes conversations are harder on parents or caregivers, than the patients themselves. Stacey tries to encourage caregivers to find the support they need to accept the reality of their loved one needing medication to have a quality of life.
She says, “If someone wants to work with me on their nutrition “instead of medication,” I try to understand where the person is coming from. Usually, it’s from a place of fear, or uncertainty, and I really affirm that experience and hold space with them. Medications, side effects, accessibility, and adherence…it can all be so…heavy. There’s plenty of room to hold those two truths: meds are hard. And they’re often necessary.”
Stacey says when having these conversations she always begins with listening and holding space and then she puts her clinical hat on to ensure that it’s understood that these diseases are progressive and inflammatory, and that science shows that it’s best to get ahead of the inflammation, often with a medical provider, rather than chasing down the symptoms and the inflammation while quality of life suffers.
“I see my role as a registered dietitian as supportive of both treatment goals: helping patients have a quality of life, while assisting with the inflammation. But, I can’t provide medical nutrition therapy without the medicine component, and since diet isn’t ultimately the cause of these diseases, it works best as a complementary therapy with the support of a GI team; not as a cure.”
If patients aren’t trusting of their GI provider, Stacey tries to encourage them to seek out an IBD-specific GI doctor, if possible, while ensuring there’s also frequent follow-up with their local GI team, if they’re living somewhere rural. She says a lot of these conversations are born out of not feeling supported by GI providers, so she tries to help patients find GI’s who specialize in IBD, who are that are a better match.
“I’m upfront about not feeling comfortable about using nutrition in lieu of medication. That puts a lot of non-evidence-based pressure on my job as a dietitian, removes a lot of joy from the experience of eating, and further perpetuates the stigma associated with medicine. IBD is not a preventative metabolic disease, and patients should never feel blamed for eating their way into an autoimmune disease diagnosis. It’s simply not true, and it’s harmful messaging.”
How Stacey’s IBD journey inspired her to become a registered dietitian
At the time of her IBD diagnosis, Stacey was desperate for anything to stay alive. So, when it was either steroids, a biologic infusion, or having her colon removed, she was thankful the outcome wasn’t terminal.
“I happily agreed to the meds without even thinking about it. Within a month, I felt like a “normal” college student again, and honestly the changes that I experienced within my body due to the disease itself (losing my long, thick hair in clumps from malnutrition; seeing my body change rapidly to look emaciated), were far more difficult than any side effects from the medication. I felt like it was very much a night-to-day scenario, and I was so grateful for the medications as a result.”
But once she started feeling a little bit better and opened up to some family members about her disease, she heard a lot of negative chatter about the aggressive nature of the IV meds that she had “chosen” and thought, “Hmm. Maybe I’ll try juicing and holistic wellness,” never mind the fact that she was 21 years old with no professional support in making that decision.
“I quickly ended up hospitalized and needing an emergency Remicade infusion (the good ole days when hospitals kept it stocked in their pharmacy). The attending GI doc gave me some tough love, and really took the time to explain to me how “this is lifelong” and “you can’t be late on an infusion, because your immune system will lose response to the medication” and that really clicked for me. It was a hard moment and a tough pill to swallow, but it was a lesson of “maybe my well-meaning family members don’t know what’s best for me, and I’m going to have to trust my body, this med, and this doctor.”
In the years after, she went on to lose response to medications, start new ones, and it was always a night-to-day scenario all over again.
“I think this black/white sort of dichotomy of my experience on and off medication helped me accept that this was my reality pretty easily compared to others’ experience perhaps where maybe they’re less sick and the meds (not to mention the insurance gymnastics required to obtain them regularly) might seem daunting and leave people thinking, “Do I really need this?”. I was able to truly see that meds (and a whole GI team advocating on my behalf repeatedly for access to them) absolutely are the reason I’m still here.”
The challenge of receiving infusions
Infusions were psychologically a little “icky” for Stacey at first. She went from being a young, fun college student on campus with peers one minute… to driving 5 miles away to an infusion center where she was the youngest by a longshot, usually next to someone twice her age receiving chemotherapy or dialysis, and then she would go back to campus and pretend like nothing had happened.
“My boyfriend at the time (now husband) and I had a favorite haunt: Homeslice Pizza in Austin, Texas. Before my diagnosis, we were there on a date, and I spent the whole time in the bathroom. This was one of those places where there’s only one toilet…so I’d immediately finish and get back into line for the bathroom.He was really kind and said, “It’s okay! We’ll take it to-go, and when you’re feeling better, we’ll come back and have a pizza day and celebrate!”
Stacey says they were both so grateful for the night-to-day improvement with medicine that they named infusion days “Pizza Days” and this gave her a reason to look forward to infusion days, instead of dreading them. Over the years, we started inviting our friends to “Stacey’s Pizza Day” everywhere we moved: from Austin to Houston to Oklahoma City, and her friends had so much fun celebrating her infusion schedule every 2, 4, 6, or 8 weeks.
Utilizing research to help back the need for medication
As a dietitian, medications are out of Stacey’s scope of practice. As a patient, she knows them to be helpful. She tries to connect patients to resources so they can make informed decisions for themselves with a GI team that they trust. Resources like the IBD Medication Guide on the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation’s website are really useful, as well as IBD And Me if patients and caregivers are having some cognitive dissonance about finding a biologic that feels right for them.
“Then I’ll ask them about what their takeaways were. Sometimes, talking out these conversations really helps patients find useful, effective ways to communicate to their GI doctor, so while I understand that it’s not my role as a dietitian to provide guidance on medication selection, I’m happy to help patients sift through what sort of questions or concerns they need to express to their GI doctor. So often as patients we brush off our concerns or our fears because we don’t want to be a bother, and I really encourage patients to have these hard conversations with their GI provider; A good doctor will want to know.”
Why taking medication is not the “easy way out”
It’s fine to struggle with medications; medications can be hard. It’s not fine to feel shamed out of using them under the dogma of gut-health and over-supplementing, and unfortunately there’s a lot of misinformation in the IBD space of people professing left and right how they’ve “healed their gut” naturally.
“I feel like I’m uniquely in the middle of loving the science of nutrition and needing modern medicine to still be here. For me, it’s been damaging and debilitating to also make society comfortable with my need for medicine for so many years until I learned to let that go. Now I speak up when I can if it’s worth my energy. There’s nothing easy about needing medicine for life to stay alive, and the people who say otherwise just haven’t seen that in their life, and that’s okay. It’s not okay for them to think their experience can be applied to all people with gut health issues though. Would also love to have clarification on “gut health.” IBS? SIBO? Constipation? Nervous stomach? Gas? IBD? These are different things that can’t have the same, convenient solution.”
How we can rely on nutrition as a valuable tool in managing our IBD
Stacey sees nutrition as the shiniest, easiest available tool in a toolbox full of other tools: mental health, sleep, pain management/PT/movement, medicine, and surgery.
“Sometimes when I work with IBD patients, nutrition is not even the most important tool- it just depends on what’s going on in each person’s life. Maybe surgery is the most important tool, or it’s mental health. Different life moments with IBD will require different tools, and while my obvious favorite tool is nutrition, the other tools mean a lot, too.”
Nutrition is a tool that is compatible with all the other tools, and nutrition interventions might take some fine-tuning, mindset shifts, and some tailoring to each person’s lifestyle. But the beauty is that it can be picked up as needed, and that’s nutrition’s superpower: it’s a tool, and it’s also a bridge for connection, safety, comfort, and a quality of life within the context of IBD.
“I teach my patients individualized nutrition for IBD as the remissive/relapsing beast that it is, not just for what it looks like during the time that I work with them.”
Stacey’s advice for patients
Expect non-linear. Try not to compare. Feel the feelings, let the energy and the emotion move through you whatever way it needs to, brace for impact, and know you’re still here. Make room in your day to celebrate a good one!
Recognizing there can be two dualities that are true. You can hate needing medicine and be grateful that they kept you alive. You can feel deep sorrow for losing your health before you were old enough to acknowledge its presence and embrace this new, unprecedented, post-op reality, even though it’s different than what you expected.
Embrace your emotions. You can cryabout the reality of having needed an ostomy and be thrilled to eat a chocolate croissant in a moving car without pain BECAUSE the ostomy granted you a pain-free eating experience. You can be fearful about choosing a j-pouch and celebrate that it’s possible and wild to live with one.
Resenting the diagnosis is normal. You can resent your IBD diagnosis and be grateful for who you are with it (and thankful for all the people you’ve met because of your diagnosis!).
Lean on support groups and the IBD family. The support groups through the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation have been helpful for a lot of Stacey’s friends, and for her personally. She’s a huge fan of Spin4 and Team Challenge. Finding a safe, welcoming community who gets your reality (wherever that may be!) can be powerful and uniquely helpful.
This post is sponsored by Smart Sharps Bin. All opinions expressed are my own and do not necessarily reflect the position of HealthBeacon plc or Hamilton Beach Brands, Inc.
I started doing my self-injection more than 14 years ago, long before I became an IBD mom. I went from being a single 20-something alone in my apartment mustering up the strength… to having a family around me while I receive my medication. The experience has changed greatly and so has my perspective.
There are many reasons why I have chosen not to hide my injections from my three children. Crohn’s disease impacts more than just the person who lives with it, it’s a family disease. Even though my children are ages five, three, and 16 months, there’s a deep level of understanding and empathy that starts from a very young age. My disease is part of me. I always try to be transparent about my health and well-being. I have never said “I have a disease” since my children wouldn’t understand that, but I try to explain that sometimes my “tummy” hurts and that “Mommy’s shot keeps me healthy, safe, and strong.”
My process for self-injecting every other Monday
Once dinner is over, I pull my injection out of the fridge and let it warm up on the counter, out of the reach of my kids. I’ve always preferred to do my shot at night so I can rest afterwards and have a sweet treat like ice cream as a reward after. After about 30 minutes to an hour, I head over to the couch, and my children hover around me. They watch as I wipe the alcohol swab counterclockwise and oftentimes help me hold the ice pack on my thigh for five minutes. Then, once it’s time to pull the top and bottom off the injection and get down to business, I let them know they need to give me some space and not to move or make any jerking motions. I pause. Smile sweetly at them and start my countdown, slowly and calmly…one one thousand…two one thousand…all the way to 10. They smile back at me and bounce around when I have finished self-injecting. They immediately want to see if I’m bleeding and want to make sure I’m not in pain and don’t need a band aid. I bounce up off the couch and act like it’s just another part of our bedtime routine.
Since we’ve been doing this “process” for as long as they can remember, it’s part of our family, and part of what it’s like for me as an IBD mom. My kids are my greatest cheerleaders and my reason “why” for everything I do in life.
The sweetest distraction
I find it empowering to look into their innocent eyes and joyful faces while I self-inject, it’s the best distraction. I used to stare at a focal point on the wall, a photo of someone who inspires me, or a show on the television, but looking at my kids—my greatest motivation to push through the difficult moments—is the best medicine, literally and figuratively. I make a point to smile at them and never show signs of weakness, so they see that I’m ok and doing something positive for myself. This has become a lot easier since the formula for Humira changed and is no longer painful. I used to really struggle to smile when the medication burned the first year and a half of my oldest son’s life.
When my injection used to be painful, my son would see through my smiles. He would often hold a toy and pretend to give himself his own injection. After I was done doing my shot, he would come up and kiss my thigh and say he loved me. At this point he wasn’t even two years old—kids of IBD parents just “get it,” their empathy and understanding of health is incredibly unique and special.
How that strength carries over into my children’s’ lives
Since my kids see me self-injecting every other Monday, they’ve become quite desensitized when it’s time for their own vaccinations at the pediatrician. When my older two children get their flu shots, they take them like champs. The nurses always laugh that they’re braver than some teenagers. When my kids smile and tell me they’re strong like me when I do my shot it’s bittersweet. While I wish they didn’t have to see me self-inject, it’s building their character and understanding of health in a beautiful way.