IBD Motherhood Unplugged: My dog had IBD

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

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

Love at first sight

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

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

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

62.5% Chihuahua

12.5% Miniature Pinscher

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

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

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

Certain dog breeds have a greater likelihood for getting IBD:

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

IBD symptoms in canines

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

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

When Foster’s health took a turn

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

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

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

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

Treating IBD in Dogs

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

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

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

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

The final days

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Foster Brown August 4, 2011-November 2, 2021

IBD Motherhood Unplugged: I have Crohn’s and COVID

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

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

Discovering I was exposed

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

Here’s how my COVID has played out:

Friday, December 31st—headache, brain fog

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Managing Crohn’s Through COVID

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

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

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

Mom Life with COVID

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

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

Breastfeeding with COVID

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

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

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

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

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

FAQ on COVID-19: Breastfeeding safety for mothers

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

Recommendations Moving Forward

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

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

IBD Motherhood Unplugged: My son has Crohn’s and I published a book about our experience

Overwhelmed. Terrified. Unsure. When Heather Hausenblas’ son, Tommy, was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease December 6, 2018 at age 16, she didn’t even know what IBD stood for. She knew she had a lot to learn and was on a mission to get her son healthy. Fast forward three years and now she’s a published author on the topic.

“Invisible Illness” chronicles how it feels from a parent’s perspective when your teenage child is diagnosed with a chronic illness for which there is no cure. The book provides an inside look at a mother struggling to find her way forward and how she turned despair into hope not only for herself, but for her entire family.

Heather Hausenblas, PhD, is a mother of three boys, health psychology expert, and award-winning researcher. She says when her eldest son was diagnosed with Crohn’s, her personal and professional roles collided. Not only was she going to battle for her child, but she also began her mission to help those with chronic illness eliminate the overwhelm and (re)discover health.

Dealing with the words chronic and incurable

“I kept hearing there was no cure, no known cause, no one treatment, and no one symptom. No. No. No. No. He will always have it. It’s never going away,” writes Hausenblas in her book.

Chronic and incurable-these two words were exploding in Heather’s mind on repeat. Tommy went from being on the high school baseball team, with lots of friends, doing well in school, and being very active…to living with a complicated and often debilitating disease. Everything in their life came to an abrupt halt. She explains how the illusion of youthful invincibility began to fade. Something anyone in our community can relate to. Health is often taken for granted until it is robbed away from you.

Feeling helpless through the struggles

She writes, “I could hear the pain in Tommy’s voice. But I was helpless. To put his excruciating pain in perspective, one Crohn’s patient described it as, “I’ve given birth without an epidural twice in my life, and the pain of Crohn’s disease was far worse than that.” “Tommy’s physical agony was accompanied by the unending frustration involved in trying to diagnose this complex disease. His symptoms and complaints had been overlooked—even dismissed.”

When a child or parent is diagnosed with IBD it impacts not only the person with Crohn’s or ulcerative colitis, but each family member in a unique way. It’s often said that IBD is a “family” disease.

“Torture was seeing my child wasting away to a skeleton, dropping nearly twenty pounds on his already lean frame, constantly running to the bathroom, and having excruciating pain. Torture was watching him leave the house only to run back seconds later for the bathroom while his friends went to the party.”

As a mom with Crohn’s myself, reading Heather’s perspective as the parent watching her son endure pain and hardships struck a chord with me because when you’re a young patient and are diagnosed before becoming a parent yourself, you often don’t take the time to think about how your disease and struggles are impacting the people who love you most. Not out of disregard, but simply because you are dealing with so much internally and externally it can be difficult to think outside of yourself.

Healing with food

While Heather shares a great deal of insight about the importance of diet and nutrition as it relates to IBD throughout the book, she also talks about the challenges Crohn’s presents since each person tolerates food differently. She explains how it’s impossible to find a one-size-fits-all diet but advises patients to journal everything from what they eat to how often they go to the bathroom to try and tailor a personal diet that works for you. Discovering your own triggers and knowing which foods are risky or tend to cause pain is a huge step in managing your illness.

“After a few weeks of strictly following the SCD (Specific Carbohydrate) diet, Tommy said that gluten wasn’t his issue. He somehow knew. He knew his body. He now eats gluten when he wants…Tommy’s liberalization of the SCD highlights the practical concern of adhering to a very restrictive diet.”

“Invisible Illness” includes 30 pages of helpful inflammation-fighting recipes. Throughout the book Heather talks about how she “detoxed and decluttered” her home and the cathartic effect journaling had on her coping process then and now.

Now, as a sophomore at Clemson University studying engineering, Tommy is in remission and does not take medication. He manages his Crohn’s by eating a healthy diet made up of organic, whole food, has an active lifestyle, and says his Crohn’s disease does not define who he is.

Forming connections and offering hope

Heather hopes that by candidly sharing her family’s journey with IBD that she opens the door for connections between other parents and families living the same reality. She recommends fellow parents to get involved with local organizations, so you recognize from the get-go that you are not alone.

Her main goal with publishing “Invisible Illness” was to “to help others navigate through the storm of medical and health information to figure out the right wellness path.”

How to purchase “Invisible Illness”

You can get your hands on a book by ordering a copy on Amazon.

Connect with Heather

Facebook

Instagram

LinkedIn: Heather Hausenblas

Email: hhausen@ju.edu

Join Heather’s email list via her website to receive recipes, weekly health tips, much more.

Website: www.heatherhausenblas.com  

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

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

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

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

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

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

Receiving the Infantile VEO-IBD diagnosis

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

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

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

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

How it feels to watch your baby fight a chronic illness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo cred: Alisha Gilkey

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

A life-threatening setback

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

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

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

Photo cred: Alisha Gilkey

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

Treating and managing Infantile VEO-IBD

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

Medications/Treatments

Proton Pump Inhibitors

Liquid, Topical, & Inhaled Corticosteroids

Biologics

Chemotherapy Trails

Glycopeptide Antibiotics

Additional Daily Dietary Supplements

TPN & Lipids

Surgeries: 

Multiple Invasive & Non-Invasive Diagnostic Tests and Scopes

Gastronomy Tube Placement 

Catheter Placements & Removals 

Riley becomes a big sis

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

Photo cred: Alisha Gilkey

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

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

Photo cred: Alisha Gilkey

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

How IBD has impacted motherhood from a parent perspective

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

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

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

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

Best ways to support families with medically complex children

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

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

Photo cred: Alisha Gilkey

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

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

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

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

Here are some examples:

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

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

Mom, Model, and Ostomate: Seeing Life Through the Lens of IBD

When she’s not on the runway during Fashion Week or gracing magazines, Keyla is doing all she can to be an advocate for IBD. She was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis eight years ago, but this year, she found out she has Crohn’s disease.

“As a child, I always had intense stomach aches, and difficulty going to the restroom. Sometimes I’d even pass out. Doctors always told me it was constipation. It wasn’t until I was at work one day and passed out that my boss convinced me that I needed additional medical attention.”

At that point, Keyla was having 8-10 bloody bowel movements a day. Prior to ulcerative colitis, she was diagnosed with celiac disease and went on a strict gluten free diet. But unfortunately, the symptoms persisted. She got a second opinion and that’s when she was diagnosed with IBD. Keyla recalls that in the beginning moments of her patient journey she struggled to grasp that chronic illness meant her disease was a “lifelong partner” and that IBD would change her life in unimaginable ways.

The journey to an ileostomy

Fast forward two years after her IBD diagnosis and Keyla rushed to the hospital after noticing unexplained bleeding. Turns out she was hemorrhaging from her uterus and was told she had uterine cancer.

“After having a partial hysterectomy and no longer being able to have children, I’m not sure if it was the stress from everything happening but my UC was never able to be controlled after that. From failed medications like Methotrexate and Remicade to looking like Quasimodo from eye swelling caused by Entyvio and having less hair than a toddler from being on Humira. My body and I had enough. My clinical team and I decided it was time to evict my colon.”

In September 2018, Keyla began her 2-phase j-pouch procedure. Unfortunately, the surgeon discovered her colon was much more diseased than he had thought. Keyla’s colon had become fused to her stomach, resulting in part of her stomach to be removed as well.

“For 2 months I felt amazing with my ostomy and was excited for my reversal in December 2018. But shortly after, I began developing chronic pouchitis, could not gain weight, required IV fluids regularly, with a failed midline and then needed a central line. We decided to disconnect my j-pouch and create my end ileostomy in September 2020.”

All was well until January 2021 when Keyla started bleeding from her ileostomy. It was at this point she was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease and started Stelara. After a few hospital stays and some improvement with her symptoms, she began to experience an increase in rectal pain, urgency, and discomfort, so Keyla needed yet another surgery.

October 27th (less than one month ago!) she had her j-pouch removed with a proctectomy and officially made her stoma permanent. She’s recovering from this surgery as we speak.

How Modeling Came into Play

After reading that challenging medical history, you may wonder how Keyla finds the time to focus on a profession. Modeling is something Keyla always wanted to do when she was younger, but she was too embarrassed to tell anyone. She sort of stumbled into it. Keyla had done a fun photoshoot with a friend and those photos were shown to another friend who works in the fashion industry. Before she knew it, Keyla was a published model!

“Sometimes I still can’t believe I’m living my dream despite having health issues. I had the honor to walk at London Fashion Week this year and have been published in magazines out of the US, UK, and Canada.”

SURREAL Lifestyle Magazine and 4 Seasons Magazine have been her favorite features thus far because the publications have allowed her to speak about her IBD advocacy work. Modeling serves as the perfect platform for spreading awareness to others about ostomies and life with Crohn’s. 

“I always try to take the time for myself and make sure I am doing the things my mental health needs to stay focused and feel well. I also try to own those feelings. If I’m symptomatic, I try to accept it and openly communicate my struggles with others.”

Keyla says having an ileostomy can make modeling a bit more complicated, especially if she has to wear form fitting or tight clothing. If that’s the case, she ends up having to empty her bag more times than she really needs to. She’s grateful her modeling gigs have followed strict COVID guidelines, which helps her feel more at ease during these uncertain times.

When a project allows, she especially enjoys getting to show her ostomy in photos or on the runway. She chalks that up as her biggest career win of all!

A model mother

Keyla’s main focus whether she’s modeling or fighting a flare in the hospital is her family. She has an 11-year-old son who inspires and motivates her to push through the difficult days.

“IBD has made motherhood challenging. Without chronic illness motherhood can be difficult as it is, adding health issues on top of it makes it more complicated. I constantly question whether I’m making the right choices. But I also tell myself all I can do is try and hope that I’m being a good role model for him.”

It pains her to see how her son gets anxious about her IBD and healthcare. He’s been by her side every step of the way since she was diagnosed after he was born. Despite the highs and lows, Keyla feels her son is stronger because of her illness and has an innate sense of empathy and understanding for others.

If her IBD has taught her anything it’s that good days give us happiness and bad days give us experience. Modeling has enabled Keyla to be comfortable in her own skin and live the life she imagined long before Crohn’s was ever a part of who she was.

Connect with Keyla:

Instagram: Keyla.ic

Twitter: @keyla.ic

What the IBD Community Needs to Know about Getting an Additional Dose of the COVID-19 Vaccine

Over the weekend (Saturday, November 6) I received my third dose of the Pfizer vaccine. When I had my second vaccine on August 11, I never dreamed I would be getting another jab so soon. But here we are. In talking with several IBDologists and patients I felt the need to expound on this topic, as misinformation is driving quite a bit of confusion about what additional doses and boosters mean for the IBD community and how we can best sort through all the information being thrown our way.

What’s the difference between an additional dose (3-part vaccine series) vs. a booster?

Dr. Meenakshi Bewtra, MD, MPH, PhD, Penn Medicine, helped me better understand this by explaining, “a 3rd dose implies that you had a less-than ok response to two doses and need a “3-dose regimen” to get the same response that someone else would get with two doses.”

The 3-dose regimen caters to those who are severely immunocompromised—those on chemotherapy and organ transplant recipients.

“Most IBD patients do NOT have this problem. Some small studies have shown varying responses; the largest is PREVENT-COVID which was over 3,000 patients. The study found that those on monotherapy TNF had similar response to the COVID vaccines as the general population. It was only in the setting of combination therapy (anti-TNF plus azathioprine or methotrexate) that you had a blunted antibody response (again–this was a research study),” said Dr. Bewtra.

She went on to say she has not been recommending that all her patients get a 3rd dose—rather, reserving that for patients who are on combination therapies. At the same time, this is a very fluid discussion, and the decision needs to be made on a case-by-case basis between each patient and their physician.

A booster is if you had an adequate response to the first 2 doses and are now 6 months past your primary series and fall into the recommended categories (over 65 years old or age 50+ with high-risk medical conditions), if you are part of a younger age group with high-risk medical conditions, or for those who work in occupations that put them at high risk for COVID. Booster shots are most effective 6 months after your initial series for Pfizer and Moderna and 2+ months after J&J, although the data really supports waiting until at least 6 months for best response. Age is the biggest determinant of needing a booster, whether you have IBD or not.

Dr. Peter Higgins, MD, PhD, M.Sc., University of Michigan Health, explained this clearly on Twitter. He tweeted, “It is a catch-up dose for folks who for various reasons (anti-TNF’s, steroids, chemo) will not have a great response to two doses. To catch-up to everyone else. Then a booster dose later to keep pace.”

I’m *only* 38 years old. I’m *only* on Humira. Why am I getting a 3rd dose two months after my 2nd vaccine?

I saw my gastroenterologist for a check up last week and she ordered a SARS-Cov-Z Antibody (IgG) Spike Semi Quantitative test at Quest Labs. My results came back and from a range of 0-20, I was at 4.42. My GI was surprised my response had dwindled so quickly and recommended I receive a third dose to help mount a more robust response.

Dr. David Rubin, MD, Professor of Medicine, University of Chicago, and Chair of the National Scientific Advisory Committee of the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation told me that multiple studies on antibody response in patients with IBD have shown that after two doses the titers are similar to that of the general population. So, my result, is an aberrancy compared to the data. He said getting a 3rd dose seems right for me, given my personal results.

“We have suggested the booster for everyone and think of the COVID vaccines as part of a 3-dose series. When it comes to true protection from the infection, memory B cells (cellular immunity) are more important than antibodies. There is not a commercial test for that yet, but we are studying it.”

In a recent talk Dr. Rubin gave about COVID, vaccines, and the updated recommendations for additional doses and boosters, he discussed how IBD is a condition of an abnormal immune response. Therapies to manage IBD are predominately immune-based and immune-modifying. The information shared by the CDC and FDA is not specific to IBD and is confusing (for everyone).

“CDC recommends individuals should get a third vaccine if:

  1. Previously received two doses of an mRNA vaccine
    1. Currently taking select therapies, including anti-TNF and anti-metabolites
    1. “Other biologic agents that are immunosuppressive or immunomodulatory”
    1. High dose steroids (prednisone ≥20 mg/d or equivalent for ≥2 weeks)

All other individuals are recommended to get a booster 6-8 months after second mRNA vaccination.”

But wait, what’s the recommendation on antibody tests? Are they valid?!

This is where I get confused too, folks. Prior to receiving my antibody test and following my doctor’s orders I was not aware that the FDA and CDC both strongly recommend NOT checking or acting on antibody levels, as the tests outside of research studies are unreliable and unvalidated. Antibody tests do not paint a full picture of our immune system.

“There are strong recommendations from the CDC, FDA and ACIP (Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices) that patients NOT check antibodies nor use them in decision making. The only time they should be used is in the setting of research studies,” said Dr. Bewtra.

The reason for this is multifold:

-Antibody tests are not validated.

-Since they are not validated, there is no comparison for values. For example, my 4.42 on one test may be completely different in a different test.

-We know that antibodies are testing only one aspect of the immune system—there is a LOT more to immunity than an antibody level.

Dr. Jami Kinnucan, MD, University of Michigan Health advises all her IBD patients to receive a third dose, or a booster vaccination based on their risk factors and immunosuppression medications.

Dr. Kinnucan says, “Overall the current recommendations are to get a dose #3 on certain immunosuppressive therapy, which is different than a true booster dose. In addition, it is hard right now to understand what the true threshold of immunity is with antibody testing so I would not put too much into antibody test results. I do not recommend that patient’s routinely have their antibody status checked (unless they are involved in current studies). I would recommend getting dose #3 or booster dose for IBD patients.”

Vaccinated diverse people presenting shoulder

During the holidays we should all continue to follow CDC recommendations when it comes to social gatherings, social distancing, wearing masks, and properly washing our hands. Everyone that you spend time with should be fully vaccinated so the only thing being spread is holiday cheer. If you plan to spend time with anyone who is not from your immediate bubble, it’s recommended they take a rapid test before coming over.

Key Reminders as We Head into the Holidays

Vaccines are not 100% protective and Dr. Bewtra says “no one is fully vaccinated.”

“No one should think that just because they’ve had two vaccines, or 3 or 4, that they are safe. Protection is a function of the community: when community levels are high, even if you just got​ your vaccine, you need to wear a mask and practice all the recommendations from the CDC.”

What are the studies saying about the IBD Community

The data from science is highly variable. Studies looking at Rheumatoid Arthritis are not translatable to IBD, even when patients are on the same drugs. We have the real-world data from IBD, and it shows that the vast majority of IBD patients respond to vaccines appropriately. So not everyone needs to rush out to get a 3rd dose.

“We are doing a lot of vaccinating “the worried well” in this country. That may be fine because we are in a rich enough place to do that over and over, but it should not infer a feeling of false protection​ and it may be unnecessary,” said Dr. Bewtra.

Closing Thoughts

On the fence about receiving a 3rd dose and/or a booster dose? Have a discussion with your physician who specializes in caring for your IBD and prescribes your medications. Much like how IBD and COVID manifest differently in each person, it’s not fair to make blanket decisions about the entire patient population.

Dr. Rubin wants to reassure those with IBD that they are not at increased risk of bad COVID outcomes (but not at decreased risk either). He says most patients with IBD on therapy beyond 5-ASA or budesonide are eligible to get a third dose now. For patients on combination therapy with anti-TNF and thiopurine, methotrexate or high dose steroids, it’s reasonable to get the third dose/booster early.

Stay tuned for the evolving research. As the months go by and more research studies are completed, we’ll have a clearer picture of how to tackle this as well as additional guidance.

Save the Date: Facebook Live Event on Global Perspectives on COVID + IBD

The South Asian IBD Alliance (SAIA) is hosting a Facebook Live event Saturday, November 20 at 10 am EST. Patients and physicians will share their perspectives on COVID from the United States, United Kingdom, and India. Doctors will explain study data on serocoversion (development of specific antibodies in blood serum as a result of infection or immunization) in IBD patients and what their thoughts are on boosters and a 3-dose regimen, along with their viewpoints on mixing and matching vaccines. Patients will share their experiences from each respective country and discuss the challenges the pandemic has caused in terms of care.

Additional Resources

Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation: COVID-19 Vaccine Additional Dose Position Statement 

COVID-19 Vaccines and IBD: What patients need to know (article by Dr. David Rubin)

Third doses of SARS-CoV-2 vaccines in immunocompromised patients with inflammatory bowel disease (The Lancet)

Podcast: IBD Drive Time: Does my Patient Need A COVID-19 Vaccine Booster?

Studies about how IBD patients are responding to COVID-19 vaccines:

If you don’t do so already, be sure to follow these experts on Twitter for up to the moment information:

Dr. Bewtra: @DrsMeena

Dr. Rubin: @IBDMD

Dr. Kinnucan: @ibdgijami

Dr. Higgins: @ibddoctor

7 Tips for Keeping IBD at Bay on Big Days

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Patient Experience: Biosimilars & What Leading GI’s Want You to Know

Biosimilars. When you hear the word how does it make you feel? Maybe a little skeptical. Maybe a little uncertain. Maybe a little leery. If so, you’re not alone. I’ve been on my current biologic more than 13 years and when I think about having to possibly make a switch in the future it makes me nervous, too. That’s why I called on IBD specialists and gurus Dr. Miguel Regueiro, Professor and Chair of the Digestive Disease and Surgery Institute at the Cleveland Clinic and Dr. Christina Ha, MD, FACG, AGAF, Cedars-Sinai to help educate the patient community and put falsehoods and myths to rest. Biosimilars are here to stay so it’s imperative we get comfortable with the uncomfortable.

What is a biosimilar?

First things first, let’s get the definition out of the way so you know what we’re working with here. Biosimilars are not the generic version of the biologics many of us are accustomed to. A biosimilar is a product, usually a medication, that is formulated in a fashion that is similar to the “reference” product, also known as the “originator” medication. Think Infliximab (Remicade) and Adalimumab (Humira).

I love the way Dr. Ha explained this, “It’s like identical twins sharing the same DNA but having different fingerprints. With biosimilars, dosing, administration, optimization, monitoring, and plan of care is the same, nothing changes except the Infliximab is now Inflixilmab-dyyb, for example.”

How You’re Told You Need to Switch

You may be wondering how this conversation and discussion even starts and how it translates over to the patient experience.

“The physician and patient are contacted by the insurance company indicating that the patient must switch to a biosimilar. This allows for some discussion between the physician and the patient. Although this should be the fashion in which it occurs, I know that this is not always the case and sometimes the notification is last minute or done in a way that leaves little time for education and discussion between the administration of the next dose of biologic and notification by the insurance,” said Dr. Regueiro.

Cost Savings and Access to Patients

I want to preface this by saying the cost savings varies from patient to patient and is largely dependent on a patient’s insurance company or health plan that covers the payment of their medication.

Dr. Regueiro says, “To provide a simple overview, each insurance company/health plan will contract with a pharmaceutical company for a certain medication. Much of this is dependent on getting the best price for the insurance company. A biosimilar is typically cheaper than the original (originator/reference) medication and the insurance company will then list the biosimilar as its preferred biologic for that condition, e.g., Inflectra or Renflexis for Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis. This makes the approval of that biosimilar “easier” for the patient and therefore access better. The question of where the savings are realized is another matter. Even cheaper drugs do not translate to savings directly to the patient.”

If you’ve been on a biologic “originator” successfully and are told you suddenly must make the switch, it’s not uncommon. Dr. Regueiro says he has many patients who have found themselves in this position. His advice? Speak to your healthcare team, but also go to trusted resources for education, e.g., the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation website has some useful information for patients about biosimilars.

Addressing patient hesitancy

It’s no surprise this can be an emotional discussion. I try and envision myself being told that I had to switch after more than 13 years, and I know I would be crying because of the comfort and confidence I have had with my current therapy.

“The idea of switching to a biosimilar is fraught with concern. I typically acknowledge their concern, but then explain the data. There have been many studies that have shown that switching from a biologic to a biosimilar is well tolerated, is equally efficacious, and does not incur any different safety risk. I tell the patient that we technically cannot say that the biosimilar is the “same” as the biologic, but in essence it is. I also explain that I have had hundreds of my own patients switch and I have not seen a problem. In fact, in some patients I may get a drug level of the biologic before switching and then the same drug level of the biosimilar after switching and see no difference,” explained Dr. Regueiro.

For example, there is a blood assay for Remicade (Infliximab) that measures the Infliximab level and antibodies to Infliximab. When Dr. Regueiro has had patients switch from Remicade to a biosimilar, e.g., Renflexis or Inflectra, and then measure the same exact drug assay, the results of the Infliximab level and antibodies to Infliximab are the same. The biosimilar works in an identical fashion to the original biologic, and the blood assays show the same results. The body “cannot tell” the original biologic from the biosimilar.

Let’s read that sentence again. The body “cannot tell” the original biologic from the biosimilar.

Dr. Hasays, “The key here is to understand that you are being switched to an equivalent not inferior agent. Biosimilars are rigorously studied for safety, effectiveness, antibody formation with a lengthier, more involved FDA approval process than generics.”

Why Biosimilars are NOT generics

A generic medication has the same active ingredient as the brand name medication. An example would be the generic medication mesalamine for the brand name medication Asacol. Asacol’s “active ingredient” is mesalamine and the generic is simply formulated as mesalamine. The “packaging” of Asacol makes it Asacol, but its active ingredient is mesalamine and is identical to the generic formulation of mesalamine.

Dr. Ha explains why biosimilars are not generics.

“Generics are chemical compounds where exact replicas of the active ingredient are possible. However, biosimilars are biologic agents, complex protein structures constructed from living cells. Exact replicas aren’t possible but nearly identical structures can be manufactured – remember, these are very sensitive compounds. That’s why these medications need to be refrigerated and handled differently than a generic.”

I asked Dr. Reguiero if there’s ever a situation where he advises against a patient being switched to a biosimilar. He said generally, no.

“The only main question will be if a patient has already been on a biosimilar after the originator biologic and then needs to switch to another biosimilar. This would be a “multiple switch” rather than a single switch from the original biologic to biosimilar. Based on the limited data to date, and similarity between all of the biosimilars and original biologic, I do not even see this as a problem, but we need more research to make a final conclusion onto multiple switches.”

“Delaying treatment to stay on a version of a medication that really is not meaningfully different than the biosimilar may lead to far worse consequences than staying on schedule by switching to a biosimilar. Remember, delaying anti-TNF schedules may increase risks of antibody formation, infusion/injection reactions, and flares. I am far more concerned about staying on schedule and not missing doses than I am the biosimilar vs reference,” said Dr. Ha.

What if a biosimilar fails?

If a biosimilar fails, Dr. Regueiro looks at it the exact same way as if an original biologic fails. For example, let’s take the case of biosimilar Inflectra for Remicade.

“If a patient is started on Inflectra as their first biologic ever and it stops working, I generally check blood levels to determine if the patient has developed antibodies to Inflectra and that this is the reason for failure. If they have developed antibodies, and the Inflectra has worked well for a long time, then I would switch to another anti-TNF, but not another biosimilar to Remicade. The reason for this is that if a patient develops antibodies to the biosimilar, they will form antibodies to the original biologic or another biosimilar of that same biologic. However, I would switch this patient from Inflectra to Adalimumab (Humira) or one of the other anti-TNFs if needed. I would do the exact same thing if the first biologic I used was Remicade and it failed due to antibody formation.”

I went on to ask Dr. Regueiro when he would switch a patient to a biologic medication from a “different class.”

“Let’s take the example of Inflectra or Remicade. If a patient is started on Infectra or Remicade and they have no response from the beginning, and their drug levels of Inflectra or Remicade are good (and they have not had antibodies again) this means it should be working and it is not – this is a primary failure of that medication. In that case, not only would I not switch to another biosimilar or back to the original biologic, but I would also completely switch away from the class of anti-TNF, e.g., Humira, Cimzia, Simponi, as the patient is likely a non-responder to all anti-TNFs. In this case, I’d move onto something like Entyvio, Stelara, Xeljanz, or Zeposia (depending on whether it’s ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease).”

What’s coming down the pipeline for patients?

With all the biosimilars on the market and many more on the way—Dr. Regueiro and Dr. Ha say it’s quite likely all patients can expect to be switched off their current biologic at some point as insurance companies are able to get the biosimilar as a cheaper cost.

As far as savings programs, many of us are accustomed to with our biologics (I pay $5 a month for two injections), this would be dependent on what the company that makes the biosimilars offers and may look quite different to the originator biologic’s savings programs.  However, I would anticipate the patient would not pay more for the biosimilar.  There would either be a cost savings program with the pharmaceutical company that makes the biosimilar, or, more likely, the insurance company would keep the out of pocket cost the same for the patient.

Biosimilars are administered in an identical fashion to the originator biologic. So, you won’t be forced to go from doing a self-injection to getting an infusion. I asked Dr. Reguiero about Humira’s biosimilar in the future, and he anticipates that it will be citrate-free, just as the originator is now in the States.

Pediatrics and Biosimilars

As biosimilars come to market, the indications should be the same for the originator biologic. That is, if there is an approved indication in pediatrics for the originator biologic, the same should be true for the biosimilar. However, the FDA will make final guidance on the indications for a biosimilar and they could vary slightly on which diseases are approved and which age of patient approved.

What Patients Have to Say

Christina received a letter from her insurance company in June letting her know that Remicade was no longer approved and that she would be switching over to Inflectra in July. The insurance company reached out to her directly and had not informed her GI. She was five months pregnant and was stressed and anxious about switching medications in the middle of pregnancy.

“I have been on Remicade since September 2013 and it’s working really well for me. My GI was super supportive with my desire to stay on Remicade through pregnancy and agreed that I should not switch medications. In part of the letter for my insurance company there was an appeal process, which my GI did on my behalf. A few weeks later I got a letter in the mail from my insurance company that my appeal was denied. I contacted my G.I.’s office and she had someone in her office do a follow up appeal. The insurance company finally agreed to approve me for Remicade through my due date, October 23rd.”

Christina’s baby was born October 11th, so she’ll be making the switch this week while she’s postpartum.

Vern lives in Canada and the government there forced him to make the switch.

“The cost is partially covered by the government. I was pissed to say the least. They kept telling me it was safe, but I wanted to see evidence it was safe to switch to a biosimilar after someone had been on a biologic long term. I never got an answer. Luckily, I’m doing fine, and I have not noticed a difference.”

Lizzy highlights the emotional struggle biosimilars burden patients with.

“Even though I don’t see an uptick in symptoms and my remissions has been maintained, emotionally the switch was really difficult. My insurance forced me to switch. I was extremely sick for a long time before starting Remicade while I was hospitalized. So, I was really afraid of the switch making me sick and of course it was horrible not to have a choice in my healthcare.”

Kelly attests to the emotional struggle and disappointment. She says she spoke extensively with her GI prior to making the switch and did her on own research.

“When I received the letter from my health insurance company telling me I would be forced to switch to a biosimilar I was disappointed. I had been on Remicade for more than two years and it had only recently put me into remission. But I knew the switch was coming, having heard from many people in the IBD community that they were being forced as well. I had already done research on the data from Europe and Canada showing that biosimilars of Infliximab had the same efficacy and safety profiles as Infliximab.

She’s now had two Inflectra infusions and hasn’t noticed any difference in the way her body handles the medication. Kelly is crossing her fingers for a continued great experience and hopefully no more frustrating insurance shenanigans.

Madelynn was on Remicade prior to being switched to Inflectra. Unfortunately, her care team and her insurance failed to communicate the change to her. She shockingly discovered the switch was made after proactively reading medicine notes on the patient portal.

“I was nervous about it, and a bit upset. Who wouldn’t be after being in remission with a medicine then having it randomly changed? I ended up researching quite a bit about it, which helped calm my nerves. I also asked more questions of my medical team. I was worried about the biosimilar not working and causing a flare and of possible side effects. Keep in mind, I have Remicade induced side effects already. Could Inflectra make them worse? When a medicine keeps you in remission, that is something you want to hold onto for as long as you can. If you are taking any medicine, never be afraid to ask questions, research, and advocate for yourself. If something does not work, speak up!”

Madelynn has only received one infusion of Inflectra, but so far, she feels well and notices no changes with her IBD.

A Word from the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation

Laura Wingate, Executive Vice President of Education, Support, & Advocacy for the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation encourages patients to learn as much as thy can about not just biosimilars but all treatment options available so we can be active and informed partners in making decisions with our healthcare teams.

 “If you are informed you need to switch from a biologic to a biosimilar, you might be worried and that’s normal. But remember that biosimilars are just as safe and effective as your original therapy. Don’t be afraid to ask questions of your healthcare providers about the switch and why it’s happening and share any concerns you have with them. You can also contact the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation for additional information, education on biosimilars, and support.”

Helpful Resources on Biosimilars

If you have questions about biosimilars– talk to your health care team. The more education, resources, and support they can provide you with to bolster your confidence that the biosimilars are an important part of IBD treatment, the better. I know personally as someone who depends on a biologic to maintain my remission, that doing the research for this article has made me feel a lot more confident and comfortable about biosimilars and what they mean for the patient community.

There are a several great resources about biosimilars to check out:

Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation: Biosimilars What You Should Know

Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation Biosimilar Webinar from September 2021: MyIBD Learning: Understanding biosimilars: What IBD patients and caregivers need to know

American Gastroenterological Association

FDA

Inaugural Autoimmune Summit just what the patient ordered

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

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

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

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

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

A dream come true

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

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

Goals of the Summit

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

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

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

From the Speakers

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

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

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

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

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

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

Curtain Call

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

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

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

Follow the Autoimmune Association on social media

Instagram: @autoimmune_diseases

Twitter: @AutoimmuneAssoc

Facebook: Autoimmune Association

IBD Motherhood Unplugged: Scopes, Scans, and Breastfeeding

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

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

Juggling Kids and Prep

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is Pump and Dumping Necessary?

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

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

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

What about prep for MRE’s and CT scans?

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

The bottom line

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

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