July has been my least favorite month for the last 16 years of my life. It’s the month I was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease. The month I had an abscess the size of a tennis ball in my small intestine. The month I was put on a biologic medication. The month I had a bowel obstruction that led to bowel resection surgery. You get the picture. But now, it’s about to be the month I give birth to my third child. Baby boy is about to flip the script on a month that previously brought dread. Instead, I can focus on celebrating his new life and all his birthdays and milestones for years to come.
As a woman with IBD, motherhood has continually provided me with reminders of all my body is capable of despite my chronic illness. It’s shown me what once may have seemed unattainable, is possible. Motherhood is a constant reminder that my body hasn’t always been at odds with me. That despite the challenges and the pain all these years, it still afforded me the opportunity to carry healthy babies to term. Rather than feeling like my body is the enemy, motherhood has made me think of my body as my ally. We’ll have our ups and downs forever, but for 27-plus months it’s been a safe haven for my children. I’ve enjoyed flawless pregnancies and deep remission. It’s given me a chance to feel like a “typical healthy” woman, if only for a moment. Pregnancy has felt like a security blanket wrapped around me, and is soon to be no more. With that, comes an immense amount of gratitude, as well as anxiety, as from this point forward it’s just me and my Crohn’s…no buffer.
It feels weird going into this month of July not worrying about what could be, but rather being excited about what’s to come. When I was younger and prior to getting married, I avoided making plans in the month of July—especially life changing ones! My wedding, vacations, etc. were all coordinated around this month because I didn’t trust the way my body could blindside me.
Preparing for the shift in health
While I am ready for my son to be here and over the discomforts of pregnancy, a part of me is sad that I’ll never feel this well again. Within days of delivering Reid and Sophia, the gnawing abdominal pain associated with IBD crept back into my life before I even had a chance to bring my babies home. I expect the same will happen this time. While it was discouraging then and will make me feel the same now, I’m hopeful the shift in hormones won’t throw me into a postpartum flare and that I’ll find comfort in knowing from this point forward, every medication, every procedure, and every hospitalization will be done without a life growing inside of me.
Over these last nine months I’ve enjoyed eating popcorn with my kids for the first time, drinking a cup of coffee without a need to use the bathroom right after, and nearly 40 weeks of baby flutters and kicks instead of pain. It’s been a great run. I hope my experiences through family planning, conception, pregnancy, and motherhood provide you with an understanding that IBD doesn’t mean you can’t have a family. While many sadly struggle with infertility, complications, or not physically being well enough to carry a baby, it’s very possible that you can. Whether it’s stories like mine or the opposite, remember each of our journeys is unique. Don’t base your experience and capabilities on someone else, but when something or someone inspires or empowers you to go after what you dream of, hold on to that.
Baby boy will not only complete our family but serve as a constant reminder of all that is possible. While my Crohn’s has brought a great deal of heartache it’s also allowed me to gain a unique perspective and to never take life’s miracles and triumphs for granted.
For IBD mom, Suzy Burnett, reflecting on the past year and half of living through the COVID-19 pandemic causes her to feel flooded with emotions. She knew having three children under the age of five at age 41, while dealing with the ebbs and flows of Crohn’s disease, would be challenging. She delivered her son, Guy, just as COVID cases were starting to soar. Now, she’s able to look back on how her family adapted and thrived, despite the difficult circumstances of living through a global pandemic with a chronic illness. I’ll let her take it away…
Like many families, we’ve worn masks, stayed at home, literally have seen no one except our wonderful neighbors, and made sacrifices to ensure the safety of ourselves and others. We made the difficult decision not to send our 5-year-old to kindergarten, rather, enroll her in virtual 4k from the confines of our home. Our 3-year-old also didn’t attend preschool a few mornings a week like we had originally planned. We have noticed the lack of socialization has impacted her the most. Our 15-month-old is just now meeting family and friends for the first time. He takes stranger danger to a whole new level, but we know he’ll warm up in due time.
My husband, like so many others, started working from home. What was once thought to be a temporary safety precaution, has become a permanent situation. He continues to work in a room without doors while the wee ones race around playing superheroes. Noise canceling headphones have become a lifesaver. All of us together at home, day after day, month after month. Our bond has grown deeper, and our Burnett Party of 5 has survived. I can honestly say we live fuller, laugh harder, hold each other longer, and love deeper.
Dealing with the lifting of the mask mandate
Just as we were beginning to get used to our personal version of Groundhog’s Day, the mask mandate was lifted. This is a huge milestone, but with that brings excitement along with anxiety. My husband and I are both vaccinated, but our 3 young children will have to continue to wait their turn. To say we’re trepidatious about starting to acclimate back into society is an understatement. We’ve been in our little bubble on Welcome Drive for more than a year. I don’t think things will ever get back to “normal,” per say, but we’re looking forward to what our “new normal” will be. It’s a new beginning, a fresh start to be more present, and we have the opportunity to give precedence to things that matter most in life. Things will be a little different than before, and we will always remember and carry the weight that was and will forever be COVID.
We will continue to have our groceries delivered as well as basic necessities, because it’s unclear who is vaccinated, and I’m not going to rely on the honor system of strangers to keep my kiddos safe. However, I am beyond the moon ecstatic that our girlies will both be doing outdoor soccer and playdates with other vaccinated families. My husband will continue to work from home, but this is a change we welcome and greatly appreciate. It has given us time as a family we never knew we were missing. Our oldest daughter, Lucy, will finally be attending kindergarten…….wait for it….IN PERSON. I am so proud of her. She’s sacrificed so much these past several months. She’s handled herself with grace and class far beyond her years. We’re planning our first family trip in over two years, and I am completely overwhelmed at the mere thought of the happiness this will bring.
Coming out stronger than before
It has been months of peaks and valleys, but our mountain remains strong. On top of enduring the pandemic, we lost our family cat, Miles. He was a furry friend to our littles when they couldn’t see their own friends. My dear Grandma Connors was called amongst the angels, and now she protects us from above. I also recently almost lost my sister due to a post birth hemorrhage, but now she rests safely at home with her baby boy. And I am recovering from a nasty bout of C.difficile. Yes, the one time I left the house I picked up a bacteria from the hospital. Through it all though, we’re stronger than ever before because of our strong family foundation.
My point in saying all of this is that we all go through our own struggles. Life is so unexpected, and often we can’t choose what we’re dealt. We can, however, choose how we handle the storm. We’re so grateful for our health, happiness, and each day we’re given. Take NOTHING for granted because every day is a gift. Everyone has been impacted one way or another these past few years, and now it’s up to you to see where your ship will go as you navigate life with IBD and in general. As the tides of the ocean swiftly change, so will the moments in life. Savor the moments.
When Campbell Dwyer was three years old, her health took a turn for the worse. She was diagnosed with Hirschsprung disease, a rare congenital disease that affects the colon and intestinal motility. She underwent three surgeries by the time she was four.
Her life began with two colostomies before she transitioned to a permanent ileostomy in her thirties. After her 10th surgery, she joined several online support groups geared for those with ostomies. To her surprise, she discovered there were many children who had ostomies.
After doing research, Campbell was shocked about the lack of literary support for children coping and coming to terms with ostomy life. She decided to change that by creating a book series called “My Silly Illy”.
“I want children to understand having an ostomy does not define them. It is simply a piece of them that contributes to their individuality. My hope is that this book will help teach inclusion and acceptance.”
Her thought-provoking, heartwarming, and humorous story aims to help children understand what is happening with their bodies and how to thrive with their new appendage.
The only constant in life is change
Throughout her lifetime of coping with Hirschsprung disease, overcoming numerous surgeries, and transitioning from a state of merely existing to living. Campbell says she welcomed each high and low as part of her transformation.
“Making the decision to write this book series has been my greatest personal success yet. I have confidence that my personal battles with an invisible disease and life with an ostomy will encourage and motivate those younger than me and promote strength to their families. I can finally see that nearly forty years ago, my future was being purposefully designed to make a difference in the world.”
Bringing My Silly Illy to life
Talented illustrator, Ana-Maria Cosma, took Campbell’s vision, thoughts, and scribbles, and brought them to life with the hope of creating a life-changing and eye-opening literary experience for many.
“My vision for this book is that the ostomy will be portrayed to each child as their personal superhero. The last page of the book has a faceless child, this is by design. The child can draw their face, or the loved one can cut out a picture and place it on the spot. There are also fun hairstyles that can be cut out. I want children to see themselves in each page of this book; to see themselves enjoying their favorite foods, traveling, and playing.”
Gearing up for a hospital tours
In the months ahead, Campbell plans to visit children’s hospitals around the United States, as well as bookstores. She’ll be hosting book readings, signings, and round table discussions with families and children coming to terms with ostomy life. Her goal is to champion pediatric ostomy patients and help their loved ones and parents understand what the child may not be able to communicate.
You can order “My Silly Illy” in the following places:
In the spirit of Mother’s Day—today’s article celebrates mother and daughter duos with IBD. Rather than focusing on the hereditary factor of Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis, this story celebrates the camaraderie, bond, and connection created when a parent and child both share the same disease. While the chance of passing on IBD when one parent has Crohn’s and ulcerative is relatively low according to the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation (between 5% and 20% of people with IBD have a first-degree relative, such as a parent, child, or sibling who has one of the disease), it happens. My hope is that if you dream of being a mom or a dad, you don’t rob yourself of going after that dream because of the fear of passing on your disease to offspring.
As a mom of two (soon to be three!), I am the only one with IBD in my entire extended family. But, I often worry and wonder if my Crohn’s will be passed on to my children. I know this is a common fear many in the community grapple with. Check out these thought-provoking and comforting firsthand accounts from 8 mother-daughter duos that show how families unite in their diagnosis and lift one another up.
Corri Gardner and her mom both have ulcerative colitis. Her mother’s father also had UC. Corri’s mom was diagnosed with IBD while she was pregnant with her. All she knows since being diagnosed herself is having her mom and grandpa to confide in through the ups and downs of the disease.
“My mom has always been there to validate my fears and feelings on such a deep level since she knows exactly what I’m going through. When I was diagnosed, she expressed how guilty she felt over and over again. I always assure her that I would much rather be on this earth, living with UC, than to not be here at all. If someone is hesitant about having children due to their IBD, I would urge them to not make life decisions based on fear.”
Camryn Asham and her mom both have Crohn’s. She says having a parent with IBD helped her feel less lonely and more understood when she was diagnosed. Like anyone with a chronic illness she’s gone through a range of emotions on her patient journey—everything from anger to grief.
“I’ve had the “why me” feeling, but deep down I know it’s not my mom’s fault and there is no one to blame. I know my mom has felt guilty watching me go through traumatic moments and all the ups and downs. I’ve been able to witness my mom get through the highs and lows of IBD, and that reassures me I can get through any flare up or procedure, too. I know I can always count on my mom for help and support when I don’t feel heard or understood.”
Rachel Martin and her mom both have Crohn’s disease. Her mom was diagnosed at age 14, she found out she had the same disease when she was 22. While the diagnosis was devastating for both, Rachel says she finds comfort in knowing that she has someone close to her who can relate.
“I do feel as though my mom feels guilty for passing Crohn’s. I have a twin sister who does not have Crohn’s and it has been hard seeing her live her life without going through everything that I have gone through. Never in my life would I wish this upon anyone, especially my sister, however I wish that I never had to go through this. I never exactly blamed my mom, but I have spent a lot of time wishing I “lucked out” like my sister did. I know that my mom feels bad that I have had a really hard time coping and accepting that I also have a chronic disease.”
Diagnosed prior to a parent
Mary Catherine Kirchgraber was diagnosed with Crohn’s when she was 10 in 2000. Her mom was diagnosed during a routine colonoscopy when she was 50-year-old in 2013. Since her mom served as her caregiver and advocate since she was a pediatric patient, it’s made for a unique journey and perspective. They both seek medical care through the same GI practice and have been on the same medications. Mary says it’s nice to have someone to commiserate with about frustrations with insurance, feeling poorly, side effects, and more.
“My mom is the toughest person I know and never complains, so she inspires me in a million different ways. I wish she didn’t have to struggle the way I have, but it’s nice to have someone to lean on and ask questions to. My mom has always been my advocate and greatest support. She fought for accommodations at school, taken me to Mayo Clinic, dealt with insurance, and taken me to every doctor appointment and specialist I’ve ever needed. She created binders of medical records for me and often reminds me of my own health history when I don’t remember things from when I was a kid. I am so lucky to have her on my team.”
Sharan Kaur was diagnosed with Crohn’s in 2002, her mom found out she had ulcerative colitis in 2017. She says prior to her mom’s diagnosis she felt alone dealing with the day to day struggles of IBD. Sharan says because of her knowledge and experience living with IBD, when her mom began to experience symptoms, she was able to push for their general practitioner to take action immediately and reach a diagnosis. She is grateful to have another family member who can grasp the severity of the disease and who understands how easy it is to go from feeling perfectly fine one day, to barely managing to get out of bed the next.
“I think we find strength in one another. For years, my mom supported me through my worst days and although she didn’t completely understand how things were before her diagnosis, the support was always there. Finding out she had UC broke my heart because she’s always been so active, truly a supermom. I realized then that this would have to change for her as she would probably go onto face the same daily struggles that I do with fatigue. As an adult I’m sure this change in lifestyle is much harder to accept than it was for me.”
Mary McCarthy was also diagnosed with Crohn’s at age 12 in 1995, her mom didn’t discover she had Crohn’s until 2015 when she was 62 (and her dad has UC!). IBD was foreign to the McCarthy family when Mary was diagnosed though. She says her mom had a difficult time coping with having a child with a chronic illness. Even though her mom was well-versed on IBD by the time of her own diagnosis, hearing the news was still difficult for her.
“We deal with it mostly through empathy and humor. Being able to talk openly about the emotional and physical aspects of the disease helps. My parents and I joke about how we are colonoscopy experts and have seen every gastroenterologist in the city of Chicago. My mom knows exactly what I need before colonoscopies, which is often to get some alone time and get in the zone. We laugh about it now. “Mom, I love you, but I gotta get in zone. You can wait in the waiting room now.” My mom has been there for ALL important moments in my IBD journey. We sometimes reminisce about the complete chaos we went through when I was 12. We may have IBD, but we know life must go on.”
Michelle Schienle and her mom were both diagnosed with Crohn’s in 2015, she was 23 her mom was 52. Michelle’s diagnosis was the catalyst for her mom to seek additional treatment from a new gastroenterologist. As we all know it can be challenging to articulate IBD symptoms to those who haven’t experienced them. Michelle knows she can always count on her mom no matter what she’s going through. Even though she doesn’t blame her mom for passing on IBD to her, she did get frustrated that she didn’t recognize the suffering earlier as a child because that was her mom’s “normal”, too.
“Since she was living her life that way, she thought my problems were “normal”, so I had to wait until I was old enough to advocate for myself to get the answers I needed. I wish she wouldn’t feel guilty for passing it on to me, because it’s not her fault. Seeing my mom push through gives me strength. I’ve seen firsthand how she’s successfully raised a family, had a great career, and traveled the world (all things I aspire to do!) and done it with IBD. It’s a relief not to have to explain the pain and worry in detail because we just know what the other is going through. As unfortunate as it is that we both are going through this, having my mom understand what I am feeling both physically and emotionally helps to validate it. If my children are to ever get IBD, I am now confident that I am in the best position to take care of them because I know what to watch out for and how to be proactive about treatment.”
History repeating itself
Both Ellen Jenkins and her mom were diagnosed with Crohn’s when they were 18 and freshman in college at the same school! Ellen says her mom still feels responsible for her being sick, even though she has never blamed her for IBD.
“Growing up and watching my mom live a normal life despite her IBD comforted me when I was diagnosed. I am so thankful to have someone who understands firsthand what I go through. Although no parent would choose to pass Crohn’s on to their child, IBD has made us closer. I have never been upset that I got it from my mom. Instead, I’m thankful to always have her as an advocate in my corner who truly understands the struggles.”
A heartfelt thank you
As an IBD mom, hearing these experiences and perspectives really puts my mind and heart at ease. As you can see, there’s a common thread throughout. Rather than blame their parent for passing on IBD, these young adults look to their parents as a pillar of strength, a source of understanding, and as partners in taking on their illness. Through the pain and suffering there is also gratitude, clarity, and unbelievable resilience. Just how you have grown and evolved as a person after your diagnosis and throughout your patient journey, your child will do the same.
Special thanks to everyone who made this story possible. Your words, your raw emotions, and your candidness are sure to help many and shed light on the incredible dynamic that is created when a parent and a child both battle IBD…no matter what age their diagnosis comes about.
Being diagnosed with IBD as a pediatric patient looked different in the 1970’s. For 54-year-old Brett L., the start of his patient journey began when he was only nine. The year was 1976. He started experiencing fevers, bloody diarrhea, vomiting, and abdominal pain. As he puts it—the symptoms started a year-long quest to find an answer. A quest that involved frustratingly long waits at doctor offices, endless tests, and medical trials. He was ultimately diagnosed with acute ulcerative colitis at the age of 10. Now, in 2021, Brett has unique insight and perspective to share with our community.
Patient “Number 1”
As you can imagine, Brett spent many years on high dose steroid and sulfur pills. The side effects of the steroids (moon face, weight gain, bloating, mood swings, and ravenous hunger, etc.) added insult to injury. From 7th through 9th grade, Brett missed nearly 60 days of school each year due to severe flare ups and hospitalizations. By the time he was 13, Brett’s parents were desperate for a cure as his condition worsened. With no relief from traditional medicine, they sought out additional care from holistic doctors, nutritionists, even an angel healer at one point! Nothing helped to manage Brett’s IBD.
“In 1981, I was 14. I’d been battling debilitating and severe flare ups that made me so weak I had to crawl to the bathroom or walk doubled over in pain. Each hospitalization was taking its toll. Over the years, though I was growing, I had lost 30 pounds. It was at this point that my doctor proposed something that had never been performed on a pediatric IBD patient—a total colectomy and “pull through” operation that would leave me fully reconnected and waiting for the ileostomy closure…allowing me to eventually go the bathroom normally again after a recovery period of a year or so. It was risky surgery back then. But not having it was a risk too. I agreed, and we went ahead with the surgery.” said Brett.
Brett was deemed “patient number 1” for this pediatric procedure and his case study was published in medical journals. To this day he remembers waking up from surgery in the pediatric ICU at Westchester County Medical Center in Valhalla, NY. He recalls counting 18 tubes and lines connected to his body and thinking that he couldn’t believe he chose to do this to himself. The surgery lasted 14.5 hours and the incision ran from his pubic bone to his sternum—the entire length of his abdomen.
Living with an ileostomy as a teen
“I learned to manage the ileostomy with some upsetting and messy mishaps at the very beginning. And in class sometimes the stoma would make embarrassing sounds. I learned to feel it coming and cover it with my hand to quiet it. But without a colon, I was now a healthy 14-year-old. The doctors said that upon examining what was left of my colon, they estimated I had about two weeks left before a fatal perforation,” said Brett.
A year later his ileostomy was reversed, and he was able to go to the bathroom “normally”, again. While he’s grateful for this—it hasn’t been all sunshine and rainbows. Brett says he initially had an abscess at the closure of the stoma. Ever since, he has gone to the bathroom more than normal people. In recent years Brett developed a challenging case of chronic pouchitis that at its worst caused pain and had him going 20-30 times a night.
The good news is that “after about 4 years of this, I finally seem to have treated and solved it myself, with psyllium husk powder at breakfast and lunch times, and 3 Lomotil pills with dinner. I’ve also reduced fluid intake during meals and become more careful about not overeating. I learned some of this in my online research about immediate post-op colectomy patients. The doctors had a hard time helping me with this, but I seem to have resolved it myself.”
From past to present
Today, Brett is a healthy 54-year-old man and his pouchitis has never been more under control. Through all the ups and downs with IBD, he’s lived a fulfilling life as a professional singer, and as an executive of multiple companies.
“In my career I’ve been an investigator, a head of marketing and sales, I’ve grown startup companies, and have traveled the world for business and pleasure. I’ve earned an advanced degree from an ivy league school, and I have an amazing 16-year-old daughter who is a gifted, performing singer-songwriter in her own right.”
Brett believes his ulcerative colitis has made him more appreciative of life and the little things.
“I have always been that person who lingers over sunsets, gazes at the moon, and stops and notices the teeny flowers poking through the cracks in the sidewalk, or street art, and the coincidental things one comes across as noteworthy or remarkable. I notice and really drink in the happy, good moments because I know what it’s like to not be able to be out and experience these things. I know I am fortunate to be here to tell my story.”
Here are some helpful nuggets of knowledge Brett would like both those with IBD and their caregivers to know:
Don’t let fear of IBD stop you from living your life and having fun, or asking that person out, or going out with friends, when you are feeling well. As soon as I was feeling well enough to get back out there after a flare up, I lived life to the fullest and played like every other kid. You deserve to be there just as much as every other kid, teen, or adult does. When you are feeling well, try to make the most of that wellness, and not let the fear of what might happen stop you from living.
You are not “less than”, because you have an illness. In fact, you may even have an added level of maturity because of your illness that others do not, because of your need to contend with it, and interact more with adults and medical professionals and present your situation to them in a coherent and meaningful way. Look for the silver linings in everything. Notice the small pleasures, they help you get through the down times.
To parents—your child is a survivor. It takes a lot to keep them down. They will have ups and downs with their IBD. But 2021 is the best time ever to have to live with this diagnosis. Current treatments and even surgeries have changed the game and the patient experience, for the better and the future is even more promising. IBD can be traumatic. Children and adults can benefit from seeing a therapist to help cope with the lifelong nature and complications of the disease.
This article is sponsored by Nori Health. All thoughts and opinions shared are my own.
When Roeland Pater was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease nearly 20 years ago at age 19 there was a lot he didn’t realize and a lot he tried to ignore. He felt like he was on cruise control the first few years after surgery led him to remission. A few years later, his IBD took a turn and so did his perspective on his health.
“I started to realize that everything I did in life was impacting my disease. Suddenly, I couldn’t do whatever I wanted when I wanted. I became cautious of my actions and decisions. I tried to get a better grasp of how my IBD was impacting my life by receiving personalized care, but I was struggling trying to find a way to do that,” explained Roeland, Founder of Nori Health.
He noticed that during his medical treatment, he experienced a lack of support and education between hospital appointments, with little to no focus on quality of life or emphasis on how he was living day-to-day. Like many with IBD, this left Roeland feeling frustrated, misunderstood, and like there was no hope in controlling his condition.
The inspiration behind Nori Health
As a professional in the tech industry, this caused a proverbial light bulb to go off in Roeland’s head. He identified this massive gap in IBD care and decided to dedicate his life to solving the problem, with the goal of helping others. He recognized the need for a digital solution to help people like himself better manage and control their disease through daily behaviors. This is how the concept and mission for Nori Health was created. The company received an investment two years ago, which drove the concept into a real product and an app.
“Research shows that people living with a chronic inflammatory disease typically experience a 30% lower quality of life when compared to healthy individuals. Closing this gap is our mission. We believe this can be done by improving the understanding of the disease and its triggers through education and disease management. We aim to give patients in our program a sense of control over their disease management,” said Roeland.
How the Nori Health app works
The Nori Health app offers an 8-week program for IBD patients, guided by Nori, a digital coach. Through regular conversations (text-based—like WhatsApp) with Nori you receive personalized insights on factors that are proven to impact quality of life, and symptoms like pain and fatigue. These tips can be saved to your personal dashboard, and you can implement them into your daily routine, helping to keep your IBD under control.
“Most apps on the market are focused on a tracking model. This puts a lot of responsibility in the hands of the patient to monitor their daily activities and to discover patterns that might trigger symptoms. We changed this model around to best support the patients. Nori guides the patients through their health journey, with personalized, evidence-based factors. Nori provides the user with actionable tips that can be saved in the app, which can then be easily implemented into daily routines and lead to significant change,” said Roeland.
You can think of Nori as an artificial intelligence chat coach. You will work together to discover the lifestyle factors that impact how you feel and learn about simple changes you can make to gain more control of your disease. The end goal? To have less pain, more energy, and less strain on your mental health. Changes include everything from forming a new hydration routine, to talking to others about your condition, to reaching a point of acceptance of living with a chronic disease.
Main areas of focus include:
“We would like to emphasize the importance of finishing the 8-week program. Just like taking a full course of antibiotics, the true benefit from the app comes from completing the entire course of the program,” said Roeland.
The app is not currently open to the public, but I’m excited to offer 100 of my Lights, Camera, Crohn’s readers direct early access!
Download the Nori Health app for iPhone here and Android access here.
During registration use access code TEST212 for free access to the full program.
As you are given free access to the app, you will be asked to provide feedback on your progress (this is in-app, and anonymous). The Nori Health team will reach out to you by email to collect feedback about your experience as well.
Hopes for the future
Nori Health is deeply rooted in recognizing the power of community. The program was not only developed by an IBD patient but created thanks to the input of more than 600 patients in England, Netherlands, Belgium, France, and beyond. By participating in this initial launch, you can continue to provide valued feedback and guidance so that the team at Nori Health can make the appropriate tweaks and further understand unmet needs. So far, the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive and has shown that patients can be supported throughout their patient journey—whether they are newly diagnosed or a veteran patient.
“We’ve seen an average of 34% improvement in daily management (diet, stress, and exercising on a daily basis) with people who completed the 8-week program,” said Roeland. “Half of the participants whose social lives were compromised due to symptoms, started to reconnect with friends and loved ones. These are the types of improvements and shifts we had aspired to see happen when we created the app.”
By working with patients like himself, Roeland says these valuable insights have changed Nori Health’s focus and influenced them to go much deeper into the factors that improve quality of life.
The COVID-19 pandemic has normalized talking about chronic illness in the workplace and shed light on not only what it means to be immunocompromised and how it impacts one’s quality of life, but also the benefits and possibilities that working from home provides for everyone involved.
Prior to the pandemic, asking to work from home or setting up accommodations with your boss looked different. It could feel a bit taboo. Maybe you worried how the rest of your team would perceive you as possibly getting special treatment. Maybe you didn’t want to appear as if you couldn’t keep up or do what was expected of everyone else. But one of the positives to come out of this crazy time is that the way we work and how we work has shifted.
I’ve been a freelancer/blogger and stay at home mom since I became a mom in March 2017. That being said I worked full-time in the TV news industry, at a PR agency, and in corporate America at a natural gas utility the first 12 years I had Crohn’s disease. I am well-versed in how to navigate those difficult conversations with your boss, how to balance your health and well-being with your career, and what it means to thrive professionally while making sure your health doesn’t take a hit.
An opportunity for change
If the past 13-plus months have shown us anything, it’s how adaptable and flexible work can be. Businesses and organizations have real-life intel now that can help guide what the future of working looks like, and how employees can best be supported, engaged, and accommodated.
The chronic illness community can use this time as a springboard into the future and communicate their needs and hopes moving forward. According to the CDC, nearly 60% of adults in the U.S. live with at least one chronic illness. Even though that’s a huge percentage, many leaders still don’t know how to properly support employees who fall into this category and those of us who live with a disease such as IBD often question our own abilities and what we’re able to bring to the table compared to our healthy co-workers and counterparts. Working from home through the pandemic has evened out that playing field.
Having the flexibility to work from your couch or run to your bathroom in the comfort of your home versus in the middle of a big work meeting with your peers makes a huge difference. Knowing that you can schedule meetings and availability around blood draws, appointments with specialists, scopes, infusions, etc. offers great flexibility in managing your illness and getting the job done without feeling guilty for taking care of yourself.
How to better understand and support employees
From a chronic illness perspective, we push ourselves in all aspects of life, even when we’re running on empty because we constantly fear being viewed as less than. There are many ways business leaders can better support employees who are taking on a disease like Crohn’s or ulcerative colitis.
As people with IBD we worry about how we’re perceived by others because of the stigma that surrounds chronic illness. There’s guilt. There’s fear of being considered lazy. There’s the worry about coworkers judging you and thinking you’re a complainer or weak, when in fact they may not be aware of your whole back story.
So how can we improve the support of our managers?
–Initiate communication: Ask your boss about setting up a 15-minute monthly one-on-one touch base to discuss how you are feeling and if you need additional support. Talk about what the next month looks like as far as doctor’s appointments, labs, tests, etc. I personally always felt better supported and understood by sharing my health struggles with my coworkers—whether it was my co-anchor and meteorologist or the communications team at the company I worked at. When I was hospitalized (which happened on multiple occasions) or needed surgery, I would email the entire team and give them a heads up about what was going on, so they heard it from the “horse’s mouth” and not through office hearsay or gossip. By articulating your patient experience you give others a chance to be empathetic.
–Make the invisible—visible: It can be easy for us to downplay our pain or put on a smile when we’re flaring to protect ourselves, even on Zoom calls! The unpredictability of IBD makes work-life a challenge because you can start the workday feeling energized and ready to take on the world and after lunch feel like you can’t even stand up straight and need to lie down. The constant uncertainty of when symptoms are going to strike can be debilitating in and of itself. By being open and transparent in these moments of struggle you help paint a clearer picture of what you’re experiencing for those who don’t live our reality. In corporate America, I used to sit in the boardroom and start a meeting by casually saying “I just want to let you know my Crohn’s is acting up. I’m in a lot of pain. It’s hard for me to sit up straight so I’m going to slouch a bit and I even had to undo my pants!” I approached those moments with humor, but moreso to take off my “mask of wellness” and be transparent that there was much more going on in my mind and body than just the presentation I was giving or listening to. I feel being honest like this made my co-workers helped us build a stronger relationship and rapport.
-Come up with a hybrid schedule: As the world starts to open and companies discuss what the future will look like as far as working from home or in the office, consider what it may look like to work a couple days a week doing each and finding balance. Working from home hasn’t been a detriment to productivity, if anything this time has proved how flexible we can all be in the face of adversity. By creating a space of support and understanding, everyone can be successful. Talk about the options available, your comfort level with returning to work in the office (especially if you’re immunocompromised or haven’t had a chance to be vaccinated), and what the expectations are moving forward.
–Improve inclusiveness: When a business or organization makes employees feel embraced, regardless of their health struggles, it speaks volumes. Even those who are completely healthy should see this as a valued characteristic of their working environment—whether in person or virtual. Nobody knows when their life could take a turn for the worse or when an unforeseen health issue could pop up. For many in the chronic illness community, we went from being healthy to waking up with a disease that will be a part of us, always. It’s on leadership and Human Resources to ensure those with chronic illness are provided with the support they need.
–Stop celebrating overwork: Touting the employee who works around the clock and answers emails at 2 a.m. sends the wrong message. Instead, find ways to commend employees for different reasons. There isn’t one set of parameters that makes someone a great employee. Having work-life balance and recognizing the importance of having time to decompress, put health first, and spend quality time with family, matters and says a great deal about leadership style. The number of hours worked doesn’t equate to the quality of work or one’s competence. The onus is often on the boss or leader to speak up and set these expectations. Being able to manage your team’s energy will keep morale in check and make employees feel appreciated and more invested in doing their best, because they have the energy to do so and aren’t ready to tap out at any given moment.
Remote work is more than a job perk
COVID has forced the conversation and illuminated the challenges those of us with chronic illness are up against when trying to balance our health, providing for ourselves and our families, and being an invaluable employee. Thanks to the pandemic, employers are now looking to re-evaluate what sick leave and disability policies look like, especially as they relate to working from home. Those of us with a chronic illness may finally feel like we’re on an equal playing field when it comes to job opportunities and not having to worry as much about our bodies cooperating so that we’re able to do it all.
Four years ago, today, I became a mom. Our son Reid Robert was born and placed into my arms for the very first time. Like any parent, especially one with a chronic illness, those initial moments were emotional and overwhelming in the best way. A wave of relief rushed over me as I lied on the table after my scheduled c-section, grateful my body that had fought Crohn’s disease since 2005, had brought a perfectly healthy baby boy into this world. But I was also nervous about my abilities as an IBD mom and what the journey of parenthood would look like as I juggled taking care of myself and this tiny little human. How would my life with a chronic illness and as a mom play out?
Fast forward four years. I am now a mom of two, with a baby boy on the way (24 weeks tomorrow)! Over these last 1,460 days, I’ve learned and grown a great deal both personally and as an IBD patient. Today—I share that perspective and knowledge with you. Perspective and knowledge, I wish I had when I first became a mom and what I’m continuing to learn along the way.
Fed is best. There is so much pressure on how women choose to feed their babies. It’s ridiculous. I breastfed Reid the first three days and he had formula from that point forward because I was nervous about my biologic. The second time around, I did more research, and chose to breastfeed my daughter. Our journey lasted for six months (my milk supply ran out once I got my period). I supplemented with formula. I’m hoping to nurse our final baby when he’s born in July. That being said—no matter what you choose, it’s your choice. Your baby will thrive. Don’t beat yourself up over it. Drown out the judgement and speak up if someone questions your decision for you and your baby. For me, breastfeeding is a labor of love. I’m not going to act like I enjoy it, because it was hard for me. It’s not something that comes natural for all, and that’s ok. No one is going to ask my kids when they are in elementary school or high school how they were fed or know the difference.
What they see, doesn’t always hurt them. When you’re cowering on the toilet in pain and they’re watching with eyes that speak of concern. When you’re sitting on your couch about to do your injection. When you’re struggling to stand up straight because your abdominal pain is too much. Don’t shield them from your pain. That pain is part of your family story and it’s important you are honest and upfront. It’s those moments that shape their little hearts and their everchanging minds.
Kids roll with the punches. Have to cancel plans or have a low-key day inside watching a movie instead of going for a walk or to the park? —that’s ok. Your children will feel loved and taken care of just the same. Kids are flexible. They don’t need to stick to a rigid schedule to be happy and fulfilled. At the end of the day, it’s your love and support that matters most.
Innate empathy from a young age. With my oldest being four, I can’t tell you enough how many times I’ve been blown away by his empathetic heart. Before he was even two years old, he would kiss my thigh after my injection and walk up to me in the bathroom, give me a hug, and pat my arm or stomach to comfort me. Now, he asks me if I’m hurting or in pain. He knows mommy isn’t always healthy, but that she’s always strong and gets through it. That empathy goes far beyond me—I see it in the way he is with others and it makes my heart feel like it’s going to burst with pride. I credit that aspect of his personality to what he’s witnessed these first few years of life, and for that I’m grateful. I can guarantee you’ll see the same with your children.
Greatest source of motivation. Even though I’ve been in remission since August 2015, my kids still serve as my greatest motivation on the difficult days with the disease. Whether it’s pain, prepping for a scope, or going through a procedure, I keep my eyes on the prize—them. Just thinking of them gets me through everything. They give me so much to fight for, day in and day out. It’s not just about me—it’s about all of us.
The importance of communication. When you become a parent, communication becomes even more paramount in your relationship. If you don’t share when you’re struggling or symptomatic, your partner can’t offer the support you need. Even if you’re not in a full-blown flare, it’s beneficial for everyone involved (you, your partner, and your kid(s)) that you share when your IBD is causing you issues. I always text my husband when he’s at work or simply say, “I’m having a bad Crohn’s day” or if I’m in the bathroom for a long time after dinner while he’s trying to get the kids to bed …and that’s all it takes to get the message across.
Asking for help doesn’t make you weak. You’ve probably heard the saying “it takes a village to raise a child” …and it really does. You are not failing or less than because you ask or help, need a break, or time for yourself. You will be a better mom if you take time for you. You’ll be better able to keep your disease in check if you have time to relax and de-stress. I’m not always the best when it comes to accepting or asking for help, but as I gear up for three babies four and under, I know I’m not going to be able to do it all on my own and that I’m going to need more out of my village.
Your health can’t go on the backburner. When you’re a mom, your needs often go to the bottom of the totem pole. When you are an IBD mom, they can’t. While I used to try and “brave out” my symptoms until the last possible moment, as a mom, I’ve completely changed. After nearly 16 years living with Crohn’s, I know when my body is speaking to me and now, I listen and address what’s going on immediately. I credit being proactive and sharing with my GI when it feels like my remission may be in question for the reason why I’ve been able to stay in remission all this time. I’ve gone on bursts of steroids, had my trough levels checked for my biologic, and done fecal calprotectin tests through the years when needed. The last thing you want as a parent is to be hospitalized because of your IBD. To me—it’s inevitable. It’s not a matter of if it will happen, but when. But I do everything in my power to keep myself home and out of the hospital and will continue to do so until that’s no longer possible.
Every “tummy ache” and loose stool from your child is not IBD. When my kids say they have a tummy ache or I seem to think they’re going to the bathroom more often one day than not, I’m immediately worried and concerned. Could it be IBD? Why are they feeling this way? Is it my fault? What do I need to watch out for? All the questions flood my mind and sometimes my emotions get the best of me. Then, my husband normally talks me down and says it’s probably nothing and I need to stop jumping to conclusions. He’s right. Chances are potty training could be causing tummy aches. Or maybe like the rest of the population, they are going more because of something they ate. The chance of passing along IBD to your child (when one parent has it) is only 2-9% (according to the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation). Remember that.
You are their hero. Of course, there are times I wish I wasn’t an IBD mom…and “just” a mom. At the same time, I credit my disease for much of my outlook on life and how it helps me cope with setbacks, but also celebrate what to many others may be the mundane. My kids don’t see me than less than. When they sit through doctor appointments in the stroller and blood draws, or watch me make faces drinking colonoscopy prep, or count to 10 while doing my shot before they go to bed, they simply see their mama. This is their normal—they don’t know anything different. When I talk to teenagers or young adults who grew up with a parent who has IBD, I always hear the same thing— ‘they are my hero’.
Along with being a hero to your little one(s)…you are also…
Someone who takes unpleasant moments in stride.
Someone who wears the title of “mama” with great pride.
Someone who will never stop fighting for the feel-good days.
Someone who doesn’t allow your illness to rob you or your child of joy.
Someone who goes after their dreams—like that of being a mom—even though your back story may be a bit more complicated.
Someone who is just as worthy as anyone to be a parent.
We’re four years in, Reid. Like everything in life, each moment—beautiful and challenging—is fleeting. Thank you for being patient with me, for understanding me, and for being a daily reminder that I’m so much more than my Crohn’s disease. Being your mom is my greatest title and has been the best chapter of my life story and patient journey thus far.
Motherhood is so much more than a word—it’s an expectation and an identity. It’s a right of passage many girls dream of when they think about their future and what their family will look like. But family planning, pregnancy, and motherhood are far from a given, especially for those with chronic illness. As an IBD mom of two with one on the way, I’ve recognized that while my story and my experience may comfort and guide others—it’s only that, one story. I fully understand I am extremely lucky not to have the struggle of infertility or physical limitations to hold me back from having children, despite my Crohn’s.
This week kicks off IBD Motherhood Unplugged, an ongoing series that will be shared periodically in the months and years ahead on Lights, Camera, Crohn’s. The series will feature guest posts from women with Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis who may not physically be able to carry a child, who battle infertility, who grow their family through adoption and surrogacy, who have children following loss—the list goes on and on. Ultimately, I want everyone to feel seen, heard, and understood. There’s not one cookie cutter approach to becoming a mom or having a family.
The first article is by my dear friend and fellow patient advocate and thought leader Tina Aswani Omprakash. Tina is a 37-year-old woman in New York, living with perianal, fistulizing Crohn’s Disease. She’s endured more than 20 surgeries and lives with a permanent ileostomy. Since she was a child, she thought she could put off motherhood and did so through many years of virulent disease. At one point, as a young adult, she needed to go on a disability and be taken care of by her mom. When she got married to the love of her life, Anand, nearly 11 years ago, the questions started.
“Being of South Asian descent, the nosy, busybody aunties at weddings and cultural events would always find ways to jeer and sneer at the fact that I hadn’t had a child yet. And after I started Stelara 5.5 years ago and tasted remission for the very first time in a decade, I too began to wonder: is it time for me to consider my own child?”
I’ll let Tina take it away and explain her struggles with family planning and finding out pregnancy wasn’t in the cards. Her heartfelt words and openness about feeling excluded from being an IBD mom, shed light on an important topic and aspect of our illness that is often not discussed or talked about. We hope in sharing this—if you are going through the same situation, struggles, or worries, that you know you are not alone.
Genetic counseling, surrogacy, and reproductive endocrinologists, oh my
In April 2016, I went to see a reproductive endocrinologist, who did a transvaginal ultrasound. Based on his medical expertise, he thought he could retrieve maybe three of my eggs, which was incredible news given everything I had been through surgically. He had proposed 2-3 rounds of IVF for hormone stimulation and egg retrieval but there was no guarantee that the eggs retrieved would be viable to be combined with my husband’s sperm. He didn’t think carrying the baby was a good option for me given all the scarring from surgery and fistulae. Moreover, fertility is often affected by j-pouch surgery and later excision. As such, he offered me the option of surrogacy and asked me to seek genetic counseling due to the hereditary nature of my Crohn’s Disease.
Anand and I went through months of genetic counseling, an expensive process that didn’t lend to any substantial findings. Crohn’s, as many doctors have explained to me, is spread out over several genes and one gene cannot be targeted necessarily as a form of gene therapy. That left us both stumped as his family has a history of an autoimmune condition called ankylosing spondylitis and I have various skin and bowel autoimmune conditions on my side of the family.
During this time, we also looked into the surrogacy process. Since the reproductive endocrinologist recommended that I not consider a pregnancy myself given all the surgeries, fistulae, and pelvic cysts I’ve had, we obliged. But considering all the legal and surrogacy fees, we were looking at $100,000 for one surrogate pregnancy (at least), which was an extraordinary sum of money for us. So, we decided to table having a child for the time being and think over adoption, another expensive proposition.
Tick, tock, tick, tock…
Two years passed and we came to realize that there is no easy solution. During that time, the IBD Parenthood Project shared excellent knowledge for women with IBD to conceive and carry a pregnancy to term safely. And I thought, let me ask my GI doctor now about his thoughts. Unfortunately, he reiterated the same thoughts as the reproductive endocrinologist shared: for someone with my surgical and fistula history and aggressive family history of Crohn’s disease, it may be best not to try. He also said the risk of me using hormones for egg retrieval would risk a blood clot in a patient with my history.
Part of me was still in denial that motherhood may never be a possibility. Within weeks of my conversation with my GI doctor, I was diagnosed with mild endometriosis by a premier OB/GYN surgeon in NYC. I asked him, “What do my options for pregnancy and fertility look like now?” And he said very openly and honestly, “Bleak at best. Let’s say you do carry the pregnancy and don’t lose the baby, Tina, will I have to cut through bowel and scar tissue to get to your baby?” After a brief pause, he said, “I would recommend adoption if having a child is something you really want to consider.”
While, on one hand, I genuinely appreciated his honesty, on the other hand, the statement, “cut through bowel and scar tissue to get to your baby” seared through my mind for months after and has left its mark even today. I needed to hear it; I needed my bubble to pop. But the statement no doubt cuts and ravages every minutiae of my being as a woman. Not having the privilege to choose to have a baby was suddenly taken from me in that one fell swoop and it left my head spinning.
Losing Motherhood to Crohn’s Disease
My God-given right as a woman was taken from me in that instant. As if having six fistulae and Crohn’s wreaking havoc on my pelvis and reproductive system wasn’t enough, let’s take Tina down another notch. Let’s take away her right to choose to have a child.
Even though voluntary childlessness is always a choice, now I didn’t even have that choice. Childlessness was thrust upon me like a stab wound in the back. All I was left with were unaffordable options of surrogacy or adoption.
So why not adoption? It’s simply too expensive and I do wonder about whether I’ll be able to even take care of the child given my constant roller coaster of health issues and medical appointments. Hiring full-time help seems out of reach, too.
Include Women Who Aren’t Mothers
That day with the endometriosis surgeon was nearly three years ago. And I’ve done a lot of work in therapy to process much of it. But I can’t say I don’t feel left out every time I see a mom scolding her child or complaining about her child(ren)’s mischievousness because I, like many other women with chronic illnesses, will never be able to experience the joys and sorrows of motherhood.
As happy as I am for my friends with children, there is a deep void I’m reminded of every time someone else gets pregnant, hosts a baby shower, or sends along amazingly cute photos of their child(ren). I will never be able to have that, no, but I wish I could still be included in the mommy paradigm as a cool aunt or as a godmother. But I’m often not, and that makes me feel sad and excluded.
Dealing with the Cultural Aspects
In American culture, it’s hard enough as it is to be a woman of my age without a child, but in Indian culture, you’re really considered a pariah of sorts. I’m often asked the question of when I will bear a child now that Anand and I have been married for so many years. I usually find ways to dodge those questions by changing the subject or by simply saying, “whenever the time is right.” It’s not a conversation I want to be having with acquaintances nor do I want to be fodder for gossip.
But when it comes to my close friends saying, “Tina, gosh, you would have made an amazing mother, you have so much good to impart on to the world,” it feels good and bad all at once. I’m flattered that someone would think I could do a fine job as a mother but saddened by the fact that I will never know that for myself.
Becoming a Mother Hen
Alas, today in 2021, I continue to focus on my advocacy work and my graduate program, in attempts to focus my attention elsewhere. And in the words of my therapist, “if I cannot be a mother to a child, I can at least be a mother hen to my IBD community, helping to educate and guide patients of underserved populations who would otherwise feel bewildered.” I take a lot of solace in that and recognize that I wasn’t supposed to be here today with all the near-death experiences I’ve had with my brand of Crohn’s disease. All I can express is my gratitude for being alive today, for being able to do this work, and for being able to be a mother hen in my own way to my community.
To my fellow IBD women & chronic illness warriors: please know you are not alone. Please know it’s okay to be sad, angry, and terrified. Many of us are struggling deeply with the idea of motherhood as our clocks keep ticking. Do your research, learn what your options are and make the best decision with your specialist(s) regarding conception and pregnancy. And if having a child is not in the cards, that’s okay too. Never forget (and I need this reminder too) – not having a child doesn’t make you less of a woman.
Prior to receiving a chronic illness diagnosis, it’s incredibly challenging and nearly impossible to fathom ‘forever sickness’. In Tessa Miller’s book, “What Doesn’t Kill You: A Life with Chronic Illness–Lessons from a Body in Revolt”, she masterfully articulates the highs and lows of life with Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD). From navigating the diagnosis, flare ups, the healthcare system, relationships, and the mental health component, she’s created an invaluable resource that I wish every single person with chronic illness could be handed the moment they find out their life story has taken an unforeseen turn.
As someone who was diagnosed with Crohn’s in 2005, two months after college graduation, I wish my former self had these powerful words at my fingertips. The overwhelming nature of IBD can be nearly suffocating at times. As I read this page-turner of a book, I felt seen and understood. I found myself nodding my head, because I could relate to so much of her story and so much of her sage advice. I felt like a college student highlighting what felt like the whole page, because it was ALL so important.
Tessa and I are both journalists. We both have Crohn’s. We both randomly grew up in Illinois. I connected with her over social media after reading her New York Times article, “Five Things I Wish I had Known Before My Chronic Illness.” The article had an impact on me, so when I heard she landed a deal with a publisher, I anxiously awaited for this book to drop.
In the beginning of “What Doesn’t Kill You,” Tessa writes, “I became a professional patient, and a good one. I learned that bodies can be inexplicably resilient and curiously fragile. I would never get better, and that would change everything: the way I think about my body, my health, my relationships, my work, and my life. When things get rough, people like to say, “this too shall pass.” But what happens when “this” never goes away?”
Finding the Right Care Team
When you live with a disease like Crohn’s, it’s imperative you trust your gastroenterologist and care team and are confident in how they help you manage your illness. I always tell fellow patients to take a moment and think about who they will feel comfortable with at their bedside in a hospital room when they’re flaring or facing surgery. If it’s not your current doctor, it’s time to look elsewhere. Tessa breaks down the “qualifications” for getting a care team in place. From finding a doctor who explains why they’re doing what they’re doing and why to a doctor who looks at you as a human, not an opportunity.
“Good doctors see their loved ones in their patients; they make choices for their patients that they would make for their own family. Asking a doctor, “Why did you choose this line of medicine?” will reveal a lot about what drives them and how they view their patients.”
The Grieving Process of Chronic Illness
Receiving a chronic illness diagnosis forces us each to go through the grieving process. For many of us, we were naïve and felt invincible before our health wasn’t a given. We’re so used to feeling as though we’re in control of our destiny, that when we lose that control, we spiral, understandably. Tessa interviewed Paul Chafetz, PhD, a clinical psychologist based in Dallas. Dr. Chafetz is quoted in the book saying, “We go through life with an illusion of safety, guaranteed health, even immortality. Acquiring a chronic illness pierces that illusion, and this is a loss. Grieving this loss is an integral part of adjusting to the illness.”
Take a moment to stop and think how you coped those first few weeks and months after finding out you had a chronic illness. While acceptance takes time and comes in different stages, Tessa explains how flexibility and willingness to adapt to your new “normal” is even more important.
“Rather than searching for big, sweeping acceptance, then feeling like a failure when it doesn’t come, chronically ill folks can enact small, empowering steps, such as taking required medications, learning everything we can about how our diseases work, seeing doctors regularly and being prepared for appointments with a list of questions, advocating for our needs and wants, figuring out which foods makes us feel good, and going to therapy and/or connecting with a support group.”
In my own patient advocacy and experience living with Crohn’s I can attest to the fact that we all spend a lot of time wishing for our past and worry about what our futures will hold, rather than focusing on the right now. The majority of IBD patients are diagnosed prior to age 35. This leads most of us to experience the big milestones of adulthood (career, finding love, living on our own, family planning, etc.) with a disease in tow and wondering how that disease is going to complicate life or hold us back from accomplishing all we aspire to.
Bringing on the Biologics
Tessa calls herself an “infliximab veteran,” she spends a great deal of time talking with new patients and caretakers, mostly moms of young IBDers, about their fears. Most questions I receive through my blog and social media also revolve around biologics and the worries people have about side effects and whether the drug will fail them or be a success. I feel confident deeming myself an “adalimumab veteran”, as I’ve been giving myself Humira injections since 2008.
As patients we are faced with difficult decisions all the time and must look at the risk versus the benefit. Having health literacy and understanding your actual risk from a biologic is something that should be communicated with you from your physician. Tessa’s doctor explained to her that six in 10,000 people who take anti-TNF agents (Humira and Remicade) get lymphoma. But as patients, all we see on the internet and in the side effect notes are “lymphoma.” Force yourself to dig digger and remind yourself of your alternative—to not feel better.
The Truth Serum of Chronic Illness
One of the superpowers of chronic illness is that we get to see which family members and friends come to the forefront and which fade to the background. Not everyone is cut out to be a caregiver, but you’ll quickly see who has empathy and who genuinely cares. In my own personal experience, it’s helped me get out of relationships with guys who were no where to be seen while I lied in a hospital bed and allowed me to distance myself from friends who couldn’t find the time in their day to check in when they knew I was flaring.
Tessa says that chronic illness forced her to peel back the layers and the isolation wall she put up, too. Chronic illness has shown her that people do more than just hurt each other— “they nurture, they listen, they enrich one another’s lives.” Her IBD also empowered her to be brave enough to put an end to unhealthy relationships that weren’t benefiting her well-being, both with friends and love interests. Her Crohn’s has showed her that not every friendship is meant to support you in the same way.
This is a great piece of advice. As you live with a chronic illness, you’ll come to know which friends you can share your deep dark secrets and worries with, and which you give the high-level cliff notes version of your experience to. Your chronic illness will help you set those boundaries in a graceful way.
Her love story with her husband embodies what those of us with chronic illness deserve, a partner who sees us as more than our disease, but understands the severity and complexity at the same time.
Juggling a Career and Crohn’s
One of the biggest challenges of life with IBD is knowing how and when to disclose your health situation with your employer. You may wonder how the news will be received, if it will jeopardize your chance for promotion, if your coworkers will resent you…the list goes on and on. As someone who worked in the TV industry as a producer, news anchor and reporter for nearly a decade, and as a PR professional and corporate communications specialist, I’ve been lucky that all my bosses have been incredibly understanding of my struggles with Crohn’s, but never used them against me in any way. I’ve always waited until after I have received the job offer and then told my boss in a meeting the first week of work. This alleviated some of the stress on my shoulders and ensured my coworkers wouldn’t be blindsided when I had a flare that landed me in the hospital. By communicating openly, it also to set an expectation that I may not always feel up to par and that I may need more bathroom breaks or to work from home or come in late after doctor appointments.
Tessa so eloquently writes, “You want your boss to understand that while your disease affects your life, you’re still capable of doing your job. Deliver the necessary facts about your illness without bombarding your boss with information—keep it direct and simple. Be clear about how you manage the illness and that although you do your best to keep it under control, it can flare up. Tell your boss what you’ll do if and when that happens.”
Realizing the Power of Pain
One of my favorite analogies that Tessa shares in the book is that each of us carries an invisible bucket, some are heavier than others, and the weight of that said bucket is constantly in fluctuation. She says that as she started connecting with those in our community, she came to realize that her personal pain was no better or worse than anyone else’s. So often we weigh our struggles against those of others, and that’s not helpful to beneficial for anyone.
“Think about it: If a friend came to you in pain, would you tell them that other people have it worse and that their pain isn’t valid? If you did, you’d be a lousy friend—so why do you speak to yourself in such a way?”
Rather than thinking that ‘someone always has it worse’ ask for support when you need it. Don’t downplay your struggles out of guilt thinking you aren’t deserving of help. Give support when you can but don’t forget about the person you see looking back in the mirror, be loving, kind, and patient to them, too.
Leaving the Rest to Imagination
Some of my other favorite excerpts from the book are Tessa’s “Seven Secrets”. The secrets (both big and small) she keeps from loved ones and friends about her experience with IBD. The secrets are relatable. We don’t want to come off as a burden. We don’t want to scare those who mean something to us. We want to hold on tightly to the notion that our illness doesn’t define us, so we often don’t disclose the true reality of what encompasses our illness.
Another section I know you’ll love is “Thirty-Eight Experiences of Joy” where Tessa shares quotes from 38 different people with chronic illness and how they’ve discovered joy despite their illness. I’m honored to be featured in that section of the book.
She understands the power of community and how finding your tribe within your disease space and outside of it is an important aspect of disease management and life fulfillment.
“Connecting with other chronically ill people teaches you how to carry each other’s weight—when to lift when you have strength, and when to share the burden when you have no energy left,” writes Tessa. “I’ve found the chronic illness and disability community to be one of endless empathy and generosity.”
The Gratitude That Comes with Chronic Illness
I’ll leave you with one of my favorite quotes from the book and a perspective that I wholeheartedly share:
“At the beginning of my illness, I was so inwardly focused on what I’d lost that I couldn’t see the gifts illness had given me. Mom, a determined optimist, taught me to always look for the silver lining. Mine is this: Yeah, my body won’t allow for any bullshit—no jobs I hate, no relationships I’m not fulfilled by, no hours crying over wrinkles. Illness made me braver, kinder, and more empathetic, and that gives me way more radical power than the faux control I was clutching to for so long. In the most unexpected way, illness freed me. It compelled me to begin therapy, which kick-started the process of tending my wounds old and new. It made me focus on the present more than the anxiety of the future. And it made me be in my body in a way I never experienced before. Suddenly, I had to mindfully care for my body and brain as best I could and understand that beyond that, it’s out of my hands.”