Parenthood when you live with a chronic illness like IBD can make you feel anxious, worried, and uneasy. As an IBD mom of three, I often connect with and share the stories of fellow women with Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis who have brought life into this world, despite their disease.
This week on Lights, Camera, Crohn’s we hear from a soon-to-be IBD Dad, Brad Watson-Davelaar. He was diagnosed with Crohn’s in 2001 at age 17. His name and face may look familiar, as I featured him in an article entitled: IBD Dads: What these patient heroes have to say about fatherhood. In that article, Brad was recently married and discussed his hopes for the future. Those hopes came to fruition, as he and his wife are awaiting the arrival of a baby girl in late June!
Leading up to the pregnancy, Brad was a bit scared of what fatherhood would look like while living with an unpredictable disease. Like many of us, Brad fears when his IBD will rear its ugly head again and cause him not to be as present as he wants to be, hindering his ability to be a “proper teammate” for his wife.
“Prior to my wife being pregnant, I think I was scared. I’ve wanted to be a dad for some time, but with the way my health has been over the last several years, the prospect of having kids while I was in that physical state freaked me out. Not because I didn’t want kids, but because I was worried I wasn’t going to be enough for them.”
Finding out he was going to be a dad
When Brad found out his wife was expecting he was elated. They had been trying for a few months and he was only a couple months post-op from his ileostomy and barbie butt surgery. While Brad knows life as an IBD Dad will have its ups and downs, he knows the highs will far outweigh any of the difficult days.
“I’m so thankful for Shawn, my stoma, for coming in and giving me a new lease on life. I feel ready to tackle this new chapter of our life and all that comes with it. The good, the bad, the ugly, and the beautiful.”
Since he’s lived with IBD for nearly 22 years and has been an ostomate for 6 months, Brad feels his patient journey has conditioned him to deal with the unexpected. He hopes to connect with fellow IBD dads who have paved the way before him and shown all that’s possible.
Discussing IBD with his daughter in the future
As his daughter grows up, Brad plans to be an open book about his battle with Crohn’s.
“I want to help her understand what IBD and ostomies are. Especially ostomies. It will take time, but I believe in being open and not hiding things. I want her to see that my IBD does not define me and show her how important it is to advocate for yourself.”
As Brad and his wife gear up to become a family of three, they are overjoyed and excited about the new chapter in their lives that is about to begin.
“I’ll be there to look after this wee little one, which will fill my heart with warmth. Being able to focus on her achievements will be a brilliant way to get through the rough days. In the past, it was the little things that got me through. Now, I’ll have all the little moments to continually push me.”
His wife, Sydney, feels so lucky to have Brad by her side as they experience this adventure.
“He had struggled so much over the last couple decades, especially these last couple of years and his perseverance and strength through it all makes me know that nothing is too big for him to overcome. I know he is going to be an amazing dad with so much love, nerdiness and laughter. His Crohn’s is a part of him, but his IBD does not define him. I know no matter what we can get through it together. Brad’s last surgery has definitely given him a new lease on life. With a baby on the way, his ostomy will help him be more present, active, playful, adventurous and helpful. I cannot wait to see him hold our little girl for the first time,” she said.
It’s considered the most common surgical procedure for ulcerative colitis patients when medication fails to keep IBD under control. The ileal pouch anal-anastomosis (IPAA) or j-pouch, is created after a surgeon removes your colon and rectum and uses the end of your small intestine to form an internal pouch, which looks like the shape of J.
This week on Lights, Camera, Crohn’s we hear from a colorectal surgeon and IBD patient himself, along with several women with j-pouches about their experience, what they’ve learned along the way, and what they hope others know who are living similar realities.
What does the j-pouch procedure entail?
Before we dig deeper, a short “lesson” on what the j-pouch procedure involves. It’s typically a one, two, or three stage process.
According to the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation:
The first surgery removes your colon and rectum and preserves your anus and anal sphincter muscles. The ileum is made into a j-shaped pouch and connected to the top of your anal canal.
A temporary ileostomy is typically created to give your newly formed pouch a chance to heal. A loop of your small intestine will be pulled through an opening in your abdomen, called a stoma, to allow waste to exit your body into an ostomy bag.
During this time, you will need to always wear an ostomy bag, and it will need to be emptied several times a day.
You will have your second surgery eight to 12 weeks later, once the pouch has healed.
The second surgery will reverse the temporary ileostomy and reconnect your small intestine. Your internal pouch will then collect waste and allow stool to pass through your anus in a bowel movement.
Some surgeons choose to perform this surgery in just one stage, in which the pouch is created and joined to the anus without a temporary ileostomy. This is done less often than the two-stage procedure because of an increased risk of infection.
This topic resonates with Dr. Stefan D. Holubar, MD, MS, FASCRS, FACS, IBD Surgery Section Chief & Director of Research for the Department of Colorectal Surgery at Cleveland Clinic, for many reasons. He was diagnosed with Crohn’s colitis when he was 7 years old and was on and off steroids (the only treatment at the time) for many years.
“I had learned to live with chronic embarrassing urgent incontinence, as well as being small and skinny, and with a swollen face from the steroids. I was offered an end ileostomy as a teenager (not a J-pouch as it was Crohn’s) and was lucky to get a second opinion with the famous Dr. Daniel Present (RIP) at Mount Sinai. I went on NPO and TPN for one year which helped get me into remission and grow about a foot in one year. Somehow, I made it through college and got into medical school, but it turned out I hadn’t had a colonoscopy in about a decade.”
Over Christmas 1999, Dr. Holubar had a colonoscopy and received a call a few days later while he was skiing that he had colon cancer.
“That same day, the tumor swelled from the biopsies, and I developed a large bowel obstruction. I had emergency subtotal colectomy w ileosigmoid anastomosis without an ileostomy. After chemotherapy and completing medical school, I needed the rectum removed (due to risk of rectal cancer) and underwent a modified 2-stage J-pouch without ileostomy one month before surgical residency. I’ve been great ever since, not perfect as I have had some complications over the years, but great, with three kids, the best job and wife in the world.”
During the second half of medical school, Dr. Holubar was considering going into GI or Medical Oncology and learned that colorectal surgery was a specialty.
“Once I learned Colorectal was a specialty and they are the IBD experts, my future path was set in stone. It’s rare to know that you want to be a colorectal surgeon that early in training. I’m blessed to share my successful story and give patients with complicated IBD like me hope every single day of my life. My experiences have also influenced me to do clinical research to try to change care more broadly and ideally, globally. My IBD history is a source of endless inspiration for our innovative work.”
I asked Dr. Holubar what advice he has for patients who are on the fence about getting a J-pouch. His most important advice—is to seek expertise.
“I would recommend looking for surgeons who specialize in IBD. J-pouch surgery is a niche these days (hence “IBD Surgeons”), and your care team should be expert in taking care of the complications that may develop. A majority (>90%) of patients with a pouch would do it again and/or recommend it to a friend or family member.” (Fazio et al., Annals of Surgery, 2013, PMID: 23299522).
Dr. Holubar wants to highlight a couple important points in terms of this article:
Only about 10% of people who are deemed candidates for a pouch choose not to have it, for personal reasons such as work, or lifestyle-related reasons such as lack of access to a toilet for many hours at a time, or those who prefer a one-and-done approach (Holubar, Inflamm Bowel Dis, 2009, PMID: 19266572). We have a new article on this, but it has only been published as an abstract so far (Total Proctocolectomy with End-Ileostomy Versus Ileoanal Pouch for Ulcerative Colitis: Who Doesn’t Pouch, And How Do They Do? Dis Colon Rectum 64;5; Meeting AbstractPOD169)
On the other hand, the overall long-term pouch survival is about 90-95% which is very high (in other words, it works out most of the time, but not always) (Fazio et al., Annals of Surgery, 2013, PMID: 23299522).
In the current digital era, we are blessed to have support groups on social media and active discussions on #SoMe4IBD. That said, it’s important to know that not everyone who has a pouch – whether the experience is great, or they have complications – is vocal on social media. It’s important to check with your care team to discuss the best treatment options for you.
When it comes to the risk and benefits of having a J-pouch, Dr. Holubar says each patient needs to chart out the pros and cons of end ileostomy (or rarely a continence ileostomy aka Kock pouch) vs. IPAA as the risk-benefit profiles are quite different.
“The main benefit is that a patient can maintain transanal defecation and avoid a permanent ileostomy and care of the ileostomy. An added “benefit” of having a pouch is that you can almost always go back to an ileostomy if it doesn’t work, or you are not satisfied with the function. Going back into the belly is of course with some risk of further surgical complications,” he explained.
The j-pouch patient perspective
Jackie was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis in March 2009. She was 24 years old and had been given a multiple sclerosis diagnosis before that. At the time, her care team was concerned a biologic could set off her MS.
“Less than a year after my diagnosis, I was told that I’d run out of medication options and I’d need to have my colon removed and opted to schedule surgery at that time to work towards a j-pouch,” said Jackie.
Getting acclimated to having an ostomy didn’t come easily. She says her biggest obstacle was getting over her own biases.
“I didn’t know anything about ostomies except from what I read online from other patients at the time and the consensus in the online forums was not good. I was nervous, but I learned almost immediately that I felt better, was healthier, and could do more. After my first surgery, I traveled across the country and hiked through some parks in Oregon. None of that would have been possible before my ostomy. It only took a few experiences like that to realize how much the ostomy had really given me.”
Of course, there’s a learning curve. There’s new terminology to learn, you must find what works on your body, and that can be frustrating.
“I was curious from day one. I knew that I was sent home in the appliance the hospital had set me up with, but I wasn’t convinced that was the best one for me, so I took it upon myself to test lots of brands and products to get the one that worked best for me.”
Jasmine was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis in 2017 when she was 19. She was a freshman in college. Two years later she dealt with a flare she started Entyvio, but the drug failed her shortly thereafter. She switched to Remicade in January 2020 and had the same problem, even after receiving the highest possible dosage every 4 weeks. Her health continued to rapidly decline, and she was hospitalized in March 2020.
“This was the first-time surgical intervention, an ostomy, and a j-pouch were mentioned to me in a real way, however, the doctors continued to say they felt cautiously optimistic Remicade would pull me out of my flare. Throughout these months, I tried a variety of diets including SCD and AIP, visited multiple dieticians and nutritionists, met with natural health doctors, sought out second opinions, and followed a robust supplement regime that was continuously updated by my functional health doctor.”
Despite every effort, by April of 2020, her health was the worst it had been her my entire life. Weighing 105 pounds, she lived in constant, excruciating pain, unable to sleep or eat, too weak to stand in the shower for longer than five short minutes.
“IBD completely ruled my life. When I spoke with my doctors in early May, they told me I had two options: I could try Stelara, the last drug available to me, which my team was 99% sure would not work and would result in emergency surgery since the drug takes months to kick in and provide relief. Otherwise, I could have surgery immediately. My options hardly felt like options when both resulted in the same outcome, just at different times. I opted to have surgery sooner rather than later. If it was inevitable, I wanted to begin the process and start feeling better as soon as possible, rather than continuing to needlessly suffer.”
A few days later, Jasmine met with a surgeon, and less than a week after that appointment (and the morning after her college graduation), she was rolled into the operating room to have my colon removed.
“No life experience prepares you to look down and see an internal organ on the outside of your body. A stoma is far outside the lines of normal human experience, and despite all the preparation in the world, your brain can’t fully process what it will be like until it’s happened. I found the transition to be difficult; while the nurses in the hospital were helpful, the nurses sent to my home barely seemed to know what to do. I had to teach myself how to empty the bag, and at first, it often took me an hour to change the ostomy. However, with time and as my body healed from surgery, I became more confident and able to quickly take care of the ostomy in under five minutes,” said Jasmine.
Even though the physical acclimation was challenging, Jasmine says the mental acclimation was even harder.
“At the time, I was 22 years old and had never in a million years imagined my life to involve a bag of waste attached to my stomach. I felt like I was constantly grieving the life I’d imagined and the life I’d never get to live. The ostomy felt like a reminder of all that had been taken from me that I couldn’t ignore, concrete proof of how different I was from all other 22-year-olds and how far my life had diverged from the normal college experience. I spent many days looking in the mirror and crying at what I saw, struggling to accept the ostomy as the life saver it was. Over time, as I began to regain more freedom and control over my life, eating the food I wanted, sleeping through the night, exercising, and traveling, I slowly began to make peace with the ostomy through the lens of all it enabled me to do.”
Aimee was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis in 2011 when she was 22 years old. She struggled responding to medical intervention and dealt with severe abdominal cramping and high levels of blood in her stool which destroyed her quality of life.
“I had to give up my job, my life, my apartment, my social life and moved back to my hometown to be taken care of by my parents. In one hospital admission 9 months after first symptoms, the surgical team advised I do the ostomy to avoid a tear or rupture to the colon which could lead to emergency surgery or worse, sepsis.”
The ostomy relieved Aimee’s constant cramping and she felt instant relief from her chronic pain. Going into surgery the plan from the start was to do a three-step surgical journey over 12 months that resulted in a j-pouch May 2012.
“There is so much help in the hospital that it was only the day I was leaving that it hit me that this was going to be something that would be hard to get used to. I was 22 and I was embarrassed to tell everyone and conscious of my looks, so there was a vanity piece that was hard to overcome. When I was home, I felt alone. I wanted to manage the bag all by myself, I didn’t allow anyone to see the stoma or my bags or anything. Looking back at my young self, I wish I had let my family and friends in more to help me, I didn’t need to hide it.”
Elissa was initially diagnosed with ulcerative colitis when she was 14 years old, back in 1994 and years later, Crohn’s, in her small intestine. Her diagnosis journey was a difficult one. She was told she was lactose intolerant, had food allergies, IBS, anxiety, and a nervous stomach.
When Elissa was 20, she underwent emergency surgery to remove her colon. She was one of the first patients to participate in a clinical trial for Remicade back in the day. Unfortunately, the medications kept failing her, she became dependent on high doses of steroids, and she had precancerous cells in her colon.
“I was in college at the time and didn’t feel comfortable telling most people. There were a few occurrences of my bag leaking (one especially memorable experience in the middle of a fraternity party), and I was mortified. However, my recovery also highlighted the thoughtfulness and generosity of my best friends and family members who would drive me to the pharmacy to pick up medical supplies, drive me to doctor appointments, even just sit with me and rest. People really come out of the woodwork – sometimes asking for help is the hardest part.”
At times Elissa felt very alone. She wishes she had known the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation was available, along with support groups. She says, now, there are so many amazing resources available for people in recovery, including the forum j-pouch.org.
Dani was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis in 2005, when she was just 8 years old. She was initially managed on oral medication then switched to biologics and went through Remicade, Humira, Xeljanz, Stelara, and Entyvio.
“I always knew that surgery was on the table, and I felt like I was always buying time until a new medication came out. In January of 2021 I became extremely sick and was admitted to the hospital for IV cyclosporin to try to lessen my immune response. I was ok enough to leave the hospital and was feeling ok for about four days out of the hospital and then I started to become sick again. My surgeon came around a few times to check on me and introduce himself. He said, “I just want you to know that I’m not the scary man with a knife.” At that time, I didn’t know he would be my surgeon. When I started to get sick again after leaving the hospital, I knew that surgery was going to be the next step.”
From then on, Dani met with her GI doctor and Colorectal surgeon (who work together), and they scheduled her for a subtotal colectomy a few weeks later. She began the 3-step surgical process in March 2021.
“It was a huge adjustment. I constantly felt my bag and it felt so foreign to me. At the same time, it gave me an independence that I had never had before. My plan was to go through all 3 j-pouch surgeries to have an ostomy for nine months and then have a j-pouch. I felt confident that I could adjust to an ostomy again if necessary and that I wanted to give a j-pouch a try.”
Dani got her take down surgery J-pouch in December 2021.
The hope of reversing from the start
Jackie: “The plan was to reverse, but I did have a major panic moment a few months before I was supposed to have another surgery. A friend of mine who had started his journey to a -j-pouch around the same time I did, was one step ahead of me in his surgical sequence, and he was having some major problems. I figured the ostomy was the devil I know, better stick with what you know, because I was afraid of what the other side looked like. But I knew myself, and I knew I had to at least try for a reversal, otherwise I’d spend the rest of forever wondering how it would have gone.”
Jasmine: “From the start, the colectomy was presented to me as a step toward the larger goal of getting a j-pouch. I went into the first surgery planning to try the j-pouch.”
Elissa: “I knew the ostomy would be temporary, but I really had no idea what to expect as far as recovery was concerned. My doctors and surgeons did not explain any potential complications. I wish I had known more questions to ask.”
For Elissa, a pouch was created at the time of surgery that removed her colon. Three months later, she had reversal surgery during college spring break – unfortunately, the reversal failed, she caught an infection and ended up in the ICU. The ostomy was placed again for her body to recover from an additional open abdominal surgery. She then went on to have a successful reversal in July of 2000.
Making the decision to go for a j-pouch
Jackie: “I knew that I could have chosen to keep my ostomy, but there was a real sense of “why wouldn’t you get a j-pouch” from the medical team. There was an undertone in what they said and did that insinuated the j-pouch was the more ideal situation and that I should clearly want to go that route. At the time, I was still regularly following most professional medical advice and didn’t really question it. But the option to keep the ostomy was never really discussed and it was always assumed I would reverse it.”
Jasmine: “Because I was young, otherwise healthy, and it had been confirmed many times through testing that I had ulcerative colitis, rather than Crohn’s disease, my doctors said I was a great candidate for j-pouch surgery. In general, my surgeon told me that close to 90% of j-pouch surgeries are successful, and I felt confident trying based on my background and the conversations with my medical team. By the time I’d had surgery, I’d only had ulcerative colitis for three years and had been in remission for two of them. The j-pouch felt like the best avenue for a life as close to normal as possible given the circumstances, and at 22, with (hopefully) a lot of life ahead of me, that sense of normality was important to me.”
How it felt leading up to reversal
Jackie: “I kept reading about all the things that could go wrong and it really freaked me out. I knew people personally who had some complications and it made it seem less like a potential statistic and more like a reality. The reality is that more people do well but are not often talking about it online. At that time there weren’t enough stories about people thriving after j-pouch surgery. I knew what life with the ostomy was like and I knew I could do that. Welcoming another major surgery and another major change just seemed really overwhelming.”
Jackie started the process in March 2010. She unfortunately had a few complications along the way which resulted in more surgeries and a longer sequence to the j-pouch, so her takedown occurred in mid-2012.
Jasmine: “I often worried something would go wrong that would prevent me from getting a j-pouch. Everything that could go wrong had gone wrong for me to even end up 22 and colon-less, and it was hard for me to imagine something could go “right.” I felt very distrustful after the variety of promises made to me by my medical team over the past year that never came to fruition and struggled with cynicism about what might happen. Coupled with all the negativity online about life with a j-pouch, I became very apprehensive about something either going wrong with my surgeries or my j-pouch failing.”
Jasmine’s j-pouch was created in December 2020 with a diverting loop ileostomy and was fully connected in February 2021.
Dani:“I had read about ‘butt burn’ and that when you first get a j-pouch you are going to the bathroom frequently, so I was concerned about that. I had just gotten used to being able to go where I wanted and not worry about the bathroom, and I was concerned that I was going to be putting myself back into a position where I was more limited.”
What j-pouch recovery was like
Jackie: “The takedown was one of the easier surgeries to recover from for me because that was the only thing they were doing in that surgery. Sometimes surgeons combine steps that can make certain parts more difficult to recover from, but for me it was just hooking up the plumbing, which had already been healing internally for months. Despite the complications I had that resulted in more surgery, it gave my body more time to heal, which I think is part of why my j-pouch has been so successful. The hardest part was understanding that the j-pouch can take a year or so to settle, which means you may still have some accidents here or there in the beginning. It wasn’t an immediate magical fix, but over time I learned to understand my j-pouch and to predict its behaviors.”
Jasmine: “J-pouch recovery is an exercise in endurance and mental fortitude, but I didn’t find it as terrifying as it seemed from reading online. From the beginning, I felt like I had far more control than I did with ulcerative colitis. There was almost no urgency, and I could take a minute or two to finish what I was doing before going to the bathroom, rather than having to drop everything and run. Although you do go to the bathroom quite often at the start, having that control makes a huge difference. One of the harder parts of recovery is the acidic stool – waste in the small intestine has more stomach acid in it, which usually gets broken down by the colon, however, without a colon, that acid creates burning on the skin. My skin was constantly raw and sore the first few weeks no matter how much butt cream or fluffy toilet paper I used. Sometimes the burning pain was so bad it would wake me up at night, but now, almost two years out, I rarely have butt burn.”
Aimee: “This was the hardest surgery because it was so long and so much handling of my intestines, my bowel lost function, so I vomited for eight days after my surgery. My doctors considered TPN, but luckily peristalsis started again, and I could eat!
Elissa: “Honestly, recovering from surgeries itself wasn’t too bad, especially after years of IBD flares. Getting rid of my colon provided almost immediate relief. I just had to be patient and let my body heal.”
Dani: “The recovery was the easiest in terms of there weren’t new incision spots. I had to get used to seeing my stoma hole as it closed in naturally and I was still very sore. I also was going to the bathroom frequently and wasn’t sleeping through the night for the first few weeks, which was hard. I was frustrated that I felt like I always needed to be near a bathroom, but that feeling was temporary. “
Pros and Cons of life with a j-pouch
Jackie: “Honestly…it has been so good. I have a total rockstar j-pouch. I eat anything I want (popcorn? yes! all the nuts? yes! spicy food? Yes, please!), I can hold my bowels for hours upon hours. I rarely have any urgency and in general have peace of mind that I can live my life, go where I want, and UC no longer can control that. The cons exist, but for me, they’re small. I’ve had pouchitis a few times, which feels like UC again, but it’s treated with antibiotics and then you’re back on your feet! I have accidents at night maybe once a year. I still use the bathroom more often than a person without IBD, but it’s mostly because I choose to for peace of mind. My digestive tract in no way resembles a normal one, it’s different how everything works now, but it’s not a detriment in my life.”
Jasmine: “My j-pouch has given me a level of freedom I never thought I’d experience with IBD. I don’t currently take any medications, and I don’t worry about flaring or failing a medication the way I would with my colon. Although I know there’s always the possibility of needing medication in the future, I’ve been given more freedom and autonomy over my life than I ever thought possible. I eat what I want when I want. I sleep through the night. I sit through meetings and classes without thinking about the bathroom. I go out with friends, travel, and exercise. For me, the j-pouch has brought me closer to my pre-IBD or deep remission self than anything else, and although there are permanent tradeoffs to having such major surgeries, I don’t regret my decision in the slightest. There is an adjustment phase and a new normal, but that new normal has enabled me to integrate IBD my life, rather than having my life completely consumed by my illness.”
Aimee: “I have had fistulae since at the anastomosis, so they have been tricky to manage, but Humira has been wonderful to me, keeping them at bay and giving me energy to live a full life. I also need to have the scar tissue at the anastomosis stretched surgically every 6 months.”
Elissa: “J-pouch life has been amazing! I was in the bathroom 20+ times a day before my surgeries and felt like a shell of a human being. I’m now 42 and have had my j-pouch for 22 years. I can do pretty much anything a “normal” healthy person can do, just need to take occasional extra precautions like electrolyte replenishment or dealing with occasional pouchitis or Crohn’s flares. (My Crohn’s diagnosis came after my j-pouch surgery).”
Dani: “The first few weeks/months with a j-pouch were tough. Your body needs to figure out how to function with a new man-made organ. I was only comfortable laying down for the first few weeks after the surgery. I really hit a turning point when I was able to start taking Imodium and Metamucil. They were helpful for me in the first few months and now I don’t need them. Three months after my final surgery, I had moved out of my house and was starting a new full-time job. So, the initial discomfort and increase in bowel frequency were very temporary!!”
What j-pouchers wish they knew prior to their reversal
Jackie: “I always say its trading a large set of problems for a smaller, more manageable set of problems. UC was awful for me and ended up being life threatening. It was no way to live. My j-pouch has given me my life back, but it’s not a cure. It’s not perfect. I still have some small problems here and there, but it’s all manageable and in no way resembles life before surgery.”
Jasmine: “It’s hard to find information on j-pouches, and I think many of us turn to the internet to learn about what life with one might be like. I personally found the internet to contain a lot of negative information, making me more fearful going into the surgeries than I would have been had I just listened to my surgeon. I would recommend limiting time spent online and trying to connect with individuals who have j-pouches/ostomies through your doctor or the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation. These resources provide a more accurate peek into life with a j-pouch and can allow you to ask questions and connect with someone who’s been through the same thing. Most people who are healthy aren’t online complaining about their j-pouch, which skews the sample of information accessible to the rest of us. Whenever I started to feel overwhelmed by everything online, I reminded myself of something a nurse once said to me: the internet is a showcase of the best and the worse situations, more often than not, you’ll end up somewhere in-between.”
Aimee: “I was told this would be the end of treatment and medicine which wasn’t the case. As I had Crohn’s, not UC, I had many more hurdles ahead. Also, a new pouch is new so it’s behavior post op, is not your life. Your body adjusts to the pouch and output goes slower as the post-op weeks go by. The j-pouch is an alternative to an ostomy bag, but has to be adjusted to also. It’s different from having your colon. After a few months though, you will have longer periods between toilet runs and sleep through the night. I go 11pm to 6am with no pooping, which is so much better than those few months post-op when I thought oh dear, this is hard!”
Elissa: “When I had my surgeries, I was 20. No doctors discussed potential fertility issues. My daughter was born via IVF 9 years ago, though all additional efforts have failed. This is something I wish I had known about – I always wanted kids and would have frozen my eggs. Obviously, every person is different. Also, I still go to the bathroom 6-7 times a day. This is apparently normal (though again, everyone has different experiences).”
Dani: “I can eat salad for dinner with no problem!”
Advice for ostomates on the fence about going for a j-pouch
Jackie: “If you feel healthy and strong both physically and mentally, I would say, try it. I know it’s more complicated than giving a new restaurant a try, but I knew that I’d always have wondered. I knew on the bad days I would have idolized a life with a j-pouch, and I needed to know that it either would or wouldn’t work. I felt like the worst-case scenario was that my j-pouch would fail, and I’d return to an ostomy, which I already knew I could do, and I liked those odds.”
Jasmine: “I think it’s a personal decision dependent on the history and circumstances of each person’s illness. Going through the j-pouch surgeries means additional time spent in the hospital and recovering, which is worth it for some, but not others. Although I can share my experiences, everyone’s body is different, and you can’t always predict how someone else will respond. I think the best thing to do is find a colorectal surgeon skilled in these procedures and discuss whether they think you’re a viable candidate. Finding a skilled surgeon is the best way to hedge against future problems and increase chances of success. Beyond that, I would advise talking to as many people as possible with a j-pouch and permanent ostomy, to get questions answered and hear the pros and cons of each route. Having this information should help you feel more confident in your decision, and if you’re still undecided, you can always put off the decision until you’re ready.”
Aimee: “Tell them to get support, don’t expect instant results, give yourself time to adjust to yet another way of going to the toilet…reach out to the online community.”
Dani: “I think this is a very personal decision and there is validity to both sides. An important thing for me was to remember that people are more likely to write online if they have a bad outcome rather than a good outcome. Everyone’s instinct is to research things online and at some point, I felt like reading everything (both good and bad) was too overwhelming.”
Post-op expectations with a j-pouch
Like any surgery, recovery takes time and patience. The Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation shares the following on their website:
Some patients may experience an increased number of bowel movements, sometimes up to 12 times per day. This will typically decrease over time.
Some male patients may experience sexual dysfunction as a result of nerve damage.
Some female patients may develop scar tissue that surrounds their ovaries and fallopian tubes, which may lead to infertility.
Both men and women should discuss sexual function with their surgeon and ask when it is safe to resume sexual activity.
Ask your healthcare providers what supplies you may need at home, especially if you have a temporary ileostomy.
Your healthcare team will advise you on how to manage your temporary ostomy and how to keep it clean.
Jackie: “This is a weird one, but I had to use brain power the first time I had to poop after my takedown. It had been almost 2 years since I had used my butt, and I had to really think about how to use those muscles again. It was a little funny at the time.”
Jasmine: “In terms of recovery, the most important thing to remember is j-pouch surgery completely alters one of the body’s major systems and adjusting takes significant time. Recovery doesn’t happen overnight, and it can feel frustrating. I tried to give my body some grace and the time it needed to heal, while reminding myself that life with a j-pouch during the first few week’s post-op isn’t indicative of what living with a j-pouch will be like long-term.”
Aimee: “It’s a journey. I have a few good months, a few bad months. Part of me knows that quality of life could be better with an ostomy, but I’m not ready to say goodbye to my pouch yet. I have been unlucky with the scar tissue, but those small procedures are like going to the dentist for me, I’m so used to them.”
Elissa: “Do it! Healing takes time, but you will feel like a new person. Life is too short to be in pain all the time. So many improvements have happened over the past 10-15 years and awareness is absolutely the key. “
Dr. Holubar wants to remind patients, “The J-pouch cannot save your life – it is a lifestyle operation like cosmetic surgery in some way. Overall quality of life is excellent with both a pouch and with a permanent end ileostomy. Finally, we should think of surgery as an excellent “medical” therapy in patients suffering from colitis despite modern medicines. One of my expressions is that a good ileostomy (or pouch) is better than a bad colon, rectum, or anus (and a good ileostomy is better than a bad pouch). The great news is you cannot make a wrong choice.”
Life with IBD impacts our careers in many ways. Our disease can often dictate what path our future takes. As students, teachers, and families gear up for another school year, I thought it would be interesting to hear from educators who have IBD about what it’s like to lead a classroom while living with an unpredictable chronic illness. This week on Lights, Camera, Crohn’s hear the inspiring stories and perspectives of four unsung heroes who don’t allow their IBD to rob them of their career aspirations.
Sarah Rife has been a teacher for seven years, she’s also an IBD mom and an ostomate. She’s currently teaching eighth grade math in the Chicagoland area, but previously taught high school Geometry and Algebra.
“I have taught through many highs and lows Crohn’s wise. For the first 5 years, there wasn’t a single year that I didn’t use every single sick day I had (and then some unpaid days). I believe four out of five of those first years, I had at least one hospitalization where I missed consecutive days, as well. In this time, I was on four different medications and tried a clinical trial.”
While this was going on Sarah says she rarely ate at school and if she did, she stuck to 3-4 “safe foods” to help get through the day.
“I constantly taught with an escape plan in the back of my mind. You can’t just leave a room full of 28-32 kids sitting unsupervised, so I constantly had to think about things like ‘Who will I have cover my class?’ ‘What if I am gone more than 5-10 minutes?’ ‘What can they work on that they will know how to do if I have to step out in the middle of teaching them something new?”
Sarah is open about her IBD with students and their families and says having IBD has made her a more compassionate educator since she understands when students need to miss school.
“When I was younger, I was the student missing multiple days of school. I remember the things that some of my favorite teachers did that helped me to not stress when I felt like I had mountains of missing work. Whenever I have a student gone for health reasons, physical or mental, my standard answer when they come back is “Worry about everything else first, and then I’ll talk to you about what we can do to bring you up to speed in math class. Don’t stress, I will work with you on it.”
One year while being evaluated by her principal during a drop-in visit. He walked into her room, sat down, and started typing. He was aware of her Crohn’s, but Sarah panicked when she knew she needed to make a mad dash to the bathroom while he was in her classroom observing her.
“I ended up going over to him and asking “I really need to step out and use the bathroom. Do you want me to grab someone like I usually do, or do you just want to watch them since you are here” He agreed to watch them, and I ran out to go to the bathroom. Whenever I had to step out, I was also conscious of what time it was. This time, there were about 30 minutes of class left. In my head, I needed to get back ASAP because THE PRINCIPAL was in there and he was supposed to be observing me. When I heard the bell ring and I was still on the toilet, I panicked – I’m talking instant tears. I was able to finish and tried to hurry back to my room. My path crossed his on the way back and I started to say, “I’m sorry, I didn’t know I would be that long.”
Sarah says her mind was racing with crazy thoughts about her abilities as a teacher and what she was capable of. The principal could see she had been crying and more tears were starting to fall, and he interrupted her and said, “Sarah, I am not worried about it. This is your third year here and we know this happens. I am worried about what I see when you are able to be in the classroom and what I saw meets and exceeds our expectations. Please don’t worry about it.” – This reassured her so much more than even he will ever know, but the story replays in her head every time an administrator pops in her room for an unannounced observation – even 4 years later.
When Sarah taught high school, she was nowhere near remission, forcing her to be extremely transparent with her students.
“I told them that I had a disease called Crohn’s and that in a nutshell, my immune system was attacking itself, specifically my intestines. They knew that me having to step out of class and disappear to the bathroom was a possibility and witnessed it multiple times a week, sometimes in the same class period. They were also aware that often these bathroom breaks would result in pain, nausea, and exhaustion.”
Whenever Sarah would have an episode, she says the students went above and beyond to be empathetic and understanding.
“I had students volunteer to work out examples on the board so I could sit down, and they were extremely good at switching gears and changing the plan if I needed to do something with less walking around, standing, or talking – for example work on a worksheet instead of doing notes or bringing questions to me at my desk over me walking around offering help. I really do think high school students are more resilient and compassionate than people give them credit for.”
Since her ostomy surgery, Sarah’s life in the classroom has changed for the better.
“I feel like a completely different teacher. My energy isn’t nearly as much of an issue, I can teach without constantly having an escape plan or worrying how long I’ll be stuck in the bathroom, I can eat lunch at school like a normal person, without worry or only packing the same 3 things, and for the first time in my teaching career, I had paid sick days left at the end of the year. I had a chance to worry about the content I was teaching first and my health second, which I had never been able to do in the past.”
Sadly, this past week, Sara’s ostomy leaked while she was in the middle of teaching 30 thirteen-year-old students. Luckily, she works less than one mile from home so she yanked her shirt down as far as it could go and told the admin she’d be back in 15 minutes.
Sara Margolin of New York has been a professor of psychology for 15 years, with a focus on neuropsychology, cognition, and aging. She says her experience with ulcerative colitis and two other autoimmune conditions has made her more understanding toward her students. Sara says, “Robin Roberts said it best, “everybody has something.” And she’s right. I’m not the only person with a chronic illness. Many of my students struggle or someone they love struggles. Understanding that they deserve the compassion that I wish to have has only made me a better professor.”
Sara has had to leave the classroom on multiple occasions to urgently use the bathroom.
“I will either quickly show a film if I have one at hand or pretend to get a call from my children’s school and “need to leave to take it.” But in my smaller classes, where the discussion leads us there — in the discussion of medical trials, medications for chronic illness, or psychological issues stemming from chronic illness, I’ve discussed my condition. And there have been a handful of students over the years who have been diagnosed while in my class, and I share with them that I understand what they are going through. We bond over that.”
Now that classes are back to in person this fall, she has some concerns knowing she is not fully in remission and not able to teach remotely anymore.
“When I was teaching at home, I had a time or two where I turned my camera off and taught from the bathroom…. EEK! … and knowing that I may be in the position to need to do that but not be able to is nerve wracking. But I know that my colleagues will fill in for me if I do need them to.”
Madison Laspisa of New York has taught fourth grade for four years. She was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease in June 2020, during her first year of having her own classroom. Not only were schools shutting down when her severe symptoms began, but she was dealing with school closures and remote teaching, on top of being diagnosed with a chronic illness.
“My life was flipped completely upside-down to say the least. I was truly devastated at everything that was happening around me and to me. My first year in my own classroom should have been the most memorable part of my career (in a good way), but I sadly cannot say that. My life changed before I had a minute to truly process what was happening. However, since we were forced to stay home because of the Covid-19 pandemic I had the availability to see doctors and get procedures done as needed. Had it been a normal school year I would have had to take a leave of absence during my very first year of teaching.”
Since then, Madison says her IBD has impacted her experience as an educator in more ways than she’d like to admit.
“Aside from needing to take days off to receive my infusion, there have been days where I needed to take a last-minute half day because I desperately needed to see my doctor. At times, this can leave the main office scrambling to find a substitute for my class with an already existing shortage. Not to mention the schedule change my students have to now adjust to with their teacher leaving mid-day.”
Madison says the toughest challenge for her is the amount of time she needs to take off to receive her medication and meet with her care team. She does her best to schedule doctor appointments after school hours, but sometimes it’s not realistic. Right now, she receives her biologic every four weeks, which was changed from every eight weeks.
“This required change in my treatment plan will now require me to miss time in my classroom with my students twice as often. It’s not as simple as “taking a day off” as it is very time consuming to create thorough substitute plans on the days, I am absent. It makes me feel like I’m a “bad teacher” because I have to take time away from my students and classroom. I feel guilty when I’m making substitute plans because I know I am going to be absent the next day and my students have no idea.”
Madison says the weight of the unpredictability of her Crohn’s makes her anxious. She worries about waking up one morning and not being physically able to go into work and do her job.
“I love what I do with a passion and anything that can hinder my ability to do my job to the fullest breaks me. Having the summer months off allows me to slow down and take a break from my rigorous work schedule. In a sense, it provides me with some relief because I know being home, I don’t have to worry about missing work because of my IBD.”
Madison hopes that if someone reading this article aspires to work in education, that they don’t allow their IBD to deter them from taking the leap.
“Teaching and being with my students is my escape from my reality with IBD sometimes. IBD has robbed me of so much and I refuse to let it rob me of my dream job. Do not let IBD dictate what you can and cannot do. Being a teacher and having IBD are both full-time jobs and can be extremely overwhelming at times but loving what you do makes all the difference.”
Krista Deveau has been a teacher in Canada for seven years, she recently became a mom and is an ostomate. She currently teaches kindergarten but has also taught third grade and worked as an intervention specialist helping students with literacy and numeracy. She started her teaching career three months after having a bowel resection surgery. She ended up landing back in the hospital three months later, weighing under 100 pounds, in one of the worst flares of her life.
“My GI team told me that I had to work part time if I was able to or else my chances of being back in a hospital bed were quite high. Working part time has really given me a work- life balance where I can take care of my health and myself and also focus on my career.”
Prior to receiving her ostomy, Krista tells me it was difficult to teach, as she was having accidents almost daily and was vomiting in a garbage can outside of her classroom. During her first year of teaching, she had a meeting with an administrator after school and happened to have an accident. Krista had forgotten to bring a change of clothes.
“I was so embarrassed that I stayed behind my desk all afternoon so students couldn’t smell me. I cleaned up at recess as best as I could. After school I went to meet with admin and told them I had to leave because I had had an accident and didn’t have a change of clothes. I had already told them about my situation and how I was experiencing incontinence, so it wasn’t a big deal, but I was humiliated.”
Krista says teaching is a stressful and demanding job—and that it’s important to be honest with your admin team so there are no surprises along the way.
“Make sure to take care of yourself. Don’t stay late every day. Work smarter, not harder. Collaborate and share plans with other teachers so you aren’t reinventing the wheel. Lean on your coworkers. Find one good coworker friend that will have your back. Don’t work on weekends. Don’t take on too much of the extras, it’s okay to say no. Try to have a healthy work life balance. And find a school/school board that’s a good fit for you and where you feel supported.”
Helpful Tips for Educators with IBD
Be flexible and rework plans, not just in terms of being absent, but also what you can do instead if your energy level is too low to actively teachon your feet or if you need to talk for an hour straight multiple times a day.
For example: Create PowerPoint slides where every single step of a math problem animates itself with the click of a button so you can be sitting instead of standing up, exerting energy.
Teaching is a pleasant distraction. Teaching enables you to get your mind off your IBD and do what you love. Regardless of what you do professionally, your IBD is going to be a part of you, why let it take more from you than it already has? Enjoy the thing you can enjoy.
Make the appropriate accommodations for yourself. Once you are hired or work in a school district, provide school administrators with medical documentation as to why you are unable to work on a certain date. At the start of the school year, it can be helpful to turn in a letter stating your treatment plan along with a request to use the bathroom when needed stating your medical condition. Typically, teachers use the bathroom on their scheduled breaks, but this accommodation allows that in the event you need emergency use of a bathroom, someone will need to cover your class at any given time. This type of documentation for my district must be renewed every school year.
For example, if a typical teacher instructs five classes with an hour to plan and a 25-minute lunch, split with a 25-minute study hall, inquire about keeping your schedule consistent year after year and teaching two classes, then having a plan period, teaching two more classes, and then a ‘duty-free lunch’—meaning you get the entire 56 minutes for lunch, instead of having a study hall to give you a buffer for a bathroom trip along with minimal interruption to other classes.
Request a classroom close to a bathroom and department office so that there are people nearby in case you need someone to cover your class on a moment’s notice.
Try not to fear the worst. Being hospitalized is beyond your control and whether you have a chronic illness like IBD or not, life happens, and co-workers will need help from time to time. Rather than stress about who gave up what time to help you, focus on how to pay it forward and help other teachers when you feel well and when someone else is in need.
Teaching takes a village. Everyone is more than willing to help you out if you let them. Besides, it all becomes so much easier when you don’t feel like you must hide such a huge part of who you are. The sooner you realize people are willing to help you and you don’t have to try and keep it hidden, the easier teaching with IBD becomes.
Fatherhood looks differently when you have a chronic illness. Finding a partner, family planning, decision making, and parenting are all impacted when you have IBD. This week on Lights, Camera, Crohn’s we hear from several men around the world. Whether they are preparing to start a family or have adult children, you’ll hear firsthand accounts about how their Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis has shaped who they are as men and as dads.
London Harrah, a 31-year-old dad in California, was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis in April 2016. He says IBD has impacted fatherhood in different ways and presented unique challenges. He’s grateful for the endless support his family has given him, making him feel comfortable to openly share about the struggles.
“Prior to my surgery and ostomy, my ulcerative colitis heavily impacted my parenting role. I had to shape my entire day around my ability to have close access to a restroom. Now after surgery, I have had a lot more freedom and a heightened quality of life. I am now able to partake in a lot more activities without my condition hindering me. I also feel like being an IBD dad makes me stronger because I look at parenting as an opportunity to set an example for my son on how to deal with adversity,” said London.
He says IBD has instilled a profound sense of empathy in his 13-year-old son because he has not only witnessed his dad go through the ups and downs of chronic illness, but London has also shared other peoples’ stories from the patient community with him as well.
“Some people ask me for advice on how I navigate different topics in life, and I share many of those stories with my son so he can understand different things that are actually happening in the real world and paint a picture of what some people have to deal with, that may not be visible on the surface.”
London says his son has been through this journey with him since day one. He can still remember when he first started experiencing symptoms and he knew something was wrong and trying to explain that to his child.
“He watched me spend hours in the restroom and was there for me as much as he could. I have always felt open and able to talk to him about this topic, more than anyone else.”
London sees his ostomy as a great learning opportunity for his son.
“As a dad, having an ostomy is kind of a great experience to have because of all the life lessons and teaching opportunities that it creates when raising children. You learn a lot about yourself during this journey and it allows for a lot of realization about the important things in life, which are all transferable when raising our children.”
Brandon Gorge of Michigan has five-year-old and two-year-old sons. Diagnosed with ulcerative colitis freshman year of college in 2003, he’s grateful his IBD was under control for 11 years while on Remicade/Inflectra infusions and now Stelara for the last year and a half.
“My sons wake up early and I love to wake up with them, have breakfast and play before getting the day started. With their ages, my biggest challenge is having to run to the bathroom while my wife is still sleeping. I used to have to wake her up to cover for me, but now they’ll play while I’m in the bathroom or come in with me. I tend to schedule doctor appointments and lab work early in the morning. Making sure my wife knows my morning plan is important so she can schedule accordingly, and we can make sure the boys are set for the morning/day.”
Brandon credits his wife for being a great listener and support.
“She comes with me to colonoscopies and to Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation events. My parents are still a huge support as they helped me find the right doctor when I was diagnosed with UC a week before moving out of state for freshman year of college and continue to be a sounding board for my UC. They’re also involved with the CCF because of me.”
His older son broke his arm when he was four and has been extremely interested in how the human body works and heals. Brandon and his wife found a YouTube video series called “Operation Ouch” by two British doctors. One video they stumbled on is about a girl with IBD.
“He said it wasn’t interesting because he couldn’t see her booboo. I explained to him that some people have booboos that you can’t see, and I have the same one as the girl in the video. He knows I go to the “tush” doctor regularly; they take pictures inside my body – and I’ve showed him the pictures, I give myself shots, and getting a shot is no big deal. Talking about the bathroom is very normal in our family!”
Brian Greenberg of New York was diagnosed with IBD when he was 11 years old, he’s now 39. He says juggling and finding a balance for all things in life is difficult. Between being a husband, a father, and then having a career, and managing chronic illness on top of general health, it’s a lot.
“My family is amazing. My wife knows there are nights where I have to tap out, and she understands when this happens. My family and her family have also been supportive that it took me a little longer to settle into being a dad and learning how to add everything it comes with to my 24/7 job of being a Spoonie. But their patience has paid off and I feel like after a few months of being a father, I found my stride.”
As an ostomate with a 17-month-old daughter, Brian says while she still has no idea what she’s seeing, him and his wife have started the education process with the books “Awesome Ollie” and “Ollie the Bear.”
“It’s teaching her that after some challenges and the fact I’m a little different now, I’m still capable of so much, which I hope to show her one day.”
Trying for a family as a man with IBD
Brad Watson-Davelaar of Canada got married earlier this year and now him and his wife are hopeful to start their family. Brad was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease in 2001 at age 17. Since then, he’s never been in remission.
“I used to be worried about having kids since my IBD has never been stable. Since meeting my wife five years ago, I’ve learned that she and I together are a wonderful team. I’m very much all in for kids. Being an uncle really solidified my desire to be a dad. We’ve been trying for two months and we’re hoping my wife is pregnant by the end of the year, which is a big ask as I’m preparing to go in for a laparoscopic right hemicolectomy with abdominal-perianal resection transanal total mesorectal excision with permanent colotomy later this year. I don’t know how my mental and physical state will be afterward.”
Brad and his wife have talked about the possibility of their children having IBD, but both agreed that if that is the case, they will 150% be there as a support and advocate for our children, something he lacked in his own health journey.
“We’ve also talked about how I will be a stay-at-home dad, as I’ve been on disability for a large majority of my adult life. I know there will be rough points where I will feel like utter garbage and just not feel like being there. But I know even if I let myself get to that point, my wife will be there to help. We’re making sure to move ourselves to where we will have a good support system if anything happens. Having a strong partner makes it easier to be ready and excited for what the future holds.”
With everything going on in the world, Brad says it’s a bit daunting to become a dad.
“I’ve been doing my research. I really want to make sure to do the right things. I treat the prospect of fatherhood much like I manage my IBD. Lots of research and staying open to change. I am so excited to be a father though. I feel like it’s what I need in my life.”
Reflecting on how IBD changes through each parenting season
Alistar Kennedy of the UK was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis in 2000. Now as a 49-year-old married father of two he’s able to reflect on how his IBD journey has impacted fatherhood and family.
“When you have a chronic illness your energy and time are limited. Having children can be exhausting and all-consuming even without health issues. The biggest challenge I found when my children were very young was coping with their boundless energy, their desire to be active, and trying to enjoy outdoor play. Active IBD can be a big issue in those circumstances, fatigue was a real struggle, but also the need to keep near to facilities in case you need them. This meant solo parenting was hard, but good planning and an understanding partner made the normal things achievable. Also, as the kids grew, they became more aware of what was needed from them. Empathy and adjustment to surroundings.”
Speaking of empathy, Alistar says his kids are both very aware of his IBD and how it’s impacted their family.
“My kids have grown up knowing I might have a day when I’m unable to do things due to fatigue or have to make a dash to facilities. Being open and honest with them from an early age has given them a broader understanding of the struggles a lot of families have. They are both very caring individuals. As a family, we are flexible and everyone understands that, sometimes plans must change. We make the most of the good days.”
Since being diagnosed, Alistar sees great promise for the future of IBD treatment and care in the years ahead.
“Medication, treatment plans, the role of diet, and the importance of mental wellbeing has advanced dramatically in the last 20-plus years. I see far more hope from the future about what this disease will mean for all of us and how it will or won’t dictate our lives. If you want to start a family and enjoy everything that can bring, you can. It won’t change the fact teenagers can’t load a dishwasher properly! I’m very proud of the fact that I did the school pick up and drop off for 10 years solid without either child getting a single late mark!”
Dan Bradley of the UK recalls how differently IBD impacted his role as a dad when his children were younger.
“My youngest child is 17, so I don’t feel like my IBD affects my children in a big way. When I was diagnosed 8 years ago it created a huge challenge with being a dad and dealing with the lethargy and fatigue. It was a struggle to be able to do my day-to-day activities and be there for the wants and needs of my children since they were too young to understand my illness and what I was going through as a parent during that time.”
He feels his disease helped shape who his children grew up to be as they enter adulthood.
“I like to think my children were brought up to offer empathy to others, but my IBD has certainly given them a deeper understanding about stomas and the complications that can arise with chronic illness. There’s nothing like telling your 16-year-old daughter she needs to get out of the bathroom quickly when she is trying to get ready for a night out!
Thomas Fowler of New York was first diagnosed with ulcerative colitis in 2004 when he was 30 years old, then three years later he found out he had Crohn’s. Since he was first diagnosed, he’s undergone more than 25 surgeries and currently deals with anal fistulas. He says life as an IBD dad is about finding your “new normal” and that it helped him to have a decade of life with IBD prior to taking the plunge into parenting.
“We talk about Crohn’s all the time, so my kids accept me as I am because they don’t know Daddy without Crohn’s. I sense that they know when I’m having a bad day or flare. I tend to shutdown socially and don’t talk as much. Fatigue is my number one battle in life. I don’t mind the bathroom trips as much or the daily pain, it’s the fatigue. It’s the one symptom that I can’t fight.”
Recently, Thomas says his latest challenge with IBD and fatherhood is juggling his Crohn’s with his son’s baseball season.
“I am not able to eat dinner before baseball practice/games. My son 100% understands why. And sometimes my son will ask to go and get ice cream after a game, and I say I can’t because Daddy has to get home and eat real food first. Sometimes that means eating at almost 9 pm. Which presents another issue in and of itself, because if I eat that late, I automatically know I’m going to be up several times during that night to use the bathroom.”
Why men with IBD tend to stay silent
As an IBD mom of three myself, I’m aware in my extensive advocacy work how our patient community is predominately made of female voices and experiences. For many years, the male experience has been lacking and is often difficult to find.
“Men are conditioned not to share their detailed emotions. Often told to ’suck it up’ and just get on with it. Sharing can make you feel vulnerable and fragile to our peers, so we avoid it. It shouldn’t because it’s incredibly empowering and rewarding. I was diagnosed pre-social media and at the time, advice, and information available online was vague, confusing, and often misleading. It felt very lonely to have IBD back then. Being part of an online community has been game changing. Men struggle to engage and verbalize in this space though, but they are there. Personally, I’m very facts and evidence driven, so the advocacy space must reflect that,” said Alistar.
“We’re taught at an early age that we’re supposed to be tough. That we shouldn’t be sick or show any weakness. That stereotype is slowly being broken as men are learning that even our health can change in a moment, and it’s okay to be vulnerable,” Brian explained.
“I co-chair the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation’s Detroit Young Professional Group. One of my co-chairs is also a dad. Our group is evenly split between men and women. Before I became involved with the group, I never participated in any type of group for support or advocacy. I think a lot of men (and people with IBD) need to learn how to advocate for themselves with insurance and their medical team before they advocate and help others,” said Brandon.
Dan said, “I think it’s a typical man thing. IBD is not talked about. Some of the symptoms that come with IBD, in particular going to the bathroom, can be seen as a taboo subject. I do feel this is changing and more awareness is getting out there. In the UK, we have recently had a couple of “famous” people raise awareness which has been fantastic.”
“I think in the society we live in today makes it harder for men to be vulnerable with their feelings. In my situation, even I still struggle sometimes talking about certain topics with new people. I do however acknowledge the difficulty and try to work through it,” said London.
Advice for future IBD dads-to-be
Whether you’re in the throes of trying for a baby or if you’re a parent and your child has IBD, and you worry about his future and what it will hold in regards to fatherhood—here’s some amazing advice to guide you and show you all that’s possible.
“There are always more good days than bad. Having children is a wonderful, if very tiring, gift. They change you for the better and help you to grow as a person. Getting my IBD under control has been incredibly challenging, but we’ve done all the things normal families do. Be open and honest with your partner about your fears, priorities self-care and mental wellbeing. Talk and share your feelings to your family and friends. Don’t be hard on yourself. Take naps! The best advice as an active parent is always that good up-front planning and working as a team is essential,” said Alistar.
“Talk to your gastroenterologist to ease any fears about the effects of medicines or worsening IBD, develop a treatment plan, and revisit that plan before a flare gets out of control and affects you being able to be there for your kids,” said Brandon.
“I would tell fellow men not to let IBD stop them from becoming a dad! They are very well capable of having a healthy child, but it starts with them taking initiative and becoming healthy (mentally/physically) themselves before-hand,” said London.
Brian said, “Becoming a father with a chronic illness like IBD is scary. I wasn’t sure how it was going to work, how I’d be able to adjust to everything I was about to add onto life, or where would I find the energy. But you find answers to all those things because the love your heart is filled with carries you through so much, and it’s more important than anything else in life to find a way.”
“Don’t hesitate to start a family. There will never be a “perfect” time to have a kid with this disease. Don’t set goals like, I’ll start a family when I’m 2 years symptom free, or when I don’t have a surgery for 3 consecutive years. You will always have issues for the rest of your life. The only hard part I had was when my kids were newborn through toddler age and I had them by myself away from the house. You get very creative with bathroomn visits. I would use the diaper changing tables and strap my kids in and let them use my phone for distractions so I could use the bathroom. You become a logistical genius when leaving your house. Being a dad is the BEST thing that has ever happened to me. And a hug from your kid is better than any medicine money can buy when you are having Crohn’s related issues,” said Thomas.
“There is no reason on earth to allow your IBD to stop you from becoming a dad if that’s what you want to be. Go for it. Be open so everyone knows where you stand. With the right medication and treatment plan in place, there really isn’t anything you will be stopped from doing. I enjoy long bike rides, long walks with the dog, and a pub lunch after reffing my kids football games. I have flown with an ostomy without issue. If you think you may have IBD, don’t ignore your symptoms. See a doctor and get yourself on the path to treatment so you can live life as fully as possible,” said Dan
Saturday my husband and I celebrated our sixth wedding anniversary. Special milestones like this tend to make us all reminisce about the past, present, and the future. When you live with IBD many of those memories and the current reality are from flare ups, hospitalizations, procedures, recoveries, and simply navigating the day to day. While Bobby has been a part of my life for nine years (next month!), I spent the first eight years living with Crohn’s disease, without him—in my 20s.
During those eight years I experienced many heartbreaks and disappointments when it came to trying to find my person. To give you the cliff notes version—my boyfriend who I was dating when I was diagnosed never visited me during a week-long hospital stay and broke up with me while I was in a wheelchair over the phone after getting discharged and going into my parent’s car. Then, I dated a guy who refused to drive 3 hours when I was hospitalized for an abscess the size of a tennis ball in my small intestine, because “gas prices were too expensive” (can you imagine how he’s handling the prices now, HA!) and he wanted to go fishing. Another moment that makes me shake my head to this day is when I had to cancel a first date because I was doubled over in pain on the bathroom floor and was heading to the ER and he texted me that it was a poor excuse and laughed at me.
While I could have seen my Crohn’s disease as a scarlet letter and settled with a person who clearly didn’t have a genuine heart, I used my IBD to guide my decision making and it brought me to the relationship and the person I was meant to be with.
So, while I was out to dinner over the weekend looking across the table at my husband and the man I have three kids with—a man who has taken my disease journey and everything that’s come along with it in stride, I not only felt an immense sense of gratitude but also want you to know that your disease can give you superhuman clarity when it comes to helping you weed through the people who aren’t your person. This week on Lights, Camera, Crohn’s a close look at love and relationships and the tremendous support our romantic partners are, while also speaking to those who are single and struggling to see themselves as anything but a burden. I hope this article shows you the incredible relationships so many of us in the IBD community have been able to have, despite our disease—and remind you that you are worthy of all that love has to offer. Your disease does not make you less than. You deserve the same respect, consideration, compassion, and unconditional love as everyone else.
How does your partner go above and beyond?
I tapped into our community on Instagram and asked: “How does your partner support you?” By reading the countless messages it just goes to show, it is possible to find a partner who sees you for more than your IBD. Someone who loves you for all of you:
“Taking care of the house, speaking up for me at appointments, fighting insurance when I can’t anymore, and listening to me.”
“Knows what I can and cannot eat and makes sure there’s food available that I can tolerate.”
“I’ve got a winner, there’s too many things to type in this small box! Will make a late-night food run because of my limited options with a flare or let me pick a meal. Shows support by driving me to colonoscopies, even if it means missing work.”
“They listen when I “complain” and offer solutions when I don’t feel well.”
“Attends most of my doctor appointments with me.”
“When I’m ill he takes over with our son and cleaning, orders takeout, and rubs my back.”
“Encouraging me to rest, especially to flare and then taking care of the house and baby.”
“Dealing with insurance and appointment scheduling so I can focus on other stuff.”
“I could go on forever but knowing my needs even when I don’t want to ask for help.”
“Helps me believe good days are coming. Asked, “where are we going on our next adventure?” while walking me around the hospital unit. Listens. Is present. Helps without being asked. Considerate. Kind. Empathetic.”
“He takes on more responsibility around the house when I’m not feeling well and comforts me!”
“By listening, learning, laughing, and trusting me.”
“Ricky is my rock. He is steadfast and always levelheaded.”
“He takes care of the kids and keeps the household running when I’m out of commission.”
“Understands the importance of rest, diet, low stress, and medications.”
“He got a Crohn’s and Colitis shirt and wears it on my bad days or procedure days to show support.”
“My husband doesn’t “do sick” well. He has never been sick since I met him 10 years ago. So, it was very hard for me during my first flare up as his wife. He did not tolerate me being sick at all. He kept telling me not to “identify” with the illness and manifest good health. At the time it was torture. I felt so alone and didn’t feel any compassion from him. He is a “mind over matter” person and has been helping me manifest a strong, healthy body. He supports us by living a very healthy lifestyle. He gets me up every morning to work out with him, no holistic treatment is too expensive. He is giving. Sacrifices everything for his family. Even though he is different from me, I’m forever grateful for his approach because I have never been healthier!”
“When I’m in a flare he takes care of the kids and cleaning so I can rest and not stress while I’m sick. Helps me feel comfortable and confident managing my Crohn’s.”
“In ever way. He never asks more of me than I can give at that moment.”
“Being by my side before I even have to ask.”
“He’s my cheerleader on injection days!”
“He understands if I need to stop driving often.”
“Does more than his share of chores. Eats safe food dinners with me. Hugs me when I cry and so much more!!!”
“My husband is truly a miracle. Diagnosed as newlyweds, never in remission. His thoughtful intentionality and his presence make me so proud and lucky. I couldn’t do this without him.”
Fears about finding your person
Now on the contrary, those who are single and struggling to find their match may hesitate to put themselves out there for many reasons. Chronic illness and love can be overwhelming. I asked the following question on Instagram: What worries you about love and IBD?”:
“They will not accept my permanent ostomy and think it’s gross.”
“Thinking I’m less fun because I don’t want to go out as much and need to rest more.”
“Feeling less than. Who wants to deal with going IBD/fibromyalgia? ☹”
“Honestly, everything…like how and will they truly be there at my worst.”
“Being considered too much baggage!”
“Why would someone choose to love someone who’s sick all the time?”
“That my husband would get tired of my lifestyle and not feeling well all the time and leave.”
“That they won’t accept my ostomy—how long do I wait to tell them? It’s hard.”
“How to tell someone when you first start dating. Men not wanting to deal with it.”
“Fearful I won’t have the energy to keep up with activities, dates, etc.”
“My wedding day—how I will feel! I’m far from that stage of life, but I worry about this often.”
“It’s hard enough to find a man, let alone one that can handle IBD life.”
“That I won’t be accepted. I’ve had to get dentures because of Crohn’s.”
“They won’t accept me for my disease, and I will be a burden to them because I’m sick.”
“That someone will get tired of dealing with my health issues. That I will burden them too much.”
“I worry about rejection and being a burden to a potential partner.”
“I’m not single, but my biggest fear is one day my spouse will wake up and realize this isn’t the life he wants and that taking care of me is too big of a sacrifice. That he’s run out of energy to give and needs to take care of himself (do what makes him happy). I don’t know what I’d do without him.”
Woah. How heartbreaking and relatable are those comments?! First, I want you to read an article I wrote awhile back that addresses the term “burden” as it relates to love and IBD. While it can be incredibly intimidating to share the fact you have IBD and everything that comes along with your personal case (scars, ostomy, flaring, need for hardcore medications, etc.), it’s all a part of you and if someone you are dating is going to pass judgement or be “turned off” by that, I’m telling you now RUN FOR THE FREAKIN’ HILLS. As you date, don’t settle for anyone who makes you feel guilty for something that’s completely out of your control. Let your IBD shine a bright light on someone’s true colors. Same goes for friendships. In the moment it can be shocking to see who is there and who is not, many people will surprise you—and not in a good way, but take that intel and keep your inner circle made up of people who you can trust implicitly and be yourself completely with.
When it comes to disclosing—you’ll know when the moment is right. For me, I told my husband on our third date while we were out to lunch. You don’t have to get into the nitty gritty, just put it out there—a high level explanation—and let them ask questions. In that moment you will be able to gauge their interest. Bobby didn’t bat an eye. To this day he reminds me I’m a healthy person, aside from my intestines. Don’t wait too long to share about your IBD so you don’t invest time and energy if they aren’t going to be worth it. If you’re lying in a hospital bed and feeling neglected or alone as you face serious health complications, it’s time to take a serious look at what you want and what you need in a relationship. I promise you will not regret breaking up with someone who makes your life and emotions complicated.
I can still remember crying in my parent’s bedroom after being diagnosed with Crohn’s and dealing with a breakup during the same week. I was 21. It felt like my world was crashing and burning. I wish I could hug that girl and tell her not to worry and that she’d be a happily married mom of three kids who rose above and didn’t settle. Love and IBD doesn’t have to be scary, it’s something really special.
As the weeks of war go by in Ukraine, our IBD patient advocate extraordinaire, Elena Skotskova, continues to do all she can to ensure those with Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis are feeling supported in the face of the unknown. Elena and I have become pen pals of sorts over email. A world away. Our worlds so different. But our understanding of what it’s like to live with IBD very much the same. Here’s Elena’s latest update sent April 13th, 2022. She remains about 30 minutes outside of Kyiv at her mother in law’s home.
Dear Natalie! Now we are engaged in the distribution of humanitarian aid, which came to us from Dr. Falk (a German pharmaceutical company). I want to share with you the information about helping Ukrainian patients with IBD. Ever since we received the medicine from Dr. Falk we did a great job: 1. We sent medicines to 12 hospitals in different cities of Ukraine, where patients with IBD are treated; 2. We have collected more than 400 applications from patients who currently do not have the opportunity to go to their doctor. 3. We have sent more than 200 packages of medicines to patients throughout Ukraine who do not have access to a doctor 4. There are still about 200 parcels left to send, and I think we can do it before the end of the week.
We have received a large number of letters of thanks from patients who have received medications. We tried to ensure that all patients had enough treatment for at least two months. Earlier we received two parcels from our Greek friends, which were sent via Poland. Everything that was in those parcels (medical food, colostomy bags, medicines, etc.) we distributed to patients and hospitals.
On Monday, April 11, we got a big package from Estonia with colostomy bags and stoma care products. We also send colostomy bags to patients who need it.
I have a lot of work now, and I am constantly in touch with patients. We have a lot of requests from patients from different parts of Ukraine. Particular pain is the regions that are occupied by Russia. It is impossible to deliver medicines there, it is impossible to help patients. I hope that someday they will be able to get out through humanitarian corridors, and then they will receive medical assistance.
This is Galina, our volunteer, a doctor who herself sent more than 300 packages of medicines to patients. She lives in Lviv, where humanitarian aid comes from Europe. This charming lady herself takes heavy boxes, sorts them, forms packages, and sends them out to patients. She does this at night 🙂 And during the day she treats people. I am very grateful to her, she is an irreplaceable person in our team.
I also wanted to share information with you we set up on our “Full Life” site that gives people around the world the ability to make donations using credit cards. You can do it from the link https://www.gofulllife.com.ua/donate/ Scroll down and click the: “Help the project” (Допомогти проекту) button. Once there, you will be directed to choose a currency. (USD or EUR, depending on which currency the credit card supports) and write the sum.
The money raised will be used to buy medical nutrition for children with IBD and to buy medicine for IBD patients who have lost their jobs and incomes.
My husband and I are going to go to Kyiv on Saturday (April 16). We need to meet the humanitarian cargo from Lviv. And also, I need to deal with colostomy bags that came from Estonia and send them to patients.
Many people are already returning to Kyiv, I hope that my hairdresser will also come back and cut my hair 🙂 During the war, it is a great happiness for us just to get a haircut or get medicine. We have such small military joys.
Click here to read Part 1: The Humanitarian Disaster in Ukraine and What this Means for Those with IBD
Elena Sotskova is a financier who has lived with ulcerative colitis for 21 years, her friend, Artem, works in IT and has Crohn’s disease. Elena and Artem teamed up with several other IBD patients in 2018 to launch Full Life, an organization created to show those living with Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis are not alone in their struggles. They launched a website that features helpful articles for patients, they conduct “patient schools,” and connect with doctors in different regions of the country to offer additional guidance and support for patients.
“The biggest problem in Ukraine, is that we do not have treatment programs for patients with IBD. We do not have insurance to cover medicine, and all patients buy medicines at their own expense. As people across the world living with IBD know, these medications come with a hefty price tag, making it impossible for people to afford proper treatment. This forces many Ukrainian patients to refuse treatment and eventually become incapacitated. This was an issue before the war and even more so now,” explain Elena.
Therefore, one of the main tasks of Full Life is to collaborate with public authorities, such as Ministry of Health, and advocate for rights of patients while working diligently on programs for affordable and accessible treatment.
“We had made such progress for the IBD patient community prior to the war. But I’m afraid now the war has set us back and we have to start all over again.”
The inspiration behind Full Life
Elena tells me she was inspired to create Full Life because after living with ulcerative colitis for more than two decades she’s learned coping skills and how to manage her disease. She thinks about her younger self and the pediatric patients who feel isolated, panicked, and depressed in their journeys.
“My task as a mentor is to lead by example and show that you can live a full, enriched life with this disease. I love communicating with young patients and helping them see all that’s still possible for them to enjoy and achieve.”
Full Life also provides psychological and mentoring assistance to IBD patients in Ukraine.
“Prior to the war and now—the main issue is continuation of treatment. We only have one way to get treatment covered and that is through participating in clinical trials. We have about 11,000 patients with IBD in Ukraine and one third of those patients participate in clinical trials so they can treat their disease. Because of the war, many clinical trials and centers for these programs came to a halt.”
Of all the biologic drugs to manage IBD utilized across the world, the only one available in Ukraine outside of a clinical trial is Entyvio.
How the war impacted Takeda (maker of Entyvio in Ukraine)
“Unfortunately, because of the war, Takeda pharmaceutical’s company was forced to close its warehouse in Kyiv, and patients who took Entyvio are left without treatment. I am in touch with Takeda representatives, and they promised to resolve the issue of access to treatment soon.”
I also reached out to Takeda here in the United States and was told by their media relations department that they are continuing to evaluate the situation closely and are making every effort to protect their colleagues in Ukraine along with continuing to supply patients in Ukraine and elsewhere in the region with their much-needed treatments. I went on to ask how that is possible with so many people fleeing their homes and becoming refugees.
“We know that many patients are displaced, and this is an extremely difficult time for patients, their loved ones, health care providers, and countless others. Access to medications can be an issue. We are working hard as a company to offer medications to those in need through the appropriate providers of care. We also want to make sure that patients have access to direct support. Since the conflict started, we have worked with stakeholders in the country to ensure the supply chain resumes. Those under the Patient Assistant Program for IBD treatment have received their medication in Ukraine. We have also set up a web page for displaced patients with relevant contact information per therapeutic area. We encourage patients and providers in Ukraine to reach us at https://takeda-help.com.ua/#/,” said Megan Ostower, Global External Communications, Takeda.
The challenge of logistics when it comes to drug access and delivery
Most patients from Ukraine rely on mesalamine (Salofalk, Pentasa, and Asacol). Elena has been on mesalamine since she was diagnosed.
“It’s not cheap for me, but it’s the only way I can lead a normal life and keep my illness under control. Before the war, patients had access to mesalamine at local pharmacies or they could order it abroad. Now, most pharmacies in Ukraine are shut down and there’s a huge problem with logistics. It is impossible to deliver drugs from Europe. So now, it’s nearly impossible for us to even get mesalamine.”
“We are constantly in touch with Poland, Estonia, Italy, and Spain. Every country wants to help support Ukrainian patients. But Full Life does not have an account in foreign currency, only in UAH (Ukrainian currency). We never anticipated our country and people would be attacked and that there would be a war.”
I reached out to Bella Haaf is Deputy Director of the EFCCA.
She said, “Please be aware that the situation is very difficult out there. We are trying to support the patients associations as much as possible, but we are unfortunately faced with a lot of red tape. As a patient association, it is not legal for us to purchase IBD medication and ship it to our colleagues, which would be a simple solution. So, in the meantime, we are talking to the ministry levels, NGOs (non governmental associations), physicians, and pharmaceutical representatives. Unfortunately, we have experienced little progress. We had hoped to do a private collection of IBD medicines, but again this is legally not possible.”
Elena’s advice for IBD patients in Ukraine and refugees
Elena hopes all Ukrainian IBD patients fleeing the country bring their medical documents (even just a photo on your phone to prove diagnosis).
“To do this, patients need to state their diagnosis when they cross the border and advise medical professionals they need continuous treatment. If you couldn’t bring your medical documents, try and remember what doctors in Ukraine diagnosed you and prescribe your medicine. If there are problems with getting treatment in EU countries, contact Full Life and we will work to solve your issue through local patient agencies.”
For now, each day of destruction and heartbreak leaves the people of Ukraine feeling helpless, especially those with a chronic illness that requires daily management and care.
“I think now neither I nor other Ukrainian patients will be able to write a happy story. We all have the worst period of our lives right now, as our country is in war. We are now very upset and depressed. But we are glad that our American friends remember us and are worried.”
The pharmacy crisis
“What will happen next, I do not know. There are no pharmacies in the village where we live and work. The logistics from Kyiv are very difficult. No delivery companies work.” Today (March 31) Elena’s husband is headed to Kyiv to try and get her medication, which of course comes with many dangers and risks. I will share an update once one is available.
Elena tells me only about 30 percent of pharmacies remain open in Kyiv right now and that there is a “catastrophic shortage of pharmacists left” since so many fled the country.
“Now in those pharmacies that work, there are huge queues, and almost no drugs, because they cannot deliver for various reasons. If I stop taking my drug, I’m afraid it will soon be exacerbated disease. You know how stress affects our disease. This war has caused terrible stress and so many patients have it worse. There are areas in Ukraine where there is no medicine, no food, no water. For example, in Mariupol, we don’t even know if people are alive there. So many have died each day from shelling hunger, and disease. Who could have imagined this in our time?”
Using plastic bags as ostomy bags
Sadly, Elena says many of the patients she’s connected with through Full Life are no longer in touch.
“I don’t know if they are alive. For ostomy patients, they are left without their necessary means for hygiene. Some of my peers have been gluing small plastic bags around their stomas. I am currently talking with patients and taking note of all their needs. There is a doctor in Lviv who treats patients with IBD and that is where we are having all IBD humanitarian aid sent. The Patients’ Association in Poland is actively helping coordinate the delivery of medicines and hygiene products from Europe to Ukraine as well.”
Elena says she is constantly in contact with European Associations, and they all promise to help.
“I try to be in touch with our patients, I try to support them somehow, but it is difficult. The prospects are unclear, it is unclear when this war will end.”
Regardless, Elena works tirelessly to be a pillar of support for others, even as she worries about her own wellbeing. I feel fortunate to have connected with Elena in recent weeks. Her updates and perspective are a reminder of how far IBD treatment still needs to be come in other parts of the world and of the extreme challenges so many people with chronic health conditions are facing in this war.
“As for our progress in receiving humanitarian aid, we are currently waiting on a small package from Greece. The first of two. The second parcel should arrive later. Dr Falk (a pharma company) also donated Budenofalk and Salofalk to us. And on Friday (4/1), a German non-governmental organization plans to send more of these medicines to Ukraine.Our Ministry of Health sent a letter to the Polish Ministry of Health with a list of drugs that Ukrainian patients with IBD need. We are waiting for a reaction from the Polish side.”
The Full Life organization is a member of the Charitable Society “Patients of Ukraine” and they collect help for all patients and can be of support. Click here to see Facebook posts.
Stay tuned to Lights, Camera, Crohn’s for continued updates and keep Ukraine and its incredible people close in thought and prayer. Thank you to Elena for her openness and willingness to email me back and forth as she lives through these extreme challenges. We’ve built a friendship from afar and I’m grateful she’s sharing the IBD patient experience through war so the rest of us can have this unique understanding and perspective.
Pregnancy and motherhood look differently for women who have an ostomy. And not just physically. But also, emotionally, and mentally. The path to motherhood is unique for those of us in the IBD community and we’re living at a time when more research about pregnancy and breastfeeding is right at our fingertips, all of which sets IBD moms and moms-to-be up for success.
Whether you’re on the brink of needing an ostomy and fearful of what this means for your future. Whether you’re a mom of a young girl and worry about whether your daughter will ever be able to be a mom. Whether you’re newly diagnosed and can’t imagine your damaged body bringing a life into this world. Whether you just took a pregnancy test after a bag change and can’t believe it’s positive and don’t know what to do next. These transparent and real-life patient stories will bring you hope and help empower you in coping, preparing yourself, and working with your care team, if carrying a baby is something you hope to do one day.
This week we hear from several ostomates—some who are moms, others who are pregnant right now, and two women who got pregnant after having a proctocolectomy (removal of rectum and colon).
Krista Deveau was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis as a child. After having two bowel resection surgeries and her ostomy surgery over the course of 10 years, she was worried about whether being a mom would ever be an option.
“The reason for getting a temporary ileostomy and avoiding even more scar tissue, was because of I wanted to start a family with my husband in the years to come. To my surprise and my GI’s surprise, we got pregnant much easier than expected, truly a blessing because this isn’t always the outcome for everyone.”
She’s now 24 weeks pregnant and expecting her first baby in June! Krista says this is the best she’s ever felt. Her symptoms have been silent aside from having phantom rectum/poop and passing mucus more frequently lately.
Krista is on a dual biologic treatment plan (Stelara and Entyvio) every 4 weeks. She plans to stop her Entyvio treatment at 32 weeks and resume her infusion in the hospital after she delivers. She’s still in the process for determining her game plan with Stelara. She also takes prenatal vitamins, vitamin D, and b12 shots. She expects she’ll need iron infusions before baby arrives.
As of now, she plans to do a vaginal birth. Due to not having perianal disease and already having significant scar tissue and adhesions from previous surgeries, her care team determined this plan with her. Like any IBD mom-to-be, she worries about the ever-present threat of a postpartum flare, having to be hospitalized and be away from her baby, and possibly passing her disease onto offspring.
Katie Cuozzo was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease when she was 5 years old. She’s had concerns about not being able to get pregnant for as long as she can remember. Now, she’s 34-years-old and a mom of three girls. Her oldest daughter was 18 months old when she received her ostomy, so she’s been pregnant with and without a bag.
“The only difference that I noticed between pregnancy with an ostomy versus without was how to dress. As my stomach was getting bigger, it was a little harder to disguise my bag. I would mostly wear baggy clothing. With my first pregnancy, I was able to deliver vaginally, I had c-sections with my younger two.”
Katie’s perianal disease got significantly worse after delivering her firstborn. Originally, she was planning to have a temporary colostomy, but her symptoms didn’t improve so she decided to get a total colectomy. Despite her IBD causing her so many issues, Katie was able to conceive on her own without any problems.
She remained on her medications during all three pregnancies. She took Cimzia during her first pregnancy and Stelara during her other two pregnancies. Katie also continued to take her prenatal vitamin, vitamin D, vitamin b12, and calcium supplements. She also breastfed all her children.
“As I was planning for ostomy surgery, my surgeon told me that if he did a total proctectomy- removal of my rectum, my chance of fertility would decrease significantly. I made the choice to keep my rectum in place until I was done trying for more kids. I am now at a place in my life where I am beyond blessed with my three daughters and am ready to have my final surgery to remove my rectum, knowing that I will likely never be able to have more kids.”
Katie says she was amazed at how great she felt while pregnant. It was the first time in a while she was having regular, normal bowel movements and was able to eat anything and everything without having abdominal pains and needing to run to the bathroom.
Katie Nichol was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis in 2018 when she was 30 years old. She went through an emergency subtotal colectomy surgery in October 2019 to remove her diseased large bowel/colon and an ileostomy was created.
“I was told that I would keep my rectal stump to further my chances of being able to have children in the future, but my doctors told me to seriously think about having my family before my next operation, either a total proctectomy or j pouch surgery. Personally, I never thought I would ever be able to get pregnant after surgery as it was such a big life change and a lot of trauma had happened in my abdomen with surgery.”
Katie and her husband had been trying to conceive since before her IBD diagnosis. She didn’t know anyone in real life with a stoma. It made her anxious as she was unsure how her body would respond if she got pregnant and how it would affect her stoma, intestines, and overall health.
“After receiving my ileostomy, I felt so much healthier, happier, and started to think that my body would be able to conceive and start our family. My IBD team and surgeon kept saying at appointments post op that if I wanted a family I would need to start trying in the next couple of years before my next operation.”
Katie says her surgeon wanted to ‘preserve her pipes’ and advised her that a vaginal birth may cause some damage from pushing. Her care team warned her about the possibility of her rectal stump or stoma having the chance to prolapse, so she went ahead and scheduled a c-section.
“One surprise I used to get was when the baby was lying to my stoma side (right hand side) it would sometimes look like I had a hernia around my stoma sight, but the baby was underneath my stoma, this freaked me out a good few times, but it was amazing to see the baby move and my stoma still standing strong on my stomach.”
Katie took prenatal vitamins, iron, and was on a rectal foam for her rectal stump while she was pregnant. Since her stoma surgery, she is no longer on medication. Now she takes suppositories for her rectal stump before bed.
Receiving a Total Colectomy as a mom of two
Kimberly Hooks was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis in 2011. She was 28 years old. Her oldest daughter, Briana, was five years old when Kimberly received her IBD diagnosis. After nine years she was able to reach remission and became pregnant with her second child. Kimberly had a three-stage J-pouch procedure between the fall and spring of 2020. She was an IBD mom of two while all of this was going down.
“I honestly did not want to accept that I had to have three surgeries. I was utterly devastated when I found out that I had to have a total colectomy. My surgeries were scheduled during the height of the pandemic in 2020. Mentally, I could not wrap my head around the fact that I would not be there for my family, especially during this critical time in our lives. I felt hopeless; I felt defeated as a mother and wife.”
Kimberly’s colectomy was unexpected. She did not have time to process anything.
“We often put ourselves last; however, I was not given a choice in this case. The reality was I had two more surgeries to undergo, and I understood that I have a family that loves and supports me. I realized this was my time to ensure that I did what I had to do to heal, recover, and finally be the best mom and wife I could be.”
The experience impacted Kimberly and her family in the most positive way. Her husband and daughters rose to the occasion day after day to offer love and support and saw Kimberly as their hero. She was discharged from the hospital after getting her ostomy on Mother’s Day and her daughters made her signs and gave her flowers.
“All the while, it was me who had to accept that living with an ostomy is something to be proud of. At first, mentally, it was a hard pill to swallow, but after awhile I realized that my ostomy bag saved my life; I will be forever thankful!”
Pregnancy after a Proctocolectomy
Kayla Lewis was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease at age 10. When she was 24, Katie had surgery and received her ileostomy. She says that’s the first-time fertility and her future as a mother crossed her mind. Then, in 2017 she became incredibly sick. She tried what she thought was a temporary ostomy for six months. Then in a follow up scope her GI perforated her bowel.
“When I woke up, I was informed that my entire colon was scar tissue so much that the camera could barely go into the bowel before perforating it. At that point, I was told my options were to leave the colon and rectum or schedule to have both removed, but either way, the ostomy was suddenly permanent. I did not want to resort to that initial surgery till I knew I had exercised all other options available to me including meds, treatments, and diet. Being that surgery was my only hope at gaining life back, I never fully questioned how it would affect my fertility. I did briefly ask the surgeon if I can still have kids one day. He responded with a simple ‘yes’ and I left it at that.”
Even though Kayla says she still would have continued with her proctocolectomy regardless, she wishes she would have thought to ask more questions. Thanks to her ostomy, Kayla has been in remission for 5 years. She felt like family planning could be on her own terms.
“Being 12 weeks pregnant with an ostomy has been much smoother than I had envisioned for myself. I work as a nurse in an operating room, so feeling nauseous and vomiting was my biggest concern early on. I have a small body frame, so maybe once the bump starts to show, I will experience stoma changes. Hopefully, nothing more than just cutting the wafer a bit smaller or larger.”
Currently, Kayla takes Imuran and Allopurinol daily and injects Stelara every 8 weeks. She also takes a prenatal vitamin.
“I was always told that when the time comes for me to become a mom, it would have to be via c-section and not vaginally. I knew this well before my ostomy, because I was warned how difficult it could be for me to heal from tearing as well as could trigger a flare. After my proctocolectomy, I knew without a doubt, I would need to schedule a c-section to play it safe.”
Lori Plung was diagnosed with Crohn’s Colitis in 1980. She was 16 years old. Two years after her diagnosis her disease became severe. As she reflects, she remembers being very worried about ever being healthy enough to be a mom.
“My mom was told by my GI at the time that he didn’t have a good feeling about me being able to have children. This was not shared with me at the time, and this was well before surgery was mentioned to us.”
In 1988, Lori had a proctocolectomy. She remembers lying in the hospital bed before her surgery and a local IBD mom and her toddler coming to visit and show her all that’s possible with an ostomy.
“I believe what was missing, was a conversation with my doctors about how my anatomy would change after surgery and the possibility of scar tissue building up near my ovaries, fallopian tubes, and uterus. Therefore, making it harder to conceive. When it was time for us to try for a family, we couldn’t conceive on our own. In the back of my mind, I knew my insides were shifted around and I had a strong suspicion that mechanically things were not working correctly. We tried for about 6 months and started investigating fertility options. We didn’t wait the full year as often recommended because I was feeling well —and as we know with IBD, when the disease is under control, It’s the optimal time to be pregnant.”
Lori went through many fertility treatments and said no one blamed her proctocolectomy as the culprit. She ended up having scar tissue on one of her fallopian tubes. She got pregnant with her first child through IUI (Intrauterine insemination) and her second through IVF.
She remembers telling her husband she didn’t want their kids to have memories of growing up with a “sick mom.” She had three more IBD-related surgeries, numerous hospital stays, and says her energy was drained, but she prided herself on her inner strength and determination to always push through no matter what.
Lori says if she could talk to her former self, she would tell herself not to feel guilty about needing to stay home and do quiet activities because she was having a hard Crohn’s day.
“Not to be hard on myself when we sat and watched Barney (my daughter Dani’s favorite) or Teletubbies (my son Jesse’s favorite) because I was too exhausted to move. Not to feel guilty when everything fell on my husband, especially through each surgery and recovery. It’s ok to ask for help and not feel guilty.”
Lori’s kids are now 23 and 26. She still can’t believe she’s been able to be a mom and be there every step of the way as her kids thrived through each stage and season of life.
Advice for fellow ostomates about pregnancy
If you have an ostomy, you can have a baby. Don’t let your ostomy hold you back. Work with your care team to know when the right time is and if there would be any issues with getting pregnant.
The body has a way of coping no matter what. Your past trauma prepares you to handle the unknown and celebrate every win—big or small, along the way.
Keep the faith. You may run into roadblocks but exhaust all options before you throw in the towel. Miracles happen every day, stay hopeful.
Find a care team well-versed on IBD. A medical team who understands your complexities and who is supportive will make your experience with pregnancy and an ostomy a positive one. Have all hands-on deck and connect with your IBD team, surgeon, ostomy nurse, and Maternal Fetal Medicine (MFM) group. It will give you a sense of security as you embark on this wonderful and exciting adventure. Your ostomy nurse will be a huge resource—as your belly grows, so will your stoma.
Be mindful of ultrasound gel. Be prepared at OB-GYN and MFM appointments by bringing extra bags and wafers. Try and make sure your ostomy is empty prior to ultrasounds and then fold it up or hold it up to keep it out of the way. Ultrasound gel can make the adhesive come off. Many of the IBD moms I spoke to said they change their bag after every ultrasound to make sure all the gel is off their stomachs, so the new bag can stick on properly.
Stoma size and output. Don’t be alarmed if the size of your stoma changes as your baby bump grows. Stomas go back to their pre-pregnancy size after babies are born. For some, output can get thicker, and you can have more gas, but that’s likely due to being able to tolerate more fruits and veggies. As your belly grows, your bag may dangle rather than being tucked away and become a bit uncomfortable.
Remember everyone’s journey is unique. While each of these amazing women are sharing positive pregnancy experiences, don’t forget all the roadblocks, flares, and health issues they had to overcome to get to this point.
Ostomies gave you life and enable you to bring life into this world. For many IBD moms it’s surreal to experience your body go from attacking itself to nurturing and creating a life. Pregnancy provides a renewed love and appreciation for all that our bodies are capable of, despite our IBD.
Connect with other ostomates over social media and through support groups. Don’t hesitate to reach out to women who are living your same reality on social media. We’re all a family. Peer to peer support is amazing, reach out to fellow IBD moms. Here are the Instagram handles for the women featured in this article. Give them a follow!
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.
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.”
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.