Inaugural Autoimmune Summit just what the patient ordered

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

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

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

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

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

A dream come true

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

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

Goals of the Summit

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

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

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

From the Speakers

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

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

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

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

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

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

Curtain Call

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

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

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

Follow the Autoimmune Association on social media

Instagram: @autoimmune_diseases

Twitter: @AutoimmuneAssoc

Facebook: Autoimmune Association

IBD Motherhood Unplugged: Scopes, Scans, and Breastfeeding

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

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

Juggling Kids and Prep

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is Pump and Dumping Necessary?

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

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

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

What about prep for MRE’s and CT scans?

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

The bottom line

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

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

IBD Motherhood Unplugged: Fully Vaccinated and Pregnant with COVID

It’s safe to say IBD mom, Amanda Pennewell, is grateful she’s days away from welcoming baby number four into the world. Despite being fully vaccinated, she came down with COVID when she was 34 weeks pregnant. Amanda was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease 20 years ago when she was only 8 years old.

Amanda is no stranger to being on a biologic during pregnancy. She was on Humira with her twins and over the course of the last two years she was on Stelara with her second pregnancy and her current one. It’s one thing to be an immunocompromised pregnant woman, I can attest from personal experience, it’s extremely worrisome when living through a pandemic and worrying about your IBD and the possibility of COVID turning your life and that of your unborn child upside down.

Coming Down with COVID

One second Amanda’s oldest daughter, Brooklyn, was at a friend’s birthday party being her energetic, sweet, self and when they arrived home, she laid down on the couch and said she was freezing. Brooklyn had a low-grade fever. A few days prior her 17-month-old, Caroline, also had a fever.

“I didn’t think anything of it until a friend from school called to tell me her son tested positive for COVID after being seen for a low-grade fever that lasted six hours or so. My husband went to get some at home rapid tests from Walgreens. It was late, and I was supposed to have him help me with my Stelara injection that night. I figured I needed to wait until I could contact my GI doctor to inject if it was positive. It was.”

Amanda was in a state of shock. Her and her husband had both been fully vaccinated for months. At the same time, given the nature of mom life, once her daughter tested positive, she felt it was inevitable she would, too.

Navigating a biologic, pregnancy, and COVID

When Amanda’s GI heard she had COVID, she recommended she delay her Stelara injection for the time being to see how she did during the quarantine period. Amanda’s initial symptoms were a sore throat and a headache.

“I kept in touch daily with my GI doctor and her nurse via phone and email. They were very worried about me—especially because I was about 34 weeks pregnant. I ended up waiting two weeks after my daughter and I tested positive before I did my Stelara injection. I had been symptom-free for a week at that point, and they knew I would be okay to inject then.”

Along with herself and her daughter, Amanda’s husband and dad also tested positive. But Amanda says out of everyone in their inner circle, she felt the worst.

“My symptom list continued to grow each day. The first day the sore throat and headache were my only symptoms. I then developed a cough and muscle soreness and pain. I took about four-six baths/showers each day and took Tylenol to remain functional. I had extreme fatigue and ordered a pulse oximeter to monitor my oxygen level. I had a low-grade fever. I also lost my smell and started to lose my taste. My OB doctor had called me and said I was eligible for a monoclonal antibody infusion, and they would recommend it for me since I also have Crohn’s disease.”

Amanda took a few days to think it over and discussed the infusion with her GI, who recommended she receive it as well. After getting the 30-minute antibody infusion, Amanda felt worse. Her fever spiked and she was shaking. Luckily, by the evening she turned the corner and started feeling significantly better.

Advice for Fellow IBD Moms

COVID caused Amanda to miss one of her high-risk ultrasounds, but she was able to get a scan at 36 weeks. She’s grateful baby girl is looking great and measuring right on target despite all she’s been through during this pregnancy.

“My advice to fellow pregnant IBD moms would be to stay in close contact with all of your doctors, even if you think they can’t help you. I normally just try to keep my primary and my GI doctor informed when I’m sick with something, but since I had to cancel my OB appointment, they knew I was exposed and then knew, I was positive. They were the ones able to set up the infusion for me. Had I not called, I wouldn’t have known about the infusion and that it was available for me. I don’t want to think about what could’ve happened if I hadn’t had that option.”

Amanda is hopeful her daughter will come into the world with solid antibodies given that she was pregnant with her when she received her second Pfizer vaccine, plus the fact she had COVID and received the monoclonal antibody infusion.

Connect with Amanda on Instagram: @thepennegram

Baseball Player Brennan Metzger Fields Questions About Life With Crohn’s Disease

There’s more than meets the eye when you’re watching a Chicago Dogs baseball game. Outfielder Brennan Metzger was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis when he was 19 and later re-diagnosed with Crohn’s disease at age 24.

He’s now 31-years-old and didn’t allow IBD to steal his dreams of playing in the big leagues. Unfortunately, his most challenging flare-up happened the first summer he was a professional baseball player. Brennan was drafted by the San Francisco Giants in 2012 after graduating from Long Beach State University. He ended up playing for the Giants until 2015, but his health was not cooperating during that time.

“The flare ups are very difficult, and unfortunately for me it cost me a year and half of my career, but more importantly it almost cost me my life. I needed a total of six surgeries and had a total removal of my large intestines. I’m currently on Remicade and thankfully it is keeping me in remission,” explained Brennan.

His advice for young athletes with IBD—to stay positive and continue to treat your body right despite the uphill battle. Brennan says the struggles with Crohn’s motivate him.

“When I am symptomatic and need to play, I get as much rest as possible, and compete to the best of my abilities. Now, my Crohn’s is just a piece of adversity that I do my best to accept and play through.”

Coping With Life as a Former Ostomate and Current J-Poucher

Brennan had an ileostomy for nine months. Once his body healed from the j pouch construction, his surgeon was able to perform an ileostomy take down and re loop his small intestine back inside his body.

“That was a tough time for me. I went through the struggle in the beginning of not being able to look at it, let alone change my ostomy bag. Once the unfamiliarity of the situation passed dealing with life with an ileostomy got better.”

At that point, Brennan learned to adjust. He reached a sense of acceptance knowing that it was necessary for him to endure this so he could get better. The fact that his ostomy was temporary helped him cope.

“To anybody that is adjusting to life with an ileostomy, don’t let the fact that you are different and have an ostomy bag hold you back from being you. If anything, it makes you unique and tougher than most. You’re a fighter, so keep fighting.”

Brennan is passionate about connecting with as many people in the IBD community as he can. He knows firsthand how lonely and isolating Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis can be, so anytime he can be a source of comfort or a role model for others, he jumps at the opportunity.

Choosing to Play Through the Pandemic

Deciding to play baseball as an immunocompromised player was nerve-wracking to say the least. Brennan says he realized he had two options—live in fear or live his life to the fullest. As a vaccinated ball player, he felt getting the jab allowed him to have some control and not let uncontrollable circumstances affect him.

“I chose not to live in fear and to compete because baseball in the summer presents a sense of normalcy and I think the world needed something to look forward to amongst all the negativity. I am still cautious and try to live healthy and do all the things to keep myself from getting sick. I look at the situation as being cautious, but not fearful.”

When traveling due to baseball, he makes sure to have a roll of Charmin ultra-soft toilet paper handy, because you just never know when you may need to go to the bathroom.

“I always search for the healthier options when it comes to diet. Sometimes it’s difficult and I just have to roll with the punches and accept that I may be taking a few more trips to the bathroom.”

How the Chicago Dogs Step Up to the Plate

The Chicago Dogs baseball team is part of the American Association of Independent Professional Baseball. Brennan is grateful for the organization and his teammates for never making him feel like a burden or less than because of his illness.

“The Chicago Dogs have been incredibly accommodating to my circumstances in having to deal with Crohn’s. They have been able to provide me with comfortable living arrangements and are understanding that there are times where I need to go about my typical workday a little differently than others.”

Brennan’s attitude on and off the field go hand in hand. He tries his best to focus on being positive, having fun, and being present in the moments provided by feel-good days. He loves connecting with others in the IBD community over social media, don’t hesitate to connect with him. Here’s how you can do so:

Facebook: Brennan Metzger

Twitter: @BrennanMetzger

Instagram: @Bmetz1234

IBD Motherhood Unplugged: My Personal PIANO Study Results

As an IBD mom of three who stayed on my Humira (adalimumab) injections until late into my third trimester with all my pregnancies, I recognized the importance of contributing to ongoing research about the safety and efficacy of biologics. When I was approached to participate in the PIANO (Pregnancy Inflammatory bowel disease And Neonatal Outcomes) study for my pregnancy this past year I jumped at the opportunity. While I knew staying on my medication until 37 weeks pregnant would pass Humira through to my baby and that it is considered to be safe, I didn’t know much beyond that.

My son Connor is 8 weeks today. The day of my C-section blood samples were taken from him, me, and my umbilical cord. The purpose of the samples was to measure the concentration of the Humira at the time of delivery. The process in the hospital was simple. Detailed instructions were mailed to me at home ahead of time. When I walked into the hospital for my scheduled C-section my husband and I handed over a small box that included three vials, an ice pack, and proper packaging for the transfer from St. Louis to California to the nurse who was prepping me for surgery. Once all the samples were ready to go my husband made a quick stop at FedEx to hand over the package and voila the science of it all was on its way.

The Results

The past few weeks we’ve anxiously awaited the results. This week, we received them. I have an almost 4.5-year-old son, a 2.5-year-old daughter, and a newborn. With each pregnancy—Crohn’s-wise, the experience was flawless. I felt like a “normal” person. Foods that typically trigger me, didn’t cause any issues. If I wanted a cup of coffee, I didn’t pay the price. It felt glorious to have zero abdominal pain for all those months and know that my babies were thriving in utero. I credit my own health and deep remission and my children’s health to the fact that I chose to follow my care team’s recommendations and stay on Humira until the final weeks of my pregnancies.

When the results popped up in my email inbox, I was nursing Connor. I felt a few emotions, more than I had anticipated. I hesitated to open it. Even though I could see Reid and Sophia watching TV and know how healthy they are, it still made me feel a rush of mom guilt to know that I needed a heavy-duty medication to bring all three of my children into this world and that even though studies like PIANO have shown the safety profile, that as IBD moms we still worry and wish we didn’t need to do injections or get infusions while a life is growing inside of us.

I texted my husband Bobby while he was at work and expressed how I was feeling. His response, “It’s all good babe, I’m sure it’s emotional but kids are all healthy and in good shape so just thankful for that. You did good.” Having a supportive partner through your patient journey and especially through parenthood makes all the difference.

Here are my PIANO study findings. I stopped medication at 37 weeks, and my last injection was 16 days prior to C-Section and this blood test.

My blood—7.3 mcg/mL

Connor’s blood—6.8 mcg/mL

Cord blood—5.9 mcg/mL

When I saw the numbers, my eyes filled with tears. Even though just looking at the numbers didn’t mean a whole lot, it just showed me that my baby had medication in his system, and it made me feel sad. I knew this would be the case—but I want to be transparent that it did upset me, even though I know it was for the best and have seen how my other children have thrived despite their exposure.

I waited to share this so the PIANO study’s lead organizer, Dr. Uma Mahadevan could weigh in and provide further explanation for not only myself, but for our community. She told me that in the PIANO study,  the concentration of Humira for baby on average is 9.4 mcg/ml (range 2.5-26) and for moms 25 mcg/ml (range 0-56.4). As stated above, I was at 7.3 mcg/ml and Connor was 6.8 mcg/ml.

“Cord blood is the blood from the baby that is left in the umbilical cord and placenta after birth. It comes from the baby, so those concentrations are similar. Beginning around week 14 of pregnancy the placenta has a receptor called FcRn. This grabs antibody by the “Fc” portion and pulls it actively from mom to baby. This is most efficient in the third trimester when 80% of antibody transfer occurs. Since Humira is an antibody, it gets pulled across the placenta as well.”

Dr. Mahadevan went on to say that baby often has more drug at birth than the mom, but that was not the case for me. The PIANO study has shown several positive outcomes for IBD moms:

  • There is not an association between the amount of drug present in a baby at birth with infections.
  • Even though there was no increased risk of infection seen based on exposure to anti-TNF or on drug level at birth, in theory these babies (like Connor) are considered immunocompromised until no drug is present. For Humira that’s about 3 months, for Remicade (infliximab) that’s about six months.

“My advice to moms is that all the risks to the baby seem to come from disease flare rather than from medication. In a large French study, the risk of infection in baby was in moms who flared in the third trimester, not based on anti-TNF exposure. Risk of pre-term birth is increased with disease activity, not with anti-TNF medication. Risk of miscarriage comes with disease activity, not anti-TNF use. There is a clear and significant risk from having a flare during pregnancy. Compared to babies of IBD moms not exposed to medications, there is no evidence of increased harm to the baby (at least out to 4 years of age) from TNF exposure,” explained Dr. Mahadevan.

Hearing this was music to my ears and was extremely comforting. Point being—there’s a much greater likelihood of pregnancy complications if your IBD is not managed and if you flare than if you stay on your medication and keep your IBD controlled.

“We have completed our breastfeeding study which showed very minimal transfer (a fraction of what transfers by placental blood) and no evidence of harm to baby for breastfeeding when a mother is on anti-TNF.”

Knowing this about breastfeeding gives me great peace of mind as I continue the journey with my son, while still managing my Crohn’s by taking my Humira.

I also want to add that Dr. Mahadevan and her research team have been a huge support to me throughout the entire study. When she read a draft of this article and saw how I felt when I received the email with the blood results, she asked for recommendations about how to better deliver the findings to women. This meant a lot—I suggested sharing the range in blood concentration similar to how lab results are delivered on a patient portal and following up with an email or phone call to explain what the numbers mean further. Those touchpoints of support can make a big difference. I also shared my results over the patient portal with my GI and she called me to discuss them as well, which was helpful.

Interested in participating in the PIANO study? There’s always a need for more women to enroll! So far, 1,700 women have done so. There’s especially a need for women on newer drugs like Stelara, Entyvio, and Xeljanz. Click here to get involved.

“Chronic”—The book the IBD community didn’t know it needed

There’s power in surrendering to your IBD. It takes time to reach that mindset and it’s something author and patient advocate Christine Rich eloquently explains in her debut book, “Chronic”. Christine reached out to me when she was doing the initial writing research and we hit it off instantaneously. There’s something magical about connecting with strangers who understand your reality. You may be thousands of miles apart, with different back stories, but the common thread of life with chronic illness makes you feel seen, understood, and like lifelong friends.

Christine, now a 41-year-old married mom of two, was diagnosed with Crohn’s when she was in high school. It took time and struggle for her to truly process all she endured and reach the point where she is today.

“Many of us are taught to smile, be grateful, and make everyone else feel all comfy and cozy at the expense of our own comfort and well-being. The problem with these types of expectations is that they are lies that create loneliness and rage that eventually turn women against themselves and their potential.”

This quote really spoke to me. Having an invisible illness like Crohn’s disease, one of my biggest struggles in my 16-plus years since diagnosis has been feeling comfortable with making those around me know how uncomfortable I am in any given moment. It often feels a lot easier to just put a fake smile on and pretend you’re not in pain. But, in doing so, we are only hurting ourselves and deepening our personal struggles.

Advocate for and take care of your body

Christine’s powerful journey exemplifies all the work and personal development it takes to discover self-acceptance, grieve the loss of the former you, ask for help, and feel empowered. She speaks of the trajectory we all go on from the point of diagnosis to becoming a “veteran” patient years later. Take a moment to think of how you have personally transformed since you were told you had IBD. That transformation is one that takes a great deal of time and personal growth, but once you come out on the other side you won’t look back aside from reflecting on how far you’ve come.

“When I walked in for my outpatient procedure that warm July morning, I was arrogant, afraid, angry, and emotionally incompetent. When I walked out (well, wheeled out is more like it) I was humbled, vulnerable and awake in a way I had never been before in my adult life.”

This quote paints the picture of what life is like with flare ups that result in hospitalization and how we evolve through the setbacks. Often those in our lives think we’re “all healed” the moment we cross through the hospital doors, when in actuality the healing process is something, we’re constantly going and growing through.

Thinking of your body as an ally, not an enemy

One of my favorite chapters in “Chronic” is Chapter 14—The 4th F. Christine’s words and experiences really resonated with me.

“After working through the peak of my resistance, denial and rage I realized I had made an enemy out of my body for far too long. I had turned my back on her for being different. She wasn’t broken. I wasn’t broken. We were both sad and not fully aware of the other. I needed to learn how to stop fleeing and fighting my body…I needed to befriend it.”

She goes on to explain how altering her perception of the way she looks at her body and thinks about it, has shifted her entire life experience, and brought her to where she is today.

“I was faced with a choice: continue to carry this anger and self-hatred until it sunk my health, my marriage and my self completely, or decide to feel it all and acknowledge that my body is not and never was an apology, enemy or failure.”

Rather than our community thinking of Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis as a villain trying to destroy it, Christine asks what if we treated our chronic illness as a small child seeking love and attention?

“What if I could make friends with my body? Love her and care for her like I do my own children.”

In my own personal experience with Crohn’s, I’ve also learned to be in-tune to the subtle signs my body is trying to communicate through symptoms. Rather than constantly shutting that communication out and trying to push it to the back of my mind, like I did in my 20’s, now, I listen closely. That voice is part of a constant inner conversation that is part of every hour of every day of my life. Even in remission—each choice, each decision I make, has my Crohn’s in mind. Because as an IBD mom of three, my disease impacts a lot more than “just” me.

“Although I would never be able to control the circumstance of my diagnosis, I could control my perception and reaction to it. I could start telling the truth. I could stop punishing myself.”

This is so important. Even though we were all powerless over receiving our diagnoses, we’re not powerless in how we choose to live life after our diagnosis. The unpredictability of the disease may make us feel like we’re constantly on edge, spiraling out of control, but by being proactive rather than reactionary and by making efforts to manage our disease on every level (physical, emotional, and mental) we set ourselves up for a much-improved quality of life. IBD doesn’t have to be the headliner of our lives, it can be more of a footnote.

There’s no fixed end point with chronic illness

Christine says her therapist tells her to go to her 17-year-old newly diagnosed self as her current 41-year-old self and hold her hand. Tell her it’s not her fault. She goes on to explain how there’s no fixed end point with chronic illness and that the collective power of patients in the IBD community must discuss the mental anguish that’s often brushed under the rug.

“For the life of me I can’t figure out why mental health screenings aren’t standard practice of care. They test and screen us for everything else. They test our blood and our stool. They examine our rectums and colons. They poke and prod us top to bottom…they examine everything but our minds.”

She calls on all of us to be “chronic truth tellers”—which I love. The more doctors hear the same message over and over again directly from patients, the better chance we have to impact change. This takes effort and a heightened sense of vulnerability on our parts, but reaps endless benefits. We can’t take care of our whole self by simply focusing on the physical manifestations of our illness.

In “Chronic” one of my favorite lines is when Christine recalls how one of her yoga teachers once said, “what we resist—persists.” In IBD terms—every time we resist telling our care team, loved ones or friends about symptoms and struggles, things will only snowball and get worse.

“In order to advocate for ourselves we must also be chronically curious about ourselves. Being chronically curious about yourself starts with a clear understanding of what makes you feel good and whole.”

The overarching theme in this remarkable and must-read book are to keep showing up for yourself every day. Stop running away from the discomfort. Acknowledge it, explore it, and feel it—all of it—the good, the bad, the embarrassing. Christine Rich started out as a stranger on the phone with a dream of becoming an IBD patient advocate and published author. Not only did she accomplish all the above, but she did so in a way that even her personal experiences will feel like something you can relate to and grow from. As a fellow woman with IBD I stand up and give her a round of applause and a big hug for so bravely and candidly speaking the words so many before her felt too silenced and worried to share. Bravo, bravo, bravo.

Order “Chronic” on Amazon here.

Connect with Christine Rich:

Instagram: @christinerich_author

The IBD Parenthood Project: The Love-Hate Relationship of Breastfeeding

This post is sponsored by the American Gastroenterological Association (AGA). I am a paid program Brand Influencer; this post is sponsored and includes my own personal experiences.

Breastfeeding is a labor of love. Like many women, it doesn’t come easy for me. As an IBD mom who already fears passing my disease down to my kids, there’s added pressure and stress. In the United States, an estimated 1.6 million people have Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis. Of those, roughly half are women, and most will carry the diagnosis during childbearing years, throughout all phases of family planning: trying to conceive, pregnancy and postpartum. As an IBD mom of three going through postpartum right now, one of my biggest stresses and focuses revolves around breastfeeding.

-What if I take this pain medicine for my Crohn’s? Will I need to supplement? 

-What if I have a postpartum flare, will my milk supply go away?

-What will happen if I’m hospitalized?

-Will I flare once I stop breastfeeding and my hormones regulate?

-If I stop too soon, will my child end up having an increased risk of IBD?

…the list goes on…

The journey to motherhood for women with IBD requires several complex decisions and coordination among specialty care teams from the stage of family planning until postpartum and beyond. The IBD Parenthood Project aims to address common misperceptions and fears women with IBD and their providers experience throughout all phases of family planning (conception, pregnancy and after delivery). By eliminating the gray area and serving as the gold-standard for navigating pregnancy and motherhood with IBD, our patient community can rely on this support that helps uncomplicate the journey.

This beneficial and much-needed initiative was created by gastroenterologists (GIs), maternal-fetal medicine (MFM) subspecialists, and patients and is led by the American Gastroenterological Association (AGA) with support from the Society for Maternal-Fetal Medicine, the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation, and patient support network, Girls With Guts. The IBD Parenthood Project launched in January 2019, just as I delivered my second child. To this day, I feel so grateful to have this information and confidence in my choice to become a mom even though I’ve lived with Crohn’s disease for more than 16 years. It’s empowering to know despite the unpredictability of IBD, this initiative allowed me to feel like I’m in the driver’s seat when it came to creating my family and knowing the choices I’ve made were and are supported by science and medical facts.

To the random lady in the church elevator who asked me if I was breastfeeding my son Reid when he was a month old, and I was a first-time mom.

To the lactation consultant after I delivered my daughter Sophia, who told me since I have Crohn’s, it’s imperative her gut only be lined with breastmilk.

To the nurse coaching me nonchalantly about breastfeeding my son Connor and underestimating the challenges it can present…who I later found out “only” breastfed one of her children for 2 weeks…

To anyone who is struggling with the physical, emotional, and mental stress of something that sounds “easy” and “natural” — simply feeding your baby — I get how complex and taxing it is. I’m in the thick of it now with my son who was born July 14. So far, he’s only had breastmilk…both from nursing and by a bottle. But it’s not pretty for me. The engorgement, the round the clock pumping, the soaked t-shirts, the night sweats, the discomfort to even wear a bra or sleep on my side. It weighs on me. There’s the outside pressure and the pressure I put on myself to keep going, even though I don’t enjoy it. It’s super rewarding to see Connor thriving and making gains all because of me. But there’s also a lot of stress to be a child’s only source of food, especially as an IBD mom.

Different feeding approaches with all my babies

With my firstborn in 2017, I wasn’t well-versed on the benefits of breastfeeding and feared not only further exposure to my biologic, but also flaring, so I only breastfed my son for 3 days in the hospital so he could get colostrum. By 2019, I was well-versed on the positive impact and the safety profile associated with breastfeeding while on a biologic, so I breastfed my daughter until she was 6 months old. I had hopes of making it a full year, but unfortunately my milk supply disappeared once my menstrual cycle started back up. This time around, I felt the anxiety about having to breastfeed creep up when I was only a few months pregnant. Between research showing that breastfed babies have a lower risk of IBD, coupled with antibodies from the COVID-19 vaccine, I feel the need to do all I can to protect my son from the what if, even if it feels mentally, physically, and emotionally taxing each day.

The Fourth Trimester has several challenges for women that often go undiscussed. However you choose to feed your child is your business and should be based on what is best for you and your family. This is a judgement free zone. I’ve fed my three babies differently. But the pressure mounts when you yourself have an illness with no cure and feel as though breastfeeding can help improve your odds of not passing it on to your offspring. In my mind, down the road, I don’t want to ever think I coulda, shoulda, woulda done anything differently when it comes to protecting my offspring from IBD.

The IBD Parenthood Project tackles some of the common questions related to breastfeeding as an IBD mom. There’s a downloadable toolkit that features patient-friendly information and easy-to-digest lists of key questions to ask your doctor as you’re thinking of becoming pregnant and beyond.

What I Want Fellow IBD Moms to Know

Navigating motherhood while taking on IBD is overwhelming. With proper planning, care and coordination among treating healthcare providers, women with IBD can have healthy pregnancies and healthy babies—and breastfeed if they choose to do so. For me, breastfeeding provides a sense of normalcy and gives me a renewed sense of love for what my body is capable of, despite having Crohn’s disease. Give yourself credit for going through pregnancy with IBD, delivering a baby, and continuing to nourish your little one with your body when they are in the real world. The blood, sweat, and tears are inevitable.

Just this week I experienced awful abdominal pain. The kind of pain where you can barely breathe, your hands start to tingle, and you go back and forth about whether a trip to the emergency room is imminent. As I rocked myself on the toilet and heard my newborn crying in the bassinet my mind raced. My 4-year-old stood before me. I could see the fear in his eyes. My immediate thought was—what can I take to get this pain under control—will it affect my ability to breastfeed? In that moment, the pressure to think outside of myself and manage my disease felt suffocating.

There comes a point when the mental health and wellbeing of the mother must come first so she is able to be the best version of herself for her kids. If breastfeeding is taking away from the joy you could be experiencing or the connection you are longing for with your child, don’t feel guilty. Whether your child is exclusively breastfed, or formula fed, or receives a little of both, they will thrive. I’m personally all about flexible feeding. A little nursing, some pumping, and some formula has worked best for me. When the time comes, and I need a break or feel too consumed by being the sole provider of nourishment for Connor, I’ll feel confident in supplementing with formula. There’s no shame in my game and there shouldn’t be in yours, either. Take advantage of invaluable resources like the IBD Parenthood Project and be confident in each of your personal health decisions when it comes to whether or not you want a family and how you choose to feed your baby.

IBD Motherhood Unplugged: Completing My Family Through Surrogacy

When IBD mom Jessie Magaro was pregnant with her first child, she knew early on she wouldn’t be able to carry another baby herself. Between the hormones from IVF and her Crohn’s disease raging, there was no way her or her doctors felt comfortable embarking on another pregnancy.

Before she got pregnant, Jessie had been in remission for more than 12 years. With pregnancy and IBD, there’s the ‘rule of thirds.’ One third of women will see their symptoms improve, one third will stay the same, and one third get worse. Unfortunately, Jessie fell into the last category. Since having her daughter, Mary Ligon on New Year’s Eve 2018, Jessie’s gotten an ileostomy and has grappled with her Crohn’s being out of control. When her and her husband started thinking about baby number two, she knew surrogacy was her safest and smartest option.

“My daughter Millie (born in April 2021) needed me more to be there as her momma once she got here than she needed me to carry her. Not only was my baby safer, but I was in a much better position health-wise to care for both my daughters.”

The Surrogacy Process

Surprisingly, the FDA controls surrogacy and has specific requirements for the IVF part of the process. Jessie recommends making sure your fertility clinic is well-versed on how everything goes down. Surrogates and biological parents go through medical testing and psychological evaluations prior to the transfer of the embryo.

“This was probably the hardest part for me mentally and emotionally. I was so frustrated and hurt that I had to pay someone a pretty penny to tell the government that I was mentally ok to have my own baby. It was just pouring salt into an already large and festering wound. Can you imagine having to have a stranger tell you if it was ok or not for you to bring your own child into this world?”

It’s important to note that surrogacy laws vary state to state, but in Georgia (where Jessie lives), you must adopt your baby back from the surrogate, even if the child is 100% genetically yours.

“You hire an attorney (one for yourself and one for your surrogate) and they actually file a lawsuit claiming your parental rights to the unborn baby on your behalf. I had to go before a judge and field questions on why I was pursuing surrogacy and whether or not I felt my husband and I were able to take care of the child once it was born. Again, insult to injury.”

There are several ways to go about surrogacy:

  • You can hire an agency to find you a surrogate and manage the process
  • You can use a friend or family member (they will still have to be medically and psychologically cleared by the clinic)
  • You can try to find one via word of mouth in your community.
  • There are tons of Facebook groups where you can “match” with one (local, regional, national, interest groups i.e., christian, altruistic, low comp, natural minded, etc). 

“Normally, you would be able to attend all OB appointments with your surrogate, but Covid made things a little trickier for us. We were unable to attend the transfer, which was sad, but I was able to go to a fair amount of the appointments. My husband unfortunately wasn’t allowed to attend any. We both were allowed to be in the room for the birth though and that was the most important thing to us.”

The experience of having a surrogate

Jessie says had she not been able to carry her first child that she feels surrogacy would have been harder on her. She feels so fortunate that she was able to experience pregnancy once.

“I had already gotten to a place mentally and emotionally where I knew the only way to get my daughter here safely was by having someone else carry her. I wasn’t ever triggered per se by seeing a pregnant belly because I knew she was safer inside our surrogate. I had so much PTSD and trauma from my first pregnancy as well that looking at another pregnant person never made me think “oh man I wish that was me again” if that makes sense. I did/do still deal with mourning though over how pregnancy played out for me and that I was unable to carry safely again. I also find myself spiraling occasionally thinking about how much it cost us to get our children here versus someone who could just have them themselves naturally. It’s been a massive financial burden/sacrifice for my husband and I (but oh so very worth it).”

The Financial Cost of Surrogacy

When looking into surrogacy, Jessie tells me you can ballpark around everything costing $100,000. There are many factors involved that play into whether that number is more or less depending on if you’ve already gone through IVF and have embryos. Much like IVF, there are some grants available for surrogacy, though much less common.

“The ways to bring the cost down for surrogacy would be to do an “independent journey” like we did where you don’t use an agency. You can also use a surrogate (whether it’s a friend, family member or even a stranger) who does not want to be compensated or wants very little. Medical bills will bring the cost up or down significantly depending on insurance plans and same with your legal fees as those will vary based on the surrogacy laws in your state.”

Defending her Decision

While Jessie says it was empowering to make the decision to utilize a surrogate to do what was best for her health and for her family, it’s been frustrating to constantly feel like she still needs to defend her decision to other people and even some doctors.

Whether it was …

“Aren’t you worried about having another child when you’re so sick?”

“Why don’t you guys just adopt??”

“Aren’t you worried the surrogate will want to keep the baby?”

“Aren’t you worried she won’t know you/you won’t be bonded to her??”

“Just one kid is great you should just be ok with having just the one”

etc …

“I know most of the time these comments don’t come from a place of mal-intent, and I try to use them as an opportunity to educate if it feels productive, but everyone is different what they’re open to accepting in their heart and their mind. In my mind, the girls are going to know the stories of how they came to be eventually, and hopefully they’ll see how wanted and loved they were. How unbelievably hard they were fought for. And how many people played a part in bringing them into this world.”

Managing IBD and Motherhood

Prior to looking into surrogacy, Jessie and her husband had to discuss at length if they would be able to handle a second child with her IBD. They also had to loop in their families knowing they would need their help when they couldn’t manage everything on our own.

“My husband and I say all the time, in all seriousness, that my illness has become a third child in a sense. There’s not a day, hardly an hour, that I don’t have to think about my Crohn’s or manage something with it in some way. It’s a difficult balancing act every day when I wake up trying to prioritize who needs the most at what moment (my kids, myself, or even my husband). I deal with a lot of guilt and grief with that. That I’m not the mom or wife I want to be … that I’m not able to give everyone what they need and deserve.”

Jessie often thinks of the oxygen mask analogy and says as an IBD mom it’s imperative to make sure her proverbial mask is on and secured first before she can help anyone else, which is very hard to do as a mother. 

Meeting Millie the Day She Was Born

It makes Jessie emotional to think about what it was like to walk into the hospital with her husband and know they were about to meet their daughter. They were able to be in the delivery room when Millie came into the world.

“I had an overwhelming sense of gratitude looking at our surrogate knowing what SHE went through and had sacrificed to get her here. All the anxiety I had been suppressing for months and months from having someone else carry her, to giving up all control, to doing it in the middle of the pandemic, to being so scared something would go wrong like it so often had for us in the past. It just all came pouring out of me uncontrollably as she was pushing. The moment she was placed in my arms it just felt like a lightning bolt connecting us. I felt bonded to her instantaneously. She was mine and I was hers and there was nothing on this earth I wouldn’t do to protect her.”

Jessie knew from the start of this journey that her surrogate would be a lifelong friend. Their families grew close through the process, and they live nearby one another. She says she’ll always hold a deep place in her heart for her and is incredibly grateful to be a family of four.

Discovering the Root Cause: How a Patient Turned Physician Helps the IBD Community

This post is sponsored by Naturally Free from IBD—all thoughts and opinions are my own.

She’s a doctor with IBD who says her call to medicine began from her own hospital bed. Dr. Christina Campbell, DO, Certified Functional Medicine Physician, Board Certified Emergency Medicine was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease 40 years ago when she was only 12 years old. She’s utilized her own personal struggles and setbacks to guide the way she treats patients and helps others in our community. Through her own journey, she says many doctors left her feeling frightened, unmotivated, even angry. Christina learned early on about the importance of bed-side manner, compassionate care, and the gift of not only listening, but hearing what a patient is expressing. Her overarching goal—to be a physician who inspires faith, confidence, and a will to fight within her patients.

She’s dedicated her life’s work to facilitating and growing the value of a patient-physician partnership rather than what she calls a “DOCtatorship.” Christina believes that a personalized approach to health works better than recipe medicine, meaning she’s passionate about finding the root cause of disease and improving underlying health and the body’s biochemistry by intervening at the level of the root cause, through a functional medicine approach. Before we dig into the amazing work she’s doing, let’s take a walk down memory lane to see how Christina got to the point where she is today.

Christina’s Journey with Crohn’s

A diagnosis of IBD in 1983 looked a lot different than present day—and not for the better. When she was 14 years old, Christina faced a near death experience from extensive bleeding and lesions from her mouth to her anus. Her gastroenterologist said she had one of the worst cases of IBD he had ever seen and shared her case at global medical conferences and in case studies. Christina was averse to undergoing a complete colectomy and colostomy, so she underwent six months of bowel rest (nothing by mouth). She received all hydration and nutrition through an IV in her veins around her heart called a Hickman catheter. At the time, the only medications available for Crohn’s were Sulfasalazine and Prednisone. Can you imagine?! 

Since her diagnosis, Christina has been on many different medications through the years (Asacol, Delzicol, Sulfasalazine, any number of antibiotics, steroids, Toradol, Tylenol, Tylenol #3, Vicodin, Percocet, Compazine, Phenergan, Tigan, Tagamet, Pepcid, Bentyl.) When the first biologic was approved for treatment of Crohn’s (Remicade in 1998), she was in remission and graduating from medical school.

“My personal story is fraught with difficulties and each of my struggles has blessed me with a deep understanding of others and the ability to empathize and connect with patients. I have learned how to listen and really hear what they are saying. I have learned the power of creating a therapeutic partnership. My goal for each of my health participants is to match their lifespan to their health span. Quality of life alongside quantity of life is key. My personal journey has taught me that it only takes one step in a new direction to change the entire path of one’s life. It has also shown me the power of understanding your personal timeline. Looking back at our past journey helps us to understand the path that has led us to where we are,” Christina explains.

The Power of Responding to the Root Cause

Before Christina knew how to treat root cause issues and was solely utilizing conventional medicine, she says her immune system remained dysregulated. She was treating her symptoms with medications that acted like band-aides without addressing the cause.

“My functional medicine training has taught me the value of information and the concept that many with the same diagnosis may have completely different root causes. Utilizing detailed functional labs to discover altered biochemistry is an incredible tool to getting things back on track. These labs are not used in conventional medicine where the focus is on illness, not on wellness. It is a completely different perspective, which makes all the difference in helping someone find not just improved health, but optimal wellness.”

When it comes to discovering optimal wellness, Christina says this includes investigating genetics, epigenetics, metabolomics, oxidative stress, cellular energy and mitochondrial health, detoxification pathways, gut health and microbiome imbalances, inflammatory factors, and so much more.

“Once we uncover this information, we can begin to make changes personalized to your life, your body, your biochemistry, your genetics, your mind, and your spirit. Patience and grace with oneself are paramount to health as are understanding and forgiveness.”

The Transcend 3-step signature program

Christina works with IBD patients through her 3-step signature process to discover the root cause of symptoms, intervene at that level, revitalize health, and teach people how to maintain and excel for the rest of their lives. She uses natural and lifestyle interventions to create a personalized program which improves the health participant’s innate healing abilities to reverse symptoms, decrease pain, and improve all aspects of their lives.

“My Transcend program is my signature 3-step process which guides you through your precision blueprint for regenerating a healthy, joyful, vital you! This program is the culmination of 23 + years of medical expertise and 40 years’ experience as a Crohn’s disease patient. It is my passion project to help as many IBD patients as I can! I am on a mission to change the medical approach to Crohn’s and UC leading to fewer surgeries, stopping the path to health decline and disability by finding and fixing the root cause. We will Transcend IBD together living healthy vibrant lives.”

The process begins with uncovering your health history and detailing your timeline. Next, Christina works with patients to order specialized cutting-edge functional lab studies to help pinpoint where the most critical areas of intervention are needed. The third step is the Excel phase where you learn how to maintain these changes and continue to progress over time.

Connect with Christina

Facebook: Naturally Free From IBD

Instagram: @dr.christinacampbell

Educational Videos on Christina’s YouTube Channel

Website expected to go live October 2021: www.NaturallyFreeFromIBD.com

Upcoming Webinar September 1

Christina is hosting an online Zoom webinar September 1 at 7pm EST. By attending this webinar, you will learn three secrets for managing IBD and have an opportunity to ask questions. Tickets are $9.95 and limited in number. Get your ticket today!

Ready to Make a Change?

Set up an initial consultation here for men and here for women. Use coupon code Natalie20 for 20% off any time in 2021. HSA/FSA are applicable. This consultation is the first step to discovery. During this consultation you will discuss your body’s problematic areas as well as the areas where you are succeeding based on extensive intake paperwork and a 60-minute consultation. Potential interventions will be discussed, labs will be ordered, and a personalized care plan will be created.

Christina says, “I provide options for anyone who meets with me. However, I do not invite everyone into my signature 3-step Transcend program. It is important that we both feel we are a fit to work together to make this program successful. You must be ready to make the necessary changes and be open to new information. You must focus on progress and commit to never letting your self-doubt stop you from having what you want. There is hope! You can change your health and life for the better.”

IBD Motherhood Unplugged: Breastfeeding and the COVID-19 vaccine

After a lot of thought and consideration, I decided to hold off on getting my COVID-19 vaccines until after I delivered my son. Before we dig deeper into this topic, I want to clarify that this was solely my choice, everyone needs to do what they are most comfortable with. Since the pandemic began, unprecedented pressure and stress has been placed on pregnant and lactating women to make one decision or another. For me, as a stay-at-home mom, who continued to keep a low profile while pregnant, I felt more at ease waiting to get my vaccines until after my son was out of my body. My care team made up of a maternal fetal medicine doctor, OB, and gastroenterologist all supported my choice to wait.

My main reasoning was limiting the variables of exposure. All my kids were exposed to Humira while in utero. While there are long term studies that show the safety and efficacy of biologics in pregnancy, you never know. If down the road my son had any health complications or issues, I didn’t want to have to grapple with whether my biologic or a vaccine contributed or were to blame. As an IBD mom, we deal with enough guilt as it is.

So, I chose to wait. Anxiously. Patiently. Luckily, I delivered my third child, Connor Christopher, July 14th, and did not encounter any COVID-19 scares while pregnant. Once I was home from the hospital following my C-section, I talked with my gastroenterologist and OB about getting my first COVID vaccine and scheduled an appointment at Walgreens ASAP.

Getting the first jab

Wednesday, July 21, I finally got my first dose! A little late to the party, but I’m currently exclusively breastfeeding (and pumping), and I’m hopeful that once I’m fully vaccinated (two weeks after my second dose in August), my son will receive antibodies from the vaccine that way. It felt a bit surreal to finally be at a point where I felt comfortable with my personal choice to get the vaccine.

According to the CDC, since January 2020, there have been 34 million cases and 607,000 deaths. As of July 21st, 161.9 million people are fully vaccinated—that’s 48.8% of the total population, or 57.1% of the population older than age 12. Virus variants threaten new outbreaks among the unvaccinated.

Much like making decisions to manage IBD, it’s imperative our community looks at the benefits vs. the risks of getting the vaccine.

Words from leading medical experts in the IBD community

This past week Dr. David Rubin, MD, Professor of Medicine, University of Chicago presented, “Updates on COVID-19 for Patients with Inflammatory Bowel Disease”.

“Everyone needs to be vaccinated, this includes pregnant women and new moms. The Delta Variant is VERY contagious. The data in IBD is reassuring when it comes to immune responsiveness compared to the general population, especially with the two dose mRNA vaccines. Antibodies against many things are transmitted in colostrum, and that may be the anti-SARS-CoV-2 spike antibodies too, which may provide protection to the baby. It’s definitely NOT dangerous to breastfeed after vaccination.”

Speaking of the Delta Variant, according to Dr. Rubin’s presentation as well as guidance from the CDC, “Delta was 1% of COVID-19 cases during the week of April 10th. By the week of July 3rd, Delta is estimated to account for 57% of new COVID-19 cases. Within a matter of 12 weeks of being introduced to the US population, it became the dominant variant here.

Dr. Uma Mahadevan, MD, University of California San Francisco agrees, saying given the ongoing crisis with COVID-19, all eligible people should get vaccinated.

“Breastfeeding mothers can get vaccinated per CDC guidelines and there is data that the antibody from the vaccine crosses to the infant via breastmilk, possibly providing them with protection as well! For many infants of moms with IBD, they have detectable levels of biologic agents in their blood for the first 6 months of life. Having antibody against SARS-Co-V-2 may provide them some protection against getting ill if exposed to the virus.”

Dr. Meenakshi Bewtra, MD, MPH, PhD, Penn Medicine, has IBD herself and has been a vocal advocate for our patient community since the start of the pandemic. She implores everyone to get the vaccine, immediately.

“Don’t wait. In fact, I, every doctor I know, American College of Gastroenterology, and Maternal Fetal Medicine recommend getting the COVID-19 vaccine while you are pregnant. Why? Because we’ve seen what happens to pregnant women who get COVID. There are women who got the vaccine in trials; there were women who got vaccinated while pregnant (>10,000 at this point)—we have a lot of data. The evidence is crystal clear. The same holds for getting it while breastfeeding. COVID is real, it’s out there; you can get sick and die; you can transit it to your infant or others in your house. There is absolutely no reason why anyone should not be getting vaccinated unless you know you have an allergy to something in the vaccines themselves. Your protective antibodies can pass to the infant.”

COVID-19 in the IBD Community and Vaccine Response

Thanks to the SECURE-IBD database, we have more guidance about how those of us with Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis have responded and continue to respond to not only COVID, but the vaccine. People with IBD do not have an increased risk of getting it. Aminosalicylates, biologics, and immunomodulators show no increased risk of severe COVID- 19. Steroids are associated with worse outcomes. And biologic therapy is associated with decreased risk of severe COVID-19 outcomes.

One of the main concerns many of us in the chronic illness community on immunosuppressive drugs have wondered about is the efficacy of the vaccines in our body. Good news—a recent study of 246 patients with IBD who received both doses of the vaccine showed similar adverse events as in the general population. Sore arm, headache, and fatigue are the most common adverse effects of the vaccine. All I had after my first Pfizer vaccine was a sore arm. More importantly, the study showed no increase in IBD flares.

The Prevent-COVID study shows even more promising data with more than 1,700 participants with IBD. Click here to see results of the study—everything from rates of vaccine side effects to lab titers three months out.

As of now, there’s no recommendation or approval regarding a booster vaccine. Pfizer announced that their clinical trial data showed that a third shot may increase antibody levels, but nothing has been published yet. Without more research, it’s unclear if an increase in antibody levels will provide greater protection from the virus than two doses.

Get Involved in COVID-19 Vaccine studies

University of Chicago Inflammatory Bowel Disease Center COVID-19 Vaccine in IBD Study

  • This study is analyzing the durability, safety, and efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines in patients with IBD, If you are interested in participating in the study (whether you have already been vaccinated or not) please email: covidvaccine.ibd@lists.uchicago.edu.

Prevent COVID Research Study

  • If you are 12 to 17 and have received your first COVID-19 vaccine in the last 90 days, you may be able to take part in PREVENT COVID, a research study to learn about the vaccine experiences of people with IBD. Click here to learn more.

CORALE-Vaccine IBD

  • The purpose of this research being conducted at Cedars-Sinai is to understand the effects of vaccination against COVID-19 in people with IBD. To achieve this goal, a national and local group of adults with IBD who are eligible to receive any available vaccine against COVID-19 are being recruited. Within this group we will evaluate the antibody levels of the body’s response to the vaccine. Questions about the study? Contact the CORALE-V IBD Research Team at Cedars-Sinai at ibdresearch@cshs.org or call 310-423-5643.

Washington University in St. Louis: COVID-19 Vaccine Response in Patients with Autoimmune Disease

  • School of Medicine researchers are leading a clinical trial to evaluate the safety and effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines in people taking immunosuppressive drugs. Such drugs are prescribed to treat autoimmune diseases, including arthritis, Crohn’s disease, and psoriasis. Researchers will enroll up to 500 adults ages 18 and older in the St. Louis region. They are recruiting health-care workers at the School of Medicine and patients seen in Washington University outpatient clinics. Eligible patients who have preregistered for the COVID-19 vaccine will be contacted to assess their interest in being recruited into the study. For information about participating in the trial, email covaripad@wustl.edu, or contact either Alia El-Qunni at 314-249-1151 or Lily McMorrow at 314-280-3894.

V-Safe

  • Use your smartphone to tell the CDC about any side effects after getting the COVID-19 vaccine. The tool uses text messaging and web surveys to provide personalized health check-ins after you receive a COVID-19 vaccine. Depending on your responses, someone from the CDC may call to check on you. Participation is voluntary and you can opt out at any time. Sign up at: www.vsafe.cdc.gov.

Additional information for your consideration:

Coronavirus disease 2019 vaccine response in pregnant and lactating women: A cohort study

CDC: COVID-19 Vaccine While Pregnant or Breastfeeding

Parents Magazine: The COVID Vaccine and Breastfeeding: What Nursing Moms Need to Know

University of California San Francisco: No Sign of COVID-19 Vaccine in Breastmilk

Study Finds COVID-19 Vaccines Safe for IBD Patients