From IBD patient to IBD mom: What I’ve learned

I wish when I was diagnosed with Crohn’s in July 2005 that I would have had a look into the future to know that the same body that has gone to war with me time and time again would also bring three miracles into the world. 

Wednesday, July 14, 2021 my family grew to five and I became an IBD mom to three kids, four and under. Our latest addition, Connor Christopher, completes our crew.

On the day of my scheduled C-section and Connor’s birth, I felt overwhelmed with emotions. So many thoughts and feelings came to mind—from knowing I would never be pregnant again to recognizing that from this point forward I would never feel the deep remission I experience when I carry a life inside of me.

There are so many sharp contrasts in what pregnancy and deliveries have meant in comparison to life with Crohn’s. 

The unpredictable nature of Crohn’s but having three scheduled C-sections all go to plan. 

The way it feels to head to the hospital for a good reason.

The fact that my Crohn’s comes up as an aside when conversing with medical professionals and my pregnancies and being a mom comes first as my “identity.”

The perspective and strength IBD has given me when it comes to coping with painful pregnancy-related issues like SI Joint Dysfunction, Symphysis pubis dysfunction, acid reflux that required prescription medication, and C-section recoveries.

The incredible pride and joy I feel knowing that the girl who found out she had a debilitating lifelong disease 16 July’s ago, has carried three pregnancies to term and has a family of five to show for it.

If you’re like me and have dreamed of one day being a mom, explore all options to get there and don’t let your IBD hold you back. You are not less than because of your chronic illness, you are more capable than you think. Your body may surprise you in ways you could never imagine. To me–my children are proof of all that’s possible despite chronic illness.

When I was 21 and found out I had Crohn’s disease, one of my greatest fears was the uncertainty of what my future would look like personally and professionally. While the unknown was daunting and overwhelming, I never really allowed myself to think of not becoming a mom because of my disease. Instead, I shifted my focus to recognizing that getting there may take some detours and careful planning.

Thank you for all the well wishes for my family over the years. Your kind words, interest, and prayers, have meant the world to us and helped me to realize that even though I’m an “IBD” mom… I’m so much more.

IBD Motherhood Unplugged: The new addition to my hospital bag for delivery

Let’s face it, when you live with IBD, packing for a hospital stay isn’t anything new. We know what we need and what we won’t. We know the necessities and even with a C-section recovery, it’s nice to have a positive and happy reason to be going to the hospital. But this time around, my hospital bag for delivering my son this week has an addition. Since I’m participating in the Pregnancy in Inflammatory Bowel Disease and Neonatal Outcomes (PIANO) study, my son and I will be getting our blood drawn the day he’s born and cord blood will also be taken. 

The blood sample kit includes an ice pack and vials that are labeled “Mom”, “Cord”, and “Baby”. This will measure the level of biologic drug in our bodies…and the coolest part is, I’ll get to know the results, while also contributing to research for current and future IBD moms on biologics. I can’t wait to find out how much Humira is found in our blood samples. The most ironic part of all? My scheduled C-section just happened to land on the same day as my loading dose anniversary of Humira… 13 years ago! Little did I know when I was injecting myself for the first time how my life would evolve to what it is today.

Background on the PIANO study

PIANO is an observational, multicenter study launched in January 2007 with the main focus to look at whether there is an increased risk for worsened maternal and fetal outcomes when a woman takes a biologic or thiopurine (a type of immunomodulator) therapy during pregnancy. Prior to this, lack of safety data has led many women to discontinue their therapy during pregnancy, which can lead to health repercussions to both mother and child.

On delivery day, it will be a team effort. My OBGYN and the nurses will ensure everything is taken care of and then one of my family members will make a stop at FedEx (within 3 days) to ensure our blood samples make their way safely from Missouri to California.

What else is packed in my bag?

This c-section will be my fourth abdominal surgery in less than 6 years, all on the same incision. Knowing what to pack so I can heal and be comfortable is almost second nature at this point.

  • Comfy nightgowns with buttons so I can easily breastfeed and keep my incision waistband-free
  • Two robes
  • Nursing bras
  • Cozy socks
  • Frida Mom Boy Short Disposable Postpartum underwear (not a fan of those mesh panties from the hospital!), I’ve also heard Depends are great!
  • Slip on shoes/flip flops (for the shower and walking the halls)
  • 5 masks (planning to be admitted 4 nights, 5 days) and hand sanitizer
  • Nipple cream (I prefer the Motherlove brand)
  • High-waisted joggers and a nursing top
  • Summer dress for the drive home
  • Phone charger
  • Non-perishable snacks
  • Toiletries
  • Outfits and swaddles for baby boy
  • Newborn pacifiers

The results from the blood draws are expected about a month after delivery. I’ll be sure to share an update on my Instagram page (@natalieannhayden). Interested in enrolling in the PIANO study? Please call 415-885-3734 or email PIANO@ucsf.edu.

IBD Motherhood Unplugged: Why My Son Will Flip the Script on July

July has been my least favorite month for the last 16 years of my life. It’s the month I was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease. The month I had an abscess the size of a tennis ball in my small intestine. The month I was put on a biologic medication. The month I had a bowel obstruction that led to bowel resection surgery. You get the picture. But now, it’s about to be the month I give birth to my third child. Baby boy is about to flip the script on a month that previously brought dread. Instead, I can focus on celebrating his new life and all his birthdays and milestones for years to come.

Photo credit: Heather Roth Photography

As a woman with IBD, motherhood has continually provided me with reminders of all my body is capable of despite my chronic illness. It’s shown me what once may have seemed unattainable, is possible. Motherhood is a constant reminder that my body hasn’t always been at odds with me. That despite the challenges and the pain all these years, it still afforded me the opportunity to carry healthy babies to term. Rather than feeling like my body is the enemy, motherhood has made me think of my body as my ally. We’ll have our ups and downs forever, but for 27-plus months it’s been a safe haven for my children. I’ve enjoyed flawless pregnancies and deep remission. It’s given me a chance to feel like a “typical healthy” woman, if only for a moment. Pregnancy has felt like a security blanket wrapped around me, and is soon to be no more. With that, comes an immense amount of gratitude, as well as anxiety, as from this point forward it’s just me and my Crohn’s…no buffer.

It feels weird going into this month of July not worrying about what could be, but rather being excited about what’s to come. When I was younger and prior to getting married, I avoided making plans in the month of July—especially life changing ones! My wedding, vacations, etc. were all coordinated around this month because I didn’t trust the way my body could blindside me.

Preparing for the shift in health

While I am ready for my son to be here and over the discomforts of pregnancy, a part of me is sad that I’ll never feel this well again. Within days of delivering Reid and Sophia, the gnawing abdominal pain associated with IBD crept back into my life before I even had a chance to bring my babies home. I expect the same will happen this time. While it was discouraging then and will make me feel the same now, I’m hopeful the shift in hormones won’t throw me into a postpartum flare and that I’ll find comfort in knowing from this point forward, every medication, every procedure, and every hospitalization will be done without a life growing inside of me.

Over these last nine months I’ve enjoyed eating popcorn with my kids for the first time, drinking a cup of coffee without a need to use the bathroom right after, and nearly 40 weeks of baby flutters and kicks instead of pain. It’s been a great run. I hope my experiences through family planning, conception, pregnancy, and motherhood provide you with an understanding that IBD doesn’t mean you can’t have a family. While many sadly struggle with infertility, complications, or not physically being well enough to carry a baby, it’s very possible that you can. Whether it’s stories like mine or the opposite, remember each of our journeys is unique. Don’t base your experience and capabilities on someone else, but when something or someone inspires or empowers you to go after what you dream of, hold on to that.

Baby boy will not only complete our family but serve as a constant reminder of all that is possible. While my Crohn’s has brought a great deal of heartache it’s also allowed me to gain a unique perspective and to never take life’s miracles and triumphs for granted.

IBD Motherhood Unplugged: The peaks and valleys of raising three littles in a pandemic

For IBD mom, Suzy Burnett, reflecting on the past year and half of living through the COVID-19 pandemic causes her to feel flooded with emotions. She knew having three children under the age of five at age 41, while dealing with the ebbs and flows of Crohn’s disease, would be challenging. She delivered her son, Guy, just as COVID cases were starting to soar. Now, she’s able to look back on how her family adapted and thrived, despite the difficult circumstances of living through a global pandemic with a chronic illness. I’ll let her take it away…

Like many families, we’ve worn masks, stayed at home, literally have seen no one except our wonderful neighbors, and made sacrifices to ensure the safety of ourselves and others.  We made the difficult decision not to send our 5-year-old to kindergarten, rather, enroll her in virtual 4k from the confines of our home. Our 3-year-old also didn’t attend preschool a few mornings a week like we had originally planned. We have noticed the lack of socialization has impacted her the most. Our 15-month-old is just now meeting family and friends for the first time.  He takes stranger danger to a whole new level, but we know he’ll warm up in due time. 

My husband, like so many others, started working from home. What was once thought to be a temporary safety precaution, has become a permanent situation. He continues to work in a room without doors while the wee ones race around playing superheroes. Noise canceling headphones have become a lifesaver.  All of us together at home, day after day, month after month. Our bond has grown deeper, and our Burnett Party of 5 has survived. I can honestly say we live fuller, laugh harder, hold each other longer, and love deeper.   

Dealing with the lifting of the mask mandate

Just as we were beginning to get used to our personal version of Groundhog’s Day, the mask mandate was lifted.  This is a huge milestone, but with that brings excitement along with anxiety. My husband and I are both vaccinated, but our 3 young children will have to continue to wait their turn. To say we’re trepidatious about starting to acclimate back into society is an understatement. We’ve been in our little bubble on Welcome Drive for more than a year.  I don’t think things will ever get back to “normal,” per say, but we’re looking forward to what our “new normal” will be. It’s a new beginning, a fresh start to be more present, and we have the opportunity to give precedence to things that matter most in life. Things will be a little different than before, and we will always remember and carry the weight that was and will forever be COVID. 

We will continue to have our groceries delivered as well as basic necessities, because it’s unclear who is vaccinated, and I’m not going to rely on the honor system of strangers to keep my kiddos safe. However, I am beyond the moon ecstatic that our girlies will both be doing outdoor soccer and playdates with other vaccinated families. My husband will continue to work from home, but this is a change we welcome and greatly appreciate. It has given us time as a family we never knew we were missing. Our oldest daughter, Lucy, will finally be attending kindergarten…….wait for it….IN PERSON. I am so proud of her. She’s sacrificed so much these past several months. She’s handled herself with grace and class far beyond her years.  We’re planning our first family trip in over two years, and I am completely overwhelmed at the mere thought of the happiness this will bring.

Coming out stronger than before

It has been months of peaks and valleys, but our mountain remains strong.  On top of enduring the pandemic, we lost our family cat, Miles. He was a furry friend to our littles when they couldn’t see their own friends. My dear Grandma Connors was called amongst the angels, and now she protects us from above. I also recently almost lost my sister due to a post birth hemorrhage, but now she rests safely at home with her baby boy. And I am recovering from a nasty bout of C.difficile. Yes, the one time I left the house I picked up a bacteria from the hospital.  Through it all though, we’re stronger than ever before because of our strong family foundation. 

My point in saying all of this is that we all go through our own struggles. Life is so unexpected, and often we can’t choose what we’re dealt. We can, however, choose how we handle the storm. We’re so grateful for our health, happiness, and each day we’re given. Take NOTHING for granted because every day is a gift.  Everyone has been impacted one way or another these past few years, and now it’s up to you to see where your ship will go as you navigate life with IBD and in general.  As the tides of the ocean swiftly change, so will the moments in life. Savor the moments.

Connect with Suzy on Instagram: @crohniemommy

Check out her blog: Crohnie Mommy

The Patient Experience: What the IBD Community Says About Remicade

It was the first biologic created to treat Crohn’s disease (and later ulcerative colitis). Remicade (Infliximab) was approved by the FDA in 1998 for Crohn’s and 2005 for UC. The medication set the stage for a new way of treating and targeting IBD. A lot has changed in the last 23 years when it comes to treating IBD with biologics (Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation Biologic Fact Sheet). As patients we’re “lucky” that more options are available, and several medications are on the horizon. But Remicade remains a tried-and-true treatment option for IBD patients.

A few weeks back, I shared an article on my blog entitled, “The Patient Experience: What The IBD Community Says About Entyvio.” The article featured viewpoints, experiences, and tips/tricks from several people with IBD who are currently taking Entyvio or have in the past. That article and this one have NO affiliation or guidance from pharma. This is strictly created from the IBD patient experience.

The discussion on Entyvio was well-received and from there, I decided to do an exposé if you will, about other biologics, too. When I was told I needed to start a biologic while lying in a hospital bed in 2008, my mind was racing. I felt like I had nowhere to turn. There were only two options at the time. I didn’t know what resource to trust or where to go for information. My hope is that these articles help comfort you as you make these important, lifechanging health decisions, and alleviate a bit of the fear associated with being on a biologic drug long-term. Use these candid quotes to serve as your roadmap to navigate the unknown.

Before we dig deep into Remicade from the patient and caregiver perspective—a reminder that much like the way IBD presents and manifests in each of us, each person’s experience with biologics is unique to them. Remember that your experience could be better and could be worse.

What does anti-TNF mean?

Each biologic is associated as a class of drug. Remicade is an anti-TNF, meaning that the medication blocks a protein in your immune system called TNF-alpha. That protein can cause inflammation in your body. People with IBD produce too much TNF-alpha, which can cause our immune systems to mistakenly attack cells in the GI tract. Anti-TNF biologics work to regulate this protein in our bodies.

The Patient Voice

In this article you’ll hear from those who just started Remicade in the last week to someone who has been receiving infusions for 21 years! Thanks to each and every person who offered input, I wasn’t able to feature everyone’s perspective, but your narrative helped guide this piece.

Amanda Rowe started Remicade nine months ago. She was hesitant to start a biologic, but ever since taking the plunge, she hasn’t looked back.

“I haven’t had any issues. I get pre-meds of Benadryl and Solumedrol because I got slightly itchy during one infusion. It’s a nice quiet time to sleep or I bring my phone and earbuds and watch a show. It’s 2 hours where I get a break from hearing, “Mom, I need…” I currently have no active disease after being in a bad flare for two years. I flared that long because I was afraid of starting a biologic. My GI explained everything to me and calmed my fears about possible side effects and I finally agreed. I just wish I would have started Remicade sooner, so I could have felt the way I do now.”

Phylicia Petit has Crohn’s and has been receiving Remicade infusions since she was a teenager 11 years ago, she’s grateful the biologic has worked well for her.

I’ve had a dosage increase and have added mesalamine for better inflammation control. Other than those changes, I’ve been relatively symptom-free, which is a major blessing! I would highly recommend having home health do your infusions. I haven’t had to take off work for my infusions and it’s so nice to be in the comfort of my home…especially with COVID! It’s also cheaper for insurance. I use Janssen Care Path for financial help. It helps to cover your infusion costs. I fortunately have never had any side effects.”

IBD is a family affair for Kara Cady. She has ulcerative colitis; her dad was diagnosed with Crohn’s as a teen and her little sister was recently diagnosed with UC. She just started Remicade last week.

“I’m still on the loading doses. The infusion process is long! It’s about 3 hours for me. I am able to get mine at my GI’s office. I can bring my laptop and work from there. I was super nervous for my initial dose, but my main “issues” are feeling tired, and having a headache and sore throat after. I’m looking forward to getting on my regular Remicade schedule, as I’ve been in flare for about 6 months.”

Laura Steiner is a nurse practitioner with ulcerative colitis who has depended on Remicade for over seven years.

“I have had to increase my dosage and shorten the interval but continue to stay in remission while on it. I’m usually wiped out the day of and the day after. I get my infusions on Fridays, so I have the weekend to recover. The only downside is many major insurance companies are forcing patients to switch to biosimilars, so after 62 doses of Remicade, my next infusion in June will be Inflectra. I’m hoping it will work equally as well.”

Laura is not alone in this fear and dealing with barriers to care and insurance coverage is a reality for many. While working on this article, a social worker from an insurance company reached out to me and said in the last week alone she’s dealt with several cases of people who have had their Remicade denied. She’s helping them through appeals. Until you’re a person who is dependent on a medication for improved quality of life, where timing is of the essence for receiving it, it’s difficult to grasp the magnitude and the pressure of not being able to receive your medication when you need it and risking a flare spiraling out of control or losing your remission.

Meg Bender-Stephanski was on Remicade to treat her Crohn’s for about a year and half. It worked well for her, but she says the infusions were not only inconvenient but costly, so she ended up switching biologics.

I was going to college in Oregon while my main insurance was based in California, and the out of pocket costs the first few infusions in Oregon were around $18,000. It ended up being cheaper for me to fly home every 8 weeks for an infusion than it was to receive it in Oregon! I also really wanted to study abroad, and it was incredibly difficult to figure out the logistics. Remicade did work well for me and sometimes I have regrets for switching off it for personal reasons.”

Advice for Infusion Days

Kelly Dwyer was diagnosed with Crohn’s in 2018, but experienced symptoms for several years prior. She has great advice for gearing up for infusion day and beyond.

  • Take along a caregiver for your first infusion, if you can, just in case you have a reaction.
  • Make sure you make a plan for pre-meds or no pre-meds with your GI before you go to the infusion center, so you don’t get surprised by their policies. Kelly takes Zyrtec the night before, so she doesn’t get drowsy and Tylenol right before the infusion to alleviate the headaches she gets towards the end of an infusion.
  • The first few infusions should be slow infusions, to make sure you don’t have a reaction. Kelly has continued to receive hers at a slow rate (2-2.5 hours) because her blood pressure tends to bottom out when the Remicade is pushed to a higher rate. But for many, a higher rate works and helps the infusion go quicker.
  • Switch arms and spots for your IV. Kelly says she saves her “big veins” for times when the nurses need to do a blood draw before the infusion and have to use a larger gauge needle.
  • Hydrate well the morning of the infusion and bring along a heating pad, as it may help to wrap it around your arm if you’re dehydrated before the IV is started.
  • Openly communicate with your infusion nurses. Let them know if you feel weird or off in any way. Nurses have seen it all and can be very reassuring and helpful, but you need to give them feedback so they can help you and act right away if you’re starting to feel poorly.
  • Your reaction one day may be different the next. Kelly says she doesn’t have consistent reactions each time, so it’s important to be vigilant and always be prepared to expect the unexpected.
  • For Kelly, she doesn’t start to feel the effects of Remicade for a few hours after the infusion. She gradually starts to feel more and more grumpy and tired. She gets a very particular kind of fatigue the day of her infusion. She says it’s a very numbing, all-encompassing, tiring feeling.
  • Be aware of what dosage you’ve been prescribed. Understand there are several variables that your GI can change if the Remicade isn’t working immediately or enough. The interval time between infusions can be shortened, and/or the concentration of the medication can be increased.
  • Remicade is often given with other immunomodulators, like Methotrexate. Talk with your GI about scheduling and timing for the infusions with your other medications.
  • If you’re just getting started on a biologic, your GI will likely tell you to get vaccinated for Shingles and Pneumonia before starting. You’ll also need to do an annual TB test.

Kelly also advises patients to be aware of insurance companies in the United States. Like we touched on at the start of this article, she says many are requiring people to switch from the brand name Remicade to a biosimilar of Infliximab.

“I’m making the switch over at my next infusion in July and my GI and I agreed that we felt confident on the data out of Europe about the efficacy of biosimilars. I recommend everyone with IBD to do their own research and have this conversation with your GI. Be proactive and prepared to discuss options when the time comes with your insurance company.”

Balancing the Logistics of Infusions and Work/Life

Megan Alloway has counted on Remicade to keep her Crohn’s under control for 21 years. She prefers to get her infusions on Friday so she can use the weekends to recoup because it makes her so exhausted.

“While Remicade has been a blessing to me for over two decades, it feels like every time I turn around, it’s time for another infusion.”

An OBGYN with Crohn’s who wished to remain anonymous, has been on Remicade since she was 18. She’s now 35 and still receives her infusions every six weeks. She credits Remicade for giving her a full quality of life and enabling her to stay out of the hospital.

“Since starting Remicade, I have been able to finish college, med school, and residency with my symptoms under control. I’ve stayed out the hospital ever since I started Remicade. My main complaint is how long the infusions take. Different infusion centers have different protocols and requirements, but usually mine take over two hours. It’s annoying to find that kind of time on a weekday and be able to take care of my own patients, but I have to do it for my health.”

Heather Richter agrees the time an infusion takes can be inconvenient, but she’s learned to make the most of the “me” time as an IBD mom with Crohn’s disease.

I’ve learned to embrace the “alone” time. Be persistent at your infusions and if something seems off to you, speak up and make sure you feel like you’re being listened to. My infusion nurse gives me Benadryl and Tylenol beforehand, so if I have the kids taken care of, I find it helpful to nap and rest afterwards.”

Kristi Reppel has been taking on Crohn’s for 18 years. She received Remicade from December 2005 until August 2011. She switched biologics for a lifestyle change and started Cimzia in September 2016. She ended up back on Remicade in December 2016. She currently received 7.5 mg/k every 4 weeks instead of the typical 6-8 weeks.

This biologic works for me. It gets me in remission and keeps me there. I am a lot less symptomatic, thanks to my medicine. The bad part of all this is my veins are scarring over because I only have a few good ones and those are almost gone. The post infusion exhaustion and headache can also be a lot. As an attorney, finding the time to sit through an infusion and schedule it around court room hearings can be rough. I cannot recommend enough about the importance of hydrating with water that has electrolytes like Smart Water around infusion day. It’s made a big difference for me!”

Linde Joy Parcels says Remicade allowed her to reach remission in high school. She had swollen and painful joints, and after starting the biologic, she experienced a complete transformation.

“Unfortunately, I metabolized Remicade too quickly and had to transition to Humira after one year. I loved getting to take a day off school while on Remicade and spent my infusions relaxing with my mom watching soap operas. That was the silver lining for me!”

The Caregiver Perspective—from a wife to moms of pediatric patients

Remicade has been a lifesaver for Rebecca Kaplan’s husband. Before starting a biologic, she says his Crohn’s was not well-controlled. He was on one medication, going to the bathroom 25-30 times a day. By the time her husband started Remicade, the damage had already been done and was irreversible, so they didn’t see the true impact of the biologic until after he had bowel resection surgery.

He’s been on Remicade for 11 years this summer and in that time, he’s been able to graduate with a master’s degree, work full time, work out, play softball, and attend family functions. He’s also put on close to 45 pounds and gone from malnourished and underweight to thriving.

“Remicade isn’t picture perfect – the few days after his infusion I like to say he becomes a toddler who can’t control their emotions. He’s extremely irritable and says it feels like his brain is on fire. He gets sinus infections more often than before (and apparently that’s not uncommon when you are on a biologic), and he still has some symptoms from time to time. But his last colonoscopy showed that he is in deep remission, and I know that he wouldn’t have achieved that without being on Remicade.”

Rebecca waiting in the car (thanks to COVID) while her husband receives his Remicade infusion.

Alexia Anastasia’s 11-year-old daughter started Remicade in February. The list of side effects and hearing a horror story from a friend who “had a friend who had a stroke” made her a nervous wreck. Ultimately, she looked at the research and the long history of pediatric use of Remicade and felt she was making the right decision alongside her daughter’s GI.

“It’s been a game changer. We learned quickly my daughter needs it every 4 weeks after trying to go for 6 weeks. I’m so grateful it seems to be working. Her fecal calprotectin is almost normal from originally being 3,460. Her inflammatory markers are back to normal. I just hope it keeps working and the side effects remain minimal. It’s been a challenging 5 months with this new diagnosis. Now that I can reflect, I’m grateful my daughter’s GI pushed for us to start a biologic immediately. My daughter was withering away before my eyes and now she is back on track.”

Beth Otto-Stapleton’s daughter Penny started on Remicade when she was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease in January 2017 at age four. She was given two infusions a few days apart while hospitalized during her first flare. Unfortunately, that is when Penny suffered heart damage and was diagnosed with heart failure because of the Remicade.

“She now does Vedolizumab infusions instead because it is a different class of biologic. We are thankful as a pediatric patient, Penny can go to a Children’s Hospital for treatments…it keeps the hard parts of the disease there and keeps our home a safe/comfy space. The great part about the infusions is that we also get blood work done and get instant feedback. I always ask the infusion nurse to give her an extra bag of fluids so she’s well hydrated.”

Dermatological Side Effects

While talking with patients about their Remicade experience, skin issues came up in a few conversations. 

Remicade was the first biologic Dana Drengler tried. She says it worked the best and the longest for her. She was in full remission and lived a normal life while on it. Unfortunately, after about 3 years in, she started to develop red spots on her lower legs. They looked like broken blood vessels at first, but then started to spread and get larger, eventually turning into deep and painful ulcers.

“The ulcers covered my lower legs and became super painful, to the point where I couldn’t walk some days. It stumped my doctors, and they only thing they could think of was that it was a reaction to Remicade. They had me stop taking it and within a few months, my legs started to heal. I still have scars 5 years later!”

Mia Frakes has been using Remicade to control her Crohn’s inflammation since 2017, overall, she feels the medication does the trick, but she has what she calls the “oddest side effect”.

“I’ve been dealing with extremely red, dry, and flaky skin in strange areas like behind my ears and my belly button. My GI says she has seen this dry skin in other patients, too. I have to go to the dermatologist, and they give me topical medication to put on the dry areas, which seems to help.”

Madelynn Jessberger was diagnosed with Crohn’s in 2008, she’s been on Remicade the last three years. She was receiving infusions prior to getting her colon removed and was put back on the biologic after. Aside from some aches and tiredness after infusions, she also developed a rash.

“I developed psoriasis all over my body and my GI is unsure if it’s a side effect, a separate autoimmune disease, or an extra intestinal manifestation of Crohn’s. I manage the rash with thick creams and topical medicine from my dermatologist. Everyone is different, this is just my experience.”

Pregnancy + Motherhood and Remicade

Alyssa Leggett started Remicade in August 2018. At first, she was getting infusions every 8 weeks. Then, in 2019, two weeks before an infusion she started feeling fatigued and was dealing with urgency, pain, and diarrhea. Because of those symptoms, her infusions were moved to every 6 weeks.

After I gave birth, my doctor wanted to switch me to the rapid rate infusion. I’ve been doing those since November 2020. They’re about an hour shorter and I don’t have any side effects from them. I feel like I can have a more stable life. I still get symptoms from time to time, but I attribute that to the food I eat. Thanks to Remicade, I reached remission and had a healthy, full-term pregnancy.”

Allie Heiman is grateful for how Remicade has helped prepare her body for motherhood.

I haven’t had any side effects from Remicade and have found the infusion to be easiest in my hand with only minor bruising the next day or two. I started in March 2020 and was cleared to start trying for pregnancy in December 2020. After 13 years of negative scope results and being told I was not healthy enough for pregnancy, I could not be more thrilled with the outcome. I am hopeful to be a mom in the future, and grateful that Remicade made that a possibility with Crohn’s.”

Tayler Jansen is an IBD mom of two. Remicade has been amazing! Remicade and Imuran have kept me in remission for the past 9 years and enabled me to have two healthy pregnancies.”

Shakila Almirantearena has identical 5-year-old twin girls. She was diagnosed with Crohn’s shortly after they were born and is currently in remission. Along with Remicade, she takes Methotrexate.

 “I take Tylenol and Claritin at the infusion center to prevent any rash, etc. I usually take the whole day off work and really allow my body to rest. I haven’t had any major side effects. I’m usually tired the next few days and sometimes get a headache the day after my infusion, but Tylenol helps alleviate any pain.”

Christine Renee has had Crohn’s for 20 years, she’s a mom of two teens and a teacher.

“Remicade was a game changer for me compared to the previous meds I was on. I eventually developed antibodies to it, and it wasn’t as effective. My tips for those getting started are to not be afraid. I was so nervous about starting a biologic, but after the way I was feeling and the tests that my doctor performed, I knew it was the right thing to do. I started Stelara a few days ago and I’m hoping for similar results.”

IBD Parenthood Project

IBD Moms

Mamas Facing Forward

Pregnancy in Inflammatory Bowel Disease and NeoNatal Outcomes (PIANO) Study

Remicade and Pregnancy (MotherToBaby)

Other Helpful Remicade “Hacks”

  • Bring a phone charger to your infusions.
  • Dress comfortably.
  • Hydrate well the day before, day of, and day after.
  • Remember your headphones or AirPods so you can drown out the noise and watch a movie or show. Noise canceling headphones for the win!
  • Pack games and books to pass the time or your laptop so you can work.
  • Have someone else drive you when possible, in case you are drowsy from the Benadryl.
  • Pack snacks and drinks. Many infusion centers will also have this available for you.
  • Have a sweater or blanket!
    • Lauren Hopkins has been on Remicade well over a decade and receives what’s considered a “double dose” every 5 weeks. She’s found her sweet spot and has been able to maintain remission. She says, “Refrigerated Remicade mixed with room temperature saline feels COLD pumping into your veins. It shouldn’t hurt, so if it does, say something to your nurse so they can fix your IV.”
  • Have the Infusion Nurse run saline before and after your infusion to help with headaches.
  • Be your own best advocate. Speak up to your care team if something feels off, if your symptoms are persisting, or if you’re dealing with side effects that make your life challenging.
  • Remember if a biologic fails—it’s not on you, you didn’t fail anything, the drug failed you.

Video: What to Expect at a Remicade infusion(Credit: Crohn’s and Colitis Young Adults Network)

Stuff That Works: Insights on Infliximab

59 marathons and counting: How this IBD warrior perseveres despite her disease

When you think of a marathon runner what words come to mind? Grit, resilience, drive, focus, strength…the list goes on. Michelle Ladonne, 34, of Massachusetts, isn’t your typical long-distance runner. Not only was she diagnosed with Crohn’s disease in 2010, but she’s also managed to participate in 59 marathons in 35 states and 3 continents. Yeah. You read that correctly. Incredible, isn’t it?!

Like many of us, Michelle is the first person in her family to be diagnosed with IBD. When she was told she had Crohn’s, she frantically started Googling from her hospital bed. All she remembers hearing the doctor saying are “lifelong” and “no known cure”. She was certain she’d been handed a death sentence. Her life, at age 23, flashed before her eyes.

Going the distance

As time passed, Michelle learned how to listen to her body better. She says she’s become better at determining whether pain is a “routine Crohn’s symptom” or an acute issue that needs immediate medical attention. Finding the balance of when to push through and when to rest has enabled her to feel more in control of her life and her disease.

“I used to think that the ideal was to never let Crohn’s hold me back from reaching my dreams, or to not let Crohn’s become an excuse. But the reality is that I live with a chronic condition, and despite all the determination and effort in the world, sometimes Crohn’s wins, and I need to be ok with backing off, resting, and focusing on my health,” Michelle explains.

She admits—she doesn’t always listen to her body. She’s ran some races while in the middle of a flare or not long after a hospital discharge.

“I think with experience – both with running and managing Crohn’s symptoms – I’ve learned when I can push through the symptoms, or when I will make things worse if I don’t back off. I try to listen to my body and accept that sometimes not running is the safest and healthiest choice – whether that means skipping a training day, missing a race, or twice coming to that realization mid-race and walking off the course.”

A team effort between care team and patient

Michelle recalls her experience running in the 2018 Berlin Marathon while in the middle of a Crohn’s flare, about a month after being hospitalized. She says her GI was not overly excited about the idea of her traveling out of the country to run a full marathon.

“My abdominal pain wasn’t well controlled, and I was underweight after having been on a liquid diet for several weeks. But my GI knew how important it was to me and supported me. I started the race knowing that if I didn’t feel well, I could slow down or walk, and worst case, I would stop. I started at a conservative pace and focused on hydrating and tuning into how my body felt.  I remember seeing my friend cheering at mile 16, and I ran into her arms and exclaimed, “I am doing it!  I’m going to finish this!” 

Crossing that finish line felt like the biggest victory for Michelle. Right after finishing the race, she texted her GI doctor a photo wearing a medal and thanked him for his support. True to form, Michelle’s GI reminded her that beer is a clear liquid, and since she was in Germany, she should have one to celebrate! 

Persevering through Crohn’s and running

Michelle says having the mindset to persevere through life with Crohn’s and running marathons is similar. She says there’s an adage in marathon running, “when your legs can’t run anymore, run with your heart.”

“Miles 20-26.2 of a marathon bring some of the most brutal pain and physical exhaustion imaginable. At that point, you learn to trust that you are strong enough, tough enough, and brave enough to keep moving forward. You learn to push on when you feel like giving up, because forward is the only option,” says Michelle. 

During a recent 22-day hospitalization, she was in more pain than ever before. COVID visitor restrictions left her feeling lonely, anxious, and afraid. She had to draw upon that same reserve of mental strength as at mile 20 of the marathon. She was physically and mentally spent but knew that digging deep and pushing forward was the only option.

“Just like in running marathons, I had to trust in my experience; I had overcome other challenging situations when I wasn’t sure that I could, and this was just one more challenge that I would eventually overcome.”

Michelle’s advice for fellow IBD runners

  • Figure out how nutrition factors into your running – specifically what you eat and drink before you run. It can be different for everyone. Some of it is trial and error. If running a shorter distance, Michelle doesn’t eat 2-3 hours prior. For longer distances, fueling becomes more important, so she’ll eat something soft and “safe”, like white toast with peanut butter and honey.
  • Plan your route in advance and evaluate the bathroom options.  For longer runs, particularly if you are flaring, try to be strategic about running in locations with bathrooms. Think about local parks, gas stations or fast-food places (support those businesses after your run!).  In a pinch, construction porta-potties work, too. 
  • Don’t perseverate on the bad runs. You’ll have them – the days where everything hurts, you are exhausted, and it’s just a miserable kind of slog. Choose to celebrate the victory of having made it out the door. Know that just like Crohn’s, the bad days happen, but so do the really good ones, and that’s what makes it all worthwhile. 

Not allowing Crohn’s to keep her on the sidelines

Michelle is grateful she’s able to run, and do what she loves, despite her disease. She knows not everyone with IBD is able to be physically active. While Crohn’s has sidelined her at times, it’s never completely robbed her of her passion or changed her focus. On the difficult days, Crohn’s has made her even more appreciative of running and the gift that it is to her.

On the days when I don’t feel like running – it’s too cold, too hot, too rainy – I remind myself that I don’t “have” to run, but I “get” to run.  Not everyone is so lucky, and I don’t take that for granted. Having Crohn’s, it is easy for me to think of my body as somehow broken or defective. Running has helped me to appreciate that my body is capable of some amazing things.  Running has taught me to focus less on what my body looks like (the weight fluctuations of flares and steroids can be tough!) and more on what my body is capable of.”

Taking steps to control fatigue

Even though Michelle clearly has magnificent endurance and strength, it doesn’t mean she isn’t familiar with fatigue and that makes even the most basic daily tasks feel insurmountable. If she’s feeling that overwhelming sense of fatigue, she’ll skip a run or lay on the couch with a heating pad and watch Netflix like the rest of us. At the same time, she says it’s important to distinguish between physical fatigue and just not feeling motivated to go for a run. She tries not to let her Crohn’s become an easy out during the long Massachusetts winters, or in the pouring pain, or even after a long day of work.

She currently takes 6MP and is on Entyvio every six weeks to manage her IBD.

Running goals now and in the future

Since 2016, Michelle has been focused on running a marathon in each of the 50 states. COVID put a hold on that goal, but she hopes to get back to traveling soon so she can cross the finish lines in every state.

“During COVID, since I couldn’t travel, I started focusing on running every street in the towns south of Boston. So far, I’ve finished 11 towns and over 4,000 streets. I have enjoyed exploring so many interesting places close to home and seeing all the history in southeastern Massachusetts. I am toying with a goal of running all the streets in Boston – I think that may need to happen!”

Michelle has also been checking off all the Marathon Majors—New York, Chicago, Boston, and Berlin.

She underwent a hemicolectomy—the removal of a portion of her large and small intestines in March 2021 and was readmitted two weeks after surgery with blood clots in her abdomen. At that point, she was diagnosed with a clotting disorder, in addition to endometriosis in her bowel. After 22 days in the hospital, and six weeks off from running so she could heal, she’s started to slowly build her mileage back up as she regains her strength. Michelle ran a 5K a few weeks ago and is running a half marathon later this month. Her main goal—to run the London Marathon in October, and potentially a few other fall marathons. Once she finishes London—she’s planning a trip to Tokyo to complete the Majors.

Michelle enjoys sharing her patient journey—the ups and downs, the blood, sweat, and tears, and everything in between, in hopes her experiences might help others feel less alone and to know that anything is possible.  From weeks in the hospital to completing a 100-mile ultramarathon, she’s done it all, all while living with Crohn’s disease.

Connect with Michelle on Instagram: @run4life262

IBD Motherhood Unplugged: “I have IBD and so does my Mom”

In the spirit of Mother’s Day—today’s article celebrates mother and daughter duos with IBD. Rather than focusing on the hereditary factor of Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis, this story celebrates the camaraderie, bond, and connection created when a parent and child both share the same disease. While the chance of passing on IBD when one parent has Crohn’s and ulcerative is relatively low according to the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation (between 5% and 20% of people with IBD have a first-degree relative, such as a parent, child, or sibling who has one of the disease), it happens. My hope is that if you dream of being a mom or a dad, you don’t rob yourself of going after that dream because of the fear of passing on your disease to offspring.

As a mom of two (soon to be three!), I am the only one with IBD in my entire extended family. But, I often worry and wonder if my Crohn’s will be passed on to my children. I know this is a common fear many in the community grapple with. Check out these thought-provoking and comforting firsthand accounts from 8 mother-daughter duos that show how families unite in their diagnosis and lift one another up.

Corri Gardner and her mom both have ulcerative colitis. Her mother’s father also had UC. Corri’s mom was diagnosed with IBD while she was pregnant with her. All she knows since being diagnosed herself is having her mom and grandpa to confide in through the ups and downs of the disease.

“My mom has always been there to validate my fears and feelings on such a deep level since she knows exactly what I’m going through. When I was diagnosed, she expressed how guilty she felt over and over again. I always assure her that I would much rather be on this earth, living with UC, than to not be here at all. If someone is hesitant about having children due to their IBD, I would urge them to not make life decisions based on fear.”

Camryn Asham and her mom both have Crohn’s. She says having a parent with IBD helped her feel less lonely and more understood when she was diagnosed. Like anyone with a chronic illness she’s gone through a range of emotions on her patient journey—everything from anger to grief.

“I’ve had the “why me” feeling, but deep down I know it’s not my mom’s fault and there is no one to blame. I know my mom has felt guilty watching me go through traumatic moments and all the ups and downs. I’ve been able to witness my mom get through the highs and lows of IBD, and that reassures me I can get through any flare up or procedure, too. I know I can always count on my mom for help and support when I don’t feel heard or understood.”

Rachel Martin and her mom both have Crohn’s disease. Her mom was diagnosed at age 14, she found out she had the same disease when she was 22. While the diagnosis was devastating for both, Rachel says she finds comfort in knowing that she has someone close to her who can relate.

“I do feel as though my mom feels guilty for passing Crohn’s. I have a twin sister who does not have Crohn’s and it has been hard seeing her live her life without going through everything that I have gone through. Never in my life would I wish this upon anyone, especially my sister, however I wish that I never had to go through this. I never exactly blamed my mom, but I have spent a lot of time wishing I “lucked out” like my sister did. I know that my mom feels bad that I have had a really hard time coping and accepting that I also have a chronic disease.”

Diagnosed prior to a parent

Mary Catherine Kirchgraber was diagnosed with Crohn’s when she was 10 in 2000. Her mom was diagnosed during a routine colonoscopy when she was 50-year-old in 2013. Since her mom served as her caregiver and advocate since she was a pediatric patient, it’s made for a unique journey and perspective. They both seek medical care through the same GI practice and have been on the same medications. Mary says it’s nice to have someone to commiserate with about frustrations with insurance, feeling poorly, side effects, and more.

“My mom is the toughest person I know and never complains, so she inspires me in a million different ways. I wish she didn’t have to struggle the way I have, but it’s nice to have someone to lean on and ask questions to. My mom has always been my advocate and greatest support. She fought for accommodations at school, taken me to Mayo Clinic, dealt with insurance, and taken me to every doctor appointment and specialist I’ve ever needed. She created binders of medical records for me and often reminds me of my own health history when I don’t remember things from when I was a kid. I am so lucky to have her on my team.”

Sharan Kaur was diagnosed with Crohn’s in 2002, her mom found out she had ulcerative colitis in 2017. She says prior to her mom’s diagnosis she felt alone dealing with the day to day struggles of IBD. Sharan says because of her knowledge and experience living with IBD, when her mom began to experience symptoms, she was able to push for their general practitioner to take action immediately and reach a diagnosis. She is grateful to have another family member who can grasp the severity of the disease and who understands how easy it is to go from feeling perfectly fine one day, to barely managing to get out of bed the next.

“I think we find strength in one another. For years, my mom supported me through my worst days and although she didn’t completely understand how things were before her diagnosis, the support was always there. Finding out she had UC broke my heart because she’s always been so active, truly a supermom. I realized then that this would have to change for her as she would probably go onto face the same daily struggles that I do with fatigue. As an adult I’m sure this change in lifestyle is much harder to accept than it was for me.”

Mary McCarthy was also diagnosed with Crohn’s at age 12 in 1995, her mom didn’t discover she had Crohn’s until 2015 when she was 62 (and her dad has UC!). IBD was foreign to the McCarthy family when Mary was diagnosed though. She says her mom had a difficult time coping with having a child with a chronic illness. Even though her mom was well-versed on IBD by the time of her own diagnosis, hearing the news was still difficult for her.

“We deal with it mostly through empathy and humor. Being able to talk openly about the emotional and physical aspects of the disease helps. My parents and I joke about how we are colonoscopy experts and have seen every gastroenterologist in the city of Chicago. My mom knows exactly what I need before colonoscopies, which is often to get some alone time and get in the zone. We laugh about it now. “Mom, I love you, but I gotta get in zone. You can wait in the waiting room now.” My mom has been there for ALL important moments in my IBD journey. We sometimes reminisce about the complete chaos we went through when I was 12. We may have IBD, but we know life must go on.”

Michelle Schienle and her mom were both diagnosed with Crohn’s in 2015, she was 23 her mom was 52. Michelle’s diagnosis was the catalyst for her mom to seek additional treatment from a new gastroenterologist. As we all know it can be challenging to articulate IBD symptoms to those who haven’t experienced them. Michelle knows she can always count on her mom no matter what she’s going through. Even though she doesn’t blame her mom for passing on IBD to her, she did get frustrated that she didn’t recognize the suffering earlier as a child because that was her mom’s “normal”, too.

“Since she was living her life that way, she thought my problems were “normal”, so I had to wait until I was old enough to advocate for myself to get the answers I needed. I wish she wouldn’t feel guilty for passing it on to me, because it’s not her fault. Seeing my mom push through gives me strength. I’ve seen firsthand how she’s successfully raised a family, had a great career, and traveled the world (all things I aspire to do!) and done it with IBD. It’s a relief not to have to explain the pain and worry in detail because we just know what the other is going through. As unfortunate as it is that we both are going through this, having my mom understand what I am feeling both physically and emotionally helps to validate it. If my children are to ever get IBD, I am now confident that I am in the best position to take care of them because I know what to watch out for and how to be proactive about treatment.”

History repeating itself

Both Ellen Jenkins and her mom were diagnosed with Crohn’s when they were 18 and freshman in college at the same school! Ellen says her mom still feels responsible for her being sick, even though she has never blamed her for IBD.

“Growing up and watching my mom live a normal life despite her IBD comforted me when I was diagnosed. I am so thankful to have someone who understands firsthand what I go through. Although no parent would choose to pass Crohn’s on to their child, IBD has made us closer. I have never been upset that I got it from my mom. Instead, I’m thankful to always have her as an advocate in my corner who truly understands the struggles.”

A heartfelt thank you

As an IBD mom, hearing these experiences and perspectives really puts my mind and heart at ease. As you can see, there’s a common thread throughout. Rather than blame their parent for passing on IBD, these young adults look to their parents as a pillar of strength, a source of understanding, and as partners in taking on their illness. Through the pain and suffering there is also gratitude, clarity, and unbelievable resilience. Just how you have grown and evolved as a person after your diagnosis and throughout your patient journey, your child will do the same.

Special thanks to everyone who made this story possible. Your words, your raw emotions, and your candidness are sure to help many and shed light on the incredible dynamic that is created when a parent and a child both battle IBD…no matter what age their diagnosis comes about.

Nori Health helps IBD patients re-gain control: How you can get free early access

This article is sponsored by Nori Health. All thoughts and opinions shared are my own.

When Roeland Pater was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease nearly 20 years ago at age 19 there was a lot he didn’t realize and a lot he tried to ignore. He felt like he was on cruise control the first few years after surgery led him to remission. A few years later, his IBD took a turn and so did his perspective on his health.

“I started to realize that everything I did in life was impacting my disease. Suddenly, I couldn’t do whatever I wanted when I wanted. I became cautious of my actions and decisions. I tried to get a better grasp of how my IBD was impacting my life by receiving personalized care, but I was struggling trying to find a way to do that,” explained Roeland, Founder of Nori Health.

He noticed that during his medical treatment, he experienced a lack of support and education between hospital appointments, with little to no focus on quality of life or emphasis on how he was living day-to-day. Like many with IBD, this left Roeland feeling frustrated, misunderstood, and like there was no hope in controlling his condition.

The inspiration behind Nori Health

As a professional in the tech industry, this caused a proverbial light bulb to go off in Roeland’s head. He identified this massive gap in IBD care and decided to dedicate his life to solving the problem, with the goal of helping others. He recognized the need for a digital solution to help people like himself better manage and control their disease through daily behaviors. This is how the concept and mission for Nori Health was created. The company received an investment two years ago, which drove the concept into a real product and an app.

“Research shows that people living with a chronic inflammatory disease typically experience a 30% lower quality of life when compared to healthy individuals. Closing this gap is our mission. We believe this can be done by improving the understanding of the disease and its triggers through education and disease management. We aim to give patients in our program a sense of control over their disease management,” said Roeland.

How the Nori Health app works

The Nori Health app offers an 8-week program for IBD patients, guided by Nori, a digital coach. Through regular conversations (text-based—like WhatsApp) with Nori you receive personalized insights on factors that are proven to impact quality of life, and symptoms like pain and fatigue. These tips can be saved to your personal dashboard, and you can implement them into your daily routine, helping to keep your IBD under control.

“Most apps on the market are focused on a tracking model. This puts a lot of responsibility in the hands of the patient to monitor their daily activities and to discover patterns that might trigger symptoms. We changed this model around to best support the patients. Nori guides the patients through their health journey, with personalized, evidence-based factors. Nori provides the user with actionable tips that can be saved in the app, which can then be easily implemented into daily routines and lead to significant change,” said Roeland.

You can think of Nori as an artificial intelligence chat coach. You will work together to discover the lifestyle factors that impact how you feel and learn about simple changes you can make to gain more control of your disease. The end goal? To have less pain, more energy, and less strain on your mental health. Changes include everything from forming a new hydration routine, to talking to others about your condition, to reaching a point of acceptance of living with a chronic disease.

Main areas of focus include:

  • Stress
  • Hydration
  • Exercise
  • Diet
  • Mental Health
  • Pain
  • Low Energy
  • Sleep

“We would like to emphasize the importance of finishing the 8-week program. Just like taking a full course of antibiotics, the true benefit from the app comes from completing the entire course of the program,” said Roeland.

The app is not currently open to the public, but I’m excited to offer 100 of my Lights, Camera, Crohn’s readers direct early access!

Getting started:

  • Download the Nori Health app for iPhone here and Android access here.
  • During registration use access code TEST212 for free access to the full program. 
  • As you are given free access to the app, you will be asked to provide feedback on your progress (this is in-app, and anonymous). The Nori Health team will reach out to you by email to collect feedback about your experience as well.

Hopes for the future 

Nori Health is deeply rooted in recognizing the power of community. The program was not only developed by an IBD patient but created thanks to the input of more than 600 patients in England, Netherlands, Belgium, France, and beyond. By participating in this initial launch, you can continue to provide valued feedback and guidance so that the team at Nori Health can make the appropriate tweaks and further understand unmet needs. So far, the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive and has shown that patients can be supported throughout their patient journey—whether they are newly diagnosed or a veteran patient.

“We’ve seen an average of 34% improvement in daily management (diet, stress, and exercising on a daily basis) with people who completed the 8-week program,” said Roeland. “Half of the participants whose social lives were compromised due to symptoms, started to reconnect with friends and loved ones. These are the types of improvements and shifts we had aspired to see happen when we created the app.”

By working with patients like himself, Roeland says these valuable insights have changed Nori Health’s focus and influenced them to go much deeper into the factors that improve quality of life.

Working from home is more than a job perk for those with IBD

The COVID-19 pandemic has normalized talking about chronic illness in the workplace and shed light on not only what it means to be immunocompromised and how it impacts one’s quality of life, but also the benefits and possibilities that working from home provides for everyone involved.

Prior to the pandemic, asking to work from home or setting up accommodations with your boss looked different. It could feel a bit taboo. Maybe you worried how the rest of your team would perceive you as possibly getting special treatment. Maybe you didn’t want to appear as if you couldn’t keep up or do what was expected of everyone else. But one of the positives to come out of this crazy time is that the way we work and how we work has shifted.

I’ve been a freelancer/blogger and stay at home mom since I became a mom in March 2017. That being said I worked full-time in the TV news industry, at a PR agency, and in corporate America at a natural gas utility the first 12 years I had Crohn’s disease. I am well-versed in how to navigate those difficult conversations with your boss, how to balance your health and well-being with your career, and what it means to thrive professionally while making sure your health doesn’t take a hit.

An opportunity for change

If the past 13-plus months have shown us anything, it’s how adaptable and flexible work can be. Businesses and organizations have real-life intel now that can help guide what the future of working looks like, and how employees can best be supported, engaged, and accommodated.

The chronic illness community can use this time as a springboard into the future and communicate their needs and hopes moving forward. According to the CDC, nearly 60% of adults in the U.S. live with at least one chronic illness. Even though that’s a huge percentage, many leaders still don’t know how to properly support employees who fall into this category and those of us who live with a disease such as IBD often question our own abilities and what we’re able to bring to the table compared to our healthy co-workers and counterparts. Working from home through the pandemic has evened out that playing field.

Having the flexibility to work from your couch or run to your bathroom in the comfort of your home versus in the middle of a big work meeting with your peers makes a huge difference. Knowing that you can schedule meetings and availability around blood draws, appointments with specialists, scopes, infusions, etc. offers great flexibility in managing your illness and getting the job done without feeling guilty for taking care of yourself.

How to better understand and support employees

From a chronic illness perspective, we push ourselves in all aspects of life, even when we’re running on empty because we constantly fear being viewed as less than. There are many ways business leaders can better support employees who are taking on a disease like Crohn’s or ulcerative colitis.

As people with IBD we worry about how we’re perceived by others because of the stigma that surrounds chronic illness. There’s guilt. There’s fear of being considered lazy. There’s the worry about coworkers judging you and thinking you’re a complainer or weak, when in fact they may not be aware of your whole back story.

So how can we improve the support of our managers?

Initiate communication: Ask your boss about setting up a 15-minute monthly one-on-one touch base to discuss how you are feeling and if you need additional support. Talk about what the next month looks like as far as doctor’s appointments, labs, tests, etc. I personally always felt better supported and understood by sharing my health struggles with my coworkers—whether it was my co-anchor and meteorologist or the communications team at the company I worked at. When I was hospitalized (which happened on multiple occasions) or needed surgery, I would email the entire team and give them a heads up about what was going on, so they heard it from the “horse’s mouth” and not through office hearsay or gossip. By articulating your patient experience you give others a chance to be empathetic.

Make the invisible—visible: It can be easy for us to downplay our pain or put on a smile when we’re flaring to protect ourselves, even on Zoom calls! The unpredictability of IBD makes work-life a challenge because you can start the workday feeling energized and ready to take on the world and after lunch feel like you can’t even stand up straight and need to lie down. The constant uncertainty of when symptoms are going to strike can be debilitating in and of itself. By being open and transparent in these moments of struggle you help paint a clearer picture of what you’re experiencing for those who don’t live our reality. In corporate America, I used to sit in the boardroom and start a meeting by casually saying “I just want to let you know my Crohn’s is acting up. I’m in a lot of pain. It’s hard for me to sit up straight so I’m going to slouch a bit and I even had to undo my pants!” I approached those moments with humor, but moreso to take off my “mask of wellness” and be transparent that there was much more going on in my mind and body than just the presentation I was giving or listening to. I feel being honest like this made my co-workers helped us build a stronger relationship and rapport.

-Come up with a hybrid schedule: As the world starts to open and companies discuss what the future will look like as far as working from home or in the office, consider what it may look like to work a couple days a week doing each and finding balance. Working from home hasn’t been a detriment to productivity, if anything this time has proved how flexible we can all be in the face of adversity. By creating a space of support and understanding, everyone can be successful. Talk about the options available, your comfort level with returning to work in the office (especially if you’re immunocompromised or haven’t had a chance to be vaccinated), and what the expectations are moving forward.

Improve inclusiveness: When a business or organization makes employees feel embraced, regardless of their health struggles, it speaks volumes. Even those who are completely healthy should see this as a valued characteristic of their working environment—whether in person or virtual. Nobody knows when their life could take a turn for the worse or when an unforeseen health issue could pop up. For many in the chronic illness community, we went from being healthy to waking up with a disease that will be a part of us, always. It’s on leadership and Human Resources to ensure those with chronic illness are provided with the support they need.

Stop celebrating overwork: Touting the employee who works around the clock and answers emails at 2 a.m. sends the wrong message. Instead, find ways to commend employees for different reasons. There isn’t one set of parameters that makes someone a great employee. Having work-life balance and recognizing the importance of having time to decompress, put health first, and spend quality time with family, matters and says a great deal about leadership style. The number of hours worked doesn’t equate to the quality of work or one’s competence. The onus is often on the boss or leader to speak up and set these expectations. Being able to manage your team’s energy will keep morale in check and make employees feel appreciated and more invested in doing their best, because they have the energy to do so and aren’t ready to tap out at any given moment.

Remote work is more than a job perk

COVID has forced the conversation and illuminated the challenges those of us with chronic illness are up against when trying to balance our health, providing for ourselves and our families, and being an invaluable employee. Thanks to the pandemic, employers are now looking to re-evaluate what sick leave and disability policies look like, especially as they relate to working from home. Those of us with a chronic illness may finally feel like we’re on an equal playing field when it comes to job opportunities and not having to worry as much about our bodies cooperating so that we’re able to do it all.

The Patient Experience: What the IBD Community says about Entyvio

Starting a biologic or switching to a new one after a drug fails you is a stark reality for many with IBD.  I personally have been on the same biologic since July 2008. Lucky for me, my body hasn’t built up antibodies and it’s served me well in managing and treating my Crohn’s disease. Recently, a woman with Crohn’s disease private messaged me on Instagram. She’s been on Humira (adalimumab) since 2006, but she’s no longer responding to it. Her gastroenterologist has advised she start Entyvio (vedolizumab).

Like anyone who deals with a drug failing them, she’s reached a level of comfort giving herself injections and knowing the ins and outs of the medication she receives. Now, 15 years later, she feels a bit like a fish out of water trying to navigate a new biologic and all the unknowns that come along with that transition, especially because she hopes to start a family in the next year.

After hearing from her and wanting to help, I went out on a limb and shared the following on my Instastory—to try and comfort her as she embarks on this new chapter in her treatment. “Hey IBD fam! Let me know if you’re on Entyvio and what your experience on it has been thus far. Looking to get info for someone who has been on Humira since 2006 and is making the switch after losing response to it. Appreciate your help and insight.”

The overwhelming response from the community

Several people wrote me directly about their experience with Entyvio—everything from tips and tricks to minimize side effects to how Entyvio has improved their quality of life or been detrimental to it. The response truly blew me away. We all know, IBD presents uniquely in each of us. So, one person’s experience with a biologic (or anything for that matter in treating Crohn’s or ulcerative colitis) must be taken with a grain of salt. At the same time, there’s a sense of camaraderie in connecting with those who use or have experienced your same therapy.

Since I’ve never been on Entyvio, I learned a lot in the process…and wanted to share my findings from these direct message discussions with you. Entyvio is known for its low side effect profile, as it specifically targets the gut. My hope is that this will help alleviate people’s concerns and help educate the community, should Entyvio be offered up as a possible treatment plan presently or in the future for you. (NOTE: I am writing this on my own accord—with NO affiliation or guidance to pharma). This is strictly created from IBD patient experience.

Infusion: Dosing schedule + timing

Generally, the recommended dosage is a 30-minute intravenous infusion, every 8 weeks. Depending on a patient’s response, this can shift to every 6 weeks or even every 4.

“Been on Entyvio since it was approved by the FDA. It has been very helpful since it targets the gut. I am on supplemental IBD meds, but I like that it’s a fast infusion and has given me my life back. It’s the longest I’ve ever been on a biologic, too.”

“It’s about an hour total to get the IV, wait for the med to be mixed, and have the infusion. I am noticeably tired the day of the infusion, but then bounce back quickly by day two. No other side effects at all. Entyvio has been a lifesaver for me!”

While some people saw improvement after the loading doses, Entyvio is known to react slower than other biologics. While most of us are used to biologics taking 2-3 months to work their magic, several people stated their GI warned them ahead of time that Entyvio could take 8 months to a year to be fully effective.

Side effects: The consensus among those who responded

Headaches/Dehydration/Fatigue

“I take Tylenol and Benadryl at every infusion because I found when I didn’t, I ended up with really bad headaches. I seem to feel better if I exercise for a little bit after my infusion, like walk 20 minutes or do 20 minutes on a bike. Real slow and easy. I often feel tired that day and maybe the next day, but after that I’m pretty much golden.”

“A lot of people get headaches after the infusion—they think from dehydration, so it’s helpful to ask for an extra bag of saline fluids during the infusion.”

“My friend and I both get tired after our Entyvio infusions. We both need a good nap after and then we feel fine. Hydrating the day before, during, and right after the infusion helps a ton.”

Hair Loss/Growth

“I lost a LOT of my hair while on this and had to take a large amount of prednisone for almost a year to get back on track because this medication. Please do research on this one! I did not do much and read a lot of people lost almost all their hair. Thankfully, mine grew back while I was pregnant. It was a big bummer! I’m on Stelara now and it works just as well as Humira did for me before my response to it also declined.”

“Been on Entyvio about 2.5 years and it’s the only drug to get me into remission! Was on infliximab (Remicade) before and became allergic and lost response. Minimal side effects with the Entyvio as well! If anything, I just noticed my hair doesn’t really grow the same.”

Navigating infusions and life

While the shorter infusion time is a plus, nothing beats the convenience of an at-home injection. At the same time, several patients shared the benefit of setting up an at-home infusion, so that’s something to look into versus going into a medical facility to receive your medication.

“I have ulcerative colitis and I’ve been on Entyvio for almost a year now. It’s the first biologic I’ve been on and it has helped a little, but it hasn’t been able to heal my rectum at all. I’m in a teen support group and one of the group leaders has had the same experience. After the starter doses, I was on every 8 weeks, but my drug levels were too low, so we switched to every 6 weeks and that didn’t do anything either. Since my symptoms were increasing, I was moved to every 4 weeks as of November. I honestly wish I were on Humira or another at home injectable only because I’m 18 and want to have a normal life that isn’t tied to needing to be home or to go the hospital every month, but it is what it is. The infusions don’t take long, but I do come home and sleep for the rest of the day. I started a pediatric clinical trial about a month ago since the Entyvio isn’t doing enough, but I still have to stay on the Entyvio.”

Pregnancy and Breastfeeding

For guidance on pregnancy and breastfeeding in regards to Entyvio, you can find helpful information at the IBD Parenthood Project and through the PIANO registry study. You can also connect with IBD Moms and Mamas Facing Forward, social media communities comprised of women living your reality.

Prior to planning to conceive, it’s always a good idea to communicate your family planning goals and dreams with your care team. Let your GI and OB know that you’re hoping to get pregnant 6-plus months ahead of time, so they are clear on what your expectations are. That way, you can put your best care plan in place, especially as it comes to staying on top of managing your IBD while you bring a life into the world.

“It was the first biologic that actually showed healing on my colonoscopy. I was on Entyvio my whole pregnancy, and now I’m breastfeeding on it.”

“I have been on all biologics and have had the best response to Entyvio. It put me into a 3.5-year remission (my only remission ever) and allowed me to have my son. Unfortunately, it does not target perianal Crohn’s, so I have had issues over the last few years. After trying Stelara, I had to go back to Entyvio because it’s the only drug that treats my luminal Crohn’s. It really is an amazing drug. No side effects for me, and my immune system is stronger than it has ever been—on the other drugs, I caught a million colds and would get bronchitis and pneumonia several times a year. Since being on Entyvio, I think I’ve gotten a cold a year (maybe?!), it’s a dream!”

“I have been on Entyvio for about two years now and it has been lifechanging. In terms of my ulcerative colitis, it has been day and night, and it has even gotten me into remission! I do feel really tired after my infusion and a little bit into the next day, but since I only get them every 8 weeks, that is a side effect I am more than willing to take on! I was on Entyvio for my entire second pregnancy and that was a breeze compared to my first.”

Be a proactive patient

Like many biologics and prescription drugs, there is a patient savings program available that you’ll want to check out. Learn more about Entyvio Connect here.

Helpful Entyvio-Focused Facebook Communities

Several of the people who responded shared they’ve had positive experiences and found support in Facebook groups geared for those specifically on Entyvio. Check them out:

Entyvio Mommas

Entyvio Warriors

Thanks to everyone who went out of their way to share their experience and help a fellow IBD warrior in need. Having this type of intel is good as gold and extremely beneficial in empowering patients as they make drug and treatment choices.