Parenthood when you live with a chronic illness like IBD can make you feel anxious, worried, and uneasy. As an IBD mom of three, I often connect with and share the stories of fellow women with Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis who have brought life into this world, despite their disease.
This week on Lights, Camera, Crohn’s we hear from a soon-to-be IBD Dad, Brad Watson-Davelaar. He was diagnosed with Crohn’s in 2001 at age 17. His name and face may look familiar, as I featured him in an article entitled: IBD Dads: What these patient heroes have to say about fatherhood. In that article, Brad was recently married and discussed his hopes for the future. Those hopes came to fruition, as he and his wife are awaiting the arrival of a baby girl in late June!
Leading up to the pregnancy, Brad was a bit scared of what fatherhood would look like while living with an unpredictable disease. Like many of us, Brad fears when his IBD will rear its ugly head again and cause him not to be as present as he wants to be, hindering his ability to be a “proper teammate” for his wife.
“Prior to my wife being pregnant, I think I was scared. I’ve wanted to be a dad for some time, but with the way my health has been over the last several years, the prospect of having kids while I was in that physical state freaked me out. Not because I didn’t want kids, but because I was worried I wasn’t going to be enough for them.”
Finding out he was going to be a dad
When Brad found out his wife was expecting he was elated. They had been trying for a few months and he was only a couple months post-op from his ileostomy and barbie butt surgery. While Brad knows life as an IBD Dad will have its ups and downs, he knows the highs will far outweigh any of the difficult days.
“I’m so thankful for Shawn, my stoma, for coming in and giving me a new lease on life. I feel ready to tackle this new chapter of our life and all that comes with it. The good, the bad, the ugly, and the beautiful.”
Since he’s lived with IBD for nearly 22 years and has been an ostomate for 6 months, Brad feels his patient journey has conditioned him to deal with the unexpected. He hopes to connect with fellow IBD dads who have paved the way before him and shown all that’s possible.
Discussing IBD with his daughter in the future
As his daughter grows up, Brad plans to be an open book about his battle with Crohn’s.
“I want to help her understand what IBD and ostomies are. Especially ostomies. It will take time, but I believe in being open and not hiding things. I want her to see that my IBD does not define me and show her how important it is to advocate for yourself.”
As Brad and his wife gear up to become a family of three, they are overjoyed and excited about the new chapter in their lives that is about to begin.
“I’ll be there to look after this wee little one, which will fill my heart with warmth. Being able to focus on her achievements will be a brilliant way to get through the rough days. In the past, it was the little things that got me through. Now, I’ll have all the little moments to continually push me.”
His wife, Sydney, feels so lucky to have Brad by her side as they experience this adventure.
“He had struggled so much over the last couple decades, especially these last couple of years and his perseverance and strength through it all makes me know that nothing is too big for him to overcome. I know he is going to be an amazing dad with so much love, nerdiness and laughter. His Crohn’s is a part of him, but his IBD does not define him. I know no matter what we can get through it together. Brad’s last surgery has definitely given him a new lease on life. With a baby on the way, his ostomy will help him be more present, active, playful, adventurous and helpful. I cannot wait to see him hold our little girl for the first time,” she said.
When the Pregnancy Inflammatory Bowel Disease and Neonatal Outcomes (PIANO) study first launched in 2007 the main goal was to understand the safety of anti-TNF biologics like Humira and Remicade, and thiopurines for women throughout pregnancy and postpartum. As an IBD mom of three, I was able to participate with my youngest who is nearly 16 months old. The experience was something I am extremely grateful for. This incredible research for our community that is going on daily, helps guide decision making for treatment, while easing our fears as we embark on motherhood while managing IBD.
PIANO 2.0 is now underway and this week on Lights, Camera, Crohn’s I share everything you need to know about the updates to the ongoing research project, how you can participate, what the findings have shown thus far, and the goals for the future. Esteemed gastroenterologist, Dr. Uma Mahadevan, continues to lead the charge and help pave the way by sharing discoveries and findings.
“With new funding from the Helmsley Charitable Trust, we are really able to transform PIANO and try to reach a broader group of patients and answer more challenging questions. These questions include the safety of small molecules (tofacitinib, upadacitinib, ozanimod) and the newer biologics (ustekinumab, vedolizumab, risankizumab) as well as expand into studying the placenta and the impact of IBD, the response to COVID vaccine in pregnant IBD patients, and following children out to 18 years of age to look at long term safety and outcomes. The more you know, the more questions that come up.”
What’s new with PIANO
All women with IBD who are pregnant in the United States are invited to enroll. Specific interest in enrolling women on newer biologics (Stelara, Skyrizi, Entyvio, biosimilars) and small molecules (Xeljanz, Rinvoq, Zeposia) even if it was within 3 months of your last menstrual period but not during pregnancy. PIANO 2.0 is also expanding to look at the safety of aspirin in pregnancy (to reduce the pre-eclampsia rate) and well as how IBD women heal after a c-section and vaginal delivery.
There are new and improved patient and site interaction updates as well. There’s now a patient portal that enables women to enter their data directly, a Twitter page (@PIANOIBD) for research findings and updates, and a website with outcome data right at your fingertips.
The medical sites participating have also expanded to include USC, University of Miami, and the University of Maryland. Dr. Mahadevan says they realized most patients in PIANO were Caucasian and of higher socioeconomic status.
“We know pregnancy outcomes differ by race and socioeconomic status and we need to understand if that also applied to IBD pregnancies – does it make those differences more extreme or is there no impact? By expanding to sites with a far more diverse population, we will be able to better answer those questions.”
As far as the Patient Portal, rather than filling out paperwork and participating in phone interviews, now women simply answer questionnaires on the portal when they enter the study, every trimester, after delivery, at months 4, 9, and 12 of baby’s life and then once a year thereafter. Thanks to the Patient Portal, women can enroll remotely across the United States and don’t have to be at an IBD Center to participate.
Pushing the research further
The overarching goal with PIANO 2.0 is to gather data points from newer biologics and biosimilars and look at the safety of small molecules. So far, 2,012 women with IBD have participated in PIANO. The hope is to have at least 150 newly pregnant women participate each year.
“With biologics we generally feel they are all low risk as they won’t cross the placenta in the first trimester when the baby’s organs are forming. Small molecules, however, are more concerning as they will cross during that key period of organogenesis. However, for some women that is the only therapy that works, and they must make difficult decisions,” explained Dr. Mahadevan.
Once the baby is born, the research will look at if the child develops any infection issues, malignancies, neurological issues, and immune diseases like IBD. There are some questions about basic diet as well. Having long-term data and a fuller picture of the future for IBD moms is priceless. By participating we’re truly paving the way for IBD moms now and in the future.
Dr. Rishika Chugh recently shared a presentation at the American College of Gastroenterology conference that Dr. Mahadevan co-authored that looked at data on 47 women on Stelara (ustekinumab) and 66 on Entyvio (vedolizumab). Those women were compared to moms not on biologics/thiopurines and those on anti-TNF therapies.
“There was no increase in harm from being on Stelara or Entyvio compared to those groups. Interestingly, those on Stelara had lower rates of preterm birth and C section. Numerically, there were also less infections on Stelara though that was not statistically significant.”
Participate in a Townhall Discussion with Dr. Mahadevan: Starting a Family with IBD: What Men and Women with IBD Should Know about Conception and Pregnancy
Save the date for a discussion taking place Thursday, December 15 at 6:30 pm Pacific Time. Click here to register for the free event.
I’m excited to be serving as one of the IBD patient advisors on the project, alongside fellow IBD moms Jessica Caron, Brooke Abbott and Amber Tresca (from IBD moms). We’re looking forward to providing the patient perspective and helping to guide the conversation. Jess and I were on biologics in pregnancy and have previously participated in PIANO. I had the opportunity to participate in IBD research studies with all three of my kids and it’s extremely empowering to know you are helping to change the future of care for women in our community and providing women with the added support we need while navigating pregnancy and motherhood with a chronic illness.
When it comes to the biologic, Humira (adalimumab), I am somewhat of an OG. I’ve taken Humira to manage and treat my Crohn’s disease since July 2008. We go wayyy back. Since my first loading dose 14 years ago, I’ve had hospitalizations, had bowel resection surgery, gotten engaged and married, traveled, worked full time, had three children, breastfed, been a stay-at-home mom…the list goes on. I’ll never forget how overwhelming it felt when I was lying in a hospital bed with an abscess the size of a tennis ball in my small intestine and when my GI at the time told me “It was time to break out the big guns.” The big guns being biologics.
My mom and I were upset. We were frantic. We were Googling. We were fearful of what this would mean for my childbearing years. I couldn’t fathom the thought of giving myself injections or getting infusions. My world came to a standstill. In that moment, I would have given anything to have a resource like this. An article that outlines patient experiences across the board. The good, the bad, the ugly. I write these articles, so you feel empowered and educated when you take the plunge or when you are forced to switch medications because another biologic fails you. I write these articles, so you feel confident in making informed choices and realize that the “big guns” are oftentimes necessary and not as scary as they sound.
As you read this article and others like it, please remember these are individual experiences. Just because one person had a terrible response or reaction doesn’t mean you will. Just because I haven’t had any side effects and have been able to stay on Humira for more than 14 years, doesn’t mean the same will be the case for you. Use these experiences to level your expectations and have a better grasp of what it’s like to be someone with IBD on a biologic drug and make an informed choice with your gastroenterologist.
If you haven’t done so already, be sure to check out previous Patient Experience articles I’ve shared on Lights, Camera, Crohn’s about:
For those who are “new” to Humira, those who are preparing to do their loading dose, or those who aren’t familiar with the drug—in the United States a new and MUCH improved Citrate-free formula came to market for pediatrics and adults in late summer/early fall 2018. I did my first Citrate-free or as many of us call them, “pain free” injection in September 2018 while pregnant with my second child. If you’ve been on Humira for a long time like me or tried it prior to that time, you know how painful the injections used to be and how much easier they are now. It’s a gamechanger. The loading dose used to be four injections—all in the same sitting that felt like liquid fire were going through your leg or abdomen. Fast forward to 2018, not only is the needle gauge smaller, but the formula no longer stings. Click here to watch the video of me experiencing Citrate-free Humira for the first time while pregnant.
I went from dreading my injections (even a decade in) to doing injections on my couch and smiling ear to ear while my kids watch me because I feel next to nothing. This is important context for this article. Some of the experiences you will hear will be from people who never had a chance to experience Citrate-free Humira, and others who say the shot is “easy” to do most likely started or were switched over to the pain-free version. This change in the formula has been an incredible win for anyone on Humira in the United States. The loading dose not only won’t hurt but is only two injections now versus the original four. The challenge is getting used to the mechanics of doing a self-injection and getting into the right headspace each time you’re due for a dose. Regardless of whether it hurts or not, you are still injecting a heavy-duty medication, which suppresses your immune system, into your body. I’m often asked if I get “sicker” being immunocompromised and being a mom of little ones—my answer to that is no. I am mindful of washing my hands and not eating or drinking off anyone. My GI has me do “safety labs” every three months to monitor my bloodwork, along with an annual colonoscopy.
Debbie: “I was on Humira for four years. I responded well at first and liked the ease of doing injections myself. The Citrate-free version was much better and less painful than the original version. I unfortunately ended up developing antibodies and have been switched to Stelara. I didn’t have any side effects with Humira other than some itchiness at the injection site. Ice helped a lot with that.”
Melanie: “After a reaction to Remicade, I was so anxious to try another biologic. This was in 2009 and Humira hurt so much. I had a massive panic attack trying to do the loading dose of the original version. I was 19 at the time. I couldn’t continue with it. Now, I’m on Cimzia, but had to take a mental health break from biologics for a few years.”
Brad: “I started Humira back in March of this year. It’s been a complete gamechanger for me. Humira has me in clinical remission as of my last colonoscopy. I don’t have much reaction to it. Sometimes, the injection can hurt a little bit, but usually not at all. I’m shocked at how easy it’s been. I was originally very nervous about starting an injectable.”
Jenn: “Humira was traumatizing. It took well over a year for me to self-inject without stressing and crying beforehand as the injection hurt so much. While it did provide relief from symptoms for a while, the reaction I ended up getting was significant, and impacted my ability to live normally. So not only had my Crohn’s symptoms returned, but they were also joined by additional symptoms caused from a reaction I was having to the medication. I will never not be a proponent of taking meds as they do help, but I will also never forget the experiences I lived due to them.”
Natasha: “I was in the pediatric trials for Humira. I don’t remember it doing much, but almost 15 years later, I’m still traumatized by the trigger mechanism and feel the phantom pains in my legs from doing them for so long. Anytime a new medication it brought up and it’s a shot, I ask if there are self-administered options vs the auto injector. The PTSD is bad.”
**It should be noted Humira can be administered with an auto-injector pen (where you press down on a button and there’s a clicking sound) or with a syringe where you draw up the medication. I have only used the auto-injector and prefer the ease of it, but it’s all personal preference and what you are comfortable with.**
A mixed bag of experiences
Sofia is now on Stelara after having surgery to remove some of her bowel. When she thinks back to her time on Humira, it’s not a pleasant memory.
“I experienced all the normal flare up symptoms while taking Humira and gained a lot of weight. I just remember my self-esteem plummeted as well as my hopes for remission.”
Kathy: “I was on Remicade, but I’ve been on Humira now for five years and have had great results with minimal side effects.”
Kaitlyn: “I have been on Humira for a few months to treat my Crohn’s disease and Hidradenitis Supprativa and it has been life-changing. My Crohn’s is in microbial remission, and I no longer have to get weekly, painful steroid injections for my HS.”
Jessica: “I’ve been on Humira for four years and my last colonoscopy showed there was mucosal healing and no active Crohn’s. I inject every 14 days and it has gotten easier, especially when I inject and tell myself that it is healing my body. Then, I don’t feel the shot. I’m very thankful for it!”
Myisha was on Humira for a year and then had a major allergic reaction.
“The last injection I gave myself, my face, lips, and mouth swelled up and I got lightheaded. My husband immediately called my GI and I had to be given an EPI pen along with 4 Benadryl intravenously after being rushed to the emergency room. I experienced hypersensitivity anaphylaxis and angioneurotic edema.”
Keyla: “When I was on Humira, it made me lose my hair. I felt terrible on it, and I never noticed much improvement with my IBD.”
Danielle has struggled to find a biologic that manages her disease. Both Humira and Entyvio failed her. She’s now on Stelara.
“I was on Humira for three months in 2021. It worked amazing right off the bat, then suddenly I had no response whatsoever. The injections were quite traumatic for me as I had one injection needle fall apart as I was giving the injection.”
Sarah: “Humira has improved my life and helped manage my Crohn’s symptoms and allowed me to eat a wider variety of foods then when on previous medications. However, there have been some compromises on my part. I’ve dealt with some bad injection site reactions that have caused me to have to take allergy medication prior to administering it to help manage the reaction. I’ve also experienced severe sinus congestion and uveitis that I did not have prior to taking Humira. I’ve lost some sense of smell due to how bad my congestion can get, and I can’t touch or rub my eyes without risking a flare up of uveitis. Overall, I would say that it has been worth taking Humira. I’ve learned to manage my side effects and have gotten over my fear or self-injection.”
Catie: “My experience with Humira was good at the beginning. The medicine helped me achieve remission. The injections were always so painful no matter what tricks I tried. I ended up getting drug-induced lupus from Humira, so I went off the drug. The drug-induced lupus took more than a year to recover from—it was awful.”
Hayley: “I was on Humira for a year and was doing great on it, practically in remission. Unfortunately, I developed psoriasis (which I’ve been told is a rare allergic reaction to the drug itself). My sister who has Crohn’s was also on Humira and had the same reaction. I wish I could’ve stayed on it longer because it was easy and helped me so much, but unfortunately, I had to come off it. It was my first biologic and gave me a lot of hope!”
Krista: “I was on Humira for about 6 months. It was working great—other than extremely painful injector pen that I dreaded using every month. I started to develop scaly patches on my legs, back, stomach, and scalp. My hair started falling out where the scaly patches came up on my scalp. My dermatologist thought I had biologic-induced psoriasis, so I stopped taking it. My biopsies came back negative for psoriasis, but I still ended up switching medications.”
Melissa: “I was on Humira in the past. It didn’t work for me and caused me so many issues. My body itched so badly while on it. I would scratch sores on my body from it. My joints ached all the time. And on top of it, my ulcerative colitis got worse while on it.”
Adriana: “I was on Humira for a year. I did weekly injections, but they wanted to increase my dosage to two injections. For me, it didn’t work (as with a lot of drugs I was on), but out of all of them, it worked best at making me feel better. I don’t remember having too many side effects from Humira besides slight bruising around the injection site, but definitely worth a try!”
Ellie: “I started Humira in 2019 after a four-month bout with steroids. I went into remission a month later after only two injections. I have remained in remission ever since.”
Dana: “I was on Humira for around 2 years. It put me into remission, and I was doing very well, but then I started to have Crohn’s symptoms. My doctor thought about increasing the frequency of my dosage, but my blood levels were adequate, and she didn’t want them to become too elevated with an increase in dosage. I also developed severe psoriasis on my scalp as a side effect. I ended up flaring and having to stop Humira to try something else.”
Jessica: “Humira has been great for me! Really no side effects. I did have to increase my dose to weekly because I metabolize medication too quickly.”
Phil: “I had a small bowel resection in 2004 and after a 10-year remission, my Crohn’s became active again. I was put on Humira, and it was amazing for about 7 years with a few side effects, biggest one being hypersensitivity to the sun. I miss being on Humira because it also helped my joint pain and psoriasis.”
Stacey: “Humira was my final effort to save my large intestine and felt pretty good on it! Aside from horrid cystic bacne, which isn’t listed as a documented side effect (but I swear there was an association there!), I had no side effects, and I felt great on Humira! It gave me a quality of life! I was on Humira when I made the hard choice to have a total colectomy, and the disease had spread since my scope four months prior. Goes to show that symptoms don’t always correlate with inflammation. But I’m grateful for my experience and the opportunity to safely take Humira.”
Pregnancy and motherhood with Humira
As an IBD mom of three, I stayed on Humira until 39 weeks pregnant with my oldest, and 37 weeks with my second and third child. I had scheduled c-sections with all three, so I was able to coordinate my injection schedule with my GI ahead of time. I breastfed my second child for about 6 months and supplemented and just finished exclusively breastfeeding my 14-month-old—all while on Humira. I have three, perfectly healthy children and had flawless, Crohn’s-free pregnancies. I also did not experience post-partum flares and I credit that to the fact I stayed on my medication and picked it right back up the day we brought the babies home from the hospital.
Check out these helpful resources for pregnancy and biologics and have long-term research that shows the safety and efficacy of staying on Humira through the entire family planning process, pregnancy, and beyond:
Dani: “My experience with Humira has been wonderful. I’ve been taking Humira for two years. The nurse ambassadors are so nice and helpful. I was nervous about the injections, but they really are so easy and don’t hurt. Humira has helped me to feel the best I’ve felt since my Crohn’s diagnosis 4.5 years ago. I stayed on Humira through my pregnancy, and I had no Crohn’s related issues during or after. It’s been a life-changer. Most days, I almost forget I have a chronic illness. I’m praying things stay like this, at least until we have another child.”
Stephanie: “I have been on Humira since 2016. I was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis postpartum after my first baby in 2015 and was incredibly sick. I had multiple blood transfusions, tons of steroids, etc. I had some reactions to Humira when I started taking it (skin rashes and almost withdrawal-like symptoms) before the two weeks was over, which almost presented itself like lupus, so I was put on weekly injections and have been doing that ever since. After I was put on Humira, it was a lifesaver. I felt the best I had in forever. Since having my second child in 2019, it’s been more up and down. At my next colonoscopy, we will look to see if I have inflammation still and if I do, I will go off Humira (which is so scary to me) and try something new.”
Katie: “I have been on Humira for 7 months. I was completely terrified to be on Humira, but I was so sick, and knew I needed to do something for not only myself, but my husband and my kids. Humira has gotten me back to the point of feeling back to my normal self. The only side effect I noticed for the first few injections is I would feel absolutely exhausted that next night. It’s super quick and I get on with life as usual!”
Sarah: “I have been on Humira for a little over a year now. I was on it while pregnant with my son. It was an easy process. But now that I’m 4 months postpartum, I am experiencing some weird side effects. My liver levels are elevated, and I am getting symptoms back. My GI and rheumatologist are thinking of moving me to once a week or adding another medication. I am fearful they will switch me off or add things and I won’t be able to breastfeed any longer. Humira has been wonderful, and I am just nervous my body has begun to build antibodies against it.”
Cece: “I have struggled with my ulcerative colitis symptoms on and off since I was 19. At 36 years old, after trying 3 years to get pregnant, I had a colonoscopy that revealed active inflammation. That was what finally pushed me to get on Humira. My symptoms settled down and luckily, I’ve been in remission and feeling great ulcerative colitis-wise through IVF, pregnancy, and breastfeeding.”
The Pediatric patient point of view
Emily is a 13-year-old who has been on Humira for three years. She says Humira has done a lot to help her get Crohn’s under control.
“Doing injections myself has helped. It feels better to “be in control” of giving yourself the shot. I’ve been having less stomach pains and less joint pains from Humira. My joint pain and stomach aches used to be really bad. I used to cry myself asleep at night because how bad the pain was for both my joints and stomach. Now that rarely happens. Yes, I still get joint pains, but not to the point where I start crying. I get a little tired after the shot, but it helps me a lot. So many positives.”
Celia is 15-years-old and started Humira in October 2021. About two months after her initial loading dose, she started to notice less bowel movements, but still had urgency and abdominal cramping. Her GI decided to increase her dose to 80 mg since her inflammation markers were elevated and she was flaring. (Typically, we are put on 40 mg injections, twice a month).
“I feel better! I still have my bad days and have had minor issues. I’m hopeful that this will be the medicine to get me into remission! On the mental side of things, I have struggled with injection anxiety. I have never been afraid of needles, and I’m still not, but I overthink every injection. That has been my greatest struggle on Humira, but I’m hopeful over time I’ll overcome it!”
Cindy’s 8-year-old daughter is on Humira. She says the various worries and challenges all give way in the end to gratitude.
“Humira is saving my daughter’s life and giving her a tremendous quality of life. Thirty years ago, an 8-year-old would have had such a different trajectory my she is experiencing and hopefully will continue to have. I love science.”
Struggles with access to Humira
Regardless of the biologic you are on, dealing with insurance, prior authorizations, and specialty pharmacies can make access to drugs like Humira a challenge. AbbVie (the maker of Humira) offers several programs to help streamline the process and take some of the burden off patients.
Once you enroll in Humira Complete, you are connected with a Nurse Ambassador who will speak with you directly (and even do in-person visits) to help you gain confidence and understanding about everything from administering your medication to any side effects you may be dealing with. Humira Complete offers a Patient Savings Card and Prescription rebates, and offers injection training through videos, an App to help you stay on track, and 24/7 availability should you need to reach someone. The phone number for Humira Complete is 1-800-4HUMIRA (1-800-448-6472).
Even though Humira Complete exists and has helped me many times, there are still many patients dealing with access issues or completely unaware of the fact that the programs and savings are available:
Emily: “I have been on Humira since October of last year and it has been both great and horrible for me. Remicade stopped working for me after 5 years and Humira was able to help calm down the flare I had been experiencing. I learned with time that at home injections weren’t something to fear. Humira is very convenient. Humira came with large bills and a battle with insurance and Accredo pharmacy. Every month, unnecessary stress had been added to my already full college schedule. In between classes I found myself calling multiple people to make sure my medication was going to arrive on time and that it didn’t cost me $4,000 each time. I’ve had issues almost every single time I refill my medicine. It almost makes me want to switch medicine just so I don’t have to deal with it, which is unfortunate because the medicine itself helps me.”
Sydney: “I just came off Humira. It worked great until it didn’t anymore. The formula changed a few years ago, which made it a lot more tolerable, but for a very tiny human, the auto injector caused some atrocious bruises. I ended up having to use syringes because of the bruising. It was a fight with insurance almost every time I needed a re-fill. The medication was good, but the stress trying to get it was almost not worth it. I only reached remission for about a year on it and then my body figured it out.”
Sam: “I have been on Humira for five years. I would say the issues aren’t the drug itself. Insurance companies make it so hard to get access. Ordering my medication from a specialty pharmacy is the worst.”
Christie: “I have been on Humira for three years after being diagnosed with ulcerative colitis in early 2019. The decision to begin taking Humira was a tough one, but I wanted to try anything to reach remission. While I have had a few insurance hiccups here and there, my experience with Humira has been great. I am enrolled in the Humira Complete Program, where I can track my injections and a nurse ambassador calls me once a month to check in. The resources AbbVie offers are incredibly helpful. Overall, I credit Humira for getting me into symptomatic and endoscopic remission.”
All in all, you must always weigh the risks versus the benefits when determining a treatment plan with your physician, regardless of the medication. I personally have not dealt with side effects and have relied on Humira to help me maintain my remission and feel my best so I can be present for my family. What started out as a shocking change in my life, is now just part of my routine. Be patient with yourself and whether the injection hurts or not, reward yourself after. I usually enjoy some ice cream while watching reality TV. Giving yourself an injection isn’t easy, treat yourself to something for being a compliant patient who is doing all you can to help treat an unpredictable and complicated disease. And most importantly, remember you are not alone in your fears, your struggles, and your worries.
They call themselves “Propellers.” They’re a team of volunteers, made up of IBD patients and caregivers who created a non-profit called Propel a Cure for Crohn’s in 2016. They are laser focused on preventing and curing Crohn’s disease and, on the heels of their first research project funded at Stanford University in the world-renowned lab of Professor Mark Davis, they’re now determined to make a meaningful difference through their Roadmap to a Cure for Crohn’s effort. During this month (September 2022), they’re aiming to raise $50,000 to help get their latest project off the ground and to provide a solid foundation to bring their global team together.
This is a grassroots effort fueled by patient and parent volunteers. Patients and caregivers have an opportunity right now to directly influence a brighter future without Crohn’s! This is a peer-to-peer fundraiser—it’s not just about the monetary donations, but also sharing the message with others far and wide. Not only are international researchers involved, there are people all over the globe participating. In addition to the English-language campaign, there are also Swedish and Portuguese online campaigns running as well.
The Patient/Caregiver Perspective
Ildiko Mehes recalls what it was like when her 9-year-old daughter received her lifechanging Crohn’s disease diagnosis in 2017.
“As a parent, a serious diagnosis like Crohn’s is a huge shock, and it’s absolutely devastating and heartbreaking. Even during periods of remission, we are always on high alert and waiting for the other shoe to drop. At diagnosis, my whole world stopped, literally and figuratively. As irrational as it sounds, as a parent, you wish the rest of the world stopped with you to help you address the crisis. You wish that all of modern medicine rolled up their sleeves and urgently worked together to precisely diagnose the problem and bring her back to long-term health.”
As a caregiver, Ildiko has a unique sense of urgency and determination. She feels we need and can do better for IBD patients.
“When an otherwise healthy child, with no prior medical history, suddenly presents with IBD symptoms during a routine winter virus, you ask yourself “what caused this switch to be flipped?” Not having any answers to the underlying mechanism of disease onset or perpetuation, having a trial-and-error approach to disease management, and being forced to consider serious immunosuppressive medications with modest clinical trial benefits feels unacceptable as a parent. This is what drives me.”
As a pharmaceutical executive with more than 20 years of experience, Ildiko uses that unique skill set to go after complex and difficult goals with Propel a Cure and feels a deep sense of obligation to help our community.
“While there is excellent research ongoing in IBD, it happens in silos. It lacks global coordination and a plan. We don’t yet understand many basic things about Crohn’s. We are all just hoping for a “eureka moment” that hasn’t come over the last 100 years. We are continuously enticed with headlines of a “promising” new pathway or new drug candidate, usually in mice. And then that great idea sits there, with no progress made, a decade or more later. I know we can do better,” she said.
Natalie Muccioli Emery was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease in 2011 and she’s also a Propel a Cure Board member. She started dealing with abdominal issues 26 years ago. Being a veteran patient has provided her with perspective about how far treating and managing IBD has come and how far we still have to go.
“Propel a Cure was the first organization whose mission resonated with me. I appreciate their mission to cure Crohn’s Disease, but I even more appreciate the fact that they have laid out a plan as to what the areas of knowns and remaining unknowns are in their Roadmap to a Cure for Crohn’s project. Complex issues like Crohn’s Disease will take a collaborative and systematic approach to address, and this cause has captured that,” said Natalie.
Not only is Natalie an IBD mom, she’s also an IBD aunt!
“I believe that as an adult with IBD, the way I embody the role of a “Crohn’s Warrior” is not for myself it is for the next generation. I have “been there and done all that” with Crohn’s. But just because I did it with Crohn’s doesn’t mean the next generation should have to. I grow increasingly concerned when I see the rising rates of IBDs like Crohn’s in younger people. I believe the rising rates of Crohn’s should create a sense of urgency and a desire for a better future.”
Putting the puzzle pieces together
The Roadmap to a Cure is an ambitious project but one that is needed to drive real progress toward cures and prevention of IBDs, not just talk about “cures” in some very distant future. Ildiko says the brilliant clinicians and scientists she has gotten to know all tell her that getting to a cure will take a grassroots effort, global collaboration, and involvement of patients and caregivers.
“We at Propel a Cure are deeply committed to doing exactly that. The first step in our project is to systematize what we already know about Crohn’s today. We know a great deal, thanks to research. But when we are talking about complex fields like genetics, epigenetics, immunology, microbiology, epidemiology, multi-omics platforms and artificial intelligence, etc. there is no way any one person or group can know everything. We need a large global group of dedicated and brilliant experts to put all the puzzle pieces we already have on one table so we can begin to then put the pieces together,” she explained.
Grabbing the attention of medical professionals and researchers
Propel a Cure grabbed the attention of Dr. Bram Verstockt, MD, PhD, Department of Gastroenterology and Hepatology, University Hospitals Leuven, on social media.
“I truly like the concept of joined forces across various stakeholders, including patients and caregivers. As clinicians and scientists, we can have ideas about how to move forward based on experiences and interactions with patients on a daily basis. However, the next step really is to involve patients actively in many of these projects, as is currently the case with Propel a Cure,” said Dr. Verstockt.
The “Roadmap to a Cure” aims to bring together expertise across many different fields and niches in IBD.
“Over the past decades, a lot of scientific evidence has been generated in multiple domains of Crohn’s disease, so now it’s time to bring all that evidence together and truly connect the dots. Only by doing so, one might unravel knowns and unknowns and highlight where the remaining key gaps are, and we can define the priorities and strategies of how to fill these gaps to significantly advance the field, to improve the lives of patients with Crohn’s disease,” said Dr. Verstockt.
Where the roadmap can take us
After the initial step of putting together the state of the art, the next step is identifying gaps in our knowledge: what puzzle pieces do we still need? The third step is to develop the plan, or the Research Roadmap, to get from what we know today to developing cures and prevention strategies.
“We truly believe in a future where we can prevent and cure Crohn’s and eliminate so much patient and family suffering,” said Ildiko.
The reason this requires a grassroots effort and all of us patients and caregivers to fund it, is that otherwise the current system largely doesn’t provide incentives for new ideas or cures or global collaborative efforts of this magnitude. A recent paper discusses how the same ideas have been funded for decades, with limited progress and that we urgently need new directions.
Ildiko believes the current research incentive model is broken. “If we want true progress and cures for Crohn’s and other IBDs, we need a new collaborative model among IBD foundations/nonprofits, patients, caregivers, researchers, clinicians, and others. I believe this can become a model for other chronic and immune-mediated diseases.”
Click here to watch a video where Ildiko explains the Roadmap to a Cure project further.
Hopes for the future
“I would really like to see more key opinion leaders be brave about acknowledging the risks and limitations of current therapies, avoid putting lipstick on a pig when discussing some newer drug candidates in trials with lackluster results and the same mechanisms, dispense with biased headlines like “safe and effective” when the data is much more nuanced or unclear, and openness to “outside-the-box” ideas, like microbiome manipulation, including via diet, infectious triggers like Epstein-Barr virus in Multiple Sclerosis, vagus nerve stimulation, Fecal Microbiota Transplant (FMT), hyperbaric oxygen, etc. and also adopt routine monitoring via intestinal ultrasound for many patients,” said Ildiko.
As of now (September 12, 2022)—more than $26,609 has been raised!
“I have been overwhelmed by the response so far, as has the entire Propel team. People are really connecting with our mission. We are getting donations from so many states and countries! We have received more messages of profound thanks and hope than I can recount. This fuels us so much,” said Ildiko.
Natalie feels a wide range of emotions each time she sees a donation come in or the campaign shared across social media.
“I go from feeling hopeful, to introspective, to sad. I truly wish we did not have to do this campaign and that in 2022 we knew what the underlying cause(s) of Crohn’s are, and that safe, effective, reliable treatments were available for all Crohn’s patients. But here we are. Crohn’s is still very much part of the lives of patients and caregivers, and we need to take action to change that. I am so grateful for the outpouring of support we have received so far, but there is more work to be done!”
Propel a Cure has virtually no overhead fees or salaries, so every single dollar donated to Roadmap for a Cure goes to research.
“We are all volunteers who work out of our homes. The donations will be put towards collaborative research teams worldwide. Each team will lead a contributing area to the development of Crohn’s Disease (environment, microbiome, immune system etc.) and highlight where the gaps in knowledge remain,” said Natalie.
“The ultimate dream obviously would be to cure and if not, to significantly improve the quality of life for millions of patients worldwide,” said Dr. Verstockt.
Click here to donate to this incredible cause or to join their team.
**Disclaimer: This article is in no way meant to offer medical advice or guidance. Medication to treat and manage IBD is NOT a failure. Please understand this is one person’s experience and journey. Prior to going off medication, consult with your gastroenterologist and care team.**
She was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease in 1991 at 19 years old. As a veteran patient and IBD mom of two teenagers, Kelli Young says the COVID-19 pandemic, along with turning 50, inspired her to dig deeper into her health journey and look beyond the “cookie cutter” approach to treating IBD. After multiple surgeries and decades of biologics and other medications, she was determined to try a different approach.
Much like many of us in the IBD community, we often choose to hide our disease from others. Kelli says 15 years of that strategy often left her feeling misunderstood. Once she started sharing and opening herself up to support, her world changed for the better. Anytime someone is sympathetic and says, “you poor thing,” Kelli reminds them that Crohn’s disease molded her in the person she is today and that everyone has problems, hers just happens to be IBD.
“Having lived more than half my life as an IBD patient, I knew I didn’t want to live the second half of my life the way I did the first half.”
Taking a closer look into food sensitivities
It’s no surprise the importance of diet has become a larger part of treating IBD in recent years, but there’s still a lot of gray area.
“Diet is often the one thing that the medical profession overlooks or provides the same generic diet to everyone, assuming everyone is the same. Diet is the #1 factor that affects your health in every way imaginable. Your energy, sleep, weight, sex drive, bowel movements, heart rate, and mood, just to name a few.”
Prior to changing her diet, Kelli connected with her longtime friend of more than 20 years, Dr. Sean Branham, a chiropractor who specializes in functional medicine. Dr. Branham ordered the Oxford Food Sensitivity Test. The test measures inflammation in the body on a cellular level. Food sensitivities are unique to each person, so it’s impossible to determine what your sensitivities are without getting tested. Reactions can also be delayed or be dose dependent.
Kelli says, “The Oxford Food Sensitivity Test looks at all types of white blood cells (Neutrophils, Lymphocytes, Monocytes and Eosinophils) and measures release of all pro-inflammatory chemicals like Cytokines, Histamines, Prostaglandins and Leukotrienes. Certain groups of foods are pro-inflammatory to humans because we may not contain all the enzymes to thoroughly break them down (like dairy). Other foods are pro-inflammatory because of their processing, like many different forms of sugar. Some are inflammatory due to genetic modification like gluten. Some healthy foods can create inflammation once digestive damage has been done and these partially digested foods leak across the digestive barrier and trigger an immune response.”
Customizing diet with Food Sensitivity results
Kelli’s tests results showed mushrooms, cashews, trout, mangos, green peas, coconut, among other foods, triggered an immune reaction. Once Kelli had her Food Sensitivity results in hand, her and Dr. Branham started to customize her diet.
“We first started by removing the bigger classes of pro-inflammatory foods like; dairy, sugar, gluten and soy and then assessed specific foods that were causing a problem for me individually.”
Along with removing these food groups from her diet, Kelli did a whole-body digestive cleanse that involved a specific diet with supplements, a shake, and a cream to rid the body the body of toxins, decrease inflammation, and cleanse the liver and digestive tract.
“Testing revealed that there were more than just digestive issues going on. I also had a blood sugar regulation problem, Estrogen dominance, nutrient deficiencies, a need for: digestive enzymes, immune support, and microbiome support. Once I completed the cleanse, we customized a supplement regimen specific to me based on my test results. We started with what Dr. Branham considered the most important things first and then as we corrected those issues, we moved on and tackled the next issue and so on.”
Celebrating a “new way of life”
As a single mom of a 19-year-old and a 16-year-old who have supported her through her IBD journey every step of the way, Kelli calls these lifestyle changes her “new way of life”.
“When my son was between the ages of 8-12 years old, he was showing IBD symptoms, but he didn’t have IBD, he was experiencing empathic pains. He watched me, a single mother, battle with the daily struggles. I tried to hide it, but he saw right through me. Today he is 16, growing, thriving, and enjoying his healthy mother. My daughter, 19, the age at which I was diagnosed, is thriving as well. I am now able to truly be present in both of their lives.”
When Kelli and her husband divorced, her children were only 8 and 5 years old. As an IBD mom it made an already challenging time that much more complicated. She never dreamed she’d be at this place in her life health-wise.
“Back then I wondered how I was going to give myself my own shots, how I was going to care for two small children 50% of the time when I was always sick. Being a single mother with IBD forced me to take a good hard look at my life, not only for me, but for the sake of my children. My motto used to be “expect the unexpected” and “no expectations.” Today, I no longer worry about the future bad days or wonder if I’m going to be around to be a grandmother someday. Yes, it’s difficult at times to follow such a structured lifestyle, but it’s even more difficult living a life being chronically ill.”
Going off all meds
Kelli has been off all IBD medication since May 2021. She says her GI of 30 years is reluctantly supporting her decision to go this route on her patient journey. Kelli had a colonoscopy in June 2022, and after the scope in recovery he said, “Well Kelli, your new way of life is working. I’ve never seen your scope results look this good.”
While this lifestyle may seem “extreme” to some or difficult to follow, Kelli says she was sick and tired of being sick and tired.
“The definition of “remission” varies depending on who you ask. I am celebrating three years of a “disease free” diagnosis. The Crohn’s will ALWAYS be very much part of my life, but now, the only time I have a “bad day” is when I cheat on my new way of life, eating something I shouldn’t be eating, not getting enough sleep, not exercising, and not managing my stress.”
I can remember the moment vividly. Leaving a gastroenterologist appointment three months post-surgery and crying walking to get sushi with my husband on a chilly November day in the middle of the workday. When I walked into that clinic appointment, I was hopeful I would never need a biologic medicine again. We were planning to start trying for a family after our June wedding, but my doctor knocked me back to earth and told me my Crohn’s was too aggressive and I’d be setting myself up for disaster if I attempted going med-free.
The tears flowed. I felt like a failure. I worried about bringing babies into this world while on a heavy-duty drug and if my surgery would provide me with the remission I had never achieved the first ten years of having IBD. I was so upset my husband-to-be and I both called into work and took the rest of the day off. Over sushi we talked about our future family and my health. Everything seemed at our fingertips but out of reach at the same time. That was November 2015. Sometimes we don’t realize how far we’ve come unless we look in the rearview mirror.
Now July 2022, we’re gearing up to celebrate our third child’s first birthday (July 14). We had his first birthday party over the weekend. It’s been a surreal and incredible ride since that November day. I often find myself looking at my three children and still feeling surprised my body was able to create them and bring them safely into this world.
Knowing this is our last baby and the last “first” of everything is bittersweet and amazing all at once. I feel an immense sense of relief and comfort being at this stage and knowing I don’t need to count on my body to sustain life through pregnancy or breastfeeding anymore. I’ve made it an entire year exclusively breastfeeding and if you would have asked me if that would ever be possible a year ago, I would have said no way.
One of my fears is when my next flare will be and leaving my children for days on end while I’m in the hospital. While I know it’s a not a matter of if, but when, it puts me at ease that my children are almost out of the baby stage, and I can begin to explain my health struggles and why I may not always be like other moms. When my oldest was born I hoped to stay out of the hospital until he started walking. He starts kindergarten next month. I can only hope I stay flare-free until my other two are that old.
Learning as I went as a woman with IBD
When I think back to that November day and the tough love my GI professed, I’m so grateful I followed her lead and trusted her approach in managing my Crohn’s. Back then, I wasn’t a patient advocate. The only IBD mom I knew was my cousin’s wife. I navigated the waters of family planning and my first pregnancy all alone without much guidance. Each pregnancy I became more well versed on how to juggle IBD and family planning and everything that comes along with it, but I think back to how isolating and overwhelming it can feel when you dream of having a family, but don’t know how to make it happen when chronic illness is in the mix.
No one knows how their family will play out or if fertility or loss will be a part of their story. It’s sad how many women with IBD choose to be voluntary childless, not because they don’t want to be a mom, but because of the limitations of their IBD and overall well-being getting in the way. A day doesn’t go by that I don’t recognize how lucky I am that I “get” to be a mom. Not every day is wonderful, but even in the trenches as a stay-at-home IBD mom of three littles with almost no breaks, I do my best to remind myself of that day my husband and I got sushi and dreamed of living the life we are living today.
Take yourself back to the very first time you needed medical attention for your IBD (but didn’t know it yet). Close your eyes for a moment. Who was that person? Do you know them anymore? How have you changed and transformed since that life changing day?
I was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease July 23, 2005, at age 21. I was blindsided by a chronic illness after growing up as a literal picture of health. A three-sport, in shape athlete, who had never even had an ear infection or been to an emergency room. As a recent college graduate, my world flipped upside down as I struggled to find my way in the real world.
Now, 17 years later, I can tell you firsthand what I, you, and so many others have endured on our patient journeys and how each experience (even the mundane) serves as monumental touchpoints for gaining independence and confidence in making you a more empowered and direct patient.
Let me paint the picture clearly for you
The first time you bravely laid in an emergency room bed and every time there after—not knowing the tests, pokes and probs, and physical scrutiny you were about to go through.
How it feels to be wheeled by a stranger through stark hallways to CT scans, MREs, and scopes, wondering what the results will be on the other side and the repercussions for more medications, a longer hospital stay, or surgery.
What it’s like when you say goodbye to loved ones and they roll you into the OR and you’re shaking like a leaf, all alone and feeling frail and broken, alone with your thoughts and prayers.
The number of moments you’ve watched nurses and even rapid response nurses fumble with IV’s try after IV try and when it’s been more than five, you find your voice from that point forward and start only giving medical professionals two tries before it’s on to the next.
How it feels at the butt crack of dawn when the world is sleeping and the hospital is bustling, waking you abruptly to get more vitals and more labs and you lay alone, haggard, frustrated, and delirious.
The moment when your GI has a heart to heart with you about starting a biologic and having to determine for yourself what route is your preference—infusion or self-injection. Would you rather sit for hours hooked up to an IV drip or sit on your couch with your kids looking on as you inflict pain on yourself.
The times you’ve sat up in the middle of the night wide awake thanks to the prednisone kicking in while the rest of your world is asleep wondering if you’ll ever regain some semblance of control of life.
What it’s like trying to eat meals inconspicuously with your family while they not so subtly watch each bite and every trip to the bathroom with sadness and worry in their eyes.
How it felt driving to a first date or a job interview and feeling like your IBD is a dark secret looming over the conversation and not knowing when to take down your walls and share.
Listening to your friends make comments about health and energy without considering what your experience with a chronic, debilitating illness may be like since you look well on the outside.
What it feels like to look at your reflection in the hospital bathroom. Battered arms, sunken in eyes, a shell of who you used to be. But as soon as you walk out of the door, putting a soft smile on to protect your visitors from worry.
What it’s like to sit on an airplane or be on a road trip with others and silently worrying about whether you’ll be able to make it and what your game plan will be.
When you’re up in the middle of the night doing the second half of colonoscopy prep and wondering ‘why me’ in your 20s and 30s, feeling isolated in the physical, mental, and emotional anguish the process puts you through year after year.
What you’ve internalized each time someone dumbs down your IBD, offers up ridiculous remedies or goes into a discourse about their aunt’s brother’s cousin who “healed” their Crohn’s this way.
When you’ve waved the white flag and alerted family and friends that you needed help or to be seen in the hospital after doing as much fighting as you could against your own body.
The first time you bravely looked down at your incision and saw your body forever changed and came to see your scars as battle wounds.
Waking up each day not knowing what the next 10 minutes will feel like for you and getting after it anyway.
Not knowing if you’ll find your person, but meeting people and having the courage to share about your health issues, even if there are heartbreaks and disappointments along the way.
Deciding to have a baby and discussing family planning, despite all the what ifs and becoming a parent because that’s what you hoped for prior to your IBD.
Landing that dream job with your IBD in your back pocket, not letting the detours stop you from finding the path you were meant to go on.
Celebrate the independence you’ve discovered
The list goes on and on! No matter how old you are when diagnosed with IBD, in that moment we are robbed of our naivety and thoughts of invincibility, and we’re forced to go on a lifelong war and conquest. Our bodies no longer feel like ours. Our dreams feel in disarray. Our people may change and not be who you thought they were. Our hearts may break, but like a phoenix this disease can build you up just as much as it breaks you down.
The reprieve of remission, while not perfect or without symptoms has enabled me to breathe and regain my grounding. In 2015, after three back-to-back bowel obstructions and 18 inches of my small intestine, Meckel’s diverticulum, and appendix removed, there was only one way to go and that was up.
Give yourself grace. Celebrate the independence you’ve discovered that you may not be able to have realized until you’re years out like it took me. And when you’re in the hospital, in for a routine clinic visit or for labs, taking your meds and balancing every daily decision against how it will make your IBD feel, you’ll come to realize what you take on and all you accomplish every day just to survive and thrive, makes you something special. While you may feel dependent on others—and the support of caretakers and a support system can’t be understated, neither can the endless strength that lies within you.
This week I was feeding my 9-month-old a smoothie in his highchair before I had to run to grab my older two from preschool. I realized it was an injection day, so I figured I would do my shot while the baby was in the highchair to get it out of the way. It seemed like no big deal in the moment. But as I sat there and saw the baby food next to my Humira on the kitchen table I started thinking about how life as an IBD mom may feel normal to us, but what we do each day goes above and beyond.
Then my mind started wondering. I thought about how I had taken my oldest to his outdoor fieldtrip last week and refrained from having my morning coffee or eating breakfast so I could curb my Crohn’s from causing me problems. I thought about how my 3-year-old is so intuitive if she thinks I’m in pain, she grabs my belly and pretends to put the pain into her belly, telling me “I love you mama, take a breath.”
Take a breath. Boy oh boy do mothers in general need to stop and take that advice or what? Motherhood whether you have IBD or not is the most beautiful, exhausting, and rewarding challenge. No matter what season you are in it comes with triumphs and challenges it comes with happy tears and sad ones, too. It’s a constant game of trying to manage your emotions and tap into your patience, or whatever is left of it each day. We come to forget that we are also growing up in many ways, just as our kids do.
Motherhood and IBD is a balance of wanting to be all the things but knowing that at any given moment your body can throw your life and plans upside down. There are unspoken limitations.
It’s silently worrying and praying what will happen to your family if you go down and end up in the hospital.
It’s trying to stand tall when all you may want to do is rest on the couch.
It’s seeing your children thrive and feeling so much pride you constantly feel like you can cry tears of joy at any moment.
It’s getting scared when your little one randomly says their tummy hurts.
It’s knowing that your disease robbed you of a great deal—physically, mentally, emotionally, but it didn’t rob you of the greatest gift of all, being a mom.
It’s recognizing all that is still possible, even with this grueling disease.
It’s showing up each day, not only for yourself but for your family.
It’s taking the pain and feel-good days and focusing on one moment in time that feels slow but is going by in a flash.
Take a breath. You deserve it. We weren’t meant to mother alone. Lean on your village. Voice your struggles. Cry if you want to cry. But also, don’t put yourself to unattainable expectations. You have a chronic illness and you’re a mom. Don’t push yourself to the brink. Some days will be adventure-filled, others will be spent on the couch—and that’s OK. Your children are learning from you and gaining innate intuition, and that’s a gift. They’re witnessing that health is not something to be taken for granted. They’re watching you even when you think they are not. What may feel mundane to you, is not. As an IBD mom you are juggling countless extra balls in the air that healthy mothers don’t have to think about. Give yourself credit where credit is due and take a breath.
As she fears for her life each day and every night in her homeland of Ukraine, ElenaSotskova thinks back to when her body started going to war against ulcerative colitis. She was 21 years old. Now, as a 47-year-old IBD mom, she shares firsthand experience of what it’s like to live in absolute chaos and devastation while trying to manage a chronic illness like IBD. Every morning Elena and her family wake up at 6 a.m. to the sound of explosions and gunfire. Oftentimes the internet and electricity go in and out, with repair workers constantly having to restore power.
Before we get into the utter heartbreak and unthinkable sadness, here’s some background. This isn’t the first time Elena has had to run from her home to try and reach safety. Shortly after her ulcerative colitis diagnosis, she fled with her 3-month-old daughter to Kyiv from Crimea, to avoid an abusive husband. At the time, she had the equivalent of 25 U.S. dollars in her pocket. Prior to becoming a mom, Elena worked for one of the largest banks in Ukraine, so she was confident she’d be able to land back on her feet in no time and support herself and her daughter. The stress of the divorce and being forced to start anew exacerbated her IBD.
“My condition was worsened by constant diarrhea, bleeding, low hemoglobin, and as a result, constant fatigue. I tried not to pay attention to it as I needed to work and make money for myself and the baby. My ulcerative colitis limited what I could do and where I could go. I used to be unable to go for walks unless I know where the restrooms were. I always had spare clothes with me and wet wipes, in case I did not make it in time.”
Since then, Elena has managed her ulcerative colitis with Mesalamine, in large doses (6-8 grams per day).
“In Ukraine at that time there was no biological therapy, and even clinical studies of such therapy did not take place. All that was available to patients were hormones and mesalamine. In addition, in Ukraine there is no compulsory insurance medicine (until now), there are no state programs for the treatment of patients with ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease, so I and other patients must buy drugs with our own money. And they are, as you know, not cheap. Compared to the level of income in Ukraine, it is expensive.”
How love found its way
Elena says she was working to buy her medicine. It felt like a vicious, never-ending cycle. But Elena’s luck in the love department took an amazing turn.
“I was lucky, I met a wonderful man, named Leonid who has a son. Leonid later became my second husband. I immediately told him about my illness. He accepted me, my IBD, and my child. He wouldn’t turn away from me or be ashamed when I had an accident at an event or in a public place. He helped me and supported me. And as a result, I stopped being nervous about my ulcerative colitis. I stopped worrying, and after I became calmer, the disease slowly began to subside.”
Leonid also started to take care of all the costs associated with her IBD treatments. Elena credits him for reviving her medically and emotionally, allowing her to reach remission after chasing after it for years. She was able to travel comfortably away from home and see the world through a different lens.
Prior to the war with Russia, Elena had big plans for herself. She aspired to begin her MBA and travel to English-speaking countries.
When the explosions hit
“All plans collapsed at 4 a.m. on February 24, 2022. We woke up to the explosions, saw the message “The Russians are bombing Kyiv, the war has begun.” That was more than a month ago, but it seems like we’ve been living in this nightmare for ages.”
Elena’s daughter, Alina, had recently arrived in Poland to study, but she happened to be home in Ukraine with family when the war started. Prior to this happening her travel plans were to fly back on February 27th. Of course, that all changed.
“She was supposed to fly back to Warsaw on Sunday, but war broke out on Thursday. Immediately, air traffic over Ukraine stopped. And hell began. Kyiv was bombed from the very beginning, we sat in the bathroom during the air raid, went down to the basement or went to the shelter. We did not turn on the lights in the apartment and taped the windows with duct tape so that they would not be knocked out by the explosions. We walked the dog for 5-10 minutes, near the house, so that if the shelling started, we could quickly hide. We live in Kyiv on the 7th floor, and most of all I was afraid that a bomb would hit our house, and we would either be overwhelmed or burned in a fire.”
Elena says for days on end she sat with her husband and daughter in their apartment. Alina would constantly cry. They learned that evacuation trains were leaving Kyiv for western Ukraine. At this point, they decided to send Alina back to Poland.
Nights spent at the railway station
“The most terrible were the three days that Alina and I spent in the basement of the railway station in Kyiv. There is a curfew, you cannot go outside in the evening, in addition, it was dangerous to go outside, because they are constantly shelling. My daughter and I got to the train station and decided to wait here until she could take the train to safety. My husband and son stayed home with the dog.”
The trains to leave Ukraine were like something out of a horror movie. Instead of a train car fitting the usual four people, they were packed with 20-plus people. People were ready to stand for an entire day just to leave Kyiv.
“Alina could not get on the train that was going to Warsaw, and we stayed overnight at the station. At night, the air alarm did not cease, explosions were heard, we went to the shelter (basement) of the station, which for three days turned into a home for us. We tried to sleep on the floor, it was warm, but the main thing was that it was safe. Finally, on the second day, we managed to put Alina on the train to Lviv. She left, and I was standing on the platform crying and praying that the train on the way would not be shelled, and my daughter would reach Lviv intact.”
Elena had to stay alone at the train station for an additional night because of the curfew in Kyiv. She was afraid her IBD would start acting up from the overwhelming stress and worry and terrified she was going to be killed.
“My gut understood me, it “behaved quietly”, and did not give me cause for concern. During the 21 years of illness, I learned to negotiate with him. On the fourth day, when the curfew was lifted, I was finally able to return home, wash myself and clean myself up. And my daughter had already reached Poland and was safe. We thought that somehow, we could adapt to this situation. We had food, water, gas, electricity, and Internet. We thought that we could somehow live in Kyiv. But this turned out to be unrealistic, as soon as dusk came, the city was pierced by an air alarm, it turned on several times during the night.”
Deciding to leave Kyiv
Bombing began each morning between 3 and 4. Elena and her family stayed in their clothes and didn’t sleep. She would take her dog and lock herself in the bathroom while her husband and son were standing in the hallway where there were no windows.
“Then a cruise missile hit a television tower, close to our house. It was afternoon, her son had just gone out to the store for bread, and there was an explosion, a crash, a fire. People who were nearby were killed. My husband said that we needed to leave Kyiv, it was extremely dangerous.”
So that’s what they did. They left for Elena’s mother-in-law’s house who lives in a village outside of Kyiv. There are no military or infrastructure facilities there, so they are hopeful it will not be bombed. As you are reading this, Elena is still there.
“In the village it is calmer, the battles are 30-40 kilometers (20-30 miles) away, we constantly hear artillery shots, gunfire, explosions, and flying missiles. But there is no air raid alarm, which was so exhausting in Kyiv. It’s still impossible to sleep normally. We are afraid that we will be occupied, and we are not where there are active battles.”
Running out of IBD medicine
But, Elena now faces another major issue. She will run out of her IBD medication this week and there is no way to buy it or receive it. Since the war started, she’s heard from countless other patients in the same bind. Doctors have fled, there’s no place to safely receive treatment, and for those who are now refugees or without jobs, they struggle to afford their medications. Elena knew she had to do something.
“I began to write to the European Crohn’s and Colitis Association, manufacturers of drugs, everyone who I could, to find out how to help our patients. Poland and Estonia immediately responded. They understand if Ukraine does not resist, the war will go on, to Poland, and the Baltic countries may also suffer. Now we are in constant contact with our European colleagues and are waiting for humanitarian assistance from them. Packages from Greece are supposed to arrive any day now.”
While Elena’s ulcerative colitis is under control now, she’s been forced to reduce her daily medication dose by half to try and keep medication in her body for as long as she can. She’s starting to feel that reminiscent pain we all know too well when our intestines are making themselves known. The pain, bloating, and diarrhea have been more consistent for her, but she doesn’t feel she’s flaring yet.
“I’m very scared that if I go into a flare, there will be no one and no place to treat me. I am afraid that this war will drag on for a long time, and then it is impossible to predict the condition of either mine or our other Ukrainian patients.”
Her friend was able to find her mesalamine in Kyiv. She bought the medication, but it’s been a week now and the package has not arrived to Elena’s new address. Tomorrow (March 31), Elena’s husband will venture back to Kyiv to try and get Elena the medicine she relies on.
She tells me she no longer cries or has emotions and that every day feels like déjà vu. Sometimes she feels like a robot in an out of body experience. Elena says the Ukrainian people are steadfast, strong, and remain hopeful they will be victorious in the end.
Tomorrow on Lights, Camera, Crohn’s you’ll learn about Elena’s inspiring patient advocacy prior to the Russian invasion, how she co-founded an IBD organization to support the patient community, and how she’s working day and night right now to help the approximate 11,000 Ukrainians who live with IBD and are struggling to manage a disease while living through a war.
The week before my oldest son, Reid, was born I penned him a letter entitled, “A letter to my unborn son, from your mom with Crohn’s disease.” When I wrote that article, I was 38 weeks pregnant. As a first-time mom, living with Crohn’s disease, I had a mix of excitement, anxiety, and fear about taking the plunge into parenting. Tomorrow (March 29th) Reid turns five. Now as I reflect on my experience of living as an IBD mom for half a decade, I want to share what I’ve learned along the way with you and write him another letter to mark this milestone.
Where do I begin? Five years ago, you changed my life in the most beautiful, exciting, challenging, and everchanging way possible. You made me a mom. After more than 11 years of fighting Crohn’s disease and constantly feeling at war with my body, I was able to nurture you, help you grow full-term with a flawless pregnancy, and bring you safely into this world. I feel like I blinked, but I also feel like I’ve known you my whole life.
We’ve been through a lot together, little buddy. As a stay-at-home mom I’ve been by your side through everything. I’ve witnessed every moment of you growing up and I feel eternally grateful for that opportunity. Before you were born, I used to pray that I wouldn’t be hospitalized with a flare up until you could walk. I imagined you as a toddler walking into my hospital room. I feared what it would be like to spend countless days away from you, Facetiming with a smile through the tears or trying to recover from surgery with a little one depending on me at home.
But those fears never became realized. We’ve made it five years, flare up free, baby boy. That’s not to say I haven’t had painful days, procedures, and worries along the way. But you’ve been my greatest motivation since you came into this world. You’ve patiently sat day after day on the bathroom floor when mommy’s tummy wasn’t feeling well. You’ve comforted me on the couch when I don’t have the energy to go outside. You’ve cheered me on as I drank colonoscopy prep each year. You’ve handed me candy and told me it was medicine to make me feel better. You’ve attended countless doctor appointments and lab draws. You’ve snuggled me when you know I’m unwell. You’ve sat next to me with a toy pretending to do an injection alongside me on Monday nights, staring at my face to see if I was hurting. You’ve taken your own shots at the pediatrician like a champ because you’re so desensitized.
You constantly see me through a lens I’ve never been seen through before. I catch you watching my facial expressions. I know when you’re worried about me. I melt when you randomly ask me how my tummy is feeling and if I’m feeling happy, but also feel a sense of sadness that you even need to have that thought cross your mind. You are an empath with a heart of gold. While I wish you didn’t need to witness and experience these difficult moments and I try my best to shield you from my struggles, I know in my heart, and I’ve witnessed firsthand how my disease has shaped and continues to shape our family in positive ways.
As you gear up for kindergarten this fall, I will miss our days…even the long ones! You’ve been a constant in my life since the moment I held you for the first time. Your personality as a baby seemed quiet and shy, boy did you have me and everyone else fooled! You’re so silly, so smart, so thoughtful, so outgoing. You’ve given me a run for my money more times than I can count, but I love that you are so steadfast in knowing what you want and sharing that openly with me.
As an IBD mom I find myself looking at you, and at your sister and brother, on the daily wondering and worrying deep down if one day you’ll get my disease. Every night we say our same prayer, the same prayer I’ve said to you all your life, hugging and rocking back and forth.
“Dear God, keep my baby healthy, safe, and strong. Guide him and protect him. Let him continue to be a light for everyone he meets. I love you forever and ever and ever, I love you forever and ever. I love you forever and ever and ever, I love you forever and ever.”
When I pray for *healthy*, I mean no IBD…but you don’t know that yet. You are a picture of health in every sense of the word. Someday when you’re older you’ll know what I’ve been up against my entire adult life, but my hope is that it will inspire and empower you to be strong through the unpredictable peaks and valleys life will throw your way.
I still haven’t explained fully to you that I have Crohn’s disease. I’m not sure it’s necessary to even say “disease” to you. As you grow up, I’ll tell you more. But for now, I don’t want you to worry or wonder. I hope we get another five years hospital visit-free.
Thank you for showing me all that’s possible and for making me a mom. Five years of loving you, guiding you, and watching you thrive has been magical. When I was pregnant with you there was a Florida Georgia Line song called “H.O.L.Y.” that always made me cry thinking of you—because of the line, “you’re the healing hands where it used to hurt.” The other day I was driving home from the grocery store and that song came on the radio. I hadn’t heard it in years. Instant tears. Instant gratitude.
I love you, Reid Robert. I wish I could bottle up your laughter and littleness. I find myself really staring at you lately in awe that we’re at this point already. You are everything I ever dreamed of and more than I ever hoped for. Thank you for being the sweetest motivation and distraction and for being wise beyond your years. I am so so proud of you. I appreciate you reminding me without knowing it that I am so much more than my disease.