Finding “Hope” and grace through motherhood and IBD

Connecting with women who battle inflammatory bowel disease and juggle it all is empowering. When I came across Hope (@hopeheartandhome) on Instagram, I was immediately impressed by her upbeat, real-life look at life as a stay at home, wife and as a blogger. Weeks passed by—and she mentioned she had Crohn’s disease in her in Insta-story. I sent her a direct message because there’s so much we can learn from one another as we navigate motherhood and life in general with inflammatory bowel disease. IMG_2070 (1)I specifically was interested in featuring Hope because she’s pregnant with baby #2!

Hope is 28 and lives in Charlotte, North Carolina with her husband and two-year-old daughter, Evie. She’s due with her second baby this October. August marks 10 years since she was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease. In getting to know Hope, her name fits her to a T. She is inspiring, driven, funny and focused on living her best life—despite her disease.

Like many of us, Hope was young when she received the life-changing diagnosis. At only 17—she had her entire future before her. In November 2012, after numerous hospital stays and an abscess that would not go away with IV meds, she had surgery to remove her ileum. Unfortunately, post-surgery she faced several complications ranging from a pinhole leak, surgery to repair the leak, as well as a serious case of MRSA. Hope says thanks to her faith in Christ and the support of family and friends, she came out stronger than ever with a 7-inch battle scar to prove it! Hope has been taking Cimzia injections ever since and has been able to maintain remission.

As a woman with IBD–did your Crohn’s present any complications or issues along the way with your first pregnancy?

Hope: “I answer this with an insanely grateful NO! I am extremely blessed that my body reacts so well to pregnancy. In fact, my gastro doctor often teases me that I need to have alllll the babies because my body loves being pregnant. I say this with sensitivity, as I know it is a struggle for many women and due to surgery IMG_1446complications, the doctors I saw were pretty sure I would have difficulty conceiving; however, I am so thankful that God has given me grace in that aspect of my life. I will say that my first pregnancy was a bit of an “oops”, BUT my body was in 100% remission and I believe that greatly contributed to my success. This time around—knowing that I wanted to get pregnant, I made appointments with my GI and had blood-work, a colonoscopy, and wound up having to have an MRI to rule out any potential flare up. Thankfully, I was flare free and my doctor gave us the “ok” to try and conceive. I attribute much of our success to my remission. A healthy mom has a much greater chance of conceiving successfully in terms of Crohn’s Disease.”

How has Crohn’s impacted your role as a mom and a wife?

Hope: “Wow. This a big question! I’ve honestly never really thought about it impacting these roles of mine. I see Crohn’s as a little portion of who I am. It’s a very unglamorous and annoying part of me that I don’t like…but, it’s a part of me and therefore my story. Truthfully, I have been so blessed to have been in remission for about four solid years now, so my roles of wife/mom haven’t been altered by it, and for that I am extremely grateful. It was a long and bumpy road to get here and I would be lying if I said the thought of having a flare up doesn’t terrify me. IMG_1914It definitely does, BUT I try to live my life with as much positivity as I can and a lot of laughter. I’ve found that Crohn’s has matured me far beyond my age in years and that has helped me navigate the endless responsibilities that come with being a young wife and a young mother. I never take health for granted and I am thankful every day for the opportunity to raise my child(ren) free of feeling sick. I get fatigued faster than the average person due to Crohn’s, but I am so used to it, it’s my normal. Also, have you ever met a mom who is full of endless energy?! Nope.”

Now you’re pregnant with baby #2, first of all HUGE congrats! How has this pregnancy compared to your first one–how are you feeling in comparison, etc.?

Hope: “Crohn’s-wise I feel wonderful and am experiencing zero symptoms. Pregnancy wise I am much more exhausted this time around thanks to my full of energy little two-year-old! Second pregnancies are very different… the “newness” is gone, and you know what to expect and I haven’t had a minute to daydream about this baby as often as I did with my daughter, but that’s because she keeps me busy! We’re excited to see if a little boy or another little girl will be joining us this fall!”

What advice do you have for women with chronic illness who aspire to be moms themselves?

Hope: “Patience and prayer. God hears our every thought and I truly believe He desires to give us the desires of our own hearts. The biggest thing I have learned in my life as a Crohn’s girl is that our timing is not our own. IMG_2023We must surrender to Christ and let him lead us through the highs and the lows. If you aren’t a person of faith, my prayer for you is that you find peace in either the waiting of becoming a mom or peace in the journey of motherhood. It is not easy at all, but it is so worth it, and I pray for every woman who might be struggling to carry a baby because of this disease. It truly breaks my heart to think about that suffering. When I was pregnant with Evie, I joined a study called the PIANO study which stands for Pregnancy and Neonatal Outcomes in Women with Inflammatory Bowel Disease I answered questions during pregnancy and at birth I brought in a lab kit where we sent off blood from me, from Evie, and from my umbilical cord, to study if any of my medications got to my baby. There was no trace of Cimzia in Evie’s blood or the umbilical cord which was wonderful and a big part of why I take Cimzia, as it does not pass the placenta. But, I mention this study to share my passion to help all women with IBD reach their dream of motherhood. I crave more information about this disease specifically for those moms struggling. Know that you’re not alone and you have many people rooting for you and your future babies!”

How do you find time to focus on self-care and combat the fatigue associated with not only motherhood, but IBD?

Hope: “I have not mastered this at all, but I am trying. Working out is something I do for me…my 45 minutes of endorphins, alone time, and knowing I am fueling my body. Open communication with my husband is another thing that helps me focus on self-care. If I am feeling exhausted or just needing some time, I tell him. We must communicate on how I am feeling to fully be a team. And hey, same goes for him! I’ve learned a lot about friendships/relationships and making sure that I set my time and energy on things and in people who are truly rooting for me and my family and vice versa. Life is too short to spend it stressed out or surrounded by people who are not life-giving. That’s been a hard lesson for my people pleasing self, but, being strong in my beliefs and in who I am and what I want to put out into this world has helped my mindset and overall health tremendously.”

Tell me about your blog Hope Heart and Home. With more than 11,200 Instagram followers you must keep busy! What inspired you to start the blog? 

Hope: “This blog was originally started by my sister and I actually had my own blog, but once image1 (10)Evie was born, my blog kind of fizzled and after awhile I was missing that creative outlet. My sister was pregnant with her second at the time and we decided to join forces and it was so much fun for us! Recently, my sister has taken a step back from blogging and is pursuing different passion and focusing solely on her family, so the blog has evolved again into an outlet for me. I am an extrovert and love talking with new people/sharing recipes/getting advice/looking at the newest trends/home decor/etc. so blogging just seems like a good fit for my personality. I am a stay at home mommy first and foremost, but the blog has allowed me to have something else that’s just mine and just for me.”

Interested in connecting with Hope? You can do so by emailing her at: hopeheartandhome@gmail.com or following her on Instagram (@hopeheartandhome).

 

Addressing compassion fatigue as a patient advocate

Every hour of every day we live with inflammatory bowel disease. Once you hear the diagnosis, it’s a part of you… every. single. moment. of. your. life. That alone—feels isolating and scary. When you decide to share your personal patient story publicly, you open yourself up to a world of support. Natalie-7As a patient advocate, you also become somewhat of a confidante and voice of reason for your peers in the community.

While it’s incredible to be able to connect with those who live your reality, there are times it can feel overwhelming. Personally, as a patient advocate, who’s battled Crohn’s disease for nearly 13 years, I consider myself well-versed on the topic—but, all I know, are my own experiences. IBD presents differently in every person. Part of being a patient advocate is showing support for others living your same reality. The girl in the UK who was recently diagnosed and nervous about heading off to college. The young man in Nebraska going through a bowel resection surgery. The kindergartner receiving her Remicade treatment.

Since my bowel resection surgery in August 2015, I’ve been able to manage my disease with daily medication and a biologic injection. Luckily, I’ve felt well most of the time since then, and haven’t been hospitalized since my surgery. That being said—when friends (many who I’ve never met) and strangers reach out—through email, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, texting…you name it…round the clock…desperately asking for advice and support…my heart sometimes starts to ache with stress.

I want to be sensitive with how I word this article, because the LAST thing I want is for people to stop reaching out when they need advice or support. Photo by J Elizabeth Photography www.jelizabethphotos.comWhat I do want—is for people to recognize what compassion fatigue is…and how as chronic illness advocates and caretakers we need to be mindful of how we’re feeling and internalizing the struggles of those around us.

The overwhelming nature of compassion fatigue

When people ask me about my diagnosis, my bowel obstructions, my surgery… it draws a great deal of emotional energy, and at times, can open up proverbial wounds. I’m happy to share my patient journey with transparency and honesty. But, day after day, year after year, these conversations can be a burden. A burden because I truly worry and care about each person I talk with. Even if I’m feeling well and in remission—the disease stays top of mind and I start to question my own well-being and health.

Like everything in life, finding balance and making time for self-care is paramount. The IBD family is a fantastic community of support. I am just one piece of the advocacy puzzle. It’s all about maintaining that balance in a healthy way, recognizing when the fatigue is taking over—and knowing when to take a breath and step away. I’m much better able to connect with people when I’m recharged and energized. If I’m at the end of the rope all the time, I simply don’t have anything to give, and everyone loses.

blog photoI offer support from the bottom of my heart, but as a mom and a wife, I do need to recognize when it’s time to unplug and take time for myself. When my baby naps each morning—I spend that “break” on my computer writing articles about IBD, participating in Twitter Chats, and talking on the phone with those who want to hear about my patient experience.

Recently, my husband said we should start a new rule in our household, no phones after 8 p.m. I was thrilled with the idea. So often when we put our son to bed we resort to hanging out on the couch, with the TV on and phones in our hands. Much of that “free” time I used to spend responding to messages from those seeking IBD support. Sometimes you just need to put down the phone and recognize how important those right in front of you are. The people who are by your side every single day. Your family. Your caretakers. Show them the love and the attention they deserve. Nurture the relationships that matter most to you. Be present in the moment.

Compassion fatigue ebbs and flows. Like anyone who battles fatigue from IBD, some days I feel like I can take on the world and spend all my free moments on the phone or responding to emails. Other days it takes A LOT of effort for me to email back someone who I’ve never met and discuss why I chose Humira, how my pregnancy was with Crohn’s, etc. Time is precious. I absolutely hate not responding almost immediately to everyone who reaches out, but please be patient with me.

IMG_0535As part of my self-care and disease management I need to de-stress, so I don’t put my own health at risk. This article is painful for me to write—I can’t stand admitting that I am struggling to do it all. But, compassion fatigue has been something I’ve been feeling for a few months. I want to be the best advocate for others and do all I can to make a difference and show there’s so much life to be lived outside of your disease. I want you to see how much you can thrive with this disease and all that you can accomplish. I want to be the person I needed the day my world turned upside down when I was diagnosed. I want to be all the things. But it’s not possible. It’s not fair to me, it’s not fair to you.

My call of action to you

When you reach out, if it takes a few days for me to respond—don’t think it’s because I don’t care or won’t reply. I will. If you have questions about why your prednisone is making you feel a certain way or how to do a colonoscopy prep—check with your GI first. Oftentimes many questions and concerns are covered extensively on blogs and in articles—a simple Google search may give you all the information you need. Lastly, know my concern and wish to help is genuine, but there’s only so much of me to go around.

I’ve been in the hospital bed. I’ve been too weak to walk up a few stairs. I’ve been on 22 pills a day. I’ve sat on a news desk and anchored countless shows while dealing with my disease in silence. I’ve woke up on my wedding day unsure of what my disease would do. I’ve been pregnant and dealt with the fear of flaring while creating a life. I’ve done a lot as a patient and a person. So, when I’m feeling well and trying to enjoy the feel-good days that I have…that can be taken away in the blink of an eye, please understand that I’m here for you, but need to also take time for me.

I’m going to leave you with this quote from Daniel Garza, an AIDS, Cancer and Ostomy advocate. Daniel shared this eloquent description of patient advocacy during the HealtheVoices conference I recently attended in Chicago.

“We all have this fire. We’ve been in quick sand and high tides and made it to the end. Despite the doubts, after everything, we don’t want other people to go through it. We’re the coat we put on the puddle, so people don’t get their feet wet. We don’t care if we get dirty again.”

In closing, allow me to continue to be that coat on the puddle for you, but please have a little patience with me.

5 tips for finding flexibility within yourself while battling chronic illness

I’m a planner. Always have been. Always will be. But, as my grandmother always used to tell me, “Tell God you have a plan, and he’ll laugh at you.” That seems to be the case all too often for those of us in the chronic illness community. If you’re like me, each flare up and hospitalization has occurred completely out of the blue. I’ve bIMG_2413een blindsided each and every time. I’ve worked a full day, trained for a half marathon, taken a road trip…you name it…and BAM…hello, bowel obstruction or abscess.

So, how can we go about our lives as normally as possible with the ever-looming dread of the next setback and flare? It’s easier said than done, but it is possible. I’ve battled Crohn’s disease for nearly 13 years, this perspective and knowledge took time for me to gain. When I was first diagnosed, flexibility and patience weren’t in my vocabulary. But, like all things in life, time helps us heal and time teaches.

Here are five helpful tips for finding flexibility while taking on your illness:

  1. Do your best to live in the now. Rather than focusing on the past hiccups in your journey, live in the moment. Feeling well? Capitalize on this. Go outside, meet up with friends or family, get some exercise. Natalie runningIt’s these fleeting moments of invincibility that provide us with a chance to live like the rest of society. It may seem simple, but recognize these moments, verbalize them with loved ones. Celebrate the small joys, that are a big deal.
  2. Stop beating yourself up over what could happen. Many people in the chronic illness community talk about how common post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is. We’ve all faced some challenging, debilitating moments that have shook us to our core. Of course we don’t want that to happen again. Don’t place blame on yourself. Instead, give yourself credit for all you do on a daily basis to manage your disease—whether it’s watching your diet, taking medication or making an effort to practice self-care.
  3. Put your health first, don’t push yourself to the brink. Nobody likes to cancel plans or be a no-show at big events and social gatherings, especially when you’re actually looking forward to them. But, by putting other people’s needs before your own and worrying about what people might say or think of you—you’re only putting yourself in harm’s way. Be mindful of how friends and family members react when your disease is symptomatic. Are they supportive and understanding, or do they make you feel bad for bowing out? When you’re too tired, in pain or struggling, that’s a message from your body telling you to slow down. Please listen.
  4. Roll with the punches of treatment. Trying to wrangle a chronic illness into control is exhausting. It’s constantly a chess game. When you no longer respond well to your biologic, when you’re put on a new medication, when you’re told to try eliminating sugar, dairy, gluten or all the above…try to give everything a shot and a chance. IMG_0230Think about the risk vs. the reward. It’s emotionally draining when nothing seems to be working or helping to ease your pain, but, staying positive and open helps us all physically, emotionally and mentally. Keep an open mind with your healthcare providers and have two-way communication. Educate yourself, learn about the clinical trials and treatment options out there—be your own best advocate. Connect with others who are living your same reality. Trust in other peoples’ journeys, but recognize your journey is unique and so is everyone else. Each person’s IBD presents differently.
  5. Be the first to admit when you need help. IMG_0077By telling someone you are struggling, hurting or worried, you are not showing weakness. You are not complaining. If you are going through a dark time and wonder how you’re ever going to overcome a current setback, lean on your support system without hesitation. Internalizing your pain will only make matters worse. You’re still brave and resilient, no matter what.