Six years ago, I was shaking like a leaf getting rolled into the operating room for bowel resection surgery. Six years ago, I felt overwhelmed by the thought of my body getting cut into, by the realization of my body having scars, by the fear of the unknown, and feeling as though I had failed myself and those close to me. The first decade I had Crohn’s disease, I always thought of surgery as the last resort. With each flare up and hospitalization, my biggest worry was needing a surgery of some sort. I constantly wondered about becoming one of the 50% of people with Crohn’s who ultimately end up with surgery. August 1, 2015, I became part of that statistic, when I had 18 inches of my small intestine, appendix, ileocecal valve, and Meckel’s Diverticulum removed. Surgery went from being an option to a necessity.
Looking back now—I want you to know if you need surgery, it’s not a reflection of failure on your part as a patient. While it may feel like the world is crashing down around you, you’ll see the pain, the fear, the recovery—it’s all fleeting. Time waits for no one. Before you know it, you’ll be like me. I blinked and it’s been six years. The scars and memories remain, but as more and more time passes, they become less of a big deal.
I’ve had several fellow IBD’ers reach out with questions recently about bowel resection surgery—everything from bleeding to bloating, asking me about my experience, and surprisingly it’s hard for me to remember those details!
I credit bowel resection surgery for removing a decade of disease from my body (not curing me) but giving me a fresh start and ultimately putting me into surgical remission. Remission that has been maintained for six years now. Prior to surgery, the first ten years I had Crohn’s, I was never in remission. Since surgery I was able to get to a place in my disease journey where family planning and pregnancy were possible without any complications or waiting. I’ve been able to bring three babies into the world and haven’t needed to be hospitalized for my Crohn’s since becoming a mom. I went for a walk with my husband and three kids yesterday (August 1, 2021) and found myself reflecting and feeling a great deal of gratitude as I thought about the stark contrast of where I was six years ago in comparison to now.
Tips for Surgery: Before and After
Take a before photo. The day before my surgery, I took a photo of myself standing in front of the bathroom mirror in my bra and underwear so that I could remember what my body looked like before it had scars. I took the picture for myself and have never shared it. When I look at the picture now, I see a girl with sadness in her eyes and a longing for days without pain. I see a girl who is petrified of what could be and praying for relief. I see a thin, untarnished body on the outside, but one that is very sick on the inside. I highly recommend you take a photo of yourself prior to surgery so you can capture that moment. One day you’ll look back on that time and be able to see how far you’ve come. You won’t think of your scars in a negative way, but rather a reminder of all you’ve overcome. I don’t even notice my scars when I look in the mirror now.
Communicate with your surgeon. If your surgery isn’t an emergency and you have some time to talk with your surgeon, make sure you do. Talk with your care team about what the surgery will entail—how many inches of intestine will be removed, if an ostomy is a possibility, where they will do incisions, etc. This will help you mentally prepare for what’s to come. My surgeon came into my hospital room prior to my bowel resection and asked me where I would want the incisions. We knew I would have the laparoscopic incisions, but we discussed a horizontal vs. vertical incision as well. I said I wanted the incision to be as low as possible—he told me he would do a “c-section incision” …which worked out wonderfully for me. I know of many people who have had a couple inches of intestine removed and have a large vertical scar (I had 18 inches taken) and that type of incision was not necessary.
Once you’ve had surgery push yourself to get up and get moving. Don’t overdo it, but every step, every movement will help you heal. Before you know it, you’ll be able to bend down and tie your shoes, walk a little further, and stand a little taller. After my surgery it was a struggle to walk around my family room, then before I knew it, I was walking outside…each day making it to one house further around the block. Before I knew it, I was able to take long walks. When you’re laughing, coughing, sneezing, or driving, have a small pillow nearby to hold against your incision, this will alleviate a lot of the pain. The first two weeks is the hardest. Once you hit the 2-week mark, you’ll feel a ton better. You’ll be able to drive and get around with minimal pain. Just hold on to that thought those initial days when it’s emotionally and physically pretty brutal. I remember crying my first night at home because I was so overwhelmed by the pain and my inability to get out of my own bed. At the time a family member was battling ALS. Her fight and knowing that her health was deteriorating daily, while mine was improving with each hour that passed, gave me perspective and brought me back to earth.
Trust in your care team. Once you have surgery, then the priority is to determine how managing your IBD will look moving forward. I, like many, had this false sense of security after surgery that I felt so great, I wouldn’t need to go back on my biologic…or any medicine for that matter. After a lot of tears and discussion, I followed my GI’s recommendation to re-start Humira and add a bunch of vitamins and supplements to the mix (Vitamin D, Calcium, Folic Acid, and a prescription prenatal). I give my GI a lot of credit for being proactive and having a “come to Jesus” talk with me, if you will. She warned me my Crohn’s disease is aggressive and by going med-free, my risk of being back on the operating table 3-5 years down the road would go up exponentially. Six years later, I’m so glad I listened.
Be patient with your healing. I’ve had three C-sections and bowel resection surgery, and the recovery is very different. I try to explain this to women who come to me with questions wondering about the two. With a C-section you have incisional pain/burning, but with an IBD-related surgery you also have to heal from the inside, too. Organs are cut, removed, and reattached. Your digestion needs to recalibrate. It’s a lot more intense of a recovery than a C-section (which I’m going through right now). Be patient with your body. Ease back into normal activities. After my bowel resection surgery, it took me nearly 8 weeks to return to work full-time at my desk job. Prior to returning to the office, I worked half days for two weeks from home because it took time to heal enough to sit upright in a chair. As your digestion re-works itself, it’s not unusual to have an accident or not be able to ‘hold it’ the same as you could prior. For me, this was temporary. But in those initial weeks and months, it’s a good idea to have a change of clothes in your car or packed with you and to be mindful of where the nearest bathroom is. I had one accident during my recovery—luckily, I was home alone (working a half day), it was mortifying, and I was by myself. Don’t try and rush back to normalcy, give yourself time to heal mentally, physically, and emotionally.
If you find out you need surgery—it’s understandable to be upset. But also give yourself a chance to think of all that could be possible. Try and focus on the promise of how surgery could help you get into remission or at least help you in having more “feel good” days. It’s normal to grieve and to be tearful and fearful, but I hope you find comfort in knowing once you wake up from surgery, you will be on the road to a recovery that paves the way for feeling empowered against your illness. And from that point forward you won’t be as scared of future surgeries because you’ll have a better idea of what to expect and a better understanding of how it feels to be well after being in pain for so long.
After a lot of thought and consideration, I decided to hold off on getting my COVID-19 vaccines until after I delivered my son. Before we dig deeper into this topic, I want to clarify that this was solely my choice, everyone needs to do what they are most comfortable with. Since the pandemic began, unprecedented pressure and stress has been placed on pregnant and lactating women to make one decision or another. For me, as a stay-at-home mom, who continued to keep a low profile while pregnant, I felt more at ease waiting to get my vaccines until after my son was out of my body. My care team made up of a maternal fetal medicine doctor, OB, and gastroenterologist all supported my choice to wait.
My main reasoning was limiting the variables of exposure. All my kids were exposed to Humira while in utero. While there are long term studies that show the safety and efficacy of biologics in pregnancy, you never know. If down the road my son had any health complications or issues, I didn’t want to have to grapple with whether my biologic or a vaccine contributed or were to blame. As an IBD mom, we deal with enough guilt as it is.
So, I chose to wait. Anxiously. Patiently. Luckily, I delivered my third child, Connor Christopher, July 14th, and did not encounter any COVID-19 scares while pregnant. Once I was home from the hospital following my C-section, I talked with my gastroenterologist and OB about getting my first COVID vaccine and scheduled an appointment at Walgreens ASAP.
Getting the first jab
Wednesday, July 21, I finally got my first dose! A little late to the party, but I’m currently exclusively breastfeeding (and pumping), and I’m hopeful that once I’m fully vaccinated (two weeks after my second dose in August), my son will receive antibodies from the vaccine that way. It felt a bit surreal to finally be at a point where I felt comfortable with my personal choice to get the vaccine.
According to the CDC, since January 2020, there have been 34 million cases and 607,000 deaths. As of July 21st, 161.9 million people are fully vaccinated—that’s 48.8% of the total population, or 57.1% of the population older than age 12. Virus variants threaten new outbreaks among the unvaccinated.
Much like making decisions to manage IBD, it’s imperative our community looks at the benefits vs. the risks of getting the vaccine.
Words from leading medical experts in the IBD community
This past week Dr. David Rubin, MD, Professor of Medicine, University of Chicago presented, “Updates on COVID-19 for Patients with Inflammatory Bowel Disease”.
“Everyone needs to be vaccinated, this includes pregnant women and new moms. The Delta Variant is VERY contagious. The data in IBD is reassuring when it comes to immune responsiveness compared to the general population, especially with the two dose mRNA vaccines. Antibodies against many things are transmitted in colostrum, and that may be the anti-SARS-CoV-2 spike antibodies too, which may provide protection to the baby. It’s definitely NOT dangerous to breastfeed after vaccination.”
Speaking of the Delta Variant, according to Dr. Rubin’s presentation as well as guidance from the CDC, “Delta was 1% of COVID-19 cases during the week of April 10th. By the week of July 3rd, Delta is estimated to account for 57% of new COVID-19 cases. Within a matter of 12 weeks of being introduced to the US population, it became the dominant variant here.
Dr. Uma Mahadevan, MD, University of California San Francisco agrees, saying given the ongoing crisis with COVID-19, all eligible people should get vaccinated.
“Breastfeeding mothers can get vaccinated per CDC guidelines and there is data that the antibody from the vaccine crosses to the infant via breastmilk, possibly providing them with protection as well! For many infants of moms with IBD, they have detectable levels of biologic agents in their blood for the first 6 months of life. Having antibody against SARS-Co-V-2 may provide them some protection against getting ill if exposed to the virus.”
Dr. Meenakshi Bewtra, MD, MPH, PhD, Penn Medicine, has IBD herself and has been a vocal advocate for our patient community since the start of the pandemic. She implores everyone to get the vaccine, immediately.
“Don’t wait. In fact, I, every doctor I know, American College of Gastroenterology, and Maternal Fetal Medicine recommend getting the COVID-19 vaccine while you are pregnant. Why? Because we’ve seen what happens to pregnant women who get COVID. There are women who got the vaccine in trials; there were women who got vaccinated while pregnant (>10,000 at this point)—we have a lot of data. The evidence is crystal clear. The same holds for getting it while breastfeeding. COVID is real, it’s out there; you can get sick and die; you can transit it to your infant or others in your house. There is absolutely no reason why anyone should not be getting vaccinated unless you know you have an allergy to something in the vaccines themselves. Your protective antibodies can pass to the infant.”
COVID-19 in the IBD Community and Vaccine Response
Thanks to the SECURE-IBD database, we have more guidance about how those of us with Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis have responded and continue to respond to not only COVID, but the vaccine. People with IBD do not have an increased risk of getting it. Aminosalicylates, biologics, and immunomodulators show no increased risk of severe COVID- 19. Steroids are associated with worse outcomes. And biologic therapy is associated with decreased risk of severe COVID-19 outcomes.
One of the main concerns many of us in the chronic illness community on immunosuppressive drugs have wondered about is the efficacy of the vaccines in our body. Good news—a recent study of 246 patients with IBD who received both doses of the vaccine showed similar adverse events as in the general population. Sore arm, headache, and fatigue are the most common adverse effects of the vaccine. All I had after my first Pfizer vaccine was a sore arm. More importantly, the study showed no increase in IBD flares.
The Prevent-COVID study shows even more promising data with more than 1,700 participants with IBD. Click here to see results of the study—everything from rates of vaccine side effects to lab titers three months out.
As of now, there’s no recommendation or approval regarding a booster vaccine. Pfizer announced that their clinical trial data showed that a third shot may increase antibody levels, but nothing has been published yet. Without more research, it’s unclear if an increase in antibody levels will provide greater protection from the virus than two doses.
Get Involved in COVID-19 Vaccine studies
University of Chicago Inflammatory Bowel Disease Center COVID-19 Vaccine in IBD Study
This study is analyzing the durability, safety, and efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines in patients with IBD, If you are interested in participating in the study (whether you have already been vaccinated or not) please email: email@example.com.
Prevent COVID Research Study
If you are 12 to 17 and have received your first COVID-19 vaccine in the last 90 days, you may be able to take part in PREVENT COVID, a research study to learn about the vaccine experiences of people with IBD. Click here to learn more.
The purpose of this research being conducted at Cedars-Sinai is to understand the effects of vaccination against COVID-19 in people with IBD. To achieve this goal, a national and local group of adults with IBD who are eligible to receive any available vaccine against COVID-19 are being recruited. Within this group we will evaluate the antibody levels of the body’s response to the vaccine. Questions about the study? Contact the CORALE-V IBD Research Team at Cedars-Sinai at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 310-423-5643.
Washington University in St. Louis: COVID-19 Vaccine Response in Patients with Autoimmune Disease
School of Medicine researchers are leading a clinical trial to evaluate the safety and effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines in people taking immunosuppressive drugs. Such drugs are prescribed to treat autoimmune diseases, including arthritis, Crohn’s disease, and psoriasis. Researchers will enroll up to 500 adults ages 18 and older in the St. Louis region. They are recruiting health-care workers at the School of Medicine and patients seen in Washington University outpatient clinics. Eligible patients who have preregistered for the COVID-19 vaccine will be contacted to assess their interest in being recruited into the study. For information about participating in the trial, email email@example.com, or contact either Alia El-Qunni at 314-249-1151 or Lily McMorrow at 314-280-3894.
Use your smartphone to tell the CDC about any side effects after getting the COVID-19 vaccine. The tool uses text messaging and web surveys to provide personalized health check-ins after you receive a COVID-19 vaccine. Depending on your responses, someone from the CDC may call to check on you. Participation is voluntary and you can opt out at any time. Sign up at: www.vsafe.cdc.gov.
I wish when I was diagnosed with Crohn’s in July 2005 that I would have had a look into the future to know that the same body that has gone to war with me time and time again would also bring three miracles into the world.
Wednesday, July 14, 2021 my family grew to five and I became an IBD mom to three kids, four and under. Our latest addition, Connor Christopher, completes our crew.
On the day of my scheduled C-section and Connor’s birth, I felt overwhelmed with emotions. So many thoughts and feelings came to mind—from knowing I would never be pregnant again to recognizing that from this point forward I would never feel the deep remission I experience when I carry a life inside of me.
There are so many sharp contrasts in what pregnancy and deliveries have meant in comparison to life with Crohn’s.
The unpredictable nature of Crohn’s but having three scheduled C-sections all go to plan.
The way it feels to head to the hospital for a good reason.
The fact that my Crohn’s comes up as an aside when conversing with medical professionals and my pregnancies and being a mom comes first as my “identity.”
The perspective and strength IBD has given me when it comes to coping with painful pregnancy-related issues like SI Joint Dysfunction, Symphysis pubis dysfunction, acid reflux that required prescription medication, and C-section recoveries.
The incredible pride and joy I feel knowing that the girl who found out she had a debilitating lifelong disease 16 July’s ago, has carried three pregnancies to term and has a family of five to show for it.
If you’re like me and have dreamed of one day being a mom, explore all options to get there and don’t let your IBD hold you back. You are not less than because of your chronic illness, you are more capable than you think. Your body may surprise you in ways you could never imagine. To me–my children are proof of all that’s possible despite chronic illness.
When I was 21 and found out I had Crohn’s disease, one of my greatest fears was the uncertainty of what my future would look like personally and professionally. While the unknown was daunting and overwhelming, I never really allowed myself to think of not becoming a mom because of my disease. Instead, I shifted my focus to recognizing that getting there may take some detours and careful planning.
Thank you for all the well wishes for my family over the years. Your kind words, interest, and prayers, have meant the world to us and helped me to realize that even though I’m an “IBD” mom… I’m so much more.
Starting on a biologic and finding one that helps manage your IBD can be challenging physically, mentally, and emotionally. Nearly 13 years ago (July 14, 2008) I sat in my GI’s office like a fish out of water petrified of injecting myself with four Humira shots. I remember how daunting and overwhelming taking the plunge into life on a biologic was and know I would have given anything to hear firsthand experiences from fellow IBD patients. This inspired me to launch a special series on Lights, Camera, Crohn’s hearing firsthand accounts from people like you and me, living life on biologics. So far, I’ve covered Remicade and Entyvio.
This week—we tackle Stelara (ustekinumab). Stelara is categorized as a human interleukin-12 and -23 antagonist. Patients receive a one-hour loading dose infusion and follow up with an injection every 8 weeks. As you’ll read, some patients receive their injection every 6 weeks, others every 4. Stelara is indicated for Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, severe plaque psoriasis, and active psoriatic arthritis. As a biologic, it joined the IBD game in September 2016 for Crohn’s disease and October 2019 for Ulcerative Colitis.
“I’ve been on Stelara for almost 5 years. I started taking it right when the FDA approved it for Crohn’s disease. I have only good things to say, because it’s keeping me in remission. It’s easy to administer and doesn’t burn like Humira used to (prior to the Citrate-free formula). I stayed on Stelara throughout both my pregnancies. My GI had me skip my last dose both times I was pregnant, and I re-started my injections once the babies were here,” said Ashley Miller.
Patient Advocate and Co-Founder of IBD Desis, Tina Aswani Omprakash, joined a clinical trial for Stelara to treat her Crohn’s disease. She says it took months to work, but it was the first time in a decade of having IBD and enduring more than 20 surgeries that she was able to achieve remission.
“At that juncture, I thought my life would always be in shambles and that I would never be able to rise from the ashes of this disease. But here I am today pursuing advocacy work and going to graduate school part-time. Modern medicine is nothing short of a miracle and I can’t help but count my blessings every single day to have been given another chance at life again. Thank you, Stelara, for making me whole again.”
Click here to learn more about Tina’s clinical trial experience with Stelara.
Making the Switch
Lauren Gregory is an IBD mom and a pediatric hospitalist. Even as a physician herself, she was nervous about switching biologics. Prior to starting on Stelara, she took Humira injections for 8 years. Unfortunately, the Humira induced numerous medication related side effects that really affected her quality of life.
“I was worried that Stelara wouldn’t work and that I would feel even worse. Switching medications ended up being the best decision. I have been in remission since starting Stelara four years ago and feel better than I have since diagnosis. Stelara also allowed me to have a healthy pregnancy and baby!”
Jenna Ferrara recently made the switch from Remicade to Stelara. Last week, she did her first self-injection and says Janssen was beyond helpful throughout the process. Click here to learn about the Nurse Navigator Program. The program provides a registered nurse (in-person) to help support you as you learn to give yourself injections.
“Between the nurse navigator and sending a training nurse to my house, they made it so easy. I was nervous before my first shot, but thanks to the nurse, it was great!! I’m still waiting to see results, but things have been slowly getting better after only two doses.”
“I tried Stelara after Humira failed me and it never helped or worked from the start, but regardless it was sold to me as the best option. My attending at the time even said it was his top choice for patients and would have put me on it from the start if he had been my GI who diagnosed me. I was super disappointed it failed, but now I’m on Remicade and feeling better than ever,” said Julie Mueller.
Erin O’Keefe was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis in 2017 and initially was able to control her IBD with mesalamine. She started Humira in January 2020 and had what was believed to be a drug-related reaction that landed her in the hospital for 2 weeks and the ICU for 3 days.
“After I was discharged, I was started on Stelara, and I couldn’t be happier with the results. My symptoms are minimal, and I have even been able to re-introduce foods that I tended to stay away from. The injection is easy and I’m so happy not to be taking pills daily. Fingers crossed I can stay on Stelara for many years to come!”
“My 15-year-old son started Stelara last fall after a Humira fail (he was on Humira for 4 months when he developed psoriasis). It seems to be working as his markers and symptoms have slowly subsided. He has also put on some much-needed weight. Therefore, his doctors have recommended that he step up to the adult dose. Their aim to fully eradicate the inflammation—his calprotectin is still elevated. While Stelara is approved for pediatric use for psoriasis, it’s not yet approved for Crohn’s…so there have not been any studies.”-Michelle Boas
Hayley Weiss had to switch to Stelara after Humira caused her to get Psoriasis on the bottom on her feet and the palms of her hands. She just celebrated two years of being on Stelara. The 8-week dosing wasn’t doing enough to keep her IBD under control, so she was switched to every 6 weeks.
“I was doing well for awhile on the 6-week injections, but then at about 5 weeks I was getting symptomatic, so my doctor decided to actually give me another loading dose and I kept on with the 6 weeks for a little while until September of last year. At that time, my doctor approved me for every 4 weeks and that is what I have been doing.”
“I switched to Stelara from Humira in February 2019. I feel the best I’ve ever felt in a long time. A lot less breakthrough flares, energy levels are back, and inflammation numbers are lower than when I was on Humira. I haven’t had any negative reactions and have zero complaints!”- Erin Forman Carmiel
Martin R. was on Humira for about a decade. During that time, he calls the drug a “game changer” for bringing stability to his life when it came to managing his Crohn’s disease and reducing the need for steroids and antibiotics.
“After the regular blood tests for the azathioprine which I’ve been taking since 1992, I showed I had developed antibodies to Humira. I chose Stelara two years ago and it seems to have taken over where Humira left off. I don’t have additional side effects and a longer interval between injections, so that’s a bonus.”
After two years of remission, special education teacher, Jasmine Edwards, started flaring, despite being on Entyvio. Previously, Humira and Remicade gave her drug-induced lupus. Now, after just receiving her first dose of Stelara, she’s hoping the fourth biologic is a charm.
“I’m looking forward to the freedom of not having to get monthly infusions at the doctor’s office. I really hope Stelara puts me in LASTING remission so I can get back to a better quality of life. I’ve been feeling well since my loading dose infusion, but I’m also on prednisone. The only side effect I had after the infusion was feeling tired. In four weeks, I will administer my first at-home injection. I’m nervous about giving myself a shot because with Humira I used the pen, but I’m READY for remission, so I’ll try anything!”
Amanda Hart has had two doses of Stelara so far. Unfortunately, her MRI still shows new inflammation.
“I’ve been increased to once every 4 weeks. If there is no improvement in three months with the higher dosage, I’ll be looking for a new approach. I was originally on Humira, but switched due to my symptoms. Sadly, the symptoms on Stelara have been worse and my diet is more restricted then when Humira was not considered effective anymore.”
Alli Butler was previously on Humira, she finds Stelara makes her feel similarly.
“I’m currently taking Stelara, it has worked great for me and got me through my third pregnancy. Hoping it continues to work well through my postpartum experience.”
Tips for Self-Injecting Stelara
Lori Plung has battled Crohn’s disease for more than 40 years. Since that time, she’s been on four different biologics. She credits Stelara as her easiest patient experience.
“Remicade and Entyvio are obviously infusions—they took time and planning to organize appointments at infusion centers and waiting there while being infused. I was on Humira which was nice to have the freedom to inject at home, but I didn’t like the pen model of injecting. I haven’t had any problems with Stelara. I started my loading dose infusion in April 2019 and give myself the injection every 8 weeks. I love that it’s a pre-filled syringe and that I can do the injection in my home.”
Claire Paschall recommends taking the injection out of the fridge so it can warmup to minimize the burn.
“The automatic needle pullback jolts if you take your thumb off once done and it can hurt (so slowly take your thumb off). I feel like it took longer to build up in my system than Remicade and Humira, however I haven’t had any side effects to report. I have been flaring with my rectal disease, but my small intestine disease is in remission.”
Plea for a Pen-Style Injection
Courtney Meyer started Stelara in March and immediately saw improvement with her symptoms. Previously, she had tried Remicade, Humira, and Entyvio.
“It’s so nice not to have to get an IV after the loading dose. The only downside is that it doesn’t come in a pen option like Humira, and I have difficulty with needles, so I get it administered by a nurse in my GI office every 8 weeks. They inject it in the back of my arm, so I don’t have to deal with the usual stomach or thigh injection sites. It’s the most convenient and easiest treatment of Crohn’s that I’ve been on in 15 years! I was able to stop other medications and I’m just on Stelara. No side effects so far.”
Julianne Bossert was diagnosed with Crohn’s more than 25 years ago. She was on Humira for almost 5 years and says it worked great, until it didn’t. She started Stelara in February and is gearing up for her fourth dose next week.
“I feel like I’m on the cusp of getting better, but not quite there yet. I’m about two weeks out of being off steroids that I have been on for a year. So, my crutch is now gone, and we will really begin to see if Stelara is working. My two biggest complaints are the shot itself. It’s not a pen like Humira, which was way easier to administer. The syringe is way scarier, and they show you how to inject it once and then off you go! Awful anxiety. The other complaint is how different the relief is. When I was due for my Humira about two to three days leading up to I was in bad shape…very sick. But I’d get the injection and feel better within an hour. Leading up to Stelara, I feel awful, get the shot, and still feel awful for days. The turnaround time isn’t as quick for me.”
Emily Beaman is an IBD mom of two who initially started on Humira and was switched to Stelara two years ago.
“I will say the only thing I don’t like is the injection. I prefer the Humira pen-style. I have yet to be able to give myself the injection which means I have to rely on my husband to do it. I find it hurts more than the original Humira did for me (the Citrate-free version wasn’t available while I was on it) I really wish they would come out with a pen-style injection. I worry about if I ever had to give it to myself…that I wouldn’t be able to.”
Stelara Tips for the IBDMom (or Dad!)
Brooke Abbott is a patient advocate, single mom, and co-founder of IBD Moms. She shares helpful tips for administering the injection whether at home or at your doctor’s office.
If injecting at home:
Keep an injecting kit. Have a small kit prepped with alcohol wipes, band-aids, and cotton balls or pads.
Prep the night before. Hydrate as much as possible and make sure you have your kit ready and prepped.
Injection day. Make it a relaxing event. Have your injection before a family movie night so you can get some cuddles in after injecting yourself or being injected.
Normalize your treatment. “Practice” with your little ones with a play doctor’s kit. I used to always play doctor and do fake injections, to normalize living like a patient for my little one.
If injecting at the doctor’s office:
Book Appointments to include self-care time. I try to book appointments for my injections early in the day so I can have time after to do something for me. Whether it’s going to grab a coffee and read, meet with a friend, or have a nice lunch.
Take the LO (little one) with you. I am all about including my LO in my patient life. I want him to be able to ask questions and voice concerns. So sometimes when he is out of school, I will take him with me. It’s good for him to hear the progression of the treatment and to see mommy being brave and getting an injection.
Multitask. Try and take all your blood tests and everything at one time. That way you don’t have to make any unnecessary trips to the doctor’s office.
Let’s Talk Side Effects
Overall, the consensus from patients was little to no side effects—which is a HUGE win. Of course, each person’s experience with IBD and with biologics is unique.
Stelara is the first biologic for Shanna Quinn. She started on it in July 2020 following bowel resection surgery. She found starting off with an infusion was a bit “scary” and much preferred giving herself a shot which she says is “so easy.” In her opinion, making the decision to start a biologic was the biggest hurdle, rather than choosing one.
“It doesn’t hurt, although you do have to go slow or else the medication will sting a bit. One drawback is that I get tired afterwards. I’ve learned to take the day and relax and sleep, if needed. I do my shots on the weekend to allow for that. My GI and I discussed a few options before choosing Stelara. I took a test that asked questions about priorities, risks, concerns, etc. The results gave me details about how each biologic stacked up against your concerns and priorities. Take the “IBD&Me” test for yourself here. Knowing you may need to be on a medication for life or knowing it may fail you is hard to wrap your brain around. I hope IBD will get way more targeted and specific regarding treatment options.”
Lyes Mauni Jalali has found the side effects of Stelara to be more draining than Remicade, but not as bad as Entyvio. He says the first three days after the injection he needs considerable rest.
“I have also noticed systemic night sweats as far out as five weeks after the injection. For me, this is unique to Stelara in terms of my individual experience. The silver lining is that Stelara seems to have generated more stability and normalcy from an IBD symptom perspective. My level of disease is quite severe and to date, Stelara has had the best outcome. One drawback however is that insurance companies are less willing to grant physicians discretion to prescribe more frequent injections. My GI has said he faces greater pushback on Stelara specifically.”
Paula Hepburn has been on Stelara for 1.5 years, it’s the only biologic she’s been on thus far. She feels like it’s working well to control her Crohn’s disease.
“The first infusion gave me crazy fatigue for four days and I often get tired after each injection. Sometimes it only lasts a few hours, sometimes into the next day. I feel fortunate to have access to this medication because it helps control my IBD so well.”
Madison Morgan has been on Stelara for 2 years. She started it following an ileocecal resection that involved the removal of 8 inches of intestine. Madison finds the injections to be easy. She does experience some side effects though.
“I get a headache immediately after the injection that lasts about 15 minutes, the worst side effect I’ve had is yeast infections and UTI’s, I’ve never had them until Stelara and have had 6-7 yeast infections in the last two years and 2 UTI’s. A couple weeks before my Stelara injection (once every 8 weeks, 95 mg), my arthritis from my Crohn’s gets pretty bad, but seems to get better after my injection.”
“Stelara has been amazing! Aside from the infusion loading dose, it’s quick and easy and fairly pain free. I have minimal side effects other than sometimes feeling sleepy after my injection, but other times I have crazy energy. Overall, this is the only biologic that has worked for me for more than a couple of years.”-Bethany Lowe
“I’ve found the injections to be almost painless and I’m a huge wimp with shots. It took a few tries to find the right timing and frequency for my shots, but I do them every 4 weeks and approximately 1-3 days before each shot, I start to get some IBD symptoms…so I know it’s working!”-Danielle Fries
Olivia Lippens was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis 20 years ago. She’s an IBD mom of 3. Lucky for her, she was able to get through the first 18 years of living with IBD without being on a biologic. Unfortunately, she experienced a postpartum flare two years ago that is still wreaking havoc on her life.
“I started Stelara about a year ago. It’s super easy to use. The only side effects I’ve felt are being tired for a day or two after the injection. I feel quite lucky that I was able to start Stelara, rather than other options. It’s easy to take because you do it at home, and the side effects are non-existent for me. Unfortunately, it hasn’t been as effective as we had hoped. I do my injection every 4 weeks instead of 8. From a tolerance and side effect standpoint, Stelara has been a good medication for me, but it still frightens me to be on a biologic. I know everybody manages this dance in their own way.”
Krista Cherrix has been on Stelara for one year. She prefers the syringe injection over the Humira pen but has unfortunately dealt with weight issues since starting it.
“I have gained a TON of weight on it and can’t seem to get it to budge even with diet and exercise. I also have not been able to get pregnant so far, which isn’t necessarily the drug, but I got pregnant with my first (pre-diagnosis) without trying.”
“I took Stelara monthly for nearly 2 years and had no side effects. My diarrhea was still frequent and after having an MRI and a colonoscopy, the results showed that I still have significant inflammation in my small bowel. I am going to be starting Humira in hopes of healing the inflammation.”-Marsha Gagnon
Dealing with Insurance and Cost
Shawn Bethea is an IBD patient advocate and author of “My Tummy Really Hurts”. Overall, she considers her experience on Stelara to be good, but wants others to know there have been some hurdles to cross along the way.
“At first, I truly didn’t think the medication would work for me. I was placed on the standard dosing and scheduled to receive my injection every 8 weeks. During the initial weeks I’d feel great! I had more energy and didn’t feel the sharp pains as I usually did (in my stomach area). I wasn’t going to the bathroom as often and even my Eczema seemed to be clearing up.”
However, after those first initial weeks, she noticed a decline. Her energy decreased, her Eczema became bothersome, and her joints would ache. She communicated her concerns with her GI who prescribed injections every four weeks.
“With any high dollar medication comes unique challenges to those of us who don’t live on a Beyonce budget. Between my insurance, the patient assistance program, and copay, the drug was running about $20,000 monthly. When you have insurance and nothing changes like a lapse of coverage or a job change, this is something you can possibly juggle (depending on the level of coverage/assistance, but mine was pretty good). The problem came in when I changed jobs, lost insurance, and had to wait for new insurance to take effect – which was delayed, of course.”
Shawn stopped taking Stelara, due to lack of insurance coverage, everything was impacted. She began to experience joint pain, became extremely tired, and was using the bathroom more—even experiencing extreme constipation.
“Overall, I love Stelara, but I hate the way our healthcare system operates. No drug should run half of someone’s salary monthly. But I subscribe to the system because I simply want to live and be healthy like everyone else.”
Jacquie Persson has been on Stelara since 2019. She started off with the recommended dosage of injecting every 8 weeks, but after 6 months, she was moved to every 4 weeks.
“Since starting Stelara, my Crohn’s disease has been well-managed I haven’t had to take prednisone since 2018, after depending on steroids on and off from 2016-2018. Financially, being on this drug is a little anxiety inducing. The list price is over $20,000 per injection and I’m constantly on edge wondering when or if my insurance will decide to stop covering it. My copay is over $200. I currently have copay assist which brings my out of pocket down to $5, but what if that program were to go away?”
“I started Stelara in December 2016 after Remicade failed me. I had success with small flares here and there. In March of 2021 I had a big flare—my first in about 5 years and was out of work for 2 months. My GI wanted to increase my Stelara from every 6 weeks to every 4, but my insurance repeatedly denied it and just finally approved it about a month ago, thankfully in time for me to be feeling better.” – Mary Fordham
“The dosing is wild! I started at 8 weeks and now I’m moving to six…and I know some people on every 4 weeks. Insurance has a really hard time approving more frequent injections.”-Catalina Berenblum
Click here to learn more about Janssen’s CarePath Savings Program for Stelara.
Success Stories on Stelara
“Stelara has been a Godsend for me. I had an ileocolic resection nearly five years ago and have maintained remission with Stelara and azathioprine since my surgery. The side effects have been minimal. For me, it’s been one of the easier injections I’ve used. It doesn’t sting or burn like Humira did prior to the release of the Citrate-free version. I take Stelara every four weeks instead of the typical eight.”-Jennifer Ryan Carmichael
Amanda Pennwell was diagnosed with Crohn’s when she was 8 years old. She’s now a mom of 3 and due with her fourth baby this October. She’s been on almost every drug approved for Crohn’s disease. She says she can honestly say Stelara has changed the severity of her Crohn’s the most significantly, with the least amount of side effects and the biggest improvement to her day-to-day life. She started Stelara in April 2019 after flaring with her twins. She was able to get pregnant, have a smooth postpartum experience and breastfeed her third baby while on it.
“Stelara helped me get my life back. This is something I never dreamed my broken body would ever be capable of doing. I’m so thankful that Stelara is continuing to work for me. I have been healthier than ever. I work out all the time and my body feels strong. I haven’t experienced abdominal pain more than a dozen times in the past two years. It’s truly remarkable. Stelara has enabled my husband and I to chase our dreams while raising our babies! I work part-time while staying home with the kids. We our building our dream home and I know I couldn’t keep up with it all if I felt the way I did two years ago. I’m thankful for research and better IBD drugs like Stelara.”
Patient Advocate, Founder & President of Patient Authentic, Lilly Stairs, credits Stelara for saving her life.
“I have been in medically controlled remission for nearly 8 years from all three of my autoimmune diseases – Crohn’s Disease, Psoriatic Arthritis, & Psoriasis. I went from bleeding ulcers in my small intestine and total body arthritis that left me paralyzed in pain to living symptom free and thriving as a solopreneur. I am so grateful for this brilliant medical innovation and only hope that someday all autoimmune patients can have this type of experience on a medication.”
Check out previous biologics that have been featured on Lights, Camera, Crohn’s. These articles have NO affiliation or guidance from pharma. All content was created thanks to countless IBD patients sharing their personal patient journeys with the hope of helping others.
Imagine having a dad who’s a gastroenterologist and a husband who is a GI fellow… and having Crohn’s disease. For 32-year-old, Lauren Gregory, that’s her reality. She was diagnosed with Crohn’s in 2008. Lauren is also a doctor herself and an IBD mom! When she’s not taking care of pediatric patients in the hospital, she’s enjoying time at home with her husband, Martin, and 6-month-old son, Connor. In light of Father’s Day, this week on Lights, Camera, Crohn’s, we share about how the most important men in Lauren’s life have helped her cope and overcome challenges IBD has presented along the way.
Through the eyes of Lauren’s dad
Late one night during Lauren’s college sophomore Christmas vacation from college, her mom called her dad with words he will never forget. She said, “Lauren is having terrible abdominal pain and is on the floor.” After a quick exam and seeing how tender and distended her abdomen were, he knew it was time to head to the closest emergency room. A CT scan showed massive gastric dilation and small bowel thickening. The surgeon was called, and he agreed it was likely Crohn’s.
Lauren was discharged home on a liquid diet with outpatient GI follow up after New Year’s. Unfortunately, her concerning symptoms persisted and her dad called a friend who was a gastroenterologist. He directly admitted her.
“When Lauren was admitted to Barnes Jewish Hospital in St. Louis while in college at Wash U, her then boyfriend (now husband) sat by her bedside for days as she underwent scopes and a small bowel series. We knew he was a keeper then. As parents we always worry about our children. As a gastroenterologist, we may worry more when our children have GI issues. We are fortunate to have connections in GI which allowed Lauren to have prompt evaluation and ultimately a great outcome,” said Dr. Bruce Waldholtz.
Navigating love and IBD
Lauren met Martin in college. At the time, he knew he wanted to be a doctor, but he did not know what he wanted to specialize in. During internal medicine residency, Martin was torn between cardiology and gastroenterology. He ended up choosing GI and is about to start a one-year fellowship to get extra training in IBD and nutrition. (Small World Fun Fact: He is part of the same GI practice I go to in St. Louis!)
Martin says Lauren inspired him to choose gastroenterology and specifically focus on inflammatory bowel disease.
“Watching her go through what she did at such an important time in her life was inspiring. I was so grateful to her doctors taking such good care of her. I wanted to be like them. I wanted to help people like her succeed in living a rich, enjoyable, and rewarding life. “
Lauren feels incredibly lucky to have found someone as supportive as her husband. A month after they started dating, she was hospitalized with a partial small bowel obstruction. The fact he didn’t leave her side throughout that vulnerable and scary experience meant a lot to her.
When Lauren was hospitalized for one week during her fourth year of medical school, Martin was going through his second year of internal medicine residency. They were married, but in a long-distance relationship at the time.
“During residency you can’t just take days off, and it is challenging to find coverage. Because of this I did not expect him to be able to visit, but he somehow did. This flare occurred as I was transitioning from Humira to Stelara. I have been extremely fortunate to have stayed in remission since then (2017).
How personal life impacts professional life
“Without question Lauren makes me a better doctor, especially with taking care of IBD patients. I can understand the anxiety behind the questions they have about medications and what to expect because we went through the same thing as a family,” said Martin.
Lauren says her IBD has given her a unique outlook in how she cares for patients as well.
“My experiences with Crohn’s have made me more empathetic towards my patients, and now that I am a mom, I have much for empathy for my patients’ parents. Spending extra time with patients is not always easy given that I work mostly in the emergency room, but I make a point to take the time to listen to my patients and their parents’ concerns and provide reassurance when appropriate. In my marriage, my husband answers my medical questions and has a realistic perspective of what patients go through.”
Gratitude for her dad and husband
“I realize how fortunate I am to have a father (and now a husband too) who is a gastroenterologist who can answer my questions and to help me navigate our healthcare system, especially insurance! When my gastroenterologist decided I needed to start a biologic, and recommended Remicade, my dad pushed for Humira so that I wouldn’t have to worry about scheduling infusions around my college class schedule or worrying about transportation when I didn’t have a car. At the time I had no understanding of how having a chronic disease would affect my life.”
For IBD mom, Suzy Burnett, reflecting on the past year and half of living through the COVID-19 pandemic causes her to feel flooded with emotions. She knew having three children under the age of five at age 41, while dealing with the ebbs and flows of Crohn’s disease, would be challenging. She delivered her son, Guy, just as COVID cases were starting to soar. Now, she’s able to look back on how her family adapted and thrived, despite the difficult circumstances of living through a global pandemic with a chronic illness. I’ll let her take it away…
Like many families, we’ve worn masks, stayed at home, literally have seen no one except our wonderful neighbors, and made sacrifices to ensure the safety of ourselves and others. We made the difficult decision not to send our 5-year-old to kindergarten, rather, enroll her in virtual 4k from the confines of our home. Our 3-year-old also didn’t attend preschool a few mornings a week like we had originally planned. We have noticed the lack of socialization has impacted her the most. Our 15-month-old is just now meeting family and friends for the first time. He takes stranger danger to a whole new level, but we know he’ll warm up in due time.
My husband, like so many others, started working from home. What was once thought to be a temporary safety precaution, has become a permanent situation. He continues to work in a room without doors while the wee ones race around playing superheroes. Noise canceling headphones have become a lifesaver. All of us together at home, day after day, month after month. Our bond has grown deeper, and our Burnett Party of 5 has survived. I can honestly say we live fuller, laugh harder, hold each other longer, and love deeper.
Dealing with the lifting of the mask mandate
Just as we were beginning to get used to our personal version of Groundhog’s Day, the mask mandate was lifted. This is a huge milestone, but with that brings excitement along with anxiety. My husband and I are both vaccinated, but our 3 young children will have to continue to wait their turn. To say we’re trepidatious about starting to acclimate back into society is an understatement. We’ve been in our little bubble on Welcome Drive for more than a year. I don’t think things will ever get back to “normal,” per say, but we’re looking forward to what our “new normal” will be. It’s a new beginning, a fresh start to be more present, and we have the opportunity to give precedence to things that matter most in life. Things will be a little different than before, and we will always remember and carry the weight that was and will forever be COVID.
We will continue to have our groceries delivered as well as basic necessities, because it’s unclear who is vaccinated, and I’m not going to rely on the honor system of strangers to keep my kiddos safe. However, I am beyond the moon ecstatic that our girlies will both be doing outdoor soccer and playdates with other vaccinated families. My husband will continue to work from home, but this is a change we welcome and greatly appreciate. It has given us time as a family we never knew we were missing. Our oldest daughter, Lucy, will finally be attending kindergarten…….wait for it….IN PERSON. I am so proud of her. She’s sacrificed so much these past several months. She’s handled herself with grace and class far beyond her years. We’re planning our first family trip in over two years, and I am completely overwhelmed at the mere thought of the happiness this will bring.
Coming out stronger than before
It has been months of peaks and valleys, but our mountain remains strong. On top of enduring the pandemic, we lost our family cat, Miles. He was a furry friend to our littles when they couldn’t see their own friends. My dear Grandma Connors was called amongst the angels, and now she protects us from above. I also recently almost lost my sister due to a post birth hemorrhage, but now she rests safely at home with her baby boy. And I am recovering from a nasty bout of C.difficile. Yes, the one time I left the house I picked up a bacteria from the hospital. Through it all though, we’re stronger than ever before because of our strong family foundation.
My point in saying all of this is that we all go through our own struggles. Life is so unexpected, and often we can’t choose what we’re dealt. We can, however, choose how we handle the storm. We’re so grateful for our health, happiness, and each day we’re given. Take NOTHING for granted because every day is a gift. Everyone has been impacted one way or another these past few years, and now it’s up to you to see where your ship will go as you navigate life with IBD and in general. As the tides of the ocean swiftly change, so will the moments in life. Savor the moments.
Being diagnosed with IBD as a pediatric patient looked different in the 1970’s. For 54-year-old Brett L., the start of his patient journey began when he was only nine. The year was 1976. He started experiencing fevers, bloody diarrhea, vomiting, and abdominal pain. As he puts it—the symptoms started a year-long quest to find an answer. A quest that involved frustratingly long waits at doctor offices, endless tests, and medical trials. He was ultimately diagnosed with acute ulcerative colitis at the age of 10. Now, in 2021, Brett has unique insight and perspective to share with our community.
Patient “Number 1”
As you can imagine, Brett spent many years on high dose steroid and sulfur pills. The side effects of the steroids (moon face, weight gain, bloating, mood swings, and ravenous hunger, etc.) added insult to injury. From 7th through 9th grade, Brett missed nearly 60 days of school each year due to severe flare ups and hospitalizations. By the time he was 13, Brett’s parents were desperate for a cure as his condition worsened. With no relief from traditional medicine, they sought out additional care from holistic doctors, nutritionists, even an angel healer at one point! Nothing helped to manage Brett’s IBD.
“In 1981, I was 14. I’d been battling debilitating and severe flare ups that made me so weak I had to crawl to the bathroom or walk doubled over in pain. Each hospitalization was taking its toll. Over the years, though I was growing, I had lost 30 pounds. It was at this point that my doctor proposed something that had never been performed on a pediatric IBD patient—a total colectomy and “pull through” operation that would leave me fully reconnected and waiting for the ileostomy closure…allowing me to eventually go the bathroom normally again after a recovery period of a year or so. It was risky surgery back then. But not having it was a risk too. I agreed, and we went ahead with the surgery.” said Brett.
Brett was deemed “patient number 1” for this pediatric procedure and his case study was published in medical journals. To this day he remembers waking up from surgery in the pediatric ICU at Westchester County Medical Center in Valhalla, NY. He recalls counting 18 tubes and lines connected to his body and thinking that he couldn’t believe he chose to do this to himself. The surgery lasted 14.5 hours and the incision ran from his pubic bone to his sternum—the entire length of his abdomen.
Living with an ileostomy as a teen
“I learned to manage the ileostomy with some upsetting and messy mishaps at the very beginning. And in class sometimes the stoma would make embarrassing sounds. I learned to feel it coming and cover it with my hand to quiet it. But without a colon, I was now a healthy 14-year-old. The doctors said that upon examining what was left of my colon, they estimated I had about two weeks left before a fatal perforation,” said Brett.
A year later his ileostomy was reversed, and he was able to go to the bathroom “normally”, again. While he’s grateful for this—it hasn’t been all sunshine and rainbows. Brett says he initially had an abscess at the closure of the stoma. Ever since, he has gone to the bathroom more than normal people. In recent years Brett developed a challenging case of chronic pouchitis that at its worst caused pain and had him going 20-30 times a night.
The good news is that “after about 4 years of this, I finally seem to have treated and solved it myself, with psyllium husk powder at breakfast and lunch times, and 3 Lomotil pills with dinner. I’ve also reduced fluid intake during meals and become more careful about not overeating. I learned some of this in my online research about immediate post-op colectomy patients. The doctors had a hard time helping me with this, but I seem to have resolved it myself.”
From past to present
Today, Brett is a healthy 54-year-old man and his pouchitis has never been more under control. Through all the ups and downs with IBD, he’s lived a fulfilling life as a professional singer, and as an executive of multiple companies.
“In my career I’ve been an investigator, a head of marketing and sales, I’ve grown startup companies, and have traveled the world for business and pleasure. I’ve earned an advanced degree from an ivy league school, and I have an amazing 16-year-old daughter who is a gifted, performing singer-songwriter in her own right.”
Brett believes his ulcerative colitis has made him more appreciative of life and the little things.
“I have always been that person who lingers over sunsets, gazes at the moon, and stops and notices the teeny flowers poking through the cracks in the sidewalk, or street art, and the coincidental things one comes across as noteworthy or remarkable. I notice and really drink in the happy, good moments because I know what it’s like to not be able to be out and experience these things. I know I am fortunate to be here to tell my story.”
Here are some helpful nuggets of knowledge Brett would like both those with IBD and their caregivers to know:
Don’t let fear of IBD stop you from living your life and having fun, or asking that person out, or going out with friends, when you are feeling well. As soon as I was feeling well enough to get back out there after a flare up, I lived life to the fullest and played like every other kid. You deserve to be there just as much as every other kid, teen, or adult does. When you are feeling well, try to make the most of that wellness, and not let the fear of what might happen stop you from living.
You are not “less than”, because you have an illness. In fact, you may even have an added level of maturity because of your illness that others do not, because of your need to contend with it, and interact more with adults and medical professionals and present your situation to them in a coherent and meaningful way. Look for the silver linings in everything. Notice the small pleasures, they help you get through the down times.
To parents—your child is a survivor. It takes a lot to keep them down. They will have ups and downs with their IBD. But 2021 is the best time ever to have to live with this diagnosis. Current treatments and even surgeries have changed the game and the patient experience, for the better and the future is even more promising. IBD can be traumatic. Children and adults can benefit from seeing a therapist to help cope with the lifelong nature and complications of the disease.
Chronic illness can feel all-consuming, especially while you’re trying to balance work and your personal life. According to 32-year-old Allison Wade of Texas, living with ulcerative colitis since 2008 prepared her for the struggle of infertility after living through a four-year flare. Yes, you read that right. Allison was hopeful her and her husband, Nick, could begin their journey to growing their family. Unfortunately, just as she felt the relief of getting her IBD under control, she found out she would be dealing with another condition where there is not a “one size fits all solution.”
This edition of IBD Motherhood Unplugged looks at juggling the mental and emotional struggle of coping with and mourning your body failing you not only with ulcerative colitis, but also infertility, while also being your own advocate for your care plan. As Allison says the question of “WHY” she’s unable to achieve something that women have been doing forever, haunts her.
Allison is a healthcare worker. Her world came crashing down during the pandemic when she found out bringing a baby into this world would be more complicated than she ever thought.
“When I received news that I was in remission after the four-year flare, I was told we needed to get pregnant right away to capitalize on my IBD finally being under control. I underwent an HSG procedure to make sure that I didn’t have any adhesions or blockages in my fallopian tubes due to the chronic inflammation in my colon. We were told everything was normal,” explains Allison. “I also had blood work completed to ensure that I was truly ovulating and that was also normal. We tried for a year and were not successful.”
Allison and her husband met with a fertility specialist in April 2020. The nearest fertility specialist was two hours away, so they set up a telemedicine visit. During the initial consultation they were told it sounded like they were dealing with unexplained infertility.
“My cycles were like clockwork, I was getting positive ovulation tests, my hormone levels after ovulation suggested that I was truly ovulating, there was no reason as to why I had never seen two lines on a pregnancy test.”
The fertility game plan
Allison and Nick set up a game plan with their fertility team that involved three rounds of Intrauterine Insemination (IUI) plus Clomid. If she was not pregnant after that, the next step was IVF. Allison says she felt overwhelmed but was confident that they were going to be pregnant after the first month. Looking back, she says she was naïve to think that way.
“Emotionally, each month is a roller coaster that comes and goes quickly. Each month that passes you feel the gravity of emotions that come with each negative pregnancy test. Financially, it has been difficult because insurance does not cover my fertility treatments and rarely covers my medications. Let me just tell you that every ultrasound and every blood draw adds up. I have to remind myself regularly of how it will all be worthwhile in the end.”
Keeping stress in check
As anyone with IBD knows, managing stress is imperative for helping to keep symptoms at bay. Along with the worry about getting pregnant, Allison has the fear of flaring with her ulcerative colitis.
She explains, “The biggest area of stress has been managing all the appointments and arranging my work schedule on the days I have to unexpectedly drive to Houston for a 15-minute ultrasound. I am very lucky that my job has been understanding through this time.”
Not to mention she also has to take time away from work to receive her Remicade infusion.
“I would advise other IBD women to find ways to manage all the stress and emotions that come along with infertility and chronic illness. I highly recommend seeking counseling services. It is nice to have someone to talk to who is not emotionally involved in the outcome. It is a difficult time for all women, however when you also have IBD, I feel like you are now adding all these supplements, medications, and appointments to your existing list of treatments for your IBD. Find a way to organize everything so that you’re able to manage everything without getting too overwhelmed.”
Utilizing Natural Procreative Technology instead of IVF
After two failed IUIs, Allison knew IVF was on the horizon. She didn’t feel as though all her concerns were being addressed or that her needs fit into the typical cookie cutter approach.
“I felt like we were being rushed to IVF without any real answers as to why my body was unable to conceive. My husband and I were not emotionally or financially prepared to begin the process of IVF, so we decided to get a second opinion and look at other options.”
This is where Natural Procreative Technology or NaPro comes into play. Allison liked that NaPro doctors look to diagnose the root cause of what is causing your infertility, in hopes that you can conceive naturally without the use of IUI or IVF. The success rates are comparable and often exceed those of IVF, without the increased risk of multiple pregnancies or birth defects.
The Creighton Model of FertilityCare System™(CrMS) is the method of observing and charting important biomarkers in the female cycle. The charting and observational work is the basis of evaluation and treatment in NaPro Technology. Allison has been charting her cycles for the last six months.
“When I went to my first NaPro appointment, the doctor spent an hour talking to me in the office and my husband on Facetime. She answered every question and explained that she would be as aggressive as we wanted her to be,” says Allison. “She wanted me to chart my cycles and to get extensive blood work completed after ovulation to look at my hormone levels. She also spoke to me about diet, stress, activity levels, and she started me on several supplements. When I left that appointment, I was so happy because I felt like she was treating me holistically and was going to find the cause of my infertility.”
Keeping her eyes focused on the future
Allison is going to have exploratory surgery next month to look for scar tissue or adhesions that may be the result of chronic inflammation from her IBD, which could be contributing to her struggle to get pregnant. She is due for her Remicade the same week as her surgery, so she must push her infusion back until her incisions are healed. As a woman with IBD, going through infertility, this is the reality that is often not discussed or thought about.
“While I try to remain as optimistic as possible about creating a baby that is genetically ours and that I can carry, our hearts would definitely be open to both surrogacy and adoption. My dream has always been to be a mother and I will do everything that is possible to achieve that dream.”
She’s a physician in Ethiopia looking to pave the way for those with IBD. She understands the need because she was diagnosed with Crohn’s in August 2016 at age 22 while she was a fourth-year medical student. After suffering from debilitating symptoms for eight months, she finally received a diagnosis. Dr. Fasika Shimeles Teferra says in her home country and in developing countries, she had always been taught that inflammatory bowel disease was non-existent. She felt isolated and alone as she embarked on her journey with chronic illness. There were no resources. No support. She had no clue where to turn when it came to being understood and knowing how to navigate nutrition.
In her school of medicine, an IBD diagnosis was morbid. She was told if she continued to learn about her illness, she’d die from the stress.
“Despite my medical background, I expected death to be imminent. The breaking point which later turned out to be a turning point for me, was when I was suffering from ovarian cyst torsion, explained Dr. Teferra. “Even though I was in remission at the time, every OBGYN who saw me in the ER refused to operate on me. One doctor refused to operate on me because I’m a “complicated patient with IBD”. He wanted to wait to see if pain meds will help solve it.”
Luckily, one doctor decided to operate on her, but unfortunately, she lost her left fallopian tube and ovary in the process. At age 23, she lost half her chance of being able to conceive a child. Her Crohn’s relapsed a few weeks later and depression set in. (Note: Luckily, she is due with her first child in June!)
“I went to my doctor and told him I was quitting med school (I was 5th year at the time and just starting my medical internship). But what he said changed me forever and made me feel less alone. He told me he was treating multiple IBD cases and that my disease was much more common in Ethiopia than most thought. He also told me Crohn’s was manageable with medication.”
Holding onto new hope
With a renewed sense of hope, Dr. Teferra started advocating for herself and looking for local support groups to connect with others who lived with IBD. The problem—she couldn’t find any! She joined a Facebook group based in the United States and recognized the need for support in Ethiopia.
“I reached out to a couple of gastroenterologists here in Addis and told them I wanted to start a support group in Amharic focusing on sharing experiences, supporting one another. My hope was to help others who were struggling with coping with their diagnosis. I thought sharing my story would make a difference in someone’s life.”
Launching Crohn’s and Colitis Ethiopia to make a difference
After speaking with multiple doctors, Dr. Teferra decided to start an organization that would not only focus on support groups, but also advocacy work for policy makers. The last published data on IBD in Ethiopia dates back to 1990s! She recognized this lapse in research led to major gaps in treatment for IBD patients. This inspired her to launch Crohn’s and Colitis Organization Ethiopia in January 2020. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March 2020, it put everything on hold as the world stood at a standstill.
Even though the organization exists, Dr. Teferra is struggling to garner participation in support groups, because sadly the stigma of IBD leaves many in Ethiopia to suffer in silence and shame. She says fellow IBD patients prefer to communicate directly with her, so she has taken it upon herself to meet them and their families to better explain their condition and how to live a full life with it.
“I try and explain to the patient and their family how they can best take care of themselves and how family members can offer compassionate and empathetic support along the way,” said Dr. Teferra. “Many people discontinue their medication the moment they experience a side effect. I’m also passionate about discussing family planning and breastfeeding. Because of my medical background, I am able to give reliable information about IBD and I am able to use my story to guide the narrative.”
Dr. Teferra also has a registered dietitian who serves as a board member for Crohn’s and Colitis Organization Ethiopia. The nutritionist can provide guidance about how to enjoy Ethiopian cuisine and manage diet in the context of cultural foods.
But Dr. Teferra is only one person and can’t address the growing need for support and care. Even though local gastroenterologists have her contact information, and she tries to meet with as many people as possible, as you can imagine, it gets to be a lot.
Bringing IBD to Prime Time in Ethiopia
During an interview about COVID-19 on national television in Ethiopia, Dr. Teferra took it upon herself to also speak about IBD.
“Since it was Primetime, I was able to reach multiple people at once and I was able to send out the message that those with IBD are not alone. I plan to use such platforms to continue to share facts about IBD and that it does exist in Addis. In the meantime, I am working hard to find a researcher who can work on this with us. We cannot challenge policy makers without evidence, and we cannot change the minds of the medical community without research.”
Dr. Teferra says gastroenterologists in Ethiopia can testify that IBD cases are increasing daily. There is lack of medicine, lack of education, and lack of understanding. Many patients struggle to afford medication and choose to discontinue it because of lack of availability.
Overall, Dr. Teferra main mission with Crohn’s and Colitis Organization Ethiopia is to improve the quality of life and health literacy of people living with IBD in Ethiopia and provide the patient community with a better understanding of their condition by empowering them to take charge of their own health.
Connect with Dr. Fasika Shimeles Teferra on Twitter: @DrFasika.
As an IBD mom I see it as a responsibility and an opportunity to participate in research studies while I am pregnant and as my children grow. I’m currently 20 weeks pregnant (tomorrow!) with my third baby and this time around I’m enrolled in the Pregnancy in Inflammatory Bowel Disease and Neonatal Outcomes (PIANO) study. The project was conceived, lead, and executed by Dr. Uma Mahadevan, Professor of Medicine at the University of California San Francisco in 2007.
Since the project launched, more than 1,800 women have participated in the registry. Of that number, over 900 stayed on biologics throughout their pregnancies. I’m thrilled to be a part of this initiative. If my pregnancies and children can provide clarity for a future generation of IBD moms, the extra effort on my part is more than worth it. Thanks to women before me who have been on a biologic and been a part of research while pregnant, I have peace of mind knowing that staying on my Humira is best for me and for baby.
Without studies that indicate how babies in utero respond to medication exposures we would be in the dark about what is best for mom and baby not only during pregnancy, but with breastfeeding.
“There is so much misinformation about pregnancy and IBD including being told not to conceive at all or to stop medication. This is incorrect and dangerous. PIANO was started to provide reliable data for women with IBD considering pregnancy so they and their providers can make an informed choice for themselves and their babies,” said Dr. Mahadevan. “Every pregnant woman with IBD has benefited from the generosity of PIANO moms who contributed their outcomes, good or bad, to the pool of knowledge we have. Every PIANO mom who contributes benefits not herself, but future mothers with IBD. It is an invaluable and precious gift.”
What PIANO measures
There are four main areas the PIANO study looks at:
Whether the level of biologic drug transferred across the placenta to the infant by the time of birth predicts the risk of infection or other adverse outcomes
Whether the achievement of developmental milestones is affected by medication exposure
Whether the rates of birth defects, adverse pregnancy outcomes and complications of labor and delivery are affected by IBD medications
Whether second trimester drug levels can be used to adjust drug and minimize transfer across the placenta to the baby
Since I am just now reaching the halfway point of my pregnancy, I have only had to fill out questionnaires. You are required to do so during each trimester, at the end of your pregnancy, and then at 4, 9, and 12 months post-delivery. Along with that, you can provide follow up until your child is 18, once a year. During this trimester I will also provide blood work and a fecal calprotectin. On delivery day, bloodwork will be taken from me, my baby, and my umbilical cord. Depending on my son’s blood work at delivery, I may be asked for more when he’s 3 and 6 months. If at any time I am not comfortable with him getting his blood drawn, I can always opt out. The cord blood is similar to the baby blood at birth so that is adequate. I can also choose to stop the annual questionnaire at any time.
If a woman receives the COVID-19 vaccine during pregnancy, the PIANO study is also measuring the antibody levels found in the cord blood (on the day of birth) to confirm that the benefit transfers to the baby. Breastmilk will also be measured for the transfer of protective antibody against COVID.
The Findings Thus Far
In a presentation this past fall, Dr. Mahadevan shared findings from PIANO.
“We looked at pregnancy, birth and developmental outcomes in the infants at one year, based on exposure to drug, and found no increase in negative outcomes and no reduction in developmental milestones. Biologic‑exposed infants did have some statistically increased improvement in developmental milestones compared to the unexposed group. Overall, what this study suggests is that women with inflammatory bowel disease should continue their biologics and thiopurines throughout pregnancy to maintain remission, given no evidence of harm, and evidence that disease activity can increase miscarriage.”
The study also found that disease activity can increase preterm labor and birth, all the more reason for women to stay on their medication and not try and go med-free while pregnant.
Looking to the Future
Currently, there is no end date for the study. As long as there is funding, the project will continue. Dr. Mahadevan says with all the new medications coming down the pipeline there is a need for safety data. She says, “The infrastructure of PIANO allows us to study new medications as they come to market, even before they are approved for IBD.”
To participate in the study women must have IBD and live in the United States. Interested in learning more or getting enrolled? Email PIANO@ucsf.edu or call 415-885-3734.