Rolling up sleeves for a hopeful future: Immunocompromised healthcare workers with IBD share their vaccine experiences

Since the start of the pandemic, healthcare workers have carried the heaviest burden. Especially those who are immunocompromised while working in harm’s way. This week on Lights, Camera, Crohn’s you’ll hear from three healthcare workers with IBD who are immunocompromised and have received their first vaccine. It’s my hope that by hearing from these warriors firsthand that you’ll gain a sense of comfort, understanding, and perspective while also understanding the importance of debunking medical misinformation. Our IBD community is delicate and requires more expertise than simply listening to a family member or friend who “read something on the internet” or someone who has a cousin with Crohn’s (or now COVID).

Wearing several hats—IBD Mom and Relief Charge RN in COVID Unit

When Shermel Edwards-Maddox of Houston was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease in 2007 at age 24, little did she know that she’d one day lead the charge in a medical unit in the thick of a pandemic, while having two kids and a husband at home, while being on a biologic.

“It has been both physically, mentally, and emotionally draining. I imagine that every healthcare worker has been afraid however being immunocompromised has added an extra layer of fear. The emotional and mental exhaustion comes from the constant worry of “what if today is the day I catch COVID”? Every time I step onto the nursing unit, I’m aware that I could contract the virus. It’s very reminiscent of IBD and the worry of whether a flare is starting.”

Like many other healthcare workers (and the general population for that matter!), she says the roll out of the vaccine provided her with a sense of relief, but also an understanding about the importance of educating the public about the importance of getting vaccinated. As a nurse, she has a solid understanding of how clinical trials work and knows that more than 70,000 people received the vaccine between the Pfizer and Moderna trials. She was especially excited to receive the vaccine after it was found to be 95% effective. Shermel feels blessed to receive “0.3ml of hope” in a syringe and says many in her shoes feel like they just received their “second wind” after months of being beyond exhausted.

“It was quite emotional. I shed several tears in the days leading up to the vaccine. Those tears were in amazement of how grateful I am to be getting a vaccine that could spare me from this horrible virus that takes the lives of so many. When it came time for getting the vaccine, I felt pure excitement!”

Shermel’s only side effect she experienced was a sore arm, which is expected with any type of vaccine.

The COVID vaccine allows Shermel to not only protect herself but her husband, children, patients, and the community. It makes her feel hopeful to know her daughter will get to see her kindergarten teacher’s face without a mask and that her son will be able to attend his school graduation, free of social distancing. 

From an Ostomy Reversal in March to working as a clinical researcher

Caroline Perry also happens to live in Houston and after battling Crohn’s since the age of eight in 2000, she had an elective ostomy reversal surgery March 4th just as the pandemic was unfolding in the States. She takes Entyvio AND Stelara and says that even though she’s on two biologics, her physician had explained to her that both drugs have a relatively good safety profile. While she wasn’t overly nervous about contracting the virus more than the next person, she has been nervous about how her body would react to it.

As a clinical researcher, her boss, happens to be her gastroenterologist. Having her care team readily available and working alongside people she knows and trusts on both a personal and professional level has helped her cope through the pandemic immensely.

Prior to receiving the vaccine in December (2020), Caroline admits she had some initial concerns and brought them up to her doctor, which is what she recommends everyone does.

“Many people are getting all their information from the internet or by word of mouth and are neglecting to listen to our experts—some even mistrusting them. My doctor gave me lots of evidence on why she believes the vaccine is safe and debunked a lot of my fears, which I found out were fairly common questions or misconceptions regarding the vaccine. I got the information I needed to make an informed decision, and once I had all the information, I was no longer worried about getting the vaccine! I am much more concerned about getting COVID than any potential side effect of its vaccine.”

Caroline says she was so excited to receive the vaccine, not only for herself, but for all the healthcare workers that were in the room with her.

“Sitting in that chair, it hit me. I was really experiencing a significant piece of history and I will never forget the feeling of palpable relief in that room. As healthcare workers, we have heard nothing but bad news for so long, and the vaccine is a beacon and glimmer of hope, at the end of a very long tunnel.”

Due to the pandemic, Caroline and her fiancé canceled their wedding for the time being, but finally feel like they can breathe a sigh of relief. Her fiancé won’t be eligible to receive the vaccine until the last round is available, so until then, she says they will continue to practice COVID precautions and keep up to date with the latest data surrounding the vaccine.

After receiving the vaccine, Caroline still received her Entyvio that afternoon! Her only side effect, like Shermel, a sore arm. As of now, she’s working on COVID research in addition to her usual IBD research. Caroline says this past week was her first time working in the COVID ICU for a new clinical trial, and she felt a lot safer thanks to having the first vaccine.

Juggling Women’s Health while being a mom of 3

Janice Eisleben, a Women’s Health Nurse Practitioner in St. Louis, was diagnosed with Crohn’s in October 2017 while pregnant with her third child. She was initially on Humira, but started Stelara a year ago. Janice happens to work at the OB office I go to, so I know her personally and have experienced her amazing care through my own pregnancies. We connected immediately once we both discovered years ago that we were IBD moms on biologics.

She recalls how scary the onset of the pandemic was, between the limited information and the looming unknown. As a patient with IBD, on a biologic, she wasn’t sure what that ultimately meant for her well-being. When she found out the vaccine was going to start being available to healthcare workers, Janice says she was elated.

“I feel like the vaccine finally offers some level of comfort to healthcare workers who have literally been giving everything they have to take care of patients. And this is not limited to nurses and doctors! The hospital cannot run without the respiratory therapists, housekeepers, and maintenance staff—these people are truly the unsung heroes of this pandemic.”

Janice said she did not have concerns or worries about the vaccine because she had been following the clinical trials from the early stages. She says the energy she felt just standing in line to receive her vaccine was something she’ll always remember and that everyone there was beyond ready to take this next step.

“It was incredibly emotional. I honestly teared up when I received the email inviting me to schedule my appointment. I was so excited that the night before I had trouble sleeping—kind of like a kiddo who can’t sleep the night before Santa comes. This vaccine means so much for us. It means that maybe sooner than later I will feel more comfortable with my kids going back to school and participating in activities. It means that we have less worry about me bringing this virus home from work to our household, and less worry about me getting a severe case of this virus.”

She says she can completely understand why someone would be skeptical of the vaccine, but she encourages everyone to avoid the “Google trap” and to please contact your physicians/care providers to discuss it further. For anyone with IBD, Janice advises you to specifically contact your gastroenterologist. If there is anyone those of us with Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis should trust, it should be our GI!

Janice’s only side effect was also a sore arm, though she does anticipate more symptoms (low grade fever, aches, fatigue) after the second dose, because this was well documented in the trials.

Helpful Resources to Educate Yourself About IBD + COVID Vaccine

About IBD: Podcast Interview with Dr. David Rubin: A Key Opinion Leader in IBD Helps Patients Understand What to Expect with Vaccination

Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation: COVID-19 Vaccines: What IBD Patients & Caregivers Need to Know

Crohn’s and COVID: Hear one IBD mom’s experience battling both

Imagine having a fever for 31 days along with debilitating fatigue, a scratchy throat, cough, and trouble breathing. That was the case for Jessica I., age 34, of St. Louis. She is a COVID survivor, a Crohn’s warrior on immunosuppressant medications, a wife, a mom to two little ones, and an attorney.

Hindsight is 20-20 and of course we know a bit more about COVID-19 now than we did when quarantine and chaos ensued in mid-March, but let me take you back to how this all went down for Jessica and her family. DSC00747

Her daughters, age 4 and 19 months go to the same preschool and daycare. Their last day was March 11th. Jessica received an email from the director of the school saying a record number of teachers and students were out with the flu and strep. Except later it was determined the sickness going around the school was COVID-19. Two teachers landed in the ICU and multiple kids and parents tested positive in her older daughter’s class.

How the symptoms presented

“The first change was extreme fatigue and a scratchy throat, almost like cotton balls were stuck in my throat. Two days later I started with a low-grade fever. I felt pretty lousy for three days—fever, chills, and aches,” says Jessica. “I had one day where I felt better (March 26), but the following day I felt worse than before with a much higher fever and I had a dry cough. I felt constriction in my chest with every breath I took.”

Jessica’s husband was proactive and had ordered the family a pulse ox back in February, so she was able to monitor her oxygenation throughout her illness. She never dipped below 92, but the chills, painful aches, headaches, and fever from 99-101 stayed with her for over a month.

Still not 100%

“Though I no longer have a fever, I still have good days and bad days. I still have chills, aches, and extreme fatigue. It’s way more manageable, but I’m definitely not 100%,” says Jessica. “Luckily, I did not have the smell and taste issues, but because I felt so awful, I’ve lost 25 pounds.” 20190921_161434

Jessica is grateful her Crohn’s disease has not caused her problems in recent weeks. Diagnosed at age 12, IBD has been a part of her life for as long as she can remember.

She had two bad flares during her second pregnancy and most recently an eight-month flare last year. When her Remicade infusion was due this month, her GI was adamant she stay on schedule since she no longer had a fever. Jessica was terrified about getting a biologic on the heels of having COVID-19, so she chose to extend her medication schedule by one week. Her worries were justified.

“In 2006, I got my Remicade when I had mono (hadn’t known at the time) and got encephalitis and had to be in a UK hospital in the ICU for a month. I lost my ability to talk. I almost died. My GI doctor knows of this history, but insisted that I needed my Remicade because of my history of getting flares the last few years.”

Despite her apprehension, Jessica trusted her long-time physician’s recommendations and stayed on her Remicade and Imuran.

Balancing motherhood while fighting COVID-19

The first 12 days, Jessica isolated herself from her family in her master bedroom. Her husband worked a full-time job from home, while taking care of both girls on his own. Once Jessica’s fever persisted after two weeks, they decided as a family to have her come out of isolation because the burden was nearly impossible for her husband to continue to take on. Igielnik-8

“We knew almost for sure that my children were asymptomatic and gave me COVID-19. The next two weeks anytime I was out of my room I wore a mask and gloves. I didn’t make any food. This was so hard because I was still extremely sick and was just supervising play and TV watching for my girls. To this day, my husband and I are still sleeping in different rooms and not hugging and I’m not going anywhere near his food.”

Jessica’s husband is an avid news consumer and was following everything that was happening in China. He started to stockpile food and wipes back in January. Friends thought he was overreacting. His grandparents are Holocaust survivors. Jessica credits his “alertness” to that.

What Jessica wants people to know

Even though Jessica was able to fight the illness without being hospitalized, she says if we weren’t in the middle of a pandemic, she would have gone to the hospital in “normal” times.

“Mild COVID isn’t mild COVID. What I had was considered mild and I was so sick for so long…and I’m still not feeling completely better. I think people would change their mind about the severity of this if they knew someone who had COVID-19 or they themselves experienced it.”

To this day, Jessica still has chest pain and backaches. Her care team believe she has inflammation in her lungs because she was sick for so long.

 

 

Revolutionizing the patient experience through crowdsourcing: Use your journey to make a difference

This blog post is sponsored. All thoughts and opinions are my own.

Coping with chronic illness is complicated. When it comes to IBD, no two people have the same experience, but there are often many parallels and overlaps. Crowdsourcing is now being used to understand how to best treat chronic conditions, such as Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. By empowering patients from all around the world to share information on a large scale and leveraging the power of advanced artificial intelligence to analyze and organize that data, StuffThatWorks is revolutionizing how medical research is done.

Chances are you’ve heard of the popular app, Waze, which allows people to build maps and share data with other drivers to bypass traffic. It’s an app my husband and I use all the time! One of the members of the Waze founding team, Yael Elish, started thinking about how crowdsourcing could be used to understand how to best treat chronic conditions. Yael’s daughter started to struggle with a chronic health condition and wasn’t responding well to treatment. Her illness was taking a heavy toll on the entire family. Yael Elish and daughters_1

“It seems like almost everyone dealing with an ongoing medical condition dedicates endless hours researching, speaking with others, and scanning groups in search of something that can help us feel, and live better. We want to know if there are treatments that will work better, if our side effects are unusual, or if diet or lifestyle changes could make a difference. We look for people like ourselves and seek to learn what works (and doesn’t) for them,” said Elish, Founder, CEO, StuffThatWorks.

When it comes to managing chronic illness, it’s much like trying to find the needle in the haystack—the one treatment that will work best for us. The power lies with patients. We are the people who have tried various treatments and know what’s worked best. Crowdsourcing puts patients in the driver seat. Large amounts of information can be gathered from millions of people worldwide.

“I want people to feel empowered – and validated. To realize that their point of view and experience is not only legitimate but is extremely valuable to helping the world understand illness and treatment effectiveness,” said Elish. “I want StuffThatWorks to be a place where patients can share their collective voice and be heard by the medical community.  Where patients themselves are able to impact and drive the research that is being done about their condition and play an active role in finding solutions that will help everyone with their condition feel better.”

StuffThatWorks Currently Serves 85 Condition Communities

As of now, more than 125,000 people are contributing members within 85 condition communities. Over 6.5 million points of data have been shared! One of the biggest communities (fibromyalgia) has over 15,000 members. PCOS has 12,000.

StuffThatWorks is looking to grow the IBD community.

Right now, there are three communities, IBD in general, ulcerative colitis, and Crohn’s. Of these three, Crohn’s is the biggest with 729 members who have reported their experience with 270 treatments. The ulcerative colitis community has 409 members and 155 treatments in the database.

SymptomsUlcerativeColitis

Take the UC survey: https://stuff.co/s/5sSltbnK

On average, Crohn’s community members report they have tried 6.2 different treatments, and 37% describe their Crohn’s as “severe.” By sharing treatment experiences, our community members can use data to help one another figure out which treatments are best for different subgroups of people.

“The power of this database is that it can reduce the years of searching for the right treatment or combination of treatments. Our platform lets people explore how different treatments work effectively together, and we’re able to analyze everything from surgery and medications to alternative treatments, changes in diet, stress reduction and more,” said Elish.

COVID-19 response

StuffThatWorks is in a unique and powerful place to help advance the research on COVID and understand how it impacts people with different chronic conditions. Who is more at risk? Does the virus present differently in people with certain conditions? Do certain treatments work better/worse for them?

“We are currently prioritizing COVID-19 research by inviting everyone with a chronic condition to contribute to the research by answering questions about their experiences related to the coronavirus pandemic, even if they do not have the virus. We are also inviting all current StuffThatWorks members to fill out the coronavirus questionnaire and contribute to this new research,” said Elish. “We’ve also set up a dedicated coronavirus discussion forum, where doctors are answering questions and providing important information about the latest research.”

In a time when many people are feeling anxious and alone—discussion boards are helping to bridge the communication gap and allow for people to connect with one another. StuffThatWorks community members are seeking support about decisions: Should I cancel my doctor’s appointment? How much am I at risk if I am taking immunosuppressants? How can I help my partner understand my anxiety about coronavirus?

The world is suddenly realizing that crowdsourcing is the holy grail of how to gather health care data on a large scale. The real-time nature of it is particularly important, and the ability to get data from such a vast number of diverse sources.

Crowdsourcing research is limitless: The hope for the IBD community

You’ve heard the adage “strength in numbers”. Once large numbers of people with IBD sign up and become members on this free platform, everyone from the newly diagnosed to veteran patients can find something new and continue to evolve and learn about their patient journey.

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Take the Crohn’s survey: https://stuff.co/s/bzqQR5xP

“I want people with IBD to feel empowered – that this community is THEIRS, not OURS – and that they can determine what it’s used for and how it can be most helpful. They can add new research questions, post personal discussions or experiences and ask others specifically what works and doesn’t for them,” said Elish.

As members of the IBD family, by joining this platform we immediately become part of a supportive community where we can talk with others just like us, either collectively, or one on one, about how we manage and handle the day-to-day with our IBD.

Driving Research through Patient Reported Outcomes

Patients like you and me have power to influence the research direction of the medical world. We are all a piece of the puzzle and play a critical role in helping with the future development of medications and treatments, and hopefully one day a cure.

So much medical research is done using small groups and funding for large-scale research is extremely hard to come by. The opportunities are endless with crowdsourcing, in terms of the research that can be collected and the solutions we as patients can only provide. LightsCameraCrohns-Blogpost_image

Whether it’s shortening the amount of time it takes to get an IBD diagnosis or helping people find optimal treatments quicker, by sharing our experiences we gain invaluable insight into improving our quality of life and managing our chronic illness. It’s truly a win-win for everyone involved.

Check out StuffThatWorks and sign up for free as a member. Take part in building a knowledge base aimed at figuring out which treatments work best. Your story. Your experience. It’s powerful and it all matters.

Telehealth: Where Have you Been All My Life? Making the Most Out of Your Next Appointment

They say there’s a first for everything and that was the case for me with telehealth visits. Nearly 15 years into my patient journey with Crohn’s disease, and I had never had a video chat with a physician. Going into the experience felt a bit daunting, a little uncomfortable. As patients, we get so used to our routine for managing our illness, that changing the course of care can make us feel anxious. I know I’m in the majority when it comes to being new to this whole telemedicine thing. Let me tell you, I really loved it. I walked away from my computer smiling and feeling happy. Here’s why.

Connecting over video saved me time and a whole lotta energy

My commute to and from my GI office is about 35 minutes and usually involves bringing at least one of my kids with me or coordinating childcare. It was awesome to just walk into my kitchen and instantly connect with my physician. We’ve talked on the phone many times in the past when I have a question or an issue but conversing over video made a big difference. You feel much more connected and like you’re sitting in the same room.

I didn’t feel rushed

Oftentimes while in the examining room, I feel like I’m racing the clock to get all my questions asked. It can feel like I’m just one of many appointments in a row and that my physician is bouncing from room to room. There was a sense of calm and a laid-back aspect of the call that sat well with me. It felt like a 35-minute heart-to-heart that was genuine, educational, and comforting. I felt listened to and heard. We talked about everything from my Crohn’s symptoms to my next colonoscopy, and how to handle everything with the COVID-19 pandemic.

We set a game plan in place

Something I love about my GI is that she’s extremely proactive and aggressive. You ask her a question and she immediately has a confident response. I’ve been more symptomatic the past few weeks than I have been for awhile, so she ordered a fecal calprotectin test to see if there was any inflammation going on. My husband, Bobby, picked up the test from the lab and I will bring the completed test in when I get my bloodwork this week. As far as my annual colonoscopy for later this summer, she told me that we should be ok to get the scope in, as that’s an ideal window for when things are expected to calm down COVID-wise. If we waited or delayed the scope, she fears it could be a YEAR until we’re able to do one again. Telehealth-interpreters-tel-1140x500

She determined that part of the reason I may be experiencing more abdominal pain is unintentionally changing up my diet. Something so many of us are doing right now. Our family hasn’t had take-out food since March 12th. While it’s great to have a healthier diet, having less processed foods can make things more challenging on our digestive systems. She recommended I incorporate more carbs into my daily diet, drink more water from a cup vs. a straw or a bottle (as that can cause gas to build up), and even try drinking peppermint tea or having peppermint oil in the air.

Guidance for navigating the pandemic and IBD

I asked my GI about her recommendations for what to do once Stay at Home orders are lifted and how long social distancing should be in place as someone who is immunocompromised from my medication. She said I am free to go to public parks and trails (while wearing a mask) but should stay out of everything from supermarkets to shopping malls through the summer. She advised it would be best to have my husband continue to run our necessary errands while wearing a mask. She’s anticipating a second peak of the virus will happen when the colder weather approaches.

Luckily, Bobby has been able to work from home since March 18th, a benefit of corporate America. When I asked about what to do when he has to go back in the office, she said he would need to wear a mask and at the sign of any symptoms, would need to stay away from our family.

As far as flaring and needing to go to the hospital, my GI recommended keeping her in the loop and openly communicating about symptoms so we can handle as much as we can outpatient. If there is an acute issue (fever, vomiting, etc.—things that happen with an obstruction), then I should go to the hospital as I normally would.

When it comes to IBD patients being tested with an antibody test, she doesn’t foresee that happening unless we are about to go into surgery or have a procedure. Even then, she says our immune response is different than that of the rest of the population.

Recommendations to keep in mind ahead of your telehealth appointments

Come prepared. Have questions. Be open about your symptoms and don’t downplay anything. Your physician can only help you if they know what’s going on.

Familiarize yourself with the technology. I choose to do my call on the computer, much like a Zoom meeting, but through the patient program provided by my office. There was also an option to click a link in a text message and chat like you’re on FaceTime. telemed

Try to have a quiet space for your call where you can focus. Unfortunately, my husband had a work call during my appointment, but I was able to put the baby down for a nap and bribe my 3-year-old with some snacks and TV. He only interrupted a couple of times, but my physician understood and we had a good laugh about how fruit snacks work wonders to calm or distract toddlers.

Ask about billing. Telehealth appointments at my doctor’s office are billed the same as a routine appointment. Make sure your office has your insurance information ahead of time.

Listen to this About IBD podcast from one of my favorite patient advocates, Amber Tresca, and one of the top IBD docs, Dr. Nandi, about how to best prepare for telehealth appointments during the pandemic.