The steps one IBD mom and teacher takes to stay healthy, while being immune suppressed

Biologic drugs have the ability to give many of us in the IBD community a chance to live a much fuller, and well-rounded life. But there are trade-offs, especially when it comes to our immunity and the ability to fight off infections. As a mom of a 2-year-old and 6-month-old whose been on Humira for more than 11 years, I’m extremely cognizant of protecting my kids from sickness to not only protect them, but myself. I often feel as though people may think I’m over the top with worrying about illness in my household, but quite honestly, unless you or someone you love is immune compromised, it can be a difficult concept to grasp.

This week–a special feature from a Maryland elementary school teacher with indeterminate colitis. Meet Lisa Lacritz. lisaShe’s a 38-year-old wife and mom who juggles two autoimmune diseases. She also has Hashimoto’s disease. Since she started on Remicade in 2018 following her IBD diagnosis, she’s experienced the difficulty of  warding off illness while being an elementary school teacher and a mom to a young child.

“Shoes off, hands washed!”  My son knows the routine by heart. Every time we come into the house, shoes come off and hands get washed. I like to think that all of my years spent worrying about germs when I didn’t need to be, were fantastic training for when I actually needed to be concerned.

When I was diagnosed with IBD, I was hesitant to get on a biologic because of my fear of being immunosuppressed. I’m an elementary school teacher and when I started on Remicade infusions, my son was only six. I basically spend my day in a Petri dish. fullsizeoutput_269aDealing with the symptoms of IBD was more than enough–how on Earth would I be able to handle that plus avoid picking up viruses at school and in public?

Taking steps to be proactive 

After I got sick on the second day of school last fall, I decided that washing my hands frequently wasn’t going to cut it. I have always been a frequent hand washer, especially at school, but I needed more protection. At first, I was nervous about how others would perceive me. There were a lot of confused looks by coworkers and students when I would politely decline to use someone else’s pen. I started carrying a pen with me everywhere to ensure I wouldn’t have to use a communal pen. Now people know that I always have “my” pen with me and that I don’t share it with others.

Another thing I’m very careful about is touching door handles and knobs, especially the door to the main office. The main office is where you can find the school’s health room, where every sick kid passes through. I either wait for someone else to come and open the door, or I use a barrier such as a paper towel to open it and then wash my hands right away.

I never touch my face and I keep my phone in a plastic bag (quart size bags work great!) so that I keep school germs at school. Kids are definitely puzzled by that last one, but I explain that I need to keep germs away as much as possible, and if I need to touch my phone then my phone gets the germs on it so I protect it with a plastic bag.

Worrying less what others thought and making my needs a priority

fullsizeoutput_3800I really needed to stop caring about what others think and prioritize my health. One of the most surprising things to me was that people really don’t understand what immunosuppression means. Some people think I’m just a paranoid germaphobe even after I’ve explained that I’m immunosuppressed. They don’t understand that a simple cold for them, can mean days of sick leave for me due to a secondary infection. Or a fun day swimming in the bay can mean a bacterial infection for me that lasts for weeks and causes symptoms similar to a bad flare.

Yes, it is mentally exhausting to worry about immunosuppression on top of all the other things chronic illness brings. Plus being a teacher. Plus being a mom.

As much as I hate getting sick, the worst part for me is missing out on doing fun things with my son. IMG_0580Somehow my body knows when we have something fun planned and chooses those times to conk out on me. When I’m lying on the couch at home feeling sorry for myself while my husband and son are at a friend’s New Year’s Eve party or Memorial Day BBQ (both events I missed this year), I try to remind myself that Remicade is what allows me to lead a relatively normal life and be able to do things like go sledding with my son on a snow day and take him Trick or Treating. I couldn’t do those things when I was in a bad flare before treatment and definitely can appreciate them more now. I just make sure shoes come off and hands are washed right when we get home.

 

Self-Love: Learning to love your body despite your disease

Self-love. Self-care. These phrases tend to be thrown around quite often these days. At times they just sound like trendy buzzwords. But, they are important topics nonetheless.

Do you ever pause during your day-to-day routine and think about how you’re really doing—physically, psychologically and emotionally? When you live with a chronic illness like Crohn’s disease, taking time to honor all that you do to merely function and keep up with the general population is worth recognizing.

image8It’s not easy to be in constant battle with your body. It’s a challenge to feel pain often. It’s exhausting to always have a worry and a wonder in the back of your mind about how you’re going to navigate and overcome the next hurdle or setback thrown your way. This is why self-love is so important.

So, here’s my call of action to you. Rather than focus on all we’re unable to do or all that we struggle to do, it’s time we celebrate and recognize everything we CAN do. We are so much more than patients. We are people. It’s easy to wish about a life of perfect health, but despite how my disease has ravaged my small intestine and led to pain elsewhere in my body—whether it’s in my joints or from the osteoporosis in my back—I still manage to get up each day and live a very full life, with a perspective I never would have gained without this journey.

IMG_5494Since being diagnosed, this body of mine has still served me well. I managed to work full-time and live out my dream of working in television for the first ten years I had Crohn’s. I trained for and ran in 5ks, 10ks, 15ks and a half-marathon. I felt completely healthy and on top of the world on my wedding day (didn’t have one bathroom break!). My body was a safe haven for my children throughout pregnancy and allowed me to bring a healthy son and daughter into this world.

It’s those “accomplishments”, those big “wins” I choose to focus on. It’s the moments when I felt like my peers. It’s the times Crohn’s wasn’t top of mind and I felt like everyone else. halfmarathonIt’s when I felt invincible if only for a moment, whether it was crossing the finish line or holding my babies on my chest for the first time. It’s the victories along the way that help me push through on the difficult days and through the flares. Because while those times push me to the brink of breaking, I tell myself there’s only one option—and that’s to bounce back.

I’ve been that girl staring in the mirror wondering ‘why me’. I’ve been that girl with tears falling onto my thighs as I sat on the toilet hating that I had this dreadful disease. I’ve stood in the shower and watched the water hit my resection wounds and felt ashamed that my body was no longer scar-free. I’ve been all those things—but as the years go on and as my diagnosis days get further and further in the rearview mirror, that girl who wondered ‘why me’ is becoming a distant memory. That girl is now a woman, a mother, a wife and so much more. Crohn’s is a part of who I am, but it’s far from my identity.

By altering your outlook and your perspective and loving the person you are and the body you have—despite the physical and emotional scars left behind from past battles—you open yourself up to self-love. sophia40dayblessingPat yourself on the back for all the steps you’ve taken to rise up. Smile through the tears with the confidence in knowing you will get through this—one day, sometimes one hour at a time.

It’s ok to have bad days. It’s ok to struggle. That’s all part of it. Just make sure you give some extra care, love and attention to the person you see looking back in the mirror. You’ve been through a lot. And you’re still here. Fighting. Living. Breathing. Now all you have to do is believe in your strength and love yourself for your resilience.

 

 

How motherhood has helped me discover I’m so much more than my IBD

We walked out of the automatic rotating doors of the hospital and the cold air hit my face. I looked up to the sky in thanks, to show my gratitude and to take in the moment. We had our baby girl in tow, our Sophia Shea. img_5915It was a brisk January morning. Tears filled my eyes as I was overcome with emotion. Our rainbow baby is here, safe and sound. Another pregnancy behind me, a pregnancy that silenced my Crohn’s disease and provided sweet reprieve from my chronic illness. It was time to take Sophia home and start our life as a family of four.

When your health is taken from you and when you receive a diagnosis of inflammatory bowel disease, life prior to illness often feels like a distant memory. There’s something so sacred and so special about bringing a healthy life into this world, despite your own shortcomings.

My Sophia, much like my sweet son Reid, are my inspiration and motivation to push through the difficult days and find strength and perspective within myself. The creation of their lives has renewed my faith in my own body. img_5886Each time I have a procedure or deal with painful symptoms, I see their faces, I say their names in my head, and it brings me a sense of calm. My goal when Reid was born, was to stay out of the hospital until he could walk, luckily that’s been the case. He’ll be two in March. Now, I have that same goal following the arrival of my daughter.

Pregnancy and child birth bring about such an amazing, miraculous transformation. You see life created right before your eyes. You experience a shift in your own identity. There’s nothing like it. There are no words to capture the emotions and the overwhelming love you feel for your children.

Finding the balance: Motherhood and IBD

17-untitled-9166Motherhood and IBD can be a difficult and challenging balance. Some days the fatigue and symptoms are so debilitating you feel like you’re falling short. At the same time, the days where you’re feeling well, remind you that you are so much more than your disease. Just because you have a chronic illness, doesn’t mean you are robbed of experiencing the beauty of life and what it feels like to have your very own family.

Women often reach out to me with questions regarding fertility, conceiving, pregnancy and what it’s like to take on parenting while battling IBD. There are so many unknowns. I know it can be daunting. img_5751It all starts with recognizing where you are in your patient journey and then determining when your symptoms and body are in the best shape to get pregnant. While everyone’s disease experience is different—the worries, concerns and fears associated with parenting and chronic illness are often the same. Always know you are never alone. Communicating these feelings with those around you, makes all the difference. Lean on our patient community and all those who’ve lived your reality.

I treated my pregnancies the same. I had colonoscopies prior to trying, to ensure I did not have active disease. Once I received that green light, I discussed my game plan with my OB, high risk OB and my GI and had monthly and sometimes weekly appointments. Each time—I stayed on my medication and vitamins from start to finish, which includes the biologic drug, Humira. I had scheduled c-sections for both. It’s all about finding what works for you, what brings you comfort as you embark on this journey and being confident in your decisions. It’s your body. It’s your baby.

29-untitled-9292When Sophia Shea entered the world January 14, 2019, our family received a wonderful gift. Between our son Reid and our baby girl, we could not be more blessed. My chronic illness has given me such an appreciation for health and for life in general. With the pregnancies behind me, I often reflect on where I started back at age 21 in 2005. At that time, in my eyes, I was Natalie and I had Crohn’s disease. There was no telling what my future would hold. Now, nearly 14 years later, at age 35, I’m so much more. I’m a mom to two under two. I’m a wife. I’m a daughter. I’m a sister. I’m an aunt. I’m a friend. And I also have Crohn’s.

 

When I looked in her eyes, I saw myself

I recently met a 15-year-old girl who was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease. Like many parents of teens newly diagnosed with inflammatory bowel disease, her mom reached out to me for words of advice and comfort. It’s not too often that upon learning this news and connecting with families that I get to meet both the parent and teen in the same room, at the same time.

Maybe this can be chalked up to pregnancy hormones. Maybe it was because my heart hurt for her. It was probably both. But, I kept getting emotional looking at her and talking to her. My eyes welled up with tears because without her saying a word, I felt and could see her pain. In that moment, I felt like I had time traveled back to the first few months of my diagnosis.

I felt the loneliness and isolation she was feeling, even though she was in a roomful of people. I watched as we ate dinner and she quietly sauntered in the hallway, behind the kitchen table to make her way to the bathroom…more than six times in less than an hour. I listened as people questioned why she wasn’t eating…and told her to get ready for dessert. Her mom telling us as she was in the bathroom that she’d dropped four pounds in the last week and only had an Ensure to drink that day. I told everyone to stop talking about food and allow her to come into the kitchen when she felt ready. I remember all too well how it feels when people are watching you like a hawk, questioning every morsel you put down your throat. Food and the relationship we have with it while taking on IBD and navigating familial relationships and friendships can feel like psychological warfare.

She pulled her mom to the side after she overheard her telling me about her medical issues and told her not to tell anyone. I touched her arm and with tears in my eyes, I quietly told her I’ve had Crohn’s for more than 13 years…and that I understood how she felt. I pointed to my 18-month-old running around and to my baby bump and told her that if she wanted a family in her future, it was still possible, despite her disease.

Oftentimes, it can be difficult to connect with teenagers, because they seem guarded and are private about their disease. For many, it’s still a top-secret part of who they are. I get it. I took me nearly a decade to share that I had Crohn’s disease with the world. There’s no sense in rushing anybody. We all find the time that is right. We all know when we feel strong enough physically, mentally and emotionally to open ourselves up to questions, opinions and thoughts from those around us. It’s completely normal to want to keep others (especially strangers) at arm’s length, because during those impressionable young years, you don’t want to be seen as different. You know the moment you say, “I have IBD.”… it’s truly your reality. Your identity, how people view you…it’s all forever changed.

A message for parents

Parents—I know it must be SO difficult to feel like you’re on the outside looking in at your child in debilitating pain as they deal with the burden of a lifelong disease for which there is no cure. If this is a “new” disease to you and your family, you probably feel overwhelmed by all the information on the internet, what you’re hearing from specialists and what is best for your child. Lean on people like me, who live your child’s reality. Ask us the questions. Talk to us about how it feels. Equip yourself with knowledge and understanding so you can get acclimated to life with chronic disease in your family, just as your child needs to. It’s a learning process for every person in the family. Have patience. I know it sucks. I know there are times you just feel like screaming from the tallest mountain… “WHY IS THIS HAPPENING!!!???” I know you are reminiscing back to when life seemed so simple. When health was never in question. There’s no use in romanticizing the past.

You must embrace your new normal and be a pillar of strength for your child. If they see you waver, if they see you upset and frantic, that will directly impact how they feel. Communicate with your child and see if they’d like to talk with someone else who is living with Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis. If not now, maybe later. The IBD family is strong, resilient and welcoming…and we’re not going anywhere.

 

When life hands you lemons: Brittany’s story of resilience while battling Crohn’s

Imagine being hospitalized with a Crohn’s disease flare. Now, close your eyes and picture yourself in Germany, surrounded by doctors and nurses who don’t speak English. Brittany7You have your husband and children, but other than that…all your family and friends are thousands of miles overseas. That was the case for my college friend, Brittany Cable. Brittany was diagnosed with Crohn’s in 2007, about a year after she had her oldest son.

It’s one thing to take on IBD and be surrounded by family and friends who you can lean on for support, it’s an entirely different situation when you have to take on your disease in a foreign place, with nowhere to turn. Luckily, Brittany is now back in the States, with a strong support system nearby.

As an IBD mom, Brittany flared after all three of her pregnancies. While she was pregnant, her disease was well-controlled. She was able to bring three, beautiful, healthy babies into this world—despite her own health issues. brittany

Throughout her patient journey these past 11 years, Brittany has been on Asacol, Lialda, Uceris, Humira and Entyvio. The prednisone bursts and tapers have been difficult—to say the least. At one point, she was on 80 mg a day! To anyone who has been on prednisone, you know that’s a monster amount. After my initial diagnosis, I was on 60 mg for three months, so I can attest firsthand about how much of a struggle that presents due to all the side effects.

Brittany is a super-mom in every sense of the word. She’s now a single mom, raising three children, as she takes on Crohn’s. She works full time and has full custody of her children. She does this all alone. I’ve known Brittany for 16 years. She’s always been a super strong person with a great sense of humor. Brittany3Despite the hardships and heartbreak through her life, she’s never allowed the difficult moments to dull her spirit. She tells it like it is and isn’t ever shy when it comes to sharing her story. I’ve always admired that about her.

As Brittany says, the constant fatigue, body and joint aches are what she struggles with the most now. Every day after work, she is tired and wants to crawl in bed, but she knows her kids depend on her and need her. She knows dinner needs to be made and soccer, swimming and other activities have to be attended. It’s one thing to be a single mom and have your health—I can’t imagine living her reality and doing it all on her own. But she does. And her kids have thrived because of her herculean efforts to be there and be present, every single hour, of every single day.

So how does she do it? Brittany says, “When I think about my journey so far, I figure if I made it through having three kids, living in a foreign country and my husband leaving… all while managing Crohn’s disease, there isn’t any thing I can’t do. Every time I get a stomachache, I still fear that something horrible is about to happen, but I think that’s normal for all of us on this journey. So I take everything that comes my way one day at a time. My children will not suffer if I don’t make a home cooked meal every night. Sandwiches or pizza are okay!”brittany2

When Brittany’s husband left her and their children, she was sure the stress and drama of it all was going to throw her disease in a tailspin. But it didn’t! Instead, the hardship has empowered her to trust in her faith and seek counseling. She chooses to tell herself everyday that she is stronger than her disease and even if it attacks again, she knows she will get through it. And I know she will, too. Because that’s Brittany.