Forecasting the weather and life with IBD: What this meteorologist has to say

On the last day of 8th grade most kids are anxiously awaiting summer and moving onto high school, but for Candace Monacelli, that wasn’t the case. Instead, June 7th, 2007, she was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease at age 14.

As you can imagine, a lot has transpired since that monumental day. Candace now works as a morning meteorologist and reporter in Grand Rapids at WXMI-TV. She’s been at her current station for five years and has worked in the TV business for seven. This week she shares how Crohn’s has impacted her life but didn’t rob her of her hopes and dreams of working in TV news.

When it comes to going after your dreams and following your career aspirations, I see a lot of Candace in myself. We recently connected on Instagram and realized the parallels of our experience. Despite my Crohn’s diagnosis, I went on to work in TV news 3 months after finding out I had Crohn’s. I worked on morning shows for 7 years, she’s a morning meteorologist. We both do/did what we could to be the bubbly/happy on-air morning gals, while facing major battles and pain internally. We both encountered serious hospitalizations and bounced back to be on camera shortly thereafter. Being on steroids is hard enough…going on camera while on steroids and being judged by keyboard warriors and unkind strangers is a whole different story.

A walk down memory lane

My family and I had never heard of Crohn’s disease before and knew nothing about it or what my life would look like moving forward. I was sick for months prior to my diagnosis. My parents and I learned along the way, but my mom was my right-hand lady at every doctor’s appointment trying to figure out my illness. My parents were just so happy to have a name and a cause to me being so sick, they just described it as my stomach not being normal and we would figure this all out together. Then, I was put on steroids which resulted in weight gain and being bullied.”

Aside from hurtful words from her peers and juggling life as a teen with doctor appointments and colonoscopies, Candace says her disease at the time was well-managed with 6mp. When she moved onto college, she dealt with the challenge of wanting to live life like a typical student. By the time she was ready to enter the real world she not only graduated from college but also onto biologics (Humira).

Life in the TV spotlight

While in high school Candace discovered she loved public speaking and visited a local television station—she was hooked. Since she was already a decade into her patient journey, she didn’t second guess going after her dream of working in TV news as a meteorologist and reporter.

“Everyone thinks of Crohn’s as a pooping disease and while it is so much more than that, it is still a factor of the disease. The hardest part of my job is the limited time or access to a bathroom. Either I am covering something in the field with no restroom nearby or I have two minutes during a commercial break to hurry to the bathroom and be ready to go on air again. There’s been some interesting behind the scenes moments, but luckily, I am open with my crew and choose to be lighthearted about the bathroom aspect.”

Over the years, Candace has learned how to read her body and know when she can’t push through or make it on air.

“When the light goes on, it’s showtime. No matter how I am feeling… there’s been many days where I feel terrible but must put on a smile because I look perfectly healthy and it’s my job to come off that way. Being in the public eye with IBD can be pretty taxing some days.”

Juggling surgeries, abscesses, and fistulas

Up until this story—Candace has not spoken openly about her struggles with abscesses and fistulas. As a public facing person, discussing this private and often taboo topic is something that takes a lot of guts to be open about.

“Abscesses and fistulas make you feel so broken and constantly worried that if someone finds out the truth, they will instantly think you are the dirtiest person on this Earth. My palms are sweating, and I feel like I could puke, knowing strangers will now know this about me. But I am sharing in hopes to help that one person that is feeling just as alone as I do somedays.”

Even after five surgeries, Candace still has problems with abscesses and fistulas and somedays are better than others with numerous new challenges in her life.

“Sitting for a long time is now my own personal Olympic sport because it’s painful some days. I used to consider myself a runner, but that is now off the table for me, and my bathroom breaks are different. It’s been a scary learning curve trying to figure out how to handle something so foreign, that is now very much a part of every aspect of my daily life.”

Candace joined specific Facebook groups for her condition, as she desperately searched for others going through the same reality. More than anything else her family and friends are really what get her through.

“Every single person close to me has helped me know I am not alone and helps me get through difficult days, whether it’s a simple ‘how are you feeling?’… or crying with me on the bathroom floor.”

Going back on air after surgery

The first surgery to treat her abscesses and fistulas was an emergency and was unexpected. Candace was back on air four days after being discharged from the hospital.

“It sounds just as crazy as it was, but I am a stubborn Italian and never let Crohn’s win, so I somehow went back to work. My parents and boyfriend (now husband) weren’t happy with me, but I insisted on returning to the job I love. I remember having to practice getting in the car and making sure I could handle driving around my neighborhood the day before, since I leave for work at 2 in the morning.”

Candace remembers waking up that day, knowing what she just went through, and what it felt like to go back on camera in front of thousands of people who had no clue what she was enduring.

“I remember talking to myself on the ride to work thinking “what are you doing Candace you are a mess.” That first day back was mentally very hard to smile and pretend I felt like a million dollars when I did not. No one wants to watch the “sick” meteorologist on air so I couldn’t be that girl. Behind the scenes was an interesting hot mess as I had to put a blanket down to lay on the floor to work or just take a break since I couldn’t sit – I had to lay down at work for a month or more after each surgery.”

Candace learned her lesson and she didn’t rush her recovery after more recent surgeries.

“I found that allowing myself to heal and rest is not letting Crohn’s win but doing what is best and needed for myself in that moment. The stubborn Italian in me still struggles with giving myself time and grace, so it’s a work in progress.”

Being an open book with viewers and the community

Candace’s viewers know she has Crohn’s disease. She decided to openly share her experience with IBD to spread awareness and help make a difference.

“If I can share my story and experiences to reach one person and make them not feel so alone, then it’s one thousand percent worth it to me. I’ve also covered and shared numerous stories of IBD warriors within my community and get media coverage for all the Crohn’s and Colitis foundation events every year. The more awareness the better and I am blessed with a perfect platform to help make that possible.”

Advice for fellow IBD warriors

Candace has this advice for anyone worried about their futures—whether it’s a parent with a child who has IBD, or someone diagnosed at an early age.

“Where there is a will, there’s a way. Everyone has a cross to carry in life and our cross just happens to be IBD. In a weird, twisted way, this disease makes you strong enough to conquer whatever you put your mind to. We see people with IBD be professional sports players and movie stars, to everyone in between, including little old me… every IBD warrior can do whatever they dream to be one day. We are warriors fighting a battle every day, whether it’s big or small. Even when you yourself or someone you care for is sick or having a tough day, we need to know better days will happen again – just like the weather it can’t always rain forever…. You will feel better one day.”

I asked Candace what she would tell her younger self if she could go back to when she was diagnosed in eighth grade. Here’s what she said:

IBD will challenge you more than you can ever imagine but will also make you into the strong person you love. The life God gave you is tough, but it’s nothing he knew you couldn’t handle. It’s a battle you won’t ever lose. One day you will get everything you prayed for, even through everything Crohn’s throws your way.”

Candace is in remission in terms of her colon, but her rectum is still problematic and causing active disease. She gets Remicade infusions and avoids eating too much dairy, spicy foods, and salads. Candace drinks one cup of mushroom coffee most days and eats a mostly plant-based/Mediterranean diet.

Finding love with IBD

Candace met her husband on Match while working in her current TV market. She says they fell in love fast, and the rest is history!

“We moved in together, he proposed, and we had to postpone our wedding because of COVID. Now, we’re finally married and have a new house and a puppy. Life is good! My husband is the most loving and caring man helping me through all things Crohn’s. He is a saint straight from the heavens being right there by my side through everything. He has even spent one of his birthdays with me in the hospital for a surgery. He pushes me when I’m in a hole and feeling sorry for myself to help me realize my worth and remember that Crohn’s doesn’t completely define me.”

Connect with Candace

Instagram: @CandaceM_wx

Facebook

Twitter

Putting Specialty Pharmacies on Blast (cough, Accredo)

Ah, specialty pharmacies. Just hearing those two words probably makes you feel a certain way. I’ve been coordinating my Humira through mail-order shipments since July 2008. Nearly 14 years now. Since that time, I’ve dealt with several different pharmacies. Each job change or insurance shift has resulted in a specialty pharmacy update. Lucky for me, each transition has been seamless. Except for now. My husband’s company switched specialty pharmacy providers at the start of 2022. I went from using Alliance RX Walgreens to Accredo Express Scripts.

The first shipment went well, but my second month was a mess. I’ve ordered Humira monthly—163 times to be exact. This was the FIRST TIME I didn’t have my medication on time and had to do my injection late. This week on Lights, Camera, Crohn’s a look at the literal and proverbial headache countless chronic illness patients are forced to deal with month after month and my advice as a veteran Crohn’s patient for all specialty pharmacies moving forward.

Here’s how it all played out (This ordeal gave me a pounding headache)

I ordered my Humira over the phone like I always do, and I was told it would ship to me on Thursday, February 3 and arrive on my doorstep February 4. That day came and went. Radio silence. Crickets. No communication about a delay due to winter weather. Mind you, the roads were cleared, and the snow had stopped the day prior.

I called Express Scripts on Saturday, February 5th and spoke with 2 call representatives, or as they call themselves “patient care advocate representatives” …insert laugh. Both representatives were incredibly dismissive and told me conflicting information. The first told me the shipment went out FedEx on the 3rd…but that she didn’t have a tracking number. She insisted on giving me the number for FedEx so I could track down the shipment or go to a facility to pick it up. Um, no. I refused and told her she should be able to track it down for me and that this was not my responsibility. She told me I could talk with a pharmacist about my concerns about my temperature-controlled medication being out in the elements during the Midwest winter for five days.

She puts me on hold for 10-minute stretches, and finally after 3 times, I ask to speak to a manager. She tells me she has a manager on the line and that she’ll connect me through, but I end up on hold, again. Finally, she returns and tells me the supervisor can’t receive her call, so I tell her to just call me back directly.

While this is going on, I have another call going through on my husband’s phone in hopes of getting through to someone. That representative was even MORE dismissive. Did not apologize. Acted like I had an attitude and told me there was nothing she could do.

When the “Resolution Team Leader” called me back directly she informed me that shipments go through UPS, not FedEx. Wow. Good to know. Glad I didn’t waste more of my time trying to get through to a FedEx facility on a Saturday. She told me that unfortunately the soonest medication was able to be shipped to St. Louis through their Memphis UPS facility (I learned that’s where my Humira comes from) would be Monday, but most likely Tuesday (Feb. 8).

Here’s why this is so problematic

IBD patients and chronic illness “customers” of specialty pharmacies are on scheduled medications, in my case, a biologic. This isn’t something that you can just delay because ‘oh well, it’s sunny and 45 degrees, it will come in a few days’. Lucky for me, I’m in remission with my Crohn’s disease. What if I was flaring? What if this was a loading dose of the medication that I needed to receive? What if I was traveling and had planned to pack my injection with me? What if I had been off my medication to deliver a baby and needed to start it back up? What if I were pregnant and couldn’t chance missing a dose? There are so many complicated scenarios. This isn’t a pair of leggings I ordered off Amazon that can wait a few days. This is medication that controls a debilitating and unpredictable disease.

Here’s how Express Scripts and pharmacies can do better

Basic business etiquette with customers (aka your patients). Don’t belittle, diminish, or act like you could give two shits about the other person on the line. We are chronically ill people who are juggling a million balls in the air at once to function like the rest of society while managing our health. The last thing we want to do is waste our precious energy going back and forth on the phone and having to stress about getting the medication we depend on to function.

  • If there is inclement weather or a reason for medicine to be delayed, you should be sending text and email alerts. I was told by the Resolution Team Lead that I was only partially opted in for these—mind you, this was my second re-fill of medication with Express Scripts. The first time a patient sets up an order this should be discussed with a patient over the phone.
  • I’ve been receiving specialty pharmacy medication in the mail since 2008. This isn’t my first rodeo, but this is the first time I’ve ever had medication delayed. Mind you, I’ve lived in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, and Missouri this entire time and encountered snowstorms and blizzards each winter without delivery issues. The snow stopped here on a Thursday…but my medicine can’t come until a Tuesday through UPS? Mind-blowing.
  • Since I was not notified on this delay, I spent all day checking my front porch, anxiously awaiting the delivery so it wouldn’t sit out and freeze on my doorstep. If I wouldn’t have proactively followed up the day after my medication was to arrive, I would have had no way of knowing when my shipment was going to arrive or what happened.
  • The onus of this should not be on the patient. We’re paying THOUSANDS of dollars for medications. The burden of this should be on the specialty pharmacy who has the job of coordinating prescriptions and making sure they are shipped.
  • Talk with patient advocates from all disease areas to help you learn how to best communicate and coordinate care. This blog is free advice. If you want invaluable insight like this moving forward, be prepared to compensate patients to share their viewpoints that you wouldn’t otherwise have. Give us a seat at the table to inform you of the shortfalls and the wins so you know where the improvements can be made and where you are successful.
  • Be kind and understanding when doing these phone calls. Think about the patient who is person on the receiving end who is calling about medication with a laundry list of side effects. It adds salt into the wound when your experience coordinating medication shipments is so negative and unempathetic. We are not just numbers.
  • As patients our hands are tied. We must go through the specialty pharmacy allocated to us through our insurance. You have that going for you. Now you literally have one job… to do yours.
“Sincerely” want to help, yet never reached out as they claimed they would over tweets and direct message. That “empathy” is clearly all for show.

I tapped into the IBD community on Instagram and was blown away by the number of direct messages and comments from those who have struggled to get their critical medication through specialty pharmacies. This is unacceptable and eye-opening. Here are *some* of the stories.

“I will never use Express Scripts for my Humira, again. When I started it, I couldn’t walk or stand or do anything really because of my ankylosing spondylitis. They had the audacity to tell me I can expect my first shipment of medication in 1-2 months because there’s a lot of “processing involved.” They were acting like they were making the drug themselves. It had nothing to do with pre-certification. Everything was already processed and approved through insurance. Luckily, I was able to get my injections from a local specialty pharmacy the same day I called.”

“The number of issues I’ve had over the years with specialty pharmacies is ridiculous. My GI has an unlimited expiration/refills for my prescriptions, yet every year we must “renew” and it’s never at the start of the year. It’s always some random time when my shipment doesn’t go out as scheduled and the only reason, I find out is because I call and question the delay. They’re NEVER proactive. One of my most frustrating situations was a delayed delivery. It was supposed to arrive via UPS per tracking. The driver never showed. I called repeatedly and no one could tell me where the driver was. Eventually the next day I learned the driver left it in the truck and brought it back to the warehouse where I was told by the pharmacy to go and pick it up myself. Mind you it had already exceeded refrigeration time so there was no way it was safe for me to use. I then spent the next two days trying to get a new shipment processed.”

“From personal experience with Express Scripts and their specialty pharmacy Accredo, my Stelara is delayed every time. It’s gotten to the point that if they are going to make me late on it, I make them do same day delivery. They can make this happen if it’s not a holiday. Insist the medication gets delivered and don’t back down, demand for a private courier service.”

“I have to use CVS Specialty Pharmacy for Humira, they are absolute trash. I confirmed twice that my Humira would ship, and then it never arrived. I called and they took my insurance information, again, and told me it would take three days to process before I could re-order my medication. I waited and called again and then they told me my insurance had been denied. I was on the phone for six hours trying to figure out what was wrong. They finally re-shipped the medication only for it to be delayed by UPS and 8 injectable pens got too warm and had to be discarded…so I had to start again with another shipment! By the time I got the package, my dose was a week late.”

“I recently switched from my hospital’s special pharmacy to CVS Specialty Pharmacy due to my insurance changing and I didn’t get my Humira until 10 days after I was due for my injection. It was such a frustrating process and anxiety provoking.”

Express Scripts issue with Humira. I spent 30 minutes trying to work out a $1,000 billing error on their part. After a half hour, they told me that they couldn’t fix billing issue the same day and that I would need to call back the following day and have the same conversation all over again.”

Optium RX makes me cry at least once a year. Every year I try and beat the pre-authorization loopholes to get my medication on time and there’s always something new. Having to push my medication schedule is so defeating.”

“It’s a mess trying to work with a specialty pharmacy. I have never had a pleasant, easy experience with them. I’ve had four medications (IV and self-administered) sent to Accredo within Express Scripts over the last nine years. To this day, I have to spend at least an hour on the phone so they can run the co-pay assistance information…so for a bit, my co-pay was $2,000!”

“I have been on biologics for about a decade, and I think I could write a book about specialty pharmacy debacles. The latest being that as I was checking out on the phone, the rep commented on my insurance because it had my husband’s company (a popular brand). Thing is, he left the company 18 months ago and at that time I contact the pharmacy with my new insurance, went through the run around of changing insurance getting pre-authorizations, etc. They had been charging the old insurance the entire time. They attempted billing me $18,000 which I am still fighting. I’ve spent over 50 hours on the phone dealing with this and had many sleepless nights.”

“I went without my biologic for nine months because my insurance company through John Hopkins Hospital said I required prior authorization, when in fact I had prior authorization for the 277 refills that my prescription had. I had to advocate for myself to both my GI and primary care physician and they sent 378 pages of my medical records along with a 3-page email about my medication for it to be approved. To this day, I still have issues processing my orders.”

“At the end of the year, I received an email from Express Scripts that said Remicade would no longer be covered, and I would need to switch to the biosimilar, Inflectra. I called to confirm this, and no one could help me. I spent 8 hours over the next two weeks trying to determine if this was really the case. I had to call Blue Cross Blue Shield who then said I should speak to Express Scripts…who then transferred me to the Specialty Pharmacy, Accredo. I was then told by Accredo that I should talk to Blue Cross. It was the most frustrating thing. All I wanted to do was confirm if Remicade was not going to be covered and if it wasn’t what the cost of the biosimilar was going to be for me. Finally, a pharmacist assistant at the infusion center was able to help me.”

“My specialty pharmacy was late with my FIRST maintenance dose of Humira by 3 weeks. The pharmacy said they could only find the prior authorization for the loading doses and not the doses after. Then, my doctor sent me the copy of what they sent the first time, and my maintenance doses were clearly part of the prior auth. The pharmacy argued with me that my doctor didn’t fill it out correctly. They finally sent it, but accidentally sent it FedEx ground in July…and had to re-send it.”

“When I first switched to Humira, Express Scripts, said it wasn’t on their preferred list unless there was a good reason. I told the call rep I had gone into anaphylaxis. She said that I was going to need an actual reason or something serious. I told her I was going to need to speak with her manager because last I checked…not being able to breathe was serious.”

“My workplace changed insurance carriers and promised me that coverage would remain the same through Cigna and Caremark, with the specialty pharmacy being Accredo. Suddenly, I got a call that the Entyvio I take every 4 weeks is not covered at that frequency and also not covered at the Family Health Center where I’ve always received it. Naturally, I raised hell. Had to submit a new pre-certification which took almost 28 days to get approved, switched to a new private infusion center and abandoned my tried-and-true site, and spent more than 8 hours on the phone to do one simple thing: be able to receive the medicine I’ve taken for years. It’s unreal how insurance and specialty pharmacies just make decisions without considering the inconvenience and stress it puts on patients.”

“Specialty pharmacies are just an additional hurdle between a patient and their medicine. It’s like you’re playing a game of telephone and more players are added to the circle and increasing the odds of a miscommunication. When a problem arises you now have to make sure you smooth it out with health insurance, your doctor’s office, and your pharmacy. Oftentimes you don’t know where the problem arises in the first place because of all the finger pointing. I haven’t had a Remicade infusion since December 16th…even though I’m due every 4 weeks.”

“I had a specialty pharmacy send me my Stelara injections without ANY cold packs. Just in a cardboard box. I had not refilled it in 4 months because I was on Entyvio at the time so luckily, I wasn’t going to use it, but it was a mess. The company was so accusatory when I asked to return it until I told them there were no cold packs…shut them up real quick.”

“I called Accredo weeks ago to make sure my medication was going to arrive because my GI sent in a renewed script. I followed up daily the week I wanted to place the order, but they kept saying it was in processing and delayed. My prior authorization goes to 2024, my doctor did everything he could, yet Accredo still couldn’t tell me what the hold up was. I’m 33 weeks pregnant and I really don’t want to mess up the timing of my doses. Person after person says they have it handled, but it’s never the case. I feel like they just give the runaround to get you off the phone. It’s unbelievable how much time gets spent dealing with this. It feels like phone call roulette. It gives me serious anxiety every month.”

“When the new year started my specialty pharmacy would not accept my new Humira Savings Card. It took 10 phone calls and all parties, and it ended with an hour and a half call trying to get $5,000 reimbursed. The provider laughed when I asked then I had him call AbbVie and within 10 minutes the guy did a complete 180 and I was reimbursed. It’s scary to think what would happen if a patient didn’t fight back or speak up.”

“Your post about Express Scripts is triggering. My daughter, age 25, was diagnosed with UC at age 17. She is on our insurance a few more months. Express Scripts became our new online pharmacy a year ago. They’ve been horrific to deal with. She’s only on basic medications—mesalamine, Canasa suppositories and enemas. I dread the thought of what it might be like with them for more complex medications.”

…and there were SO many more messages that I received. Are you seeing a pattern here? This is ridiculous. It’s heartbreaking, frustrating, and sad. The incompetence and lack of care is comical. DO BETTER. I spoke with five different call reps/managers at Accredo and each time it was like I was calling for the first time. Take notes when you’re talking to patients/customers, so you don’t sound clueless on the other line and waste everyone’s time. You can at least pretend to care.

Advice for handling specialty pharmacy issues

Document, document, document! If you are having trouble with your specialty pharmacy, you should document each call and issue. Take note of the date, time, and describe what went down. Then, send a log of all the issues you’ve had to your employer and whoever oversees insurance so that they are aware. If HR gets enough complaints, they’ll look into a new pharmacy for employees.

Advocate for yourself and don’t back down. Be a thorn in their side. Tell them like it is and always ask to escalate the issue and speak to a manager. Get your GI involved and have them go to bat for you, too.

Check with your GI if you’re in a pinch. Oftentimes GI offices carry a couple of injections. You may be able to go and pick one up at the office if you need one. Always worth an ask if you’re in a tough position and don’t know when your medicine is going to arrive.

Contact the pharmaceutical company who makes your drug. One of my IBD friends manages a large practice in Boston. She advised me to contact the AbbVie Ambassador, which is a program available to patients for situations like this. They can overnight you a Humira pen to bridge the gap while companies like Express Scripts figure out their mess.

“The AbbVie ambassador program is a lifesaver for many of our patients when the specialty pharmacies fail! It is soooo frustrating. We see it all the time in our patients, and I’ve experienced it personally, too.”

Utilize social media. Having an issue with your specialty pharmacy? Head to social media (Twitter is best for this) and tag them publicly with your complaint.

IBD Motherhood Unplugged: I have Crohn’s and COVID

Well, after dodging the son of a bitch since March 2020 and doing all I could to stay well, I have COVID. My husband and I started with symptoms New Year’s Eve. Quite the way to welcome in 2022, let me tell ya. As an IBD mom of three little ones who is immunocompromised from my medication, I, like so many others have been worried about this since the moment the pandemic began. One of my greatest fears became my reality. My husband tested positive the day he was scheduled for his booster. I’m triple vaxxed (since late July!) and that still wasn’t enough to protect me. I do believe the vaccines lightened the load of the illness and I’m grateful we had them.

Like I do with all my blog articles and reporting, I prefer to be transparent and honest about my personal experience in hopes of helping others. I’ve been keeping track of my symptoms daily and monitoring how the illness has manifested in me since it began. In this article, I’ll also share how I was guided by my gastroenterologist and pediatrician in navigating this once my family was exposed and became positive. As of now, miraculously, all three of our children (ages 4 and under), have tested negative and appear healthy.

Discovering I was exposed

So many emotions ran through my mind. Fear. Dread. Anger. Frustration. Disbelief. Shame. Worry. I cried lots of tears. My youngest is not quite 6 months old. Like any parent, I have tried my best to shield him from all types of illness since he entered this world. More than myself I’ve been concerned about how his little body would handle COVID. My family of five was directly exposed for 44 hours straight. We all had the same exposure and the damage had been done. What was supposed to be a time to celebrate with loved ones over the holidays turned into a nightmare real fast. It’s been a waiting game. I’ve felt a lot of emotions since my symptoms creeped up the night we returned home.

Here’s how my COVID has played out:

Friday, December 31st—headache, brain fog

Saturday, January 1—headache, runny nose, fatigue, no appetite

Sunday, January 2—headache, runny nose in the morning only, a dry cough, a little difficulty breathing, no appetite

Monday, January 3—headache, runny nose in the morning only, bad cough with phlegm coming up, congestion, hoarse voice, no appetite

Tuesday, January 4—TESTED POSITIVE (no surprise there) Runny nose like a faucet in the morning only, migraine with auras, no appetite, bad cough with phlegm coming up, hoarse voice.

Wednesday, January 5—Runny nose in the morning only, headache, hoarse voice, same cough. Smell and taste lessened. All three kids tested negative through pediatrician.

Thursday, January 6—Less congested, subtle headache, hoarse voice, same cough, no appetite, fatigue, taste, and smell gone.

Friday, January 7—Can finally breathe through my nose, subtle headache, no taste or smell, no appetite, congestion.

Saturday, January 8—headache, no taste or smell, congestion.

Sunday, January 9—FINALLY no headache, feels like a head cold, no taste or smell. My voice is back to normal, feeling a lot more like myself.

Managing Crohn’s Through COVID

As someone who has lived with IBD for more than 16 years, feeling unwell and juggling unpredictable symptoms doesn’t feel like anything new. But, knowing how to keep the focus on managing my Crohn’s while having “normal people sickness” is often challenging, especially since COVID is so unique in how it presents differently in people and comes in waves. When my gastroenterologist learned I had tested positive she offered up the monoclonal antibody infusion or a 5-day course of Pfizer’s new over the counter pill, Paxlovid. Since I was unable to get tested until day five of symptoms and since my case was mild, I chose not to do either. Personally, the thought of sitting around all the germs in a hospital (even though I’m positive for COVID) didn’t sound appealing to me. There is just so much sickness going around right now. I felt more comfortable taking the illness on myself since it was not severe and have been taking Vitamin D, Vitamin C, Zinc, and my prescription prenatal and folic acid.

One big question many of us in the community have is what to do about biologic therapies when we test positive. I am on Humira, and my next injection is due today (January 10). I was exposed to COVID two days after doing my injection. My gastroenterologist told me I would be fine to stay on schedule since my symptoms were mild and since I did not have a fever. She went on to say that if I am not having pulmonary issues (which I’m not), that I should proceed with my scheduled injection.

Luckily, my Crohn’s felt non-existent the entire time I’ve been sick with COVID. It was almost like my body was solely focused on the upper respiratory issues. Oddly enough, and this may be TMI…but I always tell people in our community nothing is TMI… today (Sunday) I experienced a burning sensation in my abdomen for about 30 minutes, felt some nausea, and had several bathroom trips. It was almost as though the COVID was leaving my body, because the last 10 days I haven’t felt anything like this and now I feel a lot better.

Mom Life with COVID

What’s really made this entire ordeal torturous for me is having to do my typical stay-at-home mom life with a 4.5-year-old, almost 3-year-old, and 5-month-old, while having COVID and Crohn’s disease. Unfortunately, even though my husband was symptomatic and positive he had to work from home, so it’s been me in the trenches, wearing a mask from 6 a.m. til the kids go to bed, and not getting a moment to rest or recuperate.

What anyone with a family and COVID can attest to is how challenging quarantine is when you can’t have your village of support help you with the little ones or get any type of childcare break. Typically, Reid goes to preschool three days a week and Sophia goes twice a week. Even though their school days are short, and I’m used to having everyone home, I’ve grown accustomed to a little bit of downtime with the baby. Between Christmas break and our quarantine, our entire family has been home since December 20th. Even through I’ve been sick and on the struggle bus, my day-to-day actions have not been able to change at all. To say I’m running on E is an understatement. Don’t beat yourself up over screen time and not being able to entertain your kids, it’s survival mode at its finest. As an IBD mom, the fatigue that comes with our illness is nothing new, the only saving grace with COVID is knowing there should be an endpoint. While long COVID exists of course, I’m not sure I’d be able to even tell the difference since I already live with chronic illness.

Breastfeeding with COVID

Ladies, I thought breastfeeding through colonoscopy prep and not eating for the days leading up was intense. This has been a whole different level of effort. To protect the baby, our pediatrician recommended my husband and I wear masks in our house. People complain about wearing a mask to get groceries. Try wearing it in your own home, morning-noon-and-night for 10 days, nursing a baby while your nose is running like a faucet, you feel unwell, and fear you’re going to pass along COVID to your small baby because you’re in such close proximity. At times I’ve felt on the brink of having an anxiety attack because the mask and my breathing made me feel like I was gasping for air while trying to feed him.

That being said, I’ve never felt more grateful or fortunate to be breastfeeding my son. It does my heart good to know he’s getting my antibodies in real-time as my body fights COVID. While breastmilk of infected mothers does not contain COVID-19, it contains antibodies against it.

I found promising articles and research about the benefits of COVID-positive moms continue to breastfeed their children:

Can Mother’s Milk Help Fight COVID? New Evidence Suggests ‘Yes’

Liquid Gold: How Breast Milk Could Pass Along COVID-19 Immunity

FAQ on COVID-19: Breastfeeding safety for mothers

Luckily, thus far, my baby hasn’t shown any symptoms and continues to thrive beautifully as we gear up for him turning 6 months this week. I’ve prayed hard over him daily and I’m hopeful I’m nourishing him and providing him with the best protection possible by nursing him through this pandemic.

Recommendations Moving Forward

As I write this it’s 9 pm on Sunday night. I’m much more at ease and honestly since I’ve been sick since New Year’s Eve, the entire start of 2022 has been a blur. I’m sitting on the couch, fire going, taking a deep breath, and trying to relax. Now that hindsight is 20/20 here’s what I wish I did before and what my recommendations are:

  • Order rapid tests proactively: Part of the reason we were exposed initially was because my loved ones could only get their hands on one test (which was negative). We made the trip home only to find out two days later that my dad had been positive the entire time. I ordered four tests on 12/30 and they just arrived yesterday. Prior to all this, my kids and I had never been tested. It’s much smarter to have tests ready to go at home so you aren’t scrambling and forced to make a judgment call that could put you in the line of fire.
  • Get 3-ply surgical masks for little ones: My kids have worn cloth masks up until all this, but when they return to school later this month, I plan to send them in surgical masks for added protection. I don’t expect my little ones to wear N95s. Not only are surgical masks more convenient than constantly having to wash them, if they lose their masks or misplace them in the wash, I don’t have to run around trying to find a mask that’s clean and ready to go as we are rushing out the door.
  • Connect with your care team when symptoms start: If you have a chronic illness and especially if you’re on heavy duty medications (like biologics) I can’t stress enough how important it is to stay in open communication with your care team so they are aware of the situation and can guide you through it. COVID is nothing to mess around with. It’s not *just a cold*, trust me. I spoke with my GI and my pediatrician almost daily this week through the patient portals.
  • Don’t take unnecessary risks and let your guard down: We are all exhausted from this nightmare, and I get how we all want to enjoy life and not live in fear. But one risky decision—something as simple as going out to dinner or seeing family that you miss, can end up with a great deal of sickness that you’ll quickly realize wasn’t worth it. Get vaccinated, get boosted. We’ve lost two family friends this week alone who were unvaccinated and died of COVID. It’s beyond heartbreaking.
  • If you lose your taste and smell like me, I’ve been told the sooner you start smell training the better: My friend recommended I order four essential oil scents off Amazon—Clove, Lemon, Eucalyptus, and Rose. They arrive to me on Wednesday. I have also been told by multiple people to eat Hot Tamales Candy and spicy, potent foods to get taste buds reactivated and to drink celery juice. Smelling perfume, cologne, garlic, dish detergent, and candles several times a day for 20-second increments is also a way to help bring it back.
  • Chart your symptoms each day: It’s helpful to keep track of your symptoms each day in the “Notes” section of your phone, otherwise it’s hard to remember what you’ve dealt with. It takes out the guesswork when talking with your doctors and helps you see how you’re improving or getting worse.
  • Disposable everything: We’ve been using plastic Red Solo Cups and writing our names on them, paper plates, paper towels, you name it. Get the germs out of your house and avoid using shared hand towels, toothpaste, etc. with those you live with.

12 years on a biologic: What I’ve learned along the way

It’s been 12 years since I apprehensively went to my GI’s office with my mom, trembling in fear about the what ifs and worrying about the pain of the injection and how my body would respond. One dozen years ago I threw caution to the wind and knew I needed to take the leap. I trusted my physician. There was no other choice. I knew I needed more to control my Crohn’s. I realized my quality of life depended on it. My present life and my future deserved more. IMG-4785

I wish I could tell that frightened 24-year-old girl that a biologic would enable her to fulfill her dream of working full-time in television, that she would go years between hospitalizations, that she would meet the love of her life, travel out of the country, and have two healthy children…all while on a biologic.

This week—I share my 12 tips for navigating life on a biologic and what I wish I knew 12 years ago today.

  1. Needing medication is not a failure. Not everyone has the luxury of being able to “heal their gut” solely with food and that is ok. You are not less than because you need to be on a biologic. You are not giving up or taking the easy way out.
  2. Side effects are unique to each person. Just because one person responded beautifully to a biologic, doesn’t mean that you will. The same goes with horrible side effects. One person’s experience has nothing to do with yours. IBD is unique in each one of us. While some people get a “Humira hangover” and are in pain leading up to their injection, others like me, deal with no side effects whatsoever. Don’t base your experience off anyone but your own and remember to consider the benefit vs. the risk.
  3. Google is not your friend. Prior to starting a biologic or when you are on one, it does you no good to Google and read all the doomsday laundry lists of “what ifs” and horror stories. If you want to educate yourself and truly learn more, communicate with your physicians and connect with fellow IBD patients who understand your reality.
  4. The drug fails you; you don’t fail the drug. Time and time again, I see patients say… “I failed Remicade. I failed Stelara. I failed Entyvio. I failed Humira.” You did not fail anything. This is not a blame game and how your body responds to biologics is completely out of your hands. If a drug doesn’t help limit inflammation and control disease progression, it fails you and you move on to the next.
  5. Have a routine and be compliant. Life gets hectic and being on a biologic must become a part of your routine. It’s helpful to keep track on a calendar or to set up an alert on your phone. I’m old school and write R or L in my day planner…meaning “Right Leg” or “Left Leg”…you’d be surprised, you won’t remember which leg you last injected two weeks ago. I’ve done my Humira injections on Mondays since 2008. I’ve always liked that day of the week because it doesn’t interfere with the weekend and I get it out of the way. No one likes Mondays anyways. Biologics aren’t just something you skip or can forget like a daily multivitamin. For the drug to work you must be compliant and stay on schedule.
  6. You can get pregnant and breastfeed while on a biologic. The most common question I receive from women with IBD is “can I get pregnant on my biologic?” and “can I breastfeed?” …the answer to both of those is a resounding YES. To safely bring a baby into this world, the mama’s health must come first. You need to be a safe haven for your baby and keep your IBD well-managed. By going off your medication, you put yourself at much greater risk for flaring while pregnant and after you deliver. I was on Humira until 39 weeks with my son and 37 weeks with my daughter. To learn more about biologics and family planning check out the IBD Parenthood Project and IBD Moms. IMG_6037
  7. Communicate openly with your GI. Check trough levels every now and then, especially when you’re feeling symptomatic to see if your drug level is therapeutic, if your dose needs to be increased, or if you’ve built up antibodies and need to possibly start a different biologic.
  8. Think about your lifestyle if you’re having trouble deciding which biologic to try. Back when I started Humira in 2008, there were only two biologics for IBD on the market: Remicade and Humira. At the time, I was a morning news anchor and did not share my Crohn’s disease with the public—so choosing to do an injection in the comfort of my home vs. being in public getting an infusion was a no-brainer. Now as a mom of two, I’m grateful for that choice. You can’t beat the convenience of being able to do a 10 second injection on your couch. I have so many friends who spend hours upon hours getting an infusion—having the stress of lining up childcare and allocating that much time and resources to get my medication would be a struggle for me. Let alone needing to get an IV…I know I’m not alone when it comes to having bad veins! I understand you need to go with what your body responds best to and what your physician recommends for treatment…but if the decision rests on your shoulders, I would absolutely choose injection over infusion.

    IMG-4722

    Injections at home make chronic illness mom life a bit easier.

  9. Consider yourself “lucky” if you’re starting Humira now. The first 10+ years I was on Humira the injection was very painful. I know of people who had to take anti-anxiety meds just to feel comfortable receiving the injection. In 2018, the Citrate-free (pain free) version was released in the United States. Click here to watch my emotional experience doing an injection with the pain-free formula for the first time, while pregnant. This has been a game-changer for everyone on Humira, young and old. Self-injecting takes some getting used to, but it’s a hell of a lot easier now that you don’t have to deal with any pain. Chalk this up as a big win for the patient community—and if you haven’t made the switch to Citrate-free yet, make sure you do now!
  10. Drown out the Debbie Downers and the naysayers. You are going to come across friends and family who most likely have good intentions…but will question your decision to be on a biologic and offer useless, worrisome advice or stories of their friend’s friend who died from lymphoma or their boyfriend’s dad who had a bad reaction. I remember people questioning me about being on Humira when we were starting our family. We’re already worried enough, having to deal with the background noise can be the biggest pain of all.
  11. Be inspired by the possibilities. We’re all quick to expect the worse or struggle to imagine a life that doesn’t involve daily setbacks. Think of all the good that can come of this and the quality of life the medication can afford you with. Be patient with your body. Be patient with the drug. Be patient with yourself on this journey.
  12. Get preventative screenings. Stay on top of your appointments outside of your gastroenterologist. See your Ob-Gyn and get annual pap smears. See your dentist every six months. See a dermatologist and get an annual full body screening. Talk with your GI about getting “safety labs” every three months to keep a close eye on your results and make sure nothing is out of whack. See an eye doctor annually, even if you think you have perfect vision. Steroids can cause cataracts and IBD can cause inflammation around the eye. If your child has IBD, make sure to stay on top of pediatrician appointments. Being well-informed about all aspects of your health helps protect you from falling victim to any serious side effects.

BONUS: Reward yourself. Let’s face it. Giving yourself an injection or getting an infusion is not the most enjoyable experience. Think about how you can treat yourself when it’s over. Get some ice cream. Get a manicure. Order that cute pajama set online. Lord knows, you’ve earned it. If you struggle self-injecting, stare at a photo of a family member or friend that exudes strength and resilience, they will inspire you to be strong.

I’m not sure what the next 12 years will bring. Will Humira continue to be my go-to? Will there be a different treatment option? Only time will tell, but for now, I’m incredibly grateful that I’ve been able to stay on the same course of treatment for this long and I don’t plan on doing anything to rock the boat. My wish for you is that you’ll find a treatment that works its magic and shows you all that you’re capable of, despite your IBD.

Breastfeeding with Crohn’s: What I wish I would have known

Breastfeeding. Before I became a mom, I had no idea what a loaded word it was. So many emotions, so much controversy, so much judgement. As an IBD mom of two little ones, my journeys with my kids differed greatly. Ironically, World Breastfeeding Week wrapped up (August 1-7) and so did my breastfeeding journey with my daughter. IMG-5717 Whether you’re a chronic illness mom or not, one of the first questions you often get asked is “are you breastfeeding?” It’s such a personal choice and decision, that really isn’t anybody’s business. Yet, men and women alike act as though it’s just casual conversation.

For many of us in the IBD community, breastfeeding is complicated. We have a lot more to consider than our milk supply coming in and a proper latch. We have to weigh the pros and cons of how our biologic drug passes through the milk, whether or not to pop a pain pill or struggle through the day so we’re able to feed our babies, along with the stress and exhaustion that comes along with the postpartum period, while navigating motherhood with chronic illness. We have to worry about what’s going to happen if we’re hospitalized and unable to feed our baby, our minds race with the what-ifs, even when we’re in “remission”.

My son, Reid, will be 2.5 in September. IMG-5411Before I ever became pregnant with him and up until the moment he was born, I was adamant on feeding him formula. I personally felt there were too many gray areas with the medication I am on and didn’t want to find out down the road that I put him at risk for dangerous long-term side effects. I ended up nursing the first three days in the hospital so that he could get the colostrum. Even though I was confident in my decision at that time, I sobbed when he got his first formula bottle in the hospital, because once again my Crohn’s prevented me from feeling like a “normal” person. Each time someone questioned my decision to formula feed or assumed I was breastfeeding, it pulled at my heartstrings and made me feel a bit embarrassed and less than.

My daughter, Sophia, will be seven months this week. During her pregnancy, it was like a light switch went off. I did my research and I was determined to give breastfeeding a go. IMG-7340I learned about how breast milk would benefit her microbiome, lower her chance of one day developing IBD, improve her immune system, and that Humira was considered safe for nursing, among other remarkable benefits. Many friends and family members offered invaluable advice and support to prepare me for what was to come once she entered the world. No matter how much I thought I was ready, it was still overwhelming and emotional.

Looking back—here’s what I wish I knew as a breastfeeding mama who has Crohn’s.

Just because it’s natural, doesn’t mean it’s easy

To go from making a formula bottle with my son to pumping and syringe feeding a newborn was a bit of a shock to our family. As you can imagine—it was all new and foreign to us. The first night home was an absolute nightmare. Sophia was cluster feeding the entire night. Didn’t sleep a wink. Her latch was off. I was bleeding. She’d only nurse on the right side. Tears were falling and I didn’t know how I was ever going to breastfeed. I felt like I was letting myself and my daughter down. The IBD piece of it all made me feel the pressure to push through. IMG-0998I wanted to do all I could to protect her and felt guilt for not doing the same for my son. I remember lying in bed with her on my chest that first night, my husband sleeping, and texting a bunch of fellow breastfeeding moms for advice in the middle of the night. They all responded in minutes and comforted me. Initially, I had been told not to use my breast pump the first few weeks. I ended up using my pump the first week and it was the best decision I made. If I hadn’t done that, chances are I would have never made it through that initial week without changing my mind and formula feeding. If nursing is painful or difficult, don’t hesitate to break out the pump and relieve your engorged chest. Whether a baby is nursing or receiving breast milk in a bottle, it’s all the same at the end of the day.

Introduce the bottle early on

When you live with IBD, you rely heavily on others being able to help you when you’re stuck in the bathroom or fatigued beyond belief. Some days other people are going to need to feed your baby, whether it’s a spouse or your mom. If you wait too long to introduce a bottle, you increase the likelihood of your baby refusing a bottle, which puts added pressure on you. IMG-3793 We gave Sophia a bottle the first week home, since I needed to pump. For the past seven months she’s gone back and forth from breast to bottle beautifully. It eased up the pressure on me and helped make it easier on both of us! We still got to bond and be close, but others are able to feed her as well.

Before you take a pain pill, talk with your GI

Like many IBD moms, the fear of a postpartum flare and flaring in general weighs heavily on my heart and on my mind. I noticed symptoms start to creep up when Sophia was about two months old. I took a pain pill and reached out to my GI, only to find out I couldn’t breastfeed for the next 14 hours. At another point, I had to be put on Entocort for a week to help combat a small flare. Rather than try and be a superhero, I reached out to my GI immediately. While on the Entocort I had to pump and dump in the morning. It pained me to pour the “liquid gold” down the drain, but it’s what I needed to do to prevent a hospital visit. My kids needed mama present more than my baby needed a bottle of breast milk.

Supplementing is not failing

Whether you’re pregnant now, aspire to one day breastfeed, or if you’re in the thick of your journey, don’t make yourself feel like it’s all or nothing. For the first three months, Sophia was exclusively breastfed. Once I started introducing formula here and there, it took some of the stress off my shoulders. Was my diet providing her with the proper nutrients? Was she getting enough milk? I have my hands full with a toddler, so sitting next to a breast pump by myself with him running around isn’t all that conducive to my lifestyle. By making Sophia a flexible eater, it made breastfeeding seem like less of a struggle for me and a lot more doable for our family life.

Put your mental and emotional health first

59421BB3-A402-4678-819F-2A1751174DF6As a mom, it’s easy to beat ourselves up about how we choose to feed our babies. There is SO much background noise. Everyone has an opinion. As a mom who has formula fed and breastfed, I’ve had the opportunity to witness both sides. I’ve witnessed a shift within myself. Saying I breastfed felt and still feels like a bit of a badge of honor. Now that I’ve done it, I’m proud, because it was such a labor of love for me. Breastfeeding was blood, sweat and tears and so much effort. While traveling to San Diego I had no choice but to pump in a public bathroom at the airport, right at the sink, while a line of women stood staring at me. I had no choice. I think back to how drained and emotional I was on Sophia’s first night home and can’t believe we made it this far on our journey.

When we took our kids to the zoo last week and I mixed a formula bottle in the food court, I felt a sense of worry—that other parents would look at me and judge my decision to feed my baby this way. Even though in my heart, I know fed is best. There are so many mind games associated with it all!

In the end, if you’re struggling mentally and emotionally, it’s going to take away from the type of mom you are. Don’t allow yourself to get so caught up in the pressure that it’s detrimental to you or your family life.

Lean on fellow IBD moms

While I was pregnant and breastfeeding I found it incredibly helpful to touch base with fellow moms, specifically IBD moms who related to my journey. Do your “homework” and don’t be shy about sending private message or sending an email to ask questions to fellow parents who are patients that you see online. We are all a resource for one another. IMG-7814

In my case, breastfeeding ended up being something I’m so grateful I was able to do for nearly seven months. Unfortunately, once my period started after Sophia was six months, my supply plummeted greatly. I went from making 30-35 ounces a day, to five. Prior to that happening, we had gotten into such a comfortable, easy groove, I was planning on breastfeeding her until her first birthday. My body had different plans, and I’m fine with that. Flexible feeding brought me to this mindset. Pregnancy gave me a renewed love for my body, despite my illness, and now I can say breastfeeding did the very same.

BONUS TIP! Be proactive and set yourself up for success prior to your baby’s arrival. Order your breast pump ahead of time. Have nursing tanks and bras, hands-free bras for pumping and to sleep in, pads for your bra, nipple cream, a Haakaa for catching let down milk, and storage bags. If you’re dealing with extreme nipple pain or discomfort, alert your OB and see about getting a prescription for All-Purpose Nipple Ointment (APNO). This is mixed by a pharmacist and contains an antibiotic, an anti-inflammatory, and an anti-fungal. I used this and it worked wonders!

Breastfeeding as an IBD mom: Why I’m trusting my gut and following my heart

Before I start this article, I want to include a disclaimer. Breastfeeding is a very emotional and sometimes controversial topic. By no means are my words meant to make you feel guilty or ashamed if this way of feeding your baby doesn’t work for you. I’ve fed my children both ways. My son was breastfed for three days and then given formula. He is a picture of health. IMG_6935My daughter is 4 weeks old today and has been exclusively breastfed. I’m by no means writing this as an expert or to point any fingers. I am completely of the mindset that ‘fed is best’. No judgement here, ladies.

Through the years I’ve experienced the guilt and the worry, I’ve had to explain myself time and time again. I sat in labor and delivery classes at the hospital prior to the birth of my firstborn and felt like an outcast when I was the only one who didn’t raise my hand about planning to breastfeed. I’ve been on both sides of the ‘issue’…I write this article to share my perspective, my journey, and how my thinking has evolved as a mother. It’s a way of showing fellow IBD mamas that I understand the hesitation and all the inquiries. I get how it feels to wonder if you’re doing what is best for your baby and for yourself.

I can’t quite pinpoint when it was during my pregnancy with Sophia that I decided to try breastfeeding. I just woke up one day in the third trimester and decided it was something I wanted to experience this time around.

My son, Reid, turns two next month. During my pregnancy with him, I was adamant on not breastfeeding. IMG_6402I was worried about the lack of long-term studies on my biologic drug (Humira) and I was concerned about the risk of having a postpartum flare that would land me in the hospital and interrupt my ability to feed him. Being a new mom, I was worried the stress that comes along with breastfeeding could cause me to flare. I ended up breastfeeding him the first three days in the hospital, so that he could receive the colostrum. After that—he was given formula until he turned one. It’s a decision I was confident in, but that tugs at my heartstrings at times, especially now as I breastfeed his sister.

Biologics, pregnancy and breastfeeding

Since I was pregnant with Reid, I’ve done a fair amount of research. I’ve talked with fellow IBD moms, educated myself on the benefits of breastfeeding for baby and me and consulted with my care team ( ObGyn, high risk ObGyn and my GI). _F6B0561According to MotherToBaby, mothers who breastfeed their infants while using adalimumab (Humira) have very low levels of the drug in their breast milk. Adalimumab is not well absorbed by the gut, so any of the medication that gets into breast milk is unlikely to enter the baby’s system from the gut. Side note: MotherToBaby is a wonderful resource. I have participated in pregnancy studies for both of my pregnancies—it’s always helpful to contribute to research, share your journey, and help pave the way for future chronic illness moms so that there is more clarity for families in the future.

Like many moms who depend on biologic medication during pregnancy, that in and of itself can be stressful. I stayed on Humira for both my pregnancies—from start until finish. For Reid’s birth, I did my injection two days before my scheduled c-section at 39 weeks, 3 days. For Sophia, my last injection was at 37 weeks, 3 days. My injection was due the day of my c-section with Sophia, but a matter of days before—due to cold and flu season, my GI instructed me to wait to do my injection until I was home from the hospital. IMG_6937That way—the baby did not receive a burst of the immune-suppressant drug through the placenta, the day she was entering the world and I would be at lower risk of developing an infection as well. Timing your biologic medication is key and a conversation you’ll want to have with your care team so it can be tailored to your pregnancy and your personal journey.

The challenge of the journey

Breastfeeding is intense. It’s emotional. It’s rewarding. It’s exhausting and time consuming. I like to call it a labor of love. There are so many expectations, opinions and judgements that come along with the way we decide to feed our children. Until you experience breastfeeding, it’s hard to truly appreciate all the blood, sweat and tears (literally) that goes into it. Today marks four weeks I’ve been breastfeeding my daughter. For me—each week that goes by is a huge accomplishment.

I pump mostly—and put the milk in bottles. That way—anybody can feed the baby, especially if I’m feeling fatigued or if my Crohn’s is acting up. I wanted to introduce a bottle early on, just in case I were to be hospitalized with a postpartum flare. Sophia had her first bottle at six days old and has done a great job and has not had any “nipple confusion” when I nurse her.

It can be a bit overwhelming when you are the sole food source for another living being, especially when Crohn’s symptoms strike, and you feel like you may need to make a mad dash to the bathroom.

In my research, I learned that people with IBD were often not breastfed as infants and that breastfed babies develop healthy bacteria in their digestive tract. Those healthy bacteria can be beneficial in helping the body’s immune system fend off many different diseases. It’s my hope that breastfeeding will help create a healthy gut and microbiome for my daughter.

IMG_6936When it comes to breastfeeding as IBD moms, whether a child is going to latch or if our milk supply is going to be sufficient, tends to be the least of our worries. Our chronic health condition, plus the medications so many of us are dependent on to treat them—adds another layer of stress. In the end, you need to do what you feel comfortable with, what works for your body and for your family. Always know you are not alone in your struggles. Celebrate the parenting wins and accomplishments along the way—no matter how big or small. Lean on your support system—especially fellow breastfeeding mamas who can answer your questions and calm your fears. I can’t tell you how long I’ll continue my breastfeeding journey. For now—all I can do is take it one day at a time. What I can tell you—is how rewarding it is to see what my body is capable of, despite my disease and how amazing it feels to know I’m nourishing my little girl and providing her with a healthy start.

Helpful Resources:

IBD Parenthood Project: A one-stop-shop for everything you need to know leading up to conceiving, pregnancy and motherhood.

Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation

Online Communities for Chronic Illness Moms:

IBD Moms—Website coming soon! Social media channels: Twitter: @IBDMoms, Facebook: @IBDMoms, Instagram: @IBDMoms

Mama’s Facing Forward—Social Media Channels: Twitter: @MamasForward, Facebook: @mamasfacingforward, Instagram: @mamasforward

 

 

 

 

 

 

How Hurricane Maria changed the path of my Crohn’s Disease: A Puerto Rican patient’s journey

I recently connected with a fellow IBD patient on Twitter named Jessica Pérez-Cámara. Aside from both of us battling Crohn’s disease and both of us taking Humira, we’re also both journalists. This week—Jessica shares an emotional piece about what it was like to take on inflammatory bowel disease, amidst a natural catastrophe, mid-flare. I’ll let her take it away.

Life with IBD is hard enough. IMG-5512Try having a flare during the worst natural disaster in the history of your country. It happened to me. I survived.

On September 20, 2017, Category 4 Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico, causing a humanitarian crisis. Maria left nearly 95 percent of the island without communications, water, electricity and with limited medical access.

Many of the 3.4 million U.S. citizens living on the island had restricted access to resources like food, fuel, among many other essential needs. No communication, no cell phones, no internet. Nothing. I am a journalist who, at the time of the storm, was working as a communications assistant in the local Government. My job was to share news to the public before and after the hurricane. My country ended up getting hit with two hurricanes, and my beloved grandmother passed away a few weeks earlier. She died the day before Hurricane Irma. It was all such a whirlwind, as the stress mounted, so did my flare. IMG-5510

I was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease in August 2015, even though I’ve lived with IBD for more than three years, I’m still learning to navigate my illness. Upon my diagnosis, I was put on Asacol and Budesonide. I had been fearful of going on a biologic and did all I could to avoid them. But, deep down I knew the moment would one day come.

Nonstop work after Hurricane Maria

I worked nonstop for months on the initial hurricane recovery efforts. As I took on this responsibility, I was flaring badly. Many hospitals were not working full capacity, running on generators and with shortages of basic medications like IV bags.

I was feeling terrible, exhausted, the fatigue and diarrhea were worsening, but I kept working through the pain. I was putting my duty for my country before my health. I was working long hours and when I got home, it did not get any easier, because life was not the same. Basic things like food, water, fuel for the generators, gas for the cars and even having a good meal or taking a shower were more difficult. My body ached from head to toe. The food was scarce and what was available was mostly junk food, fried food and canned food.

IMG-5513One morning I decided to stop in my GI’s office. He had lost the A/C unit and the office was flooded during the storm. He ordered some labs, an emergency colonoscopy and a few days of rest. I was anxious, exhausted, scared. After the colonoscopy, I was prescribed prednisone for a month and then started Humira.

Humira without electricity at home

I began using Humira in November 2017. My initial four loading dose shots were at my parent’s house, because they had two power generators and could have the refrigerator running 24/7. They kept my Humira for the rest of the blackout for us, which lasted 114 days.

It’s now a year later. I am back to normalcy – to my new normal- of giving myself painful shots. I’m in the process of receiving the Citrate-free (pain free) Humira and I can hardly wait! Unfortunately, I deal with some side effects from the medication (general body aches and joint pain, fatigue and weakness). That being said, the minor side effects I deal with are manageable and worth it to keep my disease under control.

An important conversation about chronic illness

As a Crohn’s patient and as a Puerto Rican, IMG-5514I hope my experience sheds light on what it’s like for those in the chronic illness community as they endure the repercussions of natural disasters. It’s a critical conversation that needs to happen—preparedness for the IBD community in the face of weather disasters. How can employers, government and society step up to the plate?

One year ago, I began walking the path of the Hurricane to the path of remission. I look forward with a sense of hope for the future both as a person and as a patient.

 

 

How living with Crohn’s inspires this medical student to make a difference

There’s never a good time to receive a diagnosis of inflammatory bowel disease. The earth shattering news tends to flip your world upside down. For 27-year-old Alyssa Alda Clements of New Jersey, her Crohn’s disease diagnosis could not have come at a worse time. Alyssa was in her first year of medical school and had recently lost three family members.

“The hardest part about my diagnosis was the time I spent in the hospital or being homebound, because it took me away from my schooling. Having to take medical leaves from my DREAM was so heart breaking. I had wanted to be a doctor since I was three. In time, I started to feel better when we got things under control and was able to go back to medical school and, knock on wood, I am still hanging in here,” Alyssa says.

Being sick never made her want to quit, if anything it made her realize how much we need doctors, especially ones who care. Alyssa says her patient perspective provides her with insight when it comes to the type of doctor she wants to be and the type of care she aspires to provide day in and day out to those who depend on her. alyssa7

“My first trip to the ER nearly killed me because the doctor didn’t believe my pain, told me it was in my head and that I was a crazy medical student, and didn’t even touch or listen to my abdomen. It turned out to be an obstruction and thankfully I listened to my gut and went to a different ER the next day,” Alyssa recalls.

Fast forward a week later, Alyssa woke up from her first colonoscopy to learn she has severe Crohn’s disease in her large intestine, small intestine and rectum. The GI spoke candidly and said her odds of ever becoming a doctor were slim, due to her health. But, Alyssa didn’t let the naysayers stop her from following her dreams.

Becoming a doctor while living with Crohn’s

As many know, working in the medical field is not for the faint of heart. alyssa6The profession entails a great deal of stress, both physically and mentally. Not only are the hours long, but you are exposed to a ton of people who are sick, while you are immunocompromised.

“I have learned so much about empathy and sympathy as a patient, the way some physicians made me feel pushed me to continue in medical school and be a better caregiver than they were to me at my worst moments. I have learned to listen to the patient because I have been ignored. I know just what being a patient feels like, how scary, uncomfortable, painful, that being sick can be, and I want to be there for others who are in that position. When I finally found my amazing care team that I have now, I became hopeful that I could be that person for someone someday,” Alyssa says.

As far as advice for fellow IBD’ers, Alyssa says be honest with yourself and what you can handle. Don’t let your disease limit you, but also know that it’s ok to be kind to your body and slow down when you need to. Alyssa says she’s modified her life so that she’s able to handle medical school and keep her well-being in mind at the same time. She relies heavily on the support of her family and boyfriend and makes self-care a part of her daily life.

Big city, bright lightsalyssa people

Alyssa was recently featured by People Magazine, that’s how her and I connected on Twitter! I saw her inspiring story and immediately wanted to share it with you. She went to New York City and was interviewed as a woman who is overcoming chronic illness. Talk about a great person to represent those of us in the thick of fighting this disease.

Her attitude is admirable, “I want to show anyone that they can be strong and resilient and still achieve their dreams after a diagnosis. I want to show young women and girls with illnesses that they are still beautiful, that their bodies might be constantly changing, but they are still themselves, they are still amazing.”

Bouncing back from difficult days

In her first year of diagnosis, Alyssa was in and out of the hospital. She endured more than 12 bowel obstructions, a PICC line, NG tube and tests galore. While at Disney World that November, Alyssa fell to the floor of her hotel room. She came to find out she had multiple abscesses and fistulas. After four weeks of total bowel rest, she had an ileocecectomy. A total of 13 inches of her intestine was removed. In her eyes, the surgery saved her life. Alyssa has been on Humira for almost five years. She says the new citrate free formula has changed her life (and I must agree!!)

“Days can be hard, filled with pain, fatigue, never ending symptoms, but always know that you are not alone. There is an army of us fighting diseases you can’t see.” You got that right, Alyssa!

Celebrating a major patient victory: Citrate-free Humira

I still remember the first time I felt the pain. Sitting in my GI’s office with the nurse and my mom. Fresh out of the hospital after having an abscess the size of a tennis ball in my small intestine. Knowing I had to inject myself with a painful biologic drug, four times in a row, for the loading dose. The feeling when the medication entered my body was like nothing I had ever felt before. It was an unthinkable amount of pain. It was overwhelming knowing that for the rest of my life, I would endure this same pain, multiple times a month…with no end in sight.

Fast forward more than ten years later. A total of 122 months, hundreds of injections. My reality as a Crohn’s patient just changed. IMG_2966It changed in a way that I never knew was possible. I have so many flashbacks of my journey with Humira. The tears as I felt sickly in my 20s sitting alone in my apartment and wondering why me. The dread, anxiety and anticipation every other Monday and the strength I had to muster up within myself to once again receive my medication. Holding the injection in my hand, getting in the zone and focusing my thoughts on brave family members and friends as I held down the plum colored button and felt the burn. The sad look on my son’s face as he looked in my eyes and witnessed his mama hurting.

Now, all this is a distant memory. Thanks to the Citrate-free formula developed by AbbVie and approved for adults and pediatric patients in the United States, this reality is over. A matter of days ago, I experienced my first pain free Humira injection. I had heard all the hype and excitement around it, but it was so difficult to fathom such a change in my patient experience. Here’s a video of me experiencing my first Citrate-free injection:

I’m here to tell you it’s completely painless. Less pain than a blood draw. Less than a flu shot. You feel nothing. The process, effectiveness and outcome are the same, but you don’t feel anything. It’s emotional and overwhelming in the best way. I cried for a good half hour after my first one, happy tears. Tears of joy from a woman who now knows her children will never see their mom struggle in pain. Tears of joy from someone whose eternally grateful for a medication that keeps a painful and debilitating chronic illness at bay. Tears of joy knowing that I will never have to feel that awful pain again. A pain that’s too much to put into words, that was part of my life for so long.

The sun is shining a bit brighter today. I feel a load has been lifted off my shoulders that I didn’t even realize had been there for more than 10 years. When I heard about the Citrate-free formula being approved and available in the States, I was excited—but, didn’t realize the true extent of what a difference it would make in my life. joy-2483926_1920

If you’re on Humira and living in the States, make sure you talk with your GI and specialty pharmacy to ensure your script is changed to “Citrate-free”. The extra leg work will be so worth it. It brings me so much happiness to know that young children on Humira will never have to feel the pain. It gives me peace of mind as a chronic illness patient to know that developments like this in treatment are possible and happening right now.

My call of action to doctors, specialists, healthcare teams and specialty pharmacies—please communicate this with patients. I’ve heard from countless people around the United States who heard about this for the first time from me. That’s not the way it should be. My GI gave me a heads up three months ago.

Fellow patient advocates, please feel empowered to share what this means to you and reach out to your individual communities and support networks, so people can get the ball rolling and experience this for themselves. Our voices are strong, and word of mouth is powerful.

Humira was approved for Crohn’s in 2006. I started taking the injections in 2008. Now, it’s 2018 and patients in the United States have access to the Citrate-free (pain free) formula. What’s next? Now, we can truly continue to dream.

Reflecting on two years of marriage with IBD

Two years ago today, I married the love of my life. The man who has been by my side through multiple hospitalizations, flare-ups, surgery and day-to-day management of my Crohn’s disease. Prior to walking down the aisle, we shared vows during our “first look.” Here are a few lines from my vows:

photo by J Elizabeth Photography www.jelizabethphotos.com“You’re an incredible partner—you’re my rock when I’m sick and you know how to lift my spirits when I’m down. You have a way of easing my worries and bringing me clarity when I’m uncertain. Each day spent with you—is an extraordinary blessing. I feel so incredibly lucky that God brought us together and chose you to be the one person among millions who lights up my soul.”

When you battle inflammatory bowel disease, it’s a big part of your relationships. As a family, Bobby and I focus on one another, our son and managing my disease. It’s a team effort. It’s comforting to know that when I’m not feeling well or going through a difficult part of my disease journey, that I can lean on my husband for strength and support. Just this week, I was struggling with symptoms. Countless bathroom breaks. Relentless gnawing cramps that bothered me for hours. My husband always checks in on me—lightly knocking on the bathroom door to make sure I’m ok. Texting me while I’m stuck in there, bringing a smile to my face with funny emoji’s and sweet talk.

It’s the little things. The day-to-day management that many do not see and that can be easy to take for granted. Our caretakers, our main sources of support and comfort do so much—effortlessly. IMG_0324_1At times, living with a chronic illness and being the one who doesn’t feel well, can bring about guilt. It also brings out the best in us. When I’m vulnerable and need a boost, I see my husband rise up to the challenge, time and time again. I’m constantly reminded I chose to live my life alongside someone who has more compassion in their heart than I knew imaginable.

Tonight, I’ll give myself a Humira injection. Tonight, my husband will stand in front of me like he always does, cheering me on and holding onto our son, so I have a focal point of inspiration. Each injection, as I stare intently at my guys, I tell myself I need to be strong for them. I tell myself I need to do all I can to stay healthy and out of the hospital. I tell myself anything is possible with them by my side.

So, as we celebrate two years of marriage and nearly five years together, I reflect on how far we’ve come as a couple, as a family and how our love has grown as a result of my illness.

Oftentimes it’s life’s hurdles that provide the greatest perspective, the strongest insight, and the clarity that you’re exactly where you need to be in this life and that your disease is a part of you, but you are so much more. IBD does not need to rob you of love. It does not need to prevent you from getting married. And it certainly does not need to stop you from finding your fairy tale ending.