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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Juggling Women’s Health while being a mom of 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Helpful Resources to Educate Yourself About IBD + COVID Vaccine

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

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

The “vulnerable” population: Here’s what special shopping hours mean to me

Chances are by now your grocery store has instituted a designated hour each morning for the “vulnerable” population to shop. Vulnerable meaning the immunocompromised, the elderly, and the those who are pregnant. Target and Wal-Mart are on board with this too, one day a week. While in theory this is greatly appreciated, many people who are taking advantage of this option have been met with huge crowds and empty shelves.

As a 36-year-old with an invisible illness, Crohn’s disease, I was curious if I would be questioned or given dirty looks if I shopped during these hours. To the average person, I look healthy. I called two local grocery stores and my local Target to see if I would need a doctor’s note or a prescription bottle with my name upon entering the store. Everyone was extremely kind and said no questions would be asked and that it’s just an honor system. Still, as a young person I can’t help but assume I would be met with some eye rolls and attitude. I too was hopeful and a bit skeptical that the rest of the population would be honest and not try and to take advantage of the system. IMG_9020

So, after one week of isolation in my home, I strapped on one of two N95 masks my husband had lying around the house from some construction projects and a pair of surgical gloves we had on hand from when my son had Hand, Foot, and Mouth as a baby and ventured out to see just how it would be to utilize the shopping hours for the high risk. We were down to about five slices of bread and no meat, I figured shopping during this special time when the store opened would be our best chance at getting what our family needed.

Here is what surprised me

I was one of five people in the store wearing a mask. I was the only person wearing gloves. It felt like the day before Christmas when you are like a sardine walking in a slow line, aisle by aisle. The situation made me feel anxious and unsafe. I was the youngest person by far…and I’m not all that young, but it was mostly the 60+ crowd. I wasn’t questioned by employees or shoppers but feel as though my mask and gloves did the talking for me. While I was shopping, I wondered if it was more crowded than a random time of day…or if this is just how busy grocery stores are now around the clock? shopping-cart-1275480_1920

The safety of shopping around other high-risk patients

I asked Dr. Neilanjan Nandi, MD, FACP, Penn Presbyterian Medical Center about whether there was any danger in putting all the high risk people together to shop, or if he felt it was safer to go first thing in the morning before all the crowds throughout the day. He said, “It may be safer to go early in the store when there are simply less absolute number of people around to contract the illness from. It is the shear number of people that ultimately contributes to the virus’ spread. Therefore, limiting the number of individuals that we come in contact with is among our best options in both preventing our own infection and slowing its spread to others.”

Dr. Nandi went on to say regarding IBD, it is patients who are on a high dose of steroids (particularly over a daily dose of 20 mg) that are of the greatest concern right now. “While good data is unavailable, the biologic class of IBD therapeutics were specifically developed to avoid the high risk of infection that steroids confer on magnitudes far greater. I encourage all IBD patients to maintain their current therapies. If on steroids, have a discussion with your primary IBD specialist about other options and of course maintain vigilant social distancing practices.”

If you are single or don’t have a choice but to do your grocery shopping, I would recommend utilizing the special hour that’s been set aside, but if you have the option to stay home and have another family member or friend do the shopping, do that. My husband has been doing all our grocery shopping and Target runs, I simply went to gain perspective and see firsthand how it would be for a young person, with a disease that isn’t visible, during these wild times. If I had been shopping without a mask and gloves on, maybe I would have been asked what I was doing there. It’s hard to say. Overall, I’m grateful businesses are recognizing the need to do all they can to try and protect those who are at greatest risk of catching COVID-19, your efforts are appreciated.

Click here for a list of major retailers offering specific accommodations for shopping.

 

 

Real talk from an immune compromised 30-something during the COVID-19 pandemic

You can think of this as a Public Service Announcement for the immune compromised. Like many of my peers in the chronic illness community, I may appear healthy on the exterior, but the biologic medication I depend on to manage my Crohn’s disease, knocks out my immune system. In my family alone, so many face the same reality:

-my 30-year-old cousin whose had two heart transplants and a kidney transplant

-my cousin’s 2.5-year-old son battling Leukemia

-my cousin’s wife who has Crohn’s and is on Remicade

-my cousin who lives with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome among other chronic conditions

I’ve been part of the immune-compromised population since I was 24 years old. Over the past 12 years, never did I dream of the reality we’re currently living in. When I first heard about Coronavirus, I wasn’t all that alarmed. As the conversations and situation continues to become more serious, I’m getting more anxious and concerned.

Here are the latest recommendations shared by The Lancet as this relates to the IBD population. I found these guidelines helpful in drowning out the noise of all the information being thrown our way.

Potential risk factors for infection

  • Patients with IBD on immunosuppressive agents
  • Patients with active IBD and malnutrition
  • Elderly people with IBD
  • IBD patients who frequent medical clinics
  • IBD patients with underlying health conditions, such as hypertension and diabetes
  • Patients with IBD who are pregnant

Medication for patients with IBD

  • Continue current treatment if your disease is stable, and contact your doctor for suitable medicine if you’re flaring.
  • Use mesalamine as prescribed, this should not increase the risk of infection.
  • Corticosteroid use can be continued, but be cautious of side effects.
  • A new prescription of immunosuppressant or an increase in dosage is not recommended in epidemic areas.
  • Use of biologics, such as the anti-TNF’s infliximab (Remicade) and adalimumab (Humira) should be continued.
  • If Remicade infusion is not accessible, switching to a Humira injection is encouraged.
  • Vedolizumab (ENTYVIO) can be continued due to the specificity of the drug for the intestine.
  • Ustenkinumab (Stelara) can be continued, but starting this requires infusion center visits and is not encouraged.
  • Enteral nutrition might be used if biologics are not accessible.
  • Tofacitinib (Xeljanz) should not be newly prescribed unless there are no other alternatives.

Surgery and endoscopy

  • Postpone elective surgery and endoscopy. (I’ve heard of many  centers and hospitals delaying until June at this point.)
  • Screening for COVID-19 (completed blood count, IgM or IgG, nucleic acid detection, and chest CT needed before emergency surgery.

Patients with IBD and fever

  • Contact your GI about visiting an outpatient clinic. Consult with your physician about possibly suspending the use of immunosuppressant and biologic agents and follow appropriate guidance if COVID-19 can’t be ruled out.

While the unknown is scary—as a chronic illness community we need to recognize how well-equipped we are mentally and emotionally to live life during these uncertain and uneasy times. According to the National Health Council, 133 million Americans live with incurable or chronic diseases, many of which are treated with medications that make us susceptible to illness.

It can be unnerving to see peers downplay the severity of the situation and making light of the fact they have nothing to worry about. If you have a friend or family member who’s immune compromised or a loved one over age 60, you have reason to be empathetic. Chances are you know many people who fall in these categories. Going against the recommendation and living your life like nothing is going on right now, puts people like me and so many others in jeopardy. It’s irresponsible and says a great deal about your character. CCFA social distance

To those of us in the high-risk category, this quarantining and social distancing is more than an inconvenience or a change in our plans. We know that if we happen to come down with COVID-19, our bodies may not be able to fight it.

The healthy are getting a glimpse into what it feels like to live with a disease that can blindside you and flip your world upside down at any moment. After years of juggling all the variables and the what-ifs, we know how to protect ourselves. We know living in fear takes away from our joy. Thanksgiving2019

Rather than feel like we’re less than, we can continue to choose to see the beauty of what is right in front of us within our homes, with those who matter most.

Rather than feel like we’re goners, we can follow our care team’s recommendations, pay attention to facts over fake news, and stay on our medication. It’s believed the threat of untreated IBD is a bigger concern right now, and if you flare and need steroids, your immune system will take even more of a hit. If you are flaring and have a fever, physicians are now ruling COVID-19 out first.

Rather than waiting for the worst, we can be proactive and use the tools in our arsenal to stay as healthy as possible and use trusted resources to guide our decision making. Wash your hands even more than you’re used to, spend time outside in your yard, never share food or drink, change your clothes if you’ve left the house.

Rather than glue ourselves to the TV or scroll through our phones, we can take time for ourselves and make a point to make self-care a priority. Put your phone in another room, turn up the tunes and have a dance party with your kids. You’ll be amazed at what a stress reliever that is! Read a good book. Organize your closet. Try out a new recipe or bake something yummy.

Rather than cower in the corner, we can continue to advocate and be a voice for the voiceless in our community to educate and inform the rest of the population about what it means to be immune compromised by connecting over social media, Facetime, Marco Polo, emailing and texting.

Here are some helpful resources to check out:

Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation

Coronavirus and IBD Reporting Registry

International Organization for the Study of Inflammatory Bowel Disease

Coronavirus Resource and Planning for IBD Patients (Blog written by IBD advocate Jessica Caron)

Coronavirus Resources for People with IBD (Blog/Podcast created by IBD Advocate Amber Tresca)

USA Today article: The best thing everyday Americans can do to fight coronavirus? #StayHome, save lives