Caregiving During COVID-19: How IBD has helped one couple navigate the unknown

Rebecca Kaplan was only 20 years old when she met Dan, the love of her life. It was move in day her junior year of college and as she recalls “this skinny guy knocked on my apartment door to ask for toilet paper”. Her family laughed it off – because who knocks on a random person’s door asking for toilet paper – little did they know how that chance encounter would change the course of both their lives. This week, Rebecca explains how her role of caregiver has evolved over the course of a decade and how it’s helped her cope with the pandemic.

Dan and I began dating four months after that initial toilet paper introduction. Two months later, he was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, right while my mom was starting chemotherapy for Stage 4 Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. As someone who has been plagued with crippling anxiety her whole life, you would have thought I would fold under the stress of two of the most important people in my life receiving life-altering diagnoses at the same time. But I didn’t– in fact, my anxiety motivated me to embrace the role of caregiver.

Dan’s first hospitalization and the colonoscopy that went wrong

We had been married less than a year, living 90 minutes away from our families and our full support system. RK 5His disease had gone unmonitored for years and his new doctor was performing a colonoscopy to see just how bad his IBD had gotten. We were unaware that he had developed a stricture that was so severe that when she pushed the scope through, it nicked the wall of his intestines, causing a perforation and bacteria to get into his bloodstream. Within 45 minutes of waking up from the procedure, he had spiked a 104-degree fever and kept telling me and the nurses he thought he was dying. I was TERRIFIED. But I also found myself motivated by the fear and the anxiety I felt.

Instead of going into a full-blown panic attack, I went into caregiver mode. I knew I needed to be Dan’s voice because he could not speak up for what he needed. It was my job to demand the best care he could get, advocate for his needs, and focus just on him.

While taking care of Dan in the hospital required most of my time and attention, I did notice that I could only do it to the best of my ability if I were also taking care of myself. We lived 45 minutes away from the hospital with a new puppy and no one to take care of him. So, while I wanted to spend 24/7 with him while he was inpatient, I knew that I couldn’t do it for my own sanity. So, I made sure I went home multiple times a day and created a separation between myself and the hospital so I could decompress, eat (SO IMPORTANT), and sleep (ALSO IMPORTANT). Being able to do that meant that I was able to be at the top of my game when he needed me the most. RK 3

It’s been almost 10 years since the series of hospitalizations that started with Dan’s perforation and ended with him having a bowel resection to remove the stricture. And in those 10 years, I’m so thankful that Dan’s health has improved greatly. He’s gained nearly 50 pounds, works full time, works out, plays softball with his dad and brother, and deals with me.

Coping with the COVID-19 Pandemic

With his health stable now, the biggest challenge we’ve been facing the past few months is coping during the COVID-19 pandemic. I have been coping with the pandemic much better than Dan. I jokingly say that I’ve been training for quarantine my whole life, since my obsessive-compulsive disorder has always had me washing my hands, avoiding sick people, and wanting to stay home more than going out. However, Dan does not do well with change – whether that be moving to a new apartment, being diagnosed with a chronic illness, starting a new job, or having life turned upside down by a pandemic. Going from working full-time in an office to being trapped at home, isolating to stay healthy, has been hard for him. His regular life and hobbies have been stripped away from him, and not being able to leave the house and go places has left him stir crazy and agitated. RK 2

Because of this, I’ve put my caregiver hat back on in a different way. I’m not caring for his active disease; rather I’m helping him cope with change and the accompanying stress. I encourage him to do things outside as much as possible, whether that’s taking the dogs on a walk, kicking the soccer ball in the backyard, or going on a hike. I also try and help him see the bigger picture – we’re staying home so that he and our high-risk relatives stay healthy. And I remind him that this is not forever – it will get better and we will get back to normal at some point.

Rebecca’s Top Three Tactics for Caregiving

  1. Make sure you are taking time for yourself – that means eating, sleeping, and doing things to relax and take a break from being a caregiver. This is so important to help you be fully present for your loved one.
  2. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. When Dan had his surgery, our house was a mess and I wasn’t prepared to come home from the hospital with him. So, my mom and sister went to our apartment one night and cleaned/straightened it up for us so I wouldn’t have to do it after spending all day at the hospital.
  3. Find your tribe who will support you as the caregiver. It’s so important to build your own support system separate from your loved one’s support system. Being a caregiver is hard and making sure you have people you can talk to and rely on is so important for your mental health.

 

Serving as the Glue to Keep My Care Together: Advice from an IBD mom

For as long as Danielle Fries can remember, Crohn’s disease has been part of her story. Even though she was officially diagnosed with IBD at age 13, she had stomach issues since infancy. Over the last 16 years, she has tried medications, diet adjustments, holistic treatment options, and therapy to reach a happy balance and remission. This week she shares her experience of flaring during pregnancy and how she managed to bring her baby girl into this world and take care of herself at the same time.

When I found out I was expecting, my GI health was stable. I was only taking Lialda and my most recent colonoscopy showed minimal signs of disease, which left me feeling confident. After my first OB appointment, I was referred to MFM (maternal and fetal medicine) for a consult solely because I had Crohn’s and the pregnancy is considered high risk when you have IBD. The MFM specialist took my history, let me ask more than enough questions, and ultimately decided I was on track for a healthy pregnancy. We parted ways feeling confident that my disease was under control and I should return in the third trimester for one more consult to confirm all was well.

My Crohn’s disease had different plans

I struggled early on with morning sickness but something about those stomach pains felt different. As a Crohn’s patient for more than a decade, it can be easy to tell when something is off. By 12 weeks, it was very evident that these symptoms – cramping, nausea, burning, bleeding, the works – were more than just morning sickness. I was on my way to a full-blown flare and my little one growing inside me was stuck for the ride.

My first feeling was fear. I was terrified enough about becoming a mom, but now that my Crohn’s complicated the pregnancy, my mind started racing. Would the baby be able to grow properly? Would the baby end up with complications? Would I make my baby sick? Will my baby end up with Crohn’s like me? The anxiety and unknown of the situation felt beyond overwhelming and I knew I needed to find the right support system to make me feel somewhat in control of all the chaos.

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29 weeks pregnant with baby Nora

Turning to my most trusted fellow IBD warrior, my mom

My mom was my first source of reason. She could understand and relate to what I was going through more than anyone since she too has Crohn’s. She got diagnosed while pregnant and flaring with me! While her Crohn’s has never been as severe as mine, it really helped to find someone who related to the fears and uncertainty I was experiencing and made it through with a positive outcome.

I was extremely fortunate to find a group of specialists to help bring some answers and clarity to my journey. The entire pregnancy I was in close contact with both my OB and the MFM. The MFM was honest in her lack of understanding of how Crohn’s disease can fully affect the pregnancy and referred me to a GI she trusted. My new GI doctor became my confidant, my champion, my source of calm in the pregnancy. She specialized in the intersection of women’s health and Crohn’s disease, with a specific interest in pregnant women. Finding a GI doctor who I trusted to lead me with a care plan for both my Crohn’s and my baby’s development was the greatest sense of relief I felt since the day I found out I was expecting.

Struggles in the Second Trimester

As I entered the second trimester, I struggled to gain weight and it became apparent that my baby was suffering from intrauterine growth restriction (IUGR). My doctor’s visits became more frequent, the tests (non-stress tests, growth ultrasounds, blood flow ultrasounds) increased and I found myself at the doctor 3-5 times a week. As the visits and tests increase, so did my constant questions, fears, and uncertainties. Never ever be afraid to ask questions – you are the one on the journey and deserve to understand what is going on!

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Final date night at 37.5 weeks

I quickly learned that while I was lucky enough to have three doctors in my court supporting myself and my baby, I still had to be my own advocate. Each doctor had their own niche of where they could help, and I had to serve as the glue to keep my care as one seamless plan. I trusted all the doctors, but wish they could have just had a conference call titled “What the heck to do with Danielle Fries and baby?” rather than leave me playing telephone in the middle. But I learned to be the squeaky wheel to advocate for my health and my baby’s health and not fall through the cracks.

An early induction

After many weeks of testing, deliberation, questions, and my baby’s decreasing growth, my doctors and I decided as a team that an early induction was the best course of action. The OB and MFM felt confident that my baby would grow better on the outside than on the inside and the GI doctor wanted to be able to get my health back in control. I trusted my doctors and asked way too many questions, but felt more confident with a plan of action.

My trust in my care team paid off. Baby Nora was born teeny at 38 weeks and measured in at the 3rd percentile. She spent a few days in the NICU while she gained her strength and learned to breathe on her own. Now that teeny nugget is 6 months old and weighing in at the 90th percentile! I complain daily about how heavy she has gotten and that carrying my baby is more work than going to the gym, but I feel so fortunate. Every single roll (and trust me, they are endless) is a reminder that this girl and I were cared for by the best team of doctors who were by our side every step of the way and gave us both our health. Just after giving birth, I started a new treatment regimen of Stelara shots every 4 weeks and I finally feel like I have my Crohn’s disease back under control.

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Three lessons from one IBD mom to another

  1. Find doctors/care team you trust. You will be talking to them a lot and you need to feel comfortable asking anything.
  2. It is okay to be scared. The unknown is scary and add in the hormones, and it’s a recipe for more! But as much as you may be afraid, you can and will do it and your baby will be okay too!
  3. Be willing to adapt. Whether it’s your timeline for getting pregnant, your birth plan, your own treatment regimen, testing, doctors visit frequency, something is bound to change. I really did not want to be induced (I had heard horror stories of 4 days in labor), but ultimately all my doctors agreed that was the best option for me the baby. And things worked out fine (better than I ever expected!) DANIELLE

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

StuffThatWorks Currently Serves 85 Condition Communities

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

StuffThatWorks is looking to grow the IBD community.

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

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

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

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

COVID-19 response

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

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

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

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

Crowdsourcing research is limitless: The hope for the IBD community

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

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

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

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

Driving Research through Patient Reported Outcomes

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

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

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

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

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

Coming of age with IBD: The 20s and the 30s and how they differ

The new year and new decade have almost everyone reflecting on the last 10 years of their life, looking back at then and now, and anxiously excited to see what the next 10 years will bring. Framing life into decades is interesting, especially when it comes to chronic illness. I wasn’t diagnosed with Crohn’s until age 21, so I can’t speak to what it’s like to live with IBD as a child or a teen. What I can speak to is what it’s like to live with a chronic illness in your 20s and in your 30s and how your lifestyle, your expectations for yourself and for others, shifts as you age. natalie20s2

In my opinion, each decade with IBD presents its own unique set of challenges. Of course, each and everyone of us has a different looking “timeline” as our lives play out, but for the most part, certain aspects of “coming to age” happen at one time or another, depending on what’s important to you. Here’s what my 20s and 30s has looked like:

The 20s:

Said goodbye to being a child and truly became an adult.

Fulfilled education goals, navigated professional life, followed career aspirations.

Dated and found love.

Enjoyed a fun social life with friends.

Moved out at age 22 and lived on my own in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Illinois.

Adopted my dog, Hamilton.

The 30s:

Got into a groove professionally, felt more confident in my skills and what I’m meant to do.

Moved to Missouri to follow love and got married. engagement

Got pregnant and had two babies.

Fewer social hang outs and more family time.

This may just look like a list, but when you live with IBD these life changing milestones and moments have different meaning and carry different weight. When I was diagnosed at age 21, it was before I landed my first TV job. I had just graduated college and spent years interning for free, worked four nights a week on the college TV station…for free, only to be blindsided with a disease that made me wonder if all my hard work was for nothing. At 21 I wasn’t sure if I would ever find a man willing to stick by my side through the ups and downs of chronic illness or if I was worthy of a long-term relationship. At 21, I moved eight hours away from all friends and family, three months after being diagnosed, while on 22 pills a day, to follow my dream of being a journalist. There was great responsibility in living on my own, taking my medications and being a compliant patient, while the rest of my peers’ greatest worry was what going out shirt they were going to wear to the bar that night. natalie20s

During my 20s I put more emphasis on what others thought of me and just wanted to fit in. I didn’t want my disease to hold me back in any way.

Now that I’m 36, and can look back on what it was like to live with Crohn’s throughout my 20’s and now well into my 30s, I must say…while life with this disease is never “easy”, it becomes a lot easier to live with as you get older. Here’s why.

I followed my dreams of being a journalist and worked successfully full-time for more than a decade in TV stations and PR agencies, despite my diagnosis.

I found a man who loves me for me and didn’t think twice of being my partner even though I had Crohn’s. I met Bobby one month before turning 30. Dating him, marrying him, and building a family with him has brought a great sense of comfort and stability into my life. When I flare or I’m having a rough day, I rely heavily on him to be my rock and lift my spirits.

blog2Fatigue from motherhood when you have a chronic illness can be mind-numbing and debilitating, but seeing your body create a life and then bring a baby into this world makes you feel a renewed sense of love for a body that you’ve been at odds with for years. IBD and motherhood has it’s worries and challenges, but at the end of the day, your children will be the greatest light in your life, and the most magical motivators of strength. There’s almost too much going on to worry about your own well-being, which is both a blessing and a curse!

natalieblog2Gone are the days of going out at 11 pm, now I rarely go out and when I do, I’m usually home before 10. There’s no pressure to stay out until bar close or take a shot. My friends are all grown women, many of them are moms, our priorities have shifted. Adult conversation over brunch or a glass of wine and some sushi or tapas is refreshing and rejuvenating. I openly communicate about my disease when asked and don’t shy away from the conversation like I once did.

blogarticleIf you’re reading this and you’re newly diagnosed, a teenager, a 20-something, trust me when I say that balancing life—all your obligations, your network of support, your job and what you’re meant to do with your life will find it’s way. Don’t beat yourself up by creating a timeline or a vision board that sets you up for failure. Don’t try and keep up with the Jones’. Don’t compare where you are in life to your peers. Because there is no comparison. When you have IBD you are being unfair to yourself if you try and be just like everyone else, because you’re not. And that’s ok. Use your experience as a patient to give you patience within yourself. Everyone faces struggles, everyone faces setbacks, but someday I promise you’ll look back and those very same struggles will be the reason you are strong, focused, driven, empathetic, and living the life you were meant to live.

How art helps Kate take on her Crohn’s: Tips for unleashing your inner IBD artist

When 32-year-old Kate Schwarting of New York was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease in June 2009 she was less than surprised. The symptoms that had insidiously weaved their way into her life had finally reached a point where their impact on her daily life was undeniable. A colonoscopy confirmed it. headshot_schwartingAt the time she was diagnosed, Kate was immersed in her undergraduate studies that were divided between Geoscience and Studio Art and took on the role of caregiver for her mother. This week Kate shares how art has benefited her patient journey and offers up helpful ways you can incorporate art into your life, even if all you can draw are stick figures (like me!):

While in college, I was focused on understanding my passion for science and art. I was passionate about discovering the possibility for art to express the unseen, and build an emotional bridge for relating to complex scientific problems. But all of this was set against a backdrop of Crohn’s flares, fistulas, strictures, hospitalizations (for both myself and my mother), and doctor appointments.

These constant disruptions often left me feeling like I was struggling to move towards my goals, preserving my identity when it’s so easy for illness to be all consuming, and caused me to frequently reflect and reevaluate my relationship with the art and science that I studied.

How Crohn’s brought me closer to understanding the benefits of art

As a student involved with the arts, it was common for me to have a few spare art materials. Over the course of 10 years of dealing with Crohn’s, I had several flares that resulted in extended hospitalizations, periods where I was at home recovering, or as a caregiver for a parent that made me aware of how important it was to have spare materials with me.

Being sick and in the hospital, or even stuck at home away from your daily routine, is stressful and isolating at best. Having these tools allowed me to cope, escape, and create meaning. It gave me a sense of accomplishing something positive and tangible in a setting where a significant amount of time is spent anxiously waiting for results, procedures and to feel better. IMG_5852

Not only have I noticed how much it helps me to have this diversion, I have also noticed the impact it has on those around me. In situations that are emotionally heavy with the burden of illness, a brief conversation with another patient, nurse or doctor about art seems to uplift everyone’s mood and passing along this joy had an exponentially good effect on my own outlook.

How a flare inspired meaningful artwork 

During a flare in 2016 I began to investigate how to create meaningful artwork relating to both the microbiology and to my experiences with my own body. I was drawn to the microbiome. Trillions of bacteria exist in everyone through a symbiotic relationship in the digestive system. detail1 - Kate SchwartingThe microbiome is a hot spring of unanswered questions in relation to its role in IBD, as well as many other conditions. Applying the methods I have used in other projects, I researched the different types of bacteria and their shapes and used them to create a series of abstract drawings that relate to the digestive system and allow people to develop a sense of the complexity of the human body.

5 tips for incorporating art into your life

Create a pack of art supplies. Get a small sketch book, a pouch including a woodless pencil, travel sized watercolor palette and brush, assorted pens, and a ruler. Add to this whatever materials you prefer. 

Start simple. Use mindfulness to find inspiration around you, whether it’s a color, a pattern, or texture

Be mindful of self criticism! As put best by Bob Ross, Let happy accidents happen!

Experiment! Art at its core relies on the very basic act of creating and requires no prior artistic training to get started. It is a place to abandon judgement and focus on an exclusively human experience.

Share! I found it helped hold me to my goal of setting aside time to relax and create art by making an art related post once a day or every other day depending on how I felt to Instagram and also helped me find a supportive community during times where I was feeling the most isolated. I’d love to see what you create! Feel free to use the hashtag #chronicallycreative when sharing your work!

You can follow Kate on Instagram and Twitter at: @microbioscapes.

 

An Evening of Hope: What charity events mean as an IBD patient

There’s something special about sitting in a room with hundreds of people, all with the same goal and mission in mind—to fundraise and advance research for IBD. Over the weekend, my husband and I had the opportunity to attend the Mid-America chapter of the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation’s “Evening of Hope” Gala in St. Louis.

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Christian and I both battle Crohn’s disease. 

As a patient, it’s difficult to articulate how it feels to attend charity events that revolve around IBD. It’s emotional. It’s uplifting. It’s bittersweet. It’s empowering.

In my 14-plus years living with Crohn’s, I spent so much of that time dealing with my disease in private—never wanting to be judged, never wanting sympathy or pity. When I started sharing my story publicly five years ago, and connecting with others who live my reality, a whole new world opened up. I realized how much support is available and how close knit the IBD community…or should I say family, really is.

The Gala was sold out. Last year the event raised $300,000—this year the hope was to meet or exceed that! That’s from one event in St. Louis—last year the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation raised more than $80 million through memberships, fundraising events, sponsorships, and other programs.

My favorite moment of the night was listening to a fellow IBD mom and pediatrician speak about her journey with ulcerative colitis and how she’s managed to rise above and experience so much beauty in life, despite her diagnosis. As she spoke, a slideshow of photos of her three sons, traveling the world with her brought happy tears to my eyes. Her remarkable story and experience is one of many that serves as a reminder that just because you have IBD doesn’t mean it needs to hold you back from your dreams. She was diagnosed sophomore year of college, and still managed to become a doctor and have a family. B555E291-A329-4FF8-B7B3-AD7648C43500

Connecting with fellow friends, event organizers, and patients in person is a joyful occasion. I especially enjoyed the opportunity to connect with parents of children, teens, and college students who are taking on the disease. It’s my hope that events like this show them all the exciting research and hope that’s on the horizon for the future of care and treatment for IBD. Events like this are a reminder that it’s not a matter of “if” there will be a cure for Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis, but when.

IMG-3726If you’ve never attended a Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation event for your local chapter—whether it’s a patient symposium, an education event, a walk, or a Gala, I highly recommend you check them out. While it’s great to connect on social media or over the phone, nothing compares to physically being in the same room with people who are passionate about the same cause, who understand your reality, and are driven towards the same mission as you.

 

 

A close-knit family: The story behind this Crohn’s blanket

There’s nothing quite like a grandmother’s love. They have a way of bringing comfort, peace, support, faith, and love to family, among many other incredible traits. IMG-2601When seven-year-old Penny was diagnosed with Crohn’s in January 2017, her grandmother, Mary, started knitting her a purple blanket. She chose the color purple because it’s not only Penny’s favorite color, but also the color that represents Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD).

“Penny has always had a special little gauze blanket, but I wanted to make something for her that would hopefully comfort her on days when she does not feel well,” said Mary Otto. “It’s the same idea as prayer shawl people make for those who are ill. As I knit, I pray for Penny.”

Other times, Mary says she prays for her family, for others battling Crohn’s, for those with other illnesses and diseases, and for people in general. As of now, the blanket is 44” wide and 42” long. Mary jokes she isn’t a consistent knitter and that she has a long way to go before the blanket is “adult size”. Penny currently stands 3’9”. IMG-2600

The passion project has been a special hobby between Penny and Mary. It’s Mary’s hope that in the future Penny will look back fondly on the memories and that each time she is snuggled up under the blanket she feels not only its warmth, but the warmth of her love now and always.

“I hope when Penny isn’t feeling well or in the hospital that she will find physical comfort in it (due to its weight), but also emotional and spiritual comfort because of the love and prayers that were part of its creation,” said Mary.

Every time Penny sees the blanket, her face lights up and she asks when it will be done. It’s a labor of love for Mary, every stitch made with purpose. As a grandparent, she says it’s heartbreaking to see a grandchild take on a disease like Crohn’s.

“No one wants to see their loved one suffer. I don’t like the helpless feeling when there is nothing I can do to make the situation better. I worry about Penny. I’m also concerned about her parents and brothers, because an illness like this affects the whole family.”

IMG-2918At the same time, Mary says she’s impressed by Penny and how she is taking all the baggage that comes with Crohn’s in stride at such a young age: the daily medications, the infusions, the lifestyle changes.

“Penny demonstrates so much strength, she is my little hero!” A hero who will one day hold on tightly to that blanket and not only feel the love it exudes but be reminded that she’s never alone in her struggle.

While Penny was dealt a difficult hand of cards when it comes to her health, there’s no denying she hit the jackpot when it comes to her family.

5-ASA’s aren’t approved to treat Crohn’s—So Why are Hundreds of Thousands of Patients on Them?

When I was initially diagnosed with Crohn’s disease in 2005, I went home from the hospital on 22 pills a day. As the weeks passed and the steroid was tapered, that pill count dwindled to six. Six Asacol. For those who don’t know what Asacol is, it’s considered a 5-ASA medication. IMG-2067Chances are, if you have IBD, you’ve either been on or are currently taking this as part of your daily treatment regimen. Out of the approximately 1.6 million Americans who have IBD, more than 250,000 are currently on this type of medication. That may seem all fine and dandy, but did you know 5-ASA’s are not FDA approved for Crohn’s patients?

Yes, you read that correctly. As a Crohn’s patient myself, I spent three years on Asacol and from 2014 until just recently I was on Lialda (mesalamine). After seeing a discussion on Twitter led by Dr. Peter Higgins, M.D., Ph.D., M.Sc., questioning the use of this class of drug for Crohn’s, the topic piqued my interest. Here’s what Dr. Higgins has to say about the subject.

Dr HigginsNH: Given that there’s no evidence that 5-ASA medications are beneficial to Crohn’s patients (and not FDA approved), why are they being prescribed to more than 250,000 patients?

Dr. Higgins: “As best I can tell, this is because of failure of medical education, too many doctors getting their drug information from drug reps, and doctors fearing the risks of getting sued for using effective drugs. It’s uncommon for doctors to get sued for under-treatment of Crohn’s disease, which may need to change for doctors to change their behavior. Some doctors could be using 5-ASA’s as a placebo, and surprisingly, some doctors might not really understand the difference between Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis in terms of 5-ASA response.

NH: Is there any additional benefit if a patient takes a 5-ASA med along with their biologic?

Dr. Higgins: “For small bowel Crohn’s, definitely not. Also, a recent study for ulcerative colitis showed no additional benefit for patients on biologics to continue 5-ASAs.”

NH: As someone with Crohn’s disease in my small bowel, I’ve been told in the past by a GI that 5-ASA’s lower my risk of colon cancer, thoughts?

Dr Higgins: “Anything that reduces colon inflammation will reduce the risk of colon cancer in IBD. Generally, patients with milder ulcerative colitis end up on 5-ASA, and therefore have lower risk of colorectal cancer (because of less disease activity, not necessarily the drug). There’s a correlation, but probably not causation. Studies show the most important predictor is control of inflammation, rather than what drug you are on, for preventing colorectal cancer in ulcerative colitis (or Crohn’s colitis).”

NH: As far as the cost for the patient, insurance companies, healthcare system in general—is this more about business/making money than treating the disease?

Dr. Higgins: “For the manufacturers of 5-ASAs, this is about making money in Crohn’s patients (an extra, bonus market with little effort on their part). If pharmaceutical companies wanted to do the right thing, they would be out talking to docs about stopping 5-ASA in Crohn’s and using it appropriately in ulcerative colitis. But the drug companies don’t have an incentive to spend the money to do a campaign to reduce drug use. Technically, it is illegal to market 5-ASA’s for Crohn’s, so drug reps choose to avoid the subject entirely.  I find the health insurance company complicity puzzling. Maybe it’s cheaper than biologics, because many insurance companies go out of their way to block the use of therapies that are not FDA approved.”

NH: If Crohn’s patients are on this medication, what’s your advice for them?

Dr. Higgins: “Talk to your doctor. Ask why you are on a medication that is not approved for Crohn’s disease. Ask about the FDA-approved options that *are* effective for Crohn’s. Ask your doctor how well-controlled your intestinal inflammation is. You can measure disease inflammation the following ways:

  • By CRP (C-reactive protein) or ESR (SED rate) or FCP (fecal calprotectin)
  • By CTE (for patients over 35 years old) or MRE
  • By endoscopy if reachable with a colonoscope
  • By capsule endoscopy if not reachable with a standard scope

If your inflammation is not well controlled, you should be on a more effective medicine to reduce your risk of strictures, obstruction, fistulas, abscesses, perforations, cancer, flares, steroids, hospitalizations, and surgeries.”

 

 

 

IBD on the College Campus: The Social Burden

Living with roommates. Having to use public bathrooms. Feeling fatigued and unable to keep up with the energy levels of your peers to study and socialize. While living with IBD while being a college student is difficult in the classroom, many may argue the struggles are even worse outside of academics. Socially, college is a time to explore, learn, and spread your wings. But, when you’re taking on an unpredictable and painful chronic illness, making plans to attend a house party on a Friday night becomes a bit more complicated.

Annie Tremain was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease her senior year of high school, so navigating the disease while starting college was a stressful whirlwind. IMG-1375She was nervous about the potential of being matched up with a roommate who wasn’t a good match.

“I felt so alone. I requested a single dorm room, felt like I was hiding because I didn’t want to use the shared bathrooms when others were around. I was adamantly opposed to a roommate because I didn’t want to have to talk to a stranger about what I was going through.”

Using a public bathroom can be adjustment for any college student, let alone someone battling IBD. Elizabeth Haney IMG-1374was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis less than one week before leaving to study abroad for three months. She says the fact the trip still happened and was so successful was a highlight of her college career. While back on campus in the States, she recalls how stressful it was prepping for colonoscopies.

“Prepping for a colonoscopy while you live in a house with three people but only have one bathroom was horrible. My mom would get me a hotel room for prep night when she could swing it financially.”

Rachel Wigell was only fourteen11886127_10153032256553321_8963053032556586310_o (1) when she became sick with IBD, so she barely had time to form a body image that didn’t include this disease. She says she was never somebody who was confident in her appearance, but having IBD didn’t help. From the prednisone “moon face” to issues with gas and continence, there have been lots of times where she felt too gross to be taken seriously.

“One trouble I had was plain old insecurity. Living in a dorm and sharing a bathroom with 20 other women isn’t fun when you’re having diarrhea multiple times a day. I was desperate to hide how “gross” I was from other women, which meant I didn’t have a support system.”

For Sydney Mouton, being immune compromised IMG_1080caused her to get sick all the time and the community bathrooms weren’t of much help.

“I was in the middle of my worst flare in college, so I had a lot of issues from medication side effects that were more difficult to deal with while in school and trying to have a social life.”

Couple the stress of the living situation with the fatigue that’s brought on from the disease and it can be incredibly challenging. So many students living with IBD have shared with me the difficulty of wanting to be “normal” and like everybody else but then having to deal with the extreme health consequences that generally result from a “fun” night out.

Sarah Kate struggled with handling the unknown of the disease, while trying to help her friends understand her situation.IMG-1376

“Not knowing when I am going to feel well and having to explain to friends and them not really understanding why I felt well yesterday and why I’m not well today.”

Tips for students to calm the social stress

Be candid with your friends and open about your situation. The more you communicate, the better educated those around you will be. If people show lack of compassion or disinterest, that tells you right off the bat that their friendship is not worth your time and effort. Seek out friends who have your back, genuinely. Rather than downplaying your struggles and pain, paint a clear picture to those around you so they can support you and understand the nature of your experiences.

Give yourself plenty of time to get to and from class and social outings. Scout out the best places to have a safe, quiet rest. Pad your course schedule and extracurriculars so you don’t burn yourself out. Try to schedule your classes no earlier than 9 a.m. so you’re able to get plenty of rest each night.

Check out dorms on campus with private bathrooms. During my college experience, I lived in a quad my freshman year and lived with two roommates my sophomore year. I always had a private bathroom. Seek our dorms with these options available. The privacy and comfort will be invaluable.

Weigh the pros and the cons of a night out. If alcohol doesn’t agree with you, don’t push yourself just to try and fit in. You can still go out and have a great time and limit the amount of alcohol you ingest. It’s more fun to be hanging out with others and being sober than it is to be back at the dorm or in the hospital because you put your health in jeopardy.

If you’re struggling, don’t hesitate to reach out to the college counseling center on campus. As isolated and alone as you may feel in the moment, always know there is support available for you both near and far.

Click here for IBD on the College Campus: Getting the Medical Logistics in Check

Click here for IBD on the College Campus: The Challenge of Academics