Accountability & Chronic Illness: How Pack Health is leading the charge to empower patients

This article is sponsored by WEGO Health, opinions and thoughts are my own.

Accountability can be a tough pill to swallow when you battle chronic illness. Often times it feels as though the only person who can improve our overall wellbeing, is the person you see looking back in the mirror. But, Pack Health and CME Outfitters is looking to offer support to patients like you and me every step of the way to make our journeys less lonesome and isolating. Pack Health in partnership with CME Outfitters does this by providing one-on-one support, over the phone and online, to help people regain control over their health. photo (17)

Right now, Pack Health’s work spans across more than 20 chronic conditions, including inflammatory bowel disease. Not everyone has a support network. Not everyone has a spouse or a significant other they can lean on. Not everyone feels like they can take on the beast that is chronic illness alone. Get this—the average patient is only with their doctor 1 of the 6,000 hours that they’re awake each year! Pack Health works to fill in those gaps.

Here’s how it works—the service is more than just a health coach. By teaming up with an IBD coach, you can have someone texting you when you need a reminder, helping your find ways to make healthy living easier and more enjoyable, and someone who has your best interest at heart, every step of the way.

Finding Your Motivation
You’ll map out your goals for the months ahead. Where do you want to be in 3 months? 6 months? One year? Your personal IBD Health Coach will bring this goal into focus so it’s attainable and less overwhelming.

Setting Weekly Goals
Natalie runningIt’s not always the big goals, it’s getting through the day-to-day. Your IBD Health Coach will help you stick to weekly goals through calls, texts, and emails, based on how you like to communicate. Support will be right at your fingertips.

A Network of Resources
Rather than wasting hours on the internet trying to find dietary information or drug discount cards, the IBD coach will get you what you need to succeed.

By working with an IBD Health Coach patients are more likely to take their medications, stay on top of recognizing symptoms and improving their overall health and well-being. nataliepackhealth2As a chronic illness patient, myself, even though I try and manage my Crohn’s the same each day, sometimes life and being a mom gets in the way. I tend to put my needs and my care at the bottom of the totem pole. As a parent, I know I’m not alone in that. Having a Health Coach standing by ready to listen, educate and inspire me, is a reminder that I’m not in this alone.

Click here to learn more and try it for yourself.

The patient physician dynamic: 5 tips for finding your match

Raise your hand if you’ve considered switching physicians. Raise your hand if you’ve driven more than an hour to seek care. IBDSocialCircle2While attending IBD Social Circle at Digestive Disease Week in San Diego, I listened to a panel with Dr. Neilanjan Nandi, MD, FACP and Dr. Aline Charabaty, MD about the patient and health care practitioner dynamic.

It was an enthralling discussion that opened my eyes to the medical care available to the IBD family. They talked about how physician and patient relationships should not feel like speed dating. Seek a physician who truly cares about how IBD is impacting your life, someone who wants the context behind your symptoms. Rather than a physician wearing a white coat and sitting in front of you, look for one who sits next to you and leaves the white coat off.IMG-2081

If you’re constantly feeling like your GI is being complacent with your care or that you are just a number, you may want to consider finding a physician who’s a better fit. When doing so, it will take some effort on your part. Here are some tips to make the transition a bit less stressful.

  1. Look for a GI who specializes in IBD. Not every GI is passionate about Crohn’s or ulcerative colitis, it may not be their specialty. Finding an IBD specialist will put you in the hands of a care provider who knows the ins and outs of your disease.
  2. If you’re making a road trip to attend the appointment, let the office know. Before you drive hours for an appointment, let the nurses in the practice know that this isn’t a run-of-the-mill appointment. Maybe they can allot more time.
  3. Have your records sent over before you go. Provide the new physician with your back story, so they can familiarize themselves with your patient journey before your first face-to-face.
  4. If tests will be needed, see if they can all be arranged in one day. Save yourself a trip (or two) and check with your physician to see about them getting preauthorization for any tests or procedures ahead of time. This way insurance is notified and it’s one less headache to deal with down the road.
  5. Build a rapport with the nurses in the office. Don’t be afraid to lean on nurses for support. They are often the “middleman” between you and the physician. I rely heavily on the nurses in my GI office. Nurse Penny and I are buds!
  6. BONUS TIP: See if a family member or friend can attend the appointment with you. As the patient, sometimes it can feel as though the teacher from Charlie Brown is talking while we’re sitting in an appointment. So much is being thrown at us, so much is being said—but we’re not comprehending what it means for the present and the long term. By having a loved one by your side, they can take notes—so you can focus on asking the questions you need answered. That extra set of ears and eyes works wonders.

IBDSocialCircleSwitching physicians and entrusting someone new with your well-being is not easy. Trust your gut (for once!) and advocate for care that makes you feel like you have a voice. Think about how you feel leading up to an appointment, while you’re face to face with the physician and the emotions you may experience on that drive home. If anything makes you feel less than or not heard, connect with fellow patients in your area to see who makes up their care team. Do research about IBD specialists within drivable distance and take the steps you need to feel like you have your best ally against this disease.

Writing for a reason: IBD Pen Pals

Who says snail mail is a thing of the past? For one 10-year-old in the Chicagoland area, connecting with fellow IBD pediatric patients is helping her cope, comfort and help others as she takes on Crohn’s disease herself. emily4Meet Emily. This past February she received her chronic illness diagnosis. Even though she’s brand new to IBD life, she’s taking all the pain and all the setbacks in stride.

Her mom, Michelle, says watching her young daughter go through Crohn’s has been a punch in the gut.

“It’s overwhelming, lonely, and mentally draining for everyone involved. Her little body has been put through so much in the last few months and she just goes along with it all. I wish I could’ve done all the horrible tests and take away every ounce of her pain. My heart breaks every time she gets poked, every time she takes medicine, every time she has to do a test, or when I send her to school, knowing she feels horrible.”

Emily’s courage and compassion for others has inspired Michelle. Her Crohn’s diagnosis has spurred an interest to connect with other IBD kids. Rather than take on the disease in silence, Emily finds there is strength in numbers, a purpose for her pain. Emily penpalHer mom was able to reach out to fellow parents on Facebook about a pen pal program.

“How cool to come home from school and have a couple letters waiting for you from kids all over the country?!? Emily has already made 12 new friends with IBD from the U.S. and the U.K. I never want Emily to feel alone on this journey nor do I want any other kids to feel alone. I want Emily to see that other kids who have IBD are living a “normal” life and that she can, too! There may be days when I won’t understand what she’s going through, but her new friends will.”

Emilyand michelleFrom a parenting perspective, the pen pal group has introduced Michelle to other mamas going through the same fears and experiences. The connections have brought her peace of mind as she navigates these new waters with her daughter.

“Emily and I are firm believers in spreading positivity and what you give out, you get back. It’s up to us to find the good in this situation and what better way than emilylettermaking new friends? Friends who understand and continually cheer you on, no matter how far they are. My hope is that Emily will make life long connections and that these letters will serve as a constant reminder that she is never alone.”

Interested in joining this pediatric pen pal group? A Facebook page is in the works. In the meantime, you can get involved by emailing Emily’s mom, Michelle: positivelyshelly@gmail.com.

Why my husband is much more than a caregiver, Dr. Phil

I still remember the moment I told my husband I had Crohn’s disease. It was a beautiful August afternoon. We sat overlooking water at a boathouse in St. Louis on our third date. As we enjoyed casual conversation and a mutual interest in one another, I knew I had to tell him about my chronic illness.

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Photo from our third date, the day I told Bobby I had Crohn’s disease.

Nervous to rock the boat. Scared to be judged. Worried it would tarnish the image of who I was so far. I just wanted to rip off the band aid and get this conversation over with.

It was never easy to navigate dating and relationships with my disease. I was diagnosed with Crohn’s at age 21 in 2005. I met Bobby in August 2013 at age 29. Rather than seem put off by my disease, he inquired and showed empathy from that point forward. Never once did he make me feel less than or unworthy of love. In that moment, I knew I had found someone special and I felt a huge sense of relief.

Fast forward to this past month and all the conversation surrounding Dr. Phil’s heartless and ignorant comments about caregiving and relationships. I didn’t see the episode live, but have seen the countless posts on social media being shared to prove him wrong. I watched the interview clip after the segment aired and couldn’t believe my eyes or my ears. Dr. Phil told an interabled couple that “100 out of 100 relationships that involve caregiving fail.”

Photo by J Elizabeth Photography www.jelizabethphotos.com

Helping me walk down stairs during our engagement photos–21 days post op from my bowel resection surgery. Photo cred: J. Elizabeth Photography

It pains me to even write the idiotic words that man said. Not only is it upsetting, but it breaks my heart to think of all the young, newly diagnosed chronic illness patients out there who were already wondering if they were worthy of love because of living with a disease.

IMG_0077I’m here to tell you that you are. I truly believe my vulnerability with my Crohn’s and how I deal with flare ups is a big part of why my husband fell in love with me. Chronic illness isn’t pretty. It forces you to see the world without rose-colored glasses. It makes you realize the importance of your health and how quickly it can be taken away from you.

There’s a reason why you say “in sickness and in health” in wedding vows. My husband chose to spend his life with me, because he loves all of me—even the part of me that is riddled with illness. People are cut out to be caregivers or they’re not. You’ll come across this in your life and know which family members and friends have a special way about them. Those who don’t have this trait and ability aren’t meant to marry people like you and me. And that’s fine.

But to say that 100 out of 100 couples will fail because caregiving is involved couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s through Bobby’s caregiving that I continue to fall more and more in love with him. It’s those moments when I need help to get through a pain-filled day that I’m reminded just how strong and unbreakable our love is.

IMG_9492Caregiving looks and means different things to everyone. It’s not just about being a caregiver in the hospital or at a nursing home. It’s taking care of the one(s) you love on a typical day at home. It can be something as simple as rubbing your back or taking care of the kids while you’re stuck in the bathroom. It can be dishing you out ice cream after you give yourself an injection. Or holding your hand on a walk outside following a hospitalization. It’s those caregiving moments in particular that remind me constantly of the everlasting love I’ve found and make me 100 percent positive we will make it through, for the rest of my life.

My words of advice for you—if you’re a caregiver, know how appreciated you are—for all the little things and the big things. photo by J Elizabeth Photography www.jelizabethphotos.comIf you’re someone dealing with a disability/disease—don’t allow Dr. Phil’s ridiculously inaccurate comments make you think you aren’t worthy of love, because you are and always will be.

 

 

Silencing the Stigma: How one man is using his patient journey to empower others

This week—a guest post by IBD patient advocate Ziyad, from The Grumbling Gut. IMG_20181104_220957_401Ziyad shares how his experience taking on Crohn’s inspired his decision to become a radiographer and show fellow patients they are much more than just a number. I’ll let him take it away…

“Don’t let fear keep you quiet. You have a voice so use it. Speak up. Raise your hands. Shout your answers. Make yourself heard. Whatever it takes, just find your voice, and when you do, fill the damn silence.”

Those words were spoken in an episode of Grey’s Anatomy by Meredith Grey and I couldn’t have put it better myself. I was officially diagnosed with Crohn’s disease in 2007 having spent the previous year experiencing symptoms and not knowing what was going on. My absences from school – and to some extent my social life – didn’t go unnoticed and when asked where I was or if I had to cancel last minute, I’d just give my standard air tight excuse of “something came up last minute”.

Truth be told, I wasn’t ready to tell anyone outside of my family about my diagnosis, so I did the only thing I could – kept it a secret. IMG_20181122_171801_972I was afraid of what people might say, what they might think of me or if they might start treating me differently – I didn’t want to be anything other than the supposedly ‘healthy’ 17-year-old with a ‘normal’ life. As a result, I spent twelve years living with Crohn’s in silence. I was embarrassed, because let’s face it, talking about your bowel habits isn’t the most glamorous topic.

If we fast forward to now and having gone from being so secretive about my IBD to talking about it so openly and sharing my experiences through social media – you may ask “what’s changed?”.

The answer is simple – I’m not afraid anymore. I refuse to let fear keep me quiet.

Using my voice to beat the stigma

It took me a long time to realize that not only do I have voice, but I could use this voice and speak up to beat the stigma that held me back from sharing my story for so long. I also believe there’s no point of speaking up if my actions don’t match what I’m trying to achieve, which is why I started to volunteer for Crohn’s & Colitis UK, the charity giving a voice to people with Crohn’s or Colitis. IMG_20181129_204053_117

Anyone that has IBD knows the impact it can have on your daily life, but my IBD helped shape my career. Having spent a fair share of my time in hospitals being a patient, I got used to the hospital environment and now work as a diagnostic radiographer. My IBD exposed me to the radiography profession early on, having all my x-rays and MRI scans done to diagnose and monitor my disease. Shortly after being diagnosed and referred to a specialist I started the pleasant journey of getting treatment for my Crohn’s.

As everyone and their IBD is different, some medications may work for some and won’t for others so at the time there was a lot of trial and error and it felt like ‘let’s throw what we got at the wall and see what sticks’. Some of these treatments would make me feel even sicker due to the side effects and it really did feel like I was being treated as a list of symptoms and not as a person. Long story short, I changed specialists three times before finding one who treated me like a person.

How being a patient helped guide my career

Having experienced life with Crohn’s first hand has given me incredible insight as to how to provide better care for all the patients that I encounter on a day to day basis. I try to give my patients the opportunity to speak up, use their voice and be heard because of what I went through in the early stages of my IBD diagnosis. It can get busy in hospitals, especially with the increasing patient load and shortage of staff. IMG_20190210_202149_996It can be easy to fall into the ‘conveyor belt’ motion of one in, one out, to try and manage the workload. But it is in these busy moments, where taking a few extra seconds to ask a patient who looks upset, scared or frustrated if they’re OK, that can make all the difference.

It humanizes the experience for patients and gives them a chance to express themselves. I’ve learned it’s the little things that have the greatest impact in patient care.

My advice to anyone reading this—No matter how tough things get, always find the strength to speak up, because keeping all your pain and worry inside won’t do any good. The more you share your story, the more likely you will inspire someone else to share theirs.

Follow Ziyad on Instagram: @thegrumblinggut, Twitter: @thegrumblinggut, and Facebook: The Grumbling Gut.

 

 

 

Merry Everything, from my family to yours

We hope the holiday season has been filled with love, joy, happiness and health for you. Thank you for your endless support and encouragement, kind words and feedback and interest in not only my patient journey, but also the well-being of my family. Whether we’ve connected on social media, through Lights, Camera, Crohn’s, by email or collaborations, I feel so grateful to have this platform to share my experience living with Inflammatory Bowel Disease every week of the year. You inspire me to be vulnerable. You inspire me to be strong.

I write and advocate in hopes of being the voice I so desperately needed when I was given a lifelong chronic illness diagnosis at age 21. Being able to lean on the IBD family virtually and in person is the gift that keeps on giving. We can all serve as a wonderful resource for one another, not only during difficult days, but also when we’re feeling on top of the world.

IMG_4950I hope you take this week to enjoy time with loved ones, relax and find time to care for yourself!

If we haven’t already—let’s connect on social media:

Instagram: @natalieannhayden

Twitter: @nataliesparacio

Facebook: Natalie A. Sparacio

Cheers,

Natalie

Ready to Roll: Charmin unveils its new “Forever” Toilet Paper Roll

This post was sponsored by Charmin. Personal opinions and thoughts are my own.

Safe to say we’ve all been there. You’re in the bathroom. You look. No toilet paper. Not a fun predicament to be in, especially when you live with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). Talking about bathroom habits is somewhat taboo, regardless of whether you have a health issue. It’s not usually a comfortable conversation to have with others. But, just like the children’s book states, “Everyone Poops” and it’s nothing to be ashamed of. IMG_4815

After living with Crohn’s disease for more than 13 years, I’ve spent countless time dealing with bathroom issues and worrying about accidents. It’s become a part of my life and daily routine. It’s a personal part of my patient journey, but it’s also something that I know I’m not alone in dealing with.

Here’s where the Charmin Forever Roll comes in. It takes away all the hassles of running out of toilet paper. The roll lasts up to ONE MONTH! And yes, boys and girls, it’s available in Charmin Ultra Soft, America’s softest toilet paper made with 2-ply sheets.

When it comes to dealing with flare ups, prepping for colonoscopies and recovering from surgery and hospitalizations, the Forever Roll takes the focus off the toiletries and gives you one less thing to worry about. When your IBD is flaring and fatigue is weighing you down, the “simple” act of making a quick run to the store for toilet paper or even changing the roll can seem strenuous, especially if you live on your own or if you’re building up stamina following abdominal surgery.

At first glance, the Forever Roll may look rather large IMG_4811and industrial to have in your personal bathroom. But reviews far and wide have been overwhelmingly positive!

As a stay at home mom who lives with IBD, oftentimes it’s just my 20-month-old son and I home together during the day. If the roll is out, I’m in quite the predicament. I’ll be adding a baby girl to the mix in a few weeks, so then I’ll really have my hands full! The Forever Roll is efficient and provides peace of mind.

“Charmin is always looking for to ways to improve the lives of consumers, and the Charmin Forever Roll delivers on a big tension: constantly having to change the roll of toilet paper,” said a P&G spokesperson. “By removing one more hassle in the bathroom, consumers can focus on other things without the fear of running out of TP.  Charmin hopes the Forever Roll alleviates this concern and provides a sense of relief for the IBD community with the same quality TP they know and love.”IMG_4837

Click here to order your Charmin Forever Roll Starter Kit. With the Starter Kit you get 3 Forever Rolls, free shipping and a FREE stainless steel roll holder. You have the option for a 1-user bathroom or a multi-user bathroom, so it’s perfect for any household.

Whether you live with IBD or if you’re the picture of health, we all need toilet paper to get through the day. I know I won’t miss opening the door and asking my husband to bring me toilet paper! Give it a go and let me know what you think.

Food for thought: What it’s like to get all your nutrition through an IV with IBD

This week–a guest post from an IBD advocate who continually inspires me. Meet Sonya Goins. twibbon-profileShe is a news reporter for a community television station in the Minneapolis/St.Paul area. Sonya is also a Crohn’s patient, diagnosed with the digestive disease in 1985 while she was in college. I’ll let her take it from here:

While fighting the physical pain of Crohn’s is tough, the mental aspect is even harder.

On January 3rd, 2018 my doctor put me on TPN (Total Parenteral Nutrition), which means I was fed through my veins. All of the nutrients I needed to survive were in an IV bag and pumped through my veins throughout the day. My doctor wanted to give my colon a rest so ulcers could heal.  I endured this treatment for eight and half months.  It was one of the most trying times of my life. No food, just water, broth and on occasion, coffee.

Despite my circumstances, I named my IV catheter “hopeful.” 26677835_10155748847937819_1006971807936260031_oHowever, it took me a minute to adapt a positive inner attitude.  You see, in public I put on a good, cheerful attitude. There were times when I wanted to crawl up into a big ball and shut out the world. The first few weeks of constantly wearing a backpack full of IV fluids were very hard.  I did not like what I saw in the mirror. I was angry at my situation.  It wasn’t until I visited a pediatric Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation support group that I changed my way of thinking. Seeing young people living with the digestive diseases, and going about their lives despite their circumstances, motivated me to do better.

I had to live my new normal to the best of my ability.

The mental game of TPN

Mentally, not eating real food was very, very challenging.  Although I could not eat, I still cooked for my youngest child. The smells of the food made my mouth water, tempting me to taste what I know would make me sick. There were a few times I lived on the edge and took a sample. I paid for my mistakes—painful cramps and bloody diarrhea were my punishment.

After the first month on TPN, I knew I needed professional help if I were to survive.  So, I sought the help of a therapist.  I also prayed and meditated—a lot. 35682318_10156164555637819_6627378019424010240_n

First, I needed a distraction for when I was tempted to eat. A friend taught me how to crochet. She even purchased the yarn, hooks and beginner books to get me going.  I still cannot do a granny square, but I learned a new skill.

When times were bad and I wanted to give up, I would mentally go to my happy place—Turks and Caicos. Several years ago, I visited the Caribbean Islands. I imagined myself sitting on the pristine beaches, watching the waves crash.

The social impact

The loss of social invitations also did a number on me.  Some of my friends did not want to hurt my feelings by eating in front of me, so they stopped including me. However, I did have one friend who went out of her way and found a restaurant that served the best broth in town. We sipped on broth and caught up with each other’s lives. This was one of the highlights.

I was determined not to let this situation get the best of me. Instead of going out to eat with friends, I invited friends to go for a walk. I walked with former coworkers, acquaintances and family members.  The fresh air and good conversations did me a lot of good.

Taking steps to heal mentally and physically

Walking became my foundation. I was motivated to walk for another reason.  Before I got sick, I signed up for several half marathons to raise money for the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation. I finished the New Orleans half marathon in March, just three months into my treatment. I have never been so proud.  I had to walk the race, but I finished. Several months later, I also completed the Twin Cities 10 mile race, and the Savannah half marathon.

My unexpected journey made me stronger mentally and physically.  I am more outgoing and more self-assured than ever before.  After all, you cannot be shy walking around with an IV bag strapped to your body.

I share my story to give others hope.

Sonya Goins is also a Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation Board Member/MN Dakota Chapter.  You can find her blog at SonyaStrong.com. She also has a podcast on iTunes and GooglePlay entitled “Conversations about Crohn’s and Colitis.”

My Cause My Cleats: How Chicago Bear Anthony Miller is Representing IBD

When Chicago Bear standout rookie wide receiver, Anthony Miller laces up his cleats to take on the Los Angeles Rams this Sunday, his cleats will tell a story. A story many may not be aware of. Anthony’s longtime girlfriend, Alexandra Pounders, has battled Crohn’s disease for nearly 10 years. She was diagnosed at age 14. IMG_4488

This Sunday (Dec. 9), Anthony will participate in the NFL’s My Cause My Cleats campaign, as a way to spread awareness for inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) and show support to his girlfriend. Anthony’s cleats will feature the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation.

“Being able to bring awareness about IBD through football means a lot to me. When I wear these cleats against the Rams, I’m not only going to be representing my girlfriend Alexandra, but also the millions of people across the globe who suffer from this disease,” said Anthony.

This is the third year for the My Cause for Cleats effort. It’s a way for NFL players to take steps to visually show their support for causes near and dear to their hearts. Anthony and Alexandra have been together almost five years. Alexandra says Anthony has been there for her every step of the way, whether it’s attending doctor visits or motivating her to stay strong during setbacks.

“It feels amazing to know there is someone by my side who cares so much for me that they want to spread awareness about this illness. IMG_4487Anthony has seen me fight for so long. It makes me feel like I’m not going through this alone,” said Alexandra.

“We are thrilled to see several NFL players, including Anthony Miller, raise awareness of Crohn’s and colitis through this year’s My Cause My Cleats campaign,” said Michael Osso, President & CEO of the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation. “More than 3 million Americans live with these diseases, and, like Anthony, even more are touched by them as loved ones of patients. Using their platform as professional athletes to speak out about Crohn’s and colitis not only helps educate the public about the seriousness of these diseases but also underscores how wide-reaching these diseases are and how important it is to have the support of loved ones.”

Alexandra’s advice to the IBD community is to put your personal needs first and try to keep stress to a minimum, while accepting support from others.

“Surround yourself amongst people who may not completely know what it feels like to be in your shoes, but people who are willing to be patient with you and love you on the days that aren’t so great. Focus on being the best possible you that you can be in every aspect…mentally, physically, emotionally and surround yourself amongst people who truly care about you, it’ll be so much easier to overcome the obstacles you face with this disease. Stay positive. Hold on tightly to your faith. And don’t let this disease define you,” said Alexandra.bears

Chicago is my hometown and where the majority of my family lives. As a Bears fan and as a Crohn’s disease patient advocate who was diagnosed in July 2005, seeing professional football players put causes like the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation in the spotlight means a great deal. Check out the #mycausemycleats hashtag on social media to learn more about the cause.

Taking on Crohn’s to Get My Life Back on Track

This post was sponsored by AbbVie Inc. Personal opinions and thoughts are my own.

Crohn’s and Colitis Awareness Week is December 1-7. If you have Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis, get tips from gastroenterologist Dr. Corey Siegel, a Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis expert, by visiting the online Expert Advice Tool before your next trip to the doctor’s office.

The gnawing abdominal pain. The frequent trips to the bathroom. The fatigue that hit me like a ton of bricks. It all became my “normal” the first few years following my diagnosis of Crohn’s disease in July 2005. During that time, I did everything I could to put a smile on my face as I reported the news on television stations in Minnesota and Wisconsin. While I loved sharing other peoples’ stories, I never wanted my own struggles to be uncovered while I was in the spotlight.

I am one of approximately 700,000 people in the United States affected by Crohn’s. Once I left the news desk in 2014, I felt it was the perfect time for me to share my struggles and become a vocal advocate. Rather than keep my story in the shadows, now, I share my journey proudly with hopes of helping and inspiring others as an IBD patient advocate and blogger.

Crohn’s and Colitis Awareness Week (December 1-7) is a time to educate others about IBD and empower those who may be struggling with their disease. It’s a time for patients and caregivers to speak up and use their voices to show that IBD doesn’t need to hold you back from experiencing all that life has to offer. It doesn’t need to prevent you from accomplishing your dreams. It doesn’t need to isolate you from enjoying a full quality of life. That being said—it takes effort on your part to listen to your body, recognize the symptoms and manage them accordingly with your health care team.

Crohn’s disease is a chronic inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) characterized by inflammation of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. It can affect any part of the GI tract, from the mouth to the anus, and is not contagious or caused by food. IBD is a progressive disease, which means it can get worse over time if you are not proactively managing it. It’s also an invisible illness – I look like everybody else, no matter how I’m feeling on the inside. Those with IBD often internalize their struggles and keep their pain to themselves. It’s as if an inner conversation begins with every meal or beverage, moment of stress or excitement and twinge of pain.

In July 2008, almost three years to the day following my initial diagnosis, I found myself dealing with Crohn’s symptoms spiraling out of control. I was the morning anchor for ‘Wake Up Wisconsin.’ Deep down, I knew something wasn’t right. I was headed home to Chicago to celebrate the Fourth of July with family. I ended up being hospitalized over the holiday with an abscess the size of a tennis ball in my small intestine. I watched the fireworks reflect off my hospital room window with my mom. I felt broken and exhausted by yet another setback.

My gastroenterologist entered the room and talked candidly with me about the need to change my treatment plan to minimize the progression of my Crohn’s. While it was a daunting and emotional conversation, it’s a conversation that changed my life as a young woman with Crohn’s. I had my whole future ahead of me. I knew I needed to make changes and get my life back on track.

I’m here to tell you that despite my diagnosis of Crohn’s at age 21, I was still able to accomplish it all. The first decade of my disease, I worked full-time in the television business and spent time at a public affairs firm. I fell in love with an amazing man who sees me for so much more than my disease. We got married in 2016. We have a healthy toddler and we’re expecting a baby in 2019.

Crohn’s has shaped my perspective and shown me the strength I possess within. It’s taught me to slow down and listen to my body and to appreciate the beauty of a ‘feel good’ day. My IBD journey has been one of highs and lows, smiles and tears, and everything in between. I wear my IBD diagnosis as a badge of honor because it’s something that has tested my strength and perseverance, but it hasn’t robbed me from becoming all I want to be.

If you have Crohn’s, it’s important to work with your doctor (sooner rather than later) to create a monitoring and treatment plan focused on long-term success and minimizing disease progression. Prepare for your next doctor’s visit with the help of gastroenterologist Dr. Corey Siegel and the online Expert Advice Tool.

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Disclosure: This post was sponsored by AbbVie Inc., a biopharmaceutical company, and should not be construed to constitute medical advice. Personal opinions and thoughts are my own. I am not a medical professional and am not qualified to give medical advice. Please talk with your doctor about your individual medical situation.