Public Policy Advocacy—Pandemic Style: How one IBD volunteer has redirected his efforts to social media

He’s not your typical IBD advocate. He doesn’t have Crohn’s or ulcerative colitis himself, but he’s extremely passionate about supporting the patient community, spreading awareness, and making a difference. John Peters’ wife, Katherine, was diagnosed with Crohn’s when she was 12. John met her when she was 21. They dated 4 years and just got married in April. As they dated and got to know one another, he had a front row seat to the challenges IBD brings about in a person’s life. Ironically, John’s brother, Bobby, was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis this past year.

John and his brother, Bobby

Connecting with the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation

When John met Katherine, he remembers how she was a volunteer at Camp Oasis.

“I remember her coming back from camp and telling me what a rewarding and inspirational experience it was. I signed up the next year because I wanted to learn more about Katherine’s illness, while contributing to a good cause. As I reflect on my experience at Camp Oasis now, I feel like it enabled me to develop a deeper appreciation for the courage those with IBD bestow.”

John sees volunteering as a win-win, not only does it give him an inside look at IBD, but also allows him and his wife to spend quality time together. Out of all the volunteering he’s participated in, Camp Oasis takes the cake.

“The campers love sharing stores about IBD, and every camper feels connected to everyone around them. They don’t need to feel embarrassed because everyone at Camp understands first-hand (or through loved ones) the challenges that having IBD brings. It’s a pretty amazing atmosphere to be a part of and the experience has given me a different level of empathy for those who live with Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis.”

From Camp Oasis to Day on the Hill

Day on the Hill is the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation’s annual two-day event, where volunteers from across the nation meet in Washington, DC to talk with their legislators about policies that directly impact the IBD community.

Because of COVID-19, last year, the Foundation took Day on the Hill virtual, hosting virtual advocacy trainings and organizing conference calls with Members of Congress, their staff, and Foundation volunteers. Plans for 2021 have not been announced yet.

Day on the Hill has been my most educational experience with Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation so far. I was unaware of what legislative action could do or how much it can affect an IBD patient. My mission is to inform as many people as possible about what legislation can help IBD patients and how to advocate for it. The more people who advocate, the greater the chance for change,” says John.

John with his wife, Katherine, at the Capitol for Day on the Hill

There are two main bills volunteers have been focusing on:

Safe Step Act—This bill would reform the practice of step therapy, which requires patients to try “insurer-preferred” medications before a more ideal medication recommended by the physician. The hope is to create a more transparent and expeditious appeals process.

Medical Nutrition Equity Act—Insurance companies and other healthcare programs would be required to cover necessary foods prescribed by the physician.

“We also petitioned Congress members to join the Congressional Crohn’s and Colitis Caucus which endorses IBD healthcare protections and IBD research.”

How to get involved

John says Day on the Hill is truly a one-of-a-kind experience. He recommends anyone who may be interested to take the leap and apply to participate.

“Our day was mostly speaking with Congress members’ staff and explaining what we are petitioning for (see the bills above). I was on a team of five volunteers and each one had a chance to share how the proposed legislation affects their daily lives. It was incredible to see how just one bill in Congress can have resonating effects on so many people.”

John’s advice—to contact your local congressional representatives and discuss these bills. Click here to find out who your local representatives are. Every single person who advocates for these bills gets us one step closer to getting them passed in Congress.

Taking Public Policy Advocacy a step further

As John juggles being a full-time medical student, a newlywed, and navigating the pandemic, he’s decided to create Facebook and Instagram groups solely dedicated to educating our community about IBD legislation.

He recently launched the following social media pages:

Facebook: Crohn’s and Colitis Legislative Advocacy

Instagram: @ccla_ig

Give the pages a follow and stay up to date on all the latest IBD political news. It’s important to note John created these social media pages on his own and they are not affiliated with the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation.

Advocacy doesn’t happen only during Day on the Hill, it’s important to join the Foundation’s Advocacy Network to receive alerts around times of action. You can do so by visiting here.


Putting the debate to rest: IBD fatigue isn’t your “normal” type of tired

I was putting away the dishes after dinner when I paused, exhaled, and said to my husband, “Whew. I just got a major wave of fatigue.” He said, “Yeah, I feel tired right now, too.” This isn’t the first time a healthy, able-bodied person has responded this way—and I know everyone with a chronic illness can relate. I kind of laughed and tried to explain why chronic illness fatigue wasn’t the same as feeling tired, but I was coming up short for words and having difficulty explaining the difference. My husband, Bobby, genuinely wanted to know why I thought my fatigue was different than his and how I knew it was. I said I used to be healthy. I used to not have a chronic illness. I know what tired felt like then and what fatigue feels like now.

Articulating pain with IBD and fatigue can be so challenging—even though it’s something that is so much a part of our day-to-day experience. Unless you live it and it’s your reality, it’s difficult to put the experience into words.

I called upon the IBD family on Twitter and Instagram to see how they describe their own personal fatigue. Here are some of the responses:

“Imagine your car being on empty and you put $5 worth of gas in the tank until you’re running on fumes. Then you put $5 worth of gas again, and you continue this process for months at a time…while sometimes running out of gas completely multiple times along the way.”

“Having to run a consistent marathon without stopping while carrying a toddler in the front and a backpack with a week’s worth of supplies on your back…in flats.”

“Mentally feeling like you have the energy to do simple tasks, but your body physically won’t let you. Knowing I need to walk 100 feet to get in my work building and having to give myself a pep talk to do it because I’m not sure I’ll make it without having to sit down.”

“You’re tired from being tired. You are just over everything and the day drags on and on. A nap doesn’t help because you “waste” your day, but the truth is you can’t even take a shower because the thought is way too much energy.”

“Like you’re walking with ankle and wrist weights on 24/7. There are days I feel like I’m walking through a fog so dense in my head I can touch it.”

“When I think of chronic fatigue for me it means faking being well. When getting out of bed or getting a shower is an accomplishment or needing to rest after taking a shower. No matter how much sleep you get you still wake up tired. Chronic illness fatigue is physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion.”

“Trying to motivate yourself when you’re fatigued and having brain fog is how I imagine swimming in syrup or molasses would be.”

“It’s the feeling of exhaustion, hopelessness, and loss. You’re beaten down from managing your condition and the various negative side effects that come with it on top of trying to function in whatever role you’re trying to play on a daily basis (for me: wife, mother, employee, and friend). It’s trying to make the most out of life but knowing you’re limited. It’s mourning the person you once were and want to be at that time. It’s physically, mentally, and emotionally draining.”

“I explained the fatigue to my students that just thinking about lifting my legs to walk or the mechanics of moving my limbs is exhausting…let alone the act of doing it. Everything feels heavy.”

 “Down to the bone, exhaustion in my core, something that is impossible to push through.”

“I like it’s like first trimester fatigue! But, with no end in sight and nothing hopeful to show for the symptoms like a baby!”

“Like your body is made of bricks. Your mind knows you need to get up and do something—change over the laundry, send an email, but your mind cannot make your body move.”

“Living in a constant state of exhaustion. No amount of sleep or rest seems to shake it.”

“For me…I would describe chronic illness fatigue as KNOWING your car has no more fuel and having to get out and push it home yourself.”

“Heaviness in my body. Just surviving, not thriving. Frustrating because I want to do more things but can’t always.”

“Being tired as soon as you wake up, until you go to bed. Never fully feeling rested. Planning naps throughout a day. Heavy eyes. Mood swing when beyond exhausted.”

“Like constantly living under 10x gravity.”

“Like someone pulled the plug out.”

“Like moving through the mud. It can also creep up on you when you least expect it, sort of like this year’s global pandemic—all encompassing and has no sympathy.”

“Like I’m wearing 100 pounds worth of sandbags that don’t go away even when I get lots of sleep.”

“Waking up and still being tired. No amount of coffee can fix this tired.”

Stop the comparison game

After reading these descriptions, my hope is that the next time you try and compare your fatigue or tiredness to someone with a chronic illness you pause and be selective of your words. Of course, everyone is entitled to be and feel tired, but it’s not an even playing field energy-wise when you’re a healthy, able-bodied person. Coffee, naps, and sleeping in help most of the population feel energized and re-charged, but fatigue with chronic illness is often untouchable. A full night’s rest can still leave you feeling exhausted. A coffee may have no impact. A nap may cause the fatigue to be even more pronounced. As an IBD mom, it can be frustrating to hear someone without a chronic illness try and diminish my personal struggles by equating them to theirs when there is truly no comparison.

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.

 

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.

IMG_0787

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.