IBD Motherhood Unplugged: Womanhood Questioned by Crohn’s Disease

Motherhood is so much more than a word—it’s an expectation and an identity. It’s a right of passage many girls dream of when they think about their future and what their family will look like. But family planning, pregnancy, and motherhood are far from a given, especially for those with chronic illness. As an IBD mom of two with one on the way, I’ve recognized that while my story and my experience may comfort and guide others—it’s only that, one story. I fully understand I am extremely lucky not to have the struggle of infertility or physical limitations to hold me back from having children, despite my Crohn’s.

This week kicks off IBD Motherhood Unplugged, an ongoing series that will be shared periodically in the months and years ahead on Lights, Camera, Crohn’s. The series will feature guest posts from women with Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis who may not physically be able to carry a child, who battle infertility, who grow their family through adoption and surrogacy, who have children following loss—the list goes on and on. Ultimately, I want everyone to feel seen, heard, and understood. There’s not one cookie cutter approach to becoming a mom or having a family.

The first article is by my dear friend and fellow patient advocate and thought leader Tina Aswani Omprakash. Tina is a 37-year-old woman in New York, living with perianal, fistulizing Crohn’s Disease. She’s endured more than 20 surgeries and lives with a permanent ileostomy. Since she was a child, she thought she could put off motherhood and did so through many years of virulent disease. At one point, as a young adult, she needed to go on a disability and be taken care of by her mom. When she got married to the love of her life, Anand, nearly 11 years ago, the questions started.

“Being of South Asian descent, the nosy, busybody aunties at weddings and cultural events would always find ways to jeer and sneer at the fact that I hadn’t had a child yet. And after I started Stelara 5.5 years ago and tasted remission for the very first time in a decade, I too began to wonder: is it time for me to consider my own child?”

I’ll let Tina take it away and explain her struggles with family planning and finding out pregnancy wasn’t in the cards. Her heartfelt words and openness about feeling excluded from being an IBD mom, shed light on an important topic and aspect of our illness that is often not discussed or talked about. We hope in sharing this—if you are going through the same situation, struggles, or worries, that you know you are not alone.

Genetic counseling, surrogacy, and reproductive endocrinologists, oh my

In April 2016, I went to see a reproductive endocrinologist, who did a transvaginal ultrasound. Based on his medical expertise, he thought he could retrieve maybe three of my eggs, which was incredible news given everything I had been through surgically. He had proposed 2-3 rounds of IVF for hormone stimulation and egg retrieval but there was no guarantee that the eggs retrieved would be viable to be combined with my husband’s sperm. He didn’t think carrying the baby was a good option for me given all the scarring from surgery and fistulae. Moreover, fertility is often affected by j-pouch surgery and later excision.  As such, he offered me the option of surrogacy and asked me to seek genetic counseling due to the hereditary nature of my Crohn’s Disease.

Anand and I went through months of genetic counseling, an expensive process that didn’t lend to any substantial findings. Crohn’s, as many doctors have explained to me, is spread out over several genes and one gene cannot be targeted necessarily as a form of gene therapy. That left us both stumped as his family has a history of an autoimmune condition called ankylosing spondylitis and I have various skin and bowel autoimmune conditions on my side of the family.

During this time, we also looked into the surrogacy process. Since the reproductive endocrinologist recommended that I not consider a pregnancy myself given all the surgeries, fistulae, and pelvic cysts I’ve had, we obliged. But considering all the legal and surrogacy fees, we were looking at $100,000 for one surrogate pregnancy (at least), which was an extraordinary sum of money for us. So, we decided to table having a child for the time being and think over adoption, another expensive proposition.

Tick, tock, tick, tock…

Two years passed and we came to realize that there is no easy solution. During that time, the IBD Parenthood Project shared excellent knowledge for women with IBD to conceive and carry a pregnancy to term safely. And I thought, let me ask my GI doctor now about his thoughts. Unfortunately, he reiterated the same thoughts as the reproductive endocrinologist shared: for someone with my surgical and fistula history and aggressive family history of Crohn’s disease, it may be best not to try. He also said the risk of me using hormones for egg retrieval would risk a blood clot in a patient with my history.

Part of me was still in denial that motherhood may never be a possibility. Within weeks of my conversation with my GI doctor, I was diagnosed with mild endometriosis by a premier OB/GYN surgeon in NYC. I asked him, “What do my options for pregnancy and fertility look like now?” And he said very openly and honestly, “Bleak at best. Let’s say you do carry the pregnancy and don’t lose the baby, Tina, will I have to cut through bowel and scar tissue to get to your baby?” After a brief pause, he said, “I would recommend adoption if having a child is something you really want to consider.”

While, on one hand, I genuinely appreciated his honesty, on the other hand, the statement, “cut through bowel and scar tissue to get to your baby” seared through my mind for months after and has left its mark even today. I needed to hear it; I needed my bubble to pop. But the statement no doubt cuts and ravages every minutiae of my being as a woman. Not having the privilege to choose to have a baby was suddenly taken from me in that one fell swoop and it left my head spinning.

Losing Motherhood to Crohn’s Disease

My God-given right as a woman was taken from me in that instant. As if having six fistulae and Crohn’s wreaking havoc on my pelvis and reproductive system wasn’t enough, let’s take Tina down another notch. Let’s take away her right to choose to have a child.

Even though voluntary childlessness is always a choice, now I didn’t even have that choice. Childlessness was thrust upon me like a stab wound in the back. All I was left with were unaffordable options of surrogacy or adoption.

So why not adoption? It’s simply too expensive and I do wonder about whether I’ll be able to even take care of the child given my constant roller coaster of health issues and medical appointments. Hiring full-time help seems out of reach, too.

Include Women Who Aren’t Mothers

That day with the endometriosis surgeon was nearly three years ago. And I’ve done a lot of work in therapy to process much of it. But I can’t say I don’t feel left out every time I see a mom scolding her child or complaining about her child(ren)’s mischievousness because I, like many other women with chronic illnesses, will never be able to experience the joys and sorrows of motherhood.

As happy as I am for my friends with children, there is a deep void I’m reminded of every time someone else gets pregnant, hosts a baby shower, or sends along amazingly cute photos of their child(ren). I will never be able to have that, no, but I wish I could still be included in the mommy paradigm as a cool aunt or as a godmother. But I’m often not, and that makes me feel sad and excluded.

Dealing with the Cultural Aspects

In American culture, it’s hard enough as it is to be a woman of my age without a child, but in Indian culture, you’re really considered a pariah of sorts. I’m often asked the question of when I will bear a child now that Anand and I have been married for so many years. I usually find ways to dodge those questions by changing the subject or by simply saying, “whenever the time is right.” It’s not a conversation I want to be having with acquaintances nor do I want to be fodder for gossip.

But when it comes to my close friends saying, “Tina, gosh, you would have made an amazing mother, you have so much good to impart on to the world,” it feels good and bad all at once. I’m flattered that someone would think I could do a fine job as a mother but saddened by the fact that I will never know that for myself.

Becoming a Mother Hen

Alas, today in 2021, I continue to focus on my advocacy work and my graduate program, in attempts to focus my attention elsewhere. And in the words of my therapist, “if I cannot be a mother to a child, I can at least be a mother hen to my IBD community, helping to educate and guide patients of underserved populations who would otherwise feel bewildered.” I take a lot of solace in that and recognize that I wasn’t supposed to be here today with all the near-death experiences I’ve had with my brand of Crohn’s disease. All I can express is my gratitude for being alive today, for being able to do this work, and for being able to be a mother hen in my own way to my community.

To my fellow IBD women & chronic illness warriors: please know you are not alone. Please know it’s okay to be sad, angry, and terrified. Many of us are struggling deeply with the idea of motherhood as our clocks keep ticking. Do your research, learn what your options are and make the best decision with your specialist(s) regarding conception and pregnancy. And if having a child is not in the cards, that’s okay too. Never forget (and I need this reminder too) – not having a child doesn’t make you less of a woman.

Connect with Tina

Blog: Own Your Crohn’s

Instagram: @ownyourcrohns

Facebook: @ownyourcrohns, Own Your Crohn’s Community (Private group created for the Global South Asian community living with inflammatory bowel diseases)

Twitter: @ownyourcrohns

Digital Dating Tips for IBD’ers: How I Met My Husband and What I Learned

Before the dating world was about swiping right or left, I met my husband online. It’s something I was a little embarrassed about sharing for a long time, especially while being a morning news anchor. The year was 2013, while online dating was becoming more common, it was still a little taboo. At the time, my Crohn’s disease was a secret from the public. Much like the backstory of my health, I wanted to keep my love story under wraps much of the same way.

So, when I signed up for eHarmony on a whim after attending my co-anchor’s wedding, rather than putting my location as Springfield, IL (where I lived and did the news), I told a little white lie on my profile and said I lived in St. Louis. I know, I know…a little shady! But hear me out. I chose to do this to disguise my identity and vowed to myself that I’d be upfront and honest with whoever I spoke with about where I lived from the initial conversation. I also told myself I’d hold off on sharing that I had Crohn’s until I met someone worth my time and deserving of my energy. It wasn’t something I would share over email or on the phone prior to meeting.

Finding Love in Three Days

I was on eHarmony three days before I met Bobby. Yes, three days. I feel incredibly fortunate that after years of dating and not finding the right person that all it took was a couple emails and some phone calls. As soon as Bobby and I started talking I gave him an “out” and said I understood if he wasn’t interested in long distance (90 miles apart), but he said he didn’t care and wanted to meet me. He drove to Springfield on a Wednesday after his workday and took me to dinner. Little did we know that would be our last first date.

From there he visited me the following week and we went out for Mexican. Two dates in, I didn’t feel ready to disclose I had IBD. But as the days turned to weeks and I started feeling closer to him, I knew it was something I had to get off my chest.

Disclosing to My Boyfriend (now husband) That I Have Crohn’s

On our third date (almost a month of talking/hanging out) we went to a boathouse and had lunch outside on a gorgeous St. Louis August afternoon. I was nervous, but at this point in my patient journey (8 years in) I felt confident about my IBD elevator speech. After the appetizer arrived, I let him know I had Crohn’s disease. I explained what it was, how it had affected me, the medication I was on, but more so than what I was saying, I was paying more attention to his verbal and non-verbal cues. I had been with guys in the past who ghosted me in times of major health emergencies. I had been made to feel like my chronic illness was a joke or an excuse. And I wasn’t going to put up with any of that bs again or be made to feel like a burden.

Photo taken after I told Bobby I had Crohn’s.

In that moment, Bobby made me feel comfortable and he didn’t seem phased by what I had shared. Not in a dismissive way, but in a way that made me feel like just with the distance, my disease wasn’t reason enough in his eyes to explore other options.

Advice for Navigating Online Dating with IBD

  1. Don’t make your IBD the headline on your profile. While your IBD is a big part of who you are, it’s not your whole identity. It’s not necessary to include you have a chronic illness on your dating profile unless you feel so inclined. Personally, I wouldn’t give someone the privilege of knowing that side of you unless you feel they are worthy. At the same time, if you have an ostomy and you prefer to share photos of yourself like that on your profile—more power to you!
  2. The cliff notes version of your health story will do. When you decide to share that you have IBD with your partner, don’t be doomsday. Don’t go on…and on…and on…about how debilitating and horrible it’s been and how miserable you are. Give a high-level elevator speech that “dumbs it down” a bit. You don’t need to downplay how hard it is but allow your partner to take some initiative and educate themselves and ask questions when they have them. How you share and present your illness to someone who may have never heard of IBD will have a lasting impact.
  3. Don’t settle. Trust your gut. If a partner is making you feel uneasy or unhappy, don’t make excuses for them. Read between the lines on a person’s dating profile—see if you think their personality traits and interests will compliment you and your needs. Not everyone is nurturing and empathetic. If you see red flags that your partner lacks in those areas, think about whether it’s going to be a healthy relationship for you to be a part of.
  4. No need to be shy! When we’re battling our health, often the thought of being vulnerable and open with a stranger can seem overwhelming. IBD is complicated and the stress of a new love interest can make us feel a bit out of control. But it can also be an exciting, sweet distraction from health challenges. Love gives a sense of normalcy. Just because you have IBD doesn’t make you unworthy of deserving love. Think about the type of partner you want holding your hand as you battle a flare from a hospital bed.
  5. Love doesn’t need to stop because of the pandemic. I’m an old married woman now (ha), going on eight years since I was on eHarmony and matched with Bobby, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. There are so many sites and apps these days, I don’t even know all it entails. Gone are the days of only eHarmony, Match, and Plenty of Fish. 😊 If you’re feeling lonely and isolated like so many of us during this pandemic, and you’re single with IBD, don’t feel like you have to press pause on finding a connection or your person.

What IBD’ers Have to Say About Finding Their Match

Erica: “My husband and I met on Coffee Meets Bagel in 2017. We texted three weeks before meeting. I told him I had Crohn’s after texting a couple of weeks before we met. I had to reschedule our first date because of a health issue and didn’t want him to think it was because of him. I also felt like he should know what he was getting into.”

Michelle: “I met my husband in 2015 when Hinge came out! I was having a flare and threw up on our first date! I met him when I was going through getting diagnosed and he was so supportive through it all.”

Christine: “Disclose early on! I disclosed at about two months of dating with my fiancé and I felt like things could go further. I think it’s something the other person should be aware of. Not everyone is ready for that you need to know that you will be supported through that journey! We connected through Facebook! Sounds crazy, but here we are!”

Sarah: “Dating/meeting people is so hard nowadays and then throw in a chronic illness and it doesn’t make things easier! Personally, I prefer to be up front about my UC because if the person is going to like me or if this is going to work out, they are going to have to be on board with my UC, too! Whether I like it or not, it’s a part of who I am.”

Ryann: “I met my husband in 2017 and I told him on our second date. Our friend set us up and she had already shared that I had IBD with him. Previously, I had told other guys on our first or second date. One guy came back and apologized for being so weak and not contacting me again after that date. I didn’t reply, more because I didn’t blame him, but also because I found him to be incredibly dull! This was back in the beginning days of Tinder!”

Natasha: “I like to share early (in or around the first date) about my health so I don’t develop an attachment if they aren’t comfortable with chronic illness. Usually, it leads to a good conversation either way. Recently, I shared about my Crohn’s over text message and the guy was very inquisitive and only wanted to learn more, about me and about Crohn’s! I also have a pic of me with my ostomy in my dating app profile. It’s subtle, but if you know it’s there or know what an ostomy is, you’ll know immediately what I have.”

Payge: “My Tinder profile pictures had me with my bag and my current boyfriend googled what it was before he messaged me. He told me when he knew what it was, he instantly thought ‘I want to take care of this girl’…that’s how it went for me!”

Allison: “You don’t have to share any more than you’re comfortable with—if you want to disclose in your profile, great! If you wait until date number five, that’s okay, too! There are no hard fast rules for when or how you should share your story with someone. It’s YOUR story and every situation is different. Anyone who responds negatively or acts as if your illness will be a burden is NOT worth your time. The right person won’t care. Remember—nobody is perfect. Your vulnerability might allow the other person to share something they’re also trying to figure out the right time for. I’ve been online dating for five years now, met my current boyfriend on Hinge in September.”

The mental health burden of IBD and coping through community and therapy

When you live with chronic illness, you experience a wide range of emotions and personal experiences that shape you. Life can feel like an uncertain rollercoaster ride, you never know when the next twist or turn is going to happen. This week on Lights, Camera, Crohn’s, 21-year-old Parsa Iranmahboub, candidly shares the mental health burden that IBD brings upon a patient. Diagnosed with Crohn’s when he was only eight years old, Parsa shares the perspective of what it’s like to be a pediatric patient who has grown into adulthood. He’s currently a student at UCLA and the Education Chair for the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation’s National Council of College Students.

Parsa explains the psychosocial component of life with Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis by breaking it down to anxiety, embarrassment, guilt, and loneliness. He recently spoke about this at the Crohn’s and Colitis Congress as well as on IBD Patient Insider and his powerful words resonated with me and I know they will with you, too. Here’s Parsa’s breakdown of the IBD patient experience:

Anxiety: Being a bathroom disease, there is often the anxiety of whether a patient has easy accessibility to a restroom when they are out. But there can also be anxiety related to a patient’s diet. When I was younger, I was placed on a low sodium diet due to one of my medications. If I wanted to eat out with family or friends, there would be this anxiety of whether I could even eat anything from the restaurant. There’s also the anxiety that stems from extra-intestinal manifestations. I have a history of developing fistulas. And during my sophomore year of college, my labs were not looking too good, I was flaring a little bit, and I began to worry if this meant I would develop another fistula. I began to wonder how I would deal with a fistula as a college student. How would another flare up affect my grades and my ability to get my work done? I lived in a communal style dorm, so how would a sitz bath even work? Essentially, with anxiety there can be this fear of the disease taking over my life and how can I constantly accommodate it.

Embarrassment: Embarrassment can arise in numerous forms. For one, there’s the poo taboo. But there can also be embarrassment from when you are flaring. From when you are losing weight, when you no longer look healthy, when you now look “sick.” There are the side effects from medications. From when you begin to gain weight, develop acne, and now have that dreaded moon face. Let’s not forget the impact of extra-intestinal manifestations. In 6th grade, I had surgery for a perianal fistula. After the surgery, I had to wear tighty whities with a maxi pad to help absorb the pus. It would be an understatement to describe how much I began to despise physical education. Not because I had to exercise and run around. No, I was always too active of a kid to hate PE. But because we had to change into our uniforms during the beginning of class. And I was embarrassed to be in the locker room. I was embarrassed that everyone else would look cool with their boxers, but here I was with my tighty whities and a maxi pad. And it might sound ridiculous, almost like a scene taken from the “Diary of the Wimpy Kid”, but to my sixth-grade self, looking cool and being like everyone else mattered.

Guilt: There is often the guilt of feeling like a burden for others. That others have to not only be flexible with you but that they need to make accommodations because of you. “Oh, you all want to go hiking, well I can’t because there’s no accessible bathroom.” “Oh, you all want to eat at this place, actually can we go somewhere else where I can better tolerate the food?” There can even be instances where you feel guilt for believing that you no longer are a good friend. That since you have to refuse to hang out with friends because of fatigue or pain, your friends probably think you simply don’t enjoy hanging out with them. But there can also be guilt from a non-compliant label. When I was younger, I would receive weekly injections. Soon, I began to throw up after every injection. My doctor switched me to the pill version, but it would still make me feel incredibly nauseous. So much so, that I would refuse to touch the pills. Instead, I would take the pill container, open the lid, slowly pour the pills into the lid, pour too many, attempt to pour the extra pills from the lid back to the container, and once again pour too many pills back. It was a whole process. But I simply refused to touch the pills.

Well, it shouldn’t be a surprise that eventually I became non-compliant. Consequently, I switched medications and soon developed acute pancreatitis. At the onset of my symptoms, I was out of the house and had to call my dad to pick me up because I was continuing to throw up blood. And in the car, I told him “Dad, I think I’m going to die.” Thankfully, it was an over exaggeration. But at that moment, it wasn’t.

Parsa with his parents.

Now that I reflect on the moment, not only do I feel guilty for putting myself through that situation, but for also putting my family through that. I can’t imagine being a father and hearing your son tell you those words. And all of this happened because I couldn’t get myself to take those stupid pills. So, not only was I labeled as a non-compliant patient, a patient who was too immature to take his medications, but I was now also a patient who had “hurt” his family.

Loneliness: IBD is an invisible disease. You might look at a person and not realize they are living with a chronic illness. The invisibility is both the disease’s blessing and curse. There have been so many instances where I’ve been happy to have the ability to put on a mask and pretend that everything is okay. That my friends and peers do not have to associate me with a “disease,” a connotation that I despise so much that I often introduce my chronic illness as Crohn’s and not Crohn’s disease. However, because of the invisibility, the disease can feel extremely isolating. You might not know anyone else who can relate to your experiences/feelings. In fact, despite being diagnosed at a young age, for almost a decade I refused to share my story with friends and those close to me. It wasn’t until I met an IBD patient for the first time who was my age that I began to realize the importance of a shared community.

Dr. Tiffany Taft , PsyD, MIS, a Research Assistant Professor at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, spoke alongside Parsa during that Crohn’s and Colitis panel about Mental Health as it relates to IBD. As a Crohn’s patient of 19 years herself, she offers a unique perspective for her patients. I asked her when an IBD patient expresses these feelings of anxiety, embarrassment, guilt, and loneliness how she helps people deal with the struggles.

“The first thing I do is simply listen and reflect to the person my understanding without advice or judgement. It’s important to let someone tell their story before interjecting with any sort of interpretation or the like. Then, I start with some education about how our thoughts affect how we feel and how we behave. And that these thoughts are often on autopilot or may feel like they’re on an infinite loop and impossible to turn off,” explained Dr. Taft. “My goal is to help the patient understand their thinking and learn to slow it down and take a step back from their thoughts to be able to evaluate them, and maybe either change them or not let them have as much power.”

She went on to say that from there her and her patients tie their thoughts into other symptoms like anxiety, shame, or guilt, to see patterns and opportunities for change.

“It’s not an easy process, but most people can succeed. Loneliness has been harder during the pandemic. Social distancing has created a lot of isolation without an easy solution. I encourage staying connected via video chat, texting, and social media (so long as it’s not stressful!) People say that online interactions aren’t as fulfilling, and that’s probably true. But if I shift my thoughts from this negative lens to a more positive perspective, then it can help offset some of that loneliness until we can all be together again.”

The Decision to Open Up

It takes time and patience for many of us to come to terms with our diagnosis and decide how we want to present our experience to the world. For both Parsa and me, it took us a decade to take off our proverbial masks and share our reality with those around us. Parsa says he decided to share his patient journey at the end of freshman year of college after he joined a research lab at the UCLA Center for Inflammatory Bowel Diseases. He met someone for the first time who was his age and had IBD.

“When I was talking with her, this sort of light bulb just sparked. I realized I could connect with this person in a way I couldn’t have connected with anyone else before. She truly understood the challenges I was facing or had faced. Not from a scientific or “oh, I see” perspective, but from a “oh, I know cause you’re not alone” perspective. This connection was essentially my first exposure to the IBD community, and slowly, I began to become more involved in the community.”

The Power of Connecting with the IBD Community

Parsa went from forming his first spin4 team to joining the National Council of College Leaders to becoming more involved with his local chapter in California. He then started a local support network for college students on the UCLA campus. His advice for patients and caregivers—find a support network within the IBD community.

Foundation of National Council of College Leaders (NCCL)—this group of college students from across the United States volunteers with the Foundation to provide a distinct voice for young adults with IBD. Members also connect on how IBD affects them as students, athletes, and partners in a relationship, the intersectionality that stems from a patient’s identity, and tips for having an ostomy bag, reducing stress through coping mechanisms, and applying for accommodations at school.

Parsa also co-founded IBDetermined at UCLA, a student organization geared towards providing a support network and advocacy-centered space for UCLA students with IBD.

“Even though there are some amazing national and local support groups, we noticed that there was a gap for local resources that focused specifically on the intersection between being a college student and an IBD patient. Hence, we wanted to create that more local space, where individuals could address their specific questions/concerns/thoughts relating to being an IBD college student at UCLA. It’s a space where our members can learn about accommodations that are available through our university’s Center for Accessible Education, can exchange tips and advice for navigating schoolwork and college life with IBD, can express their frustrations about the disease or the lack of university resources, and can share where the best and cleanest bathrooms are located on campus.”

Parsa says growing up with Crohn’s made him responsible at a young age. He learned about resilience. He learned to embrace the obstacles he has hurdled and to keep on pushing through even when he couldn’t immediately see the light at the end of the tunnel. Parsa says he learned to appreciate the time he felt healthy enough to live life not controlled by a chronic illness. Through the years he’s realized you can still be fortunate through a misfortune. This belief has given him a strong appreciation to make the most of the opportunities that come his way and refuse to take the easy way out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Juggling Women’s Health while being a mom of 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Helpful Resources to Educate Yourself About IBD + COVID Vaccine

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

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

My wishes for the IBD community in 2021

It’s no surprise 2020 was a dumpster fire for many reasons. It was a year of challenges, struggles, worries, frustrations, loneliness, and sadness for many. I don’t expect things to drastically change in 2021, as we’re still in the thick of the pandemic, but I do have some wishes for the IBD community as a whole as we look to the future and beyond. 

I hope you…

*Live in the moment. Rather than get lost in the past and the way things used to be or where you could be or what could happen, focus on the now and the beauty that is still around us.

*Advocate for yourself. Use your voice and speak up about how IBD impacts your health, what changes need to be made in your care, and what you need to thrive. 

*Don’t use social media as a crutch. While social media can be an incredible connector, especially as we stay home and remain socially distant, try not to base your reality off of it. It’s a highlight reel. You know which accounts and which posts cause you to feel a certain way. Protect your mental health and overall well-being by limiting the amount of time you spend on social channels.

*Go after that job, love interest, dream of having a child. Stop thinking you don’t deserve or aren’t capable of achieving your goals because of your chronic illness. The path to reaching the goal may have some detours or look different to you than expected, but go for the gusto. 

*Be proactive with managing your health. Stay on top of all medical appointments, despite the pandemic. As chronic illness patients it’s imperative we manage our care and make it a priority. Leave no stone unturned. Give yourself peace of mind by knowing you did all you could to give yourself the best quality of life.

*Have the hard conversations. Confrontation and difficult talks aren’t anyone’s favorite, but the longer you let something stew, the worse it’s going to be on everyone involved. Internalized stress will only exacerbate your symptoms.

*Celebrate the small victories. These are difficult times, make sure you stop to realize all you are doing and all you’re going through. You may feel stagnant or like you’re not accomplishing much, but each day you’re learning something, growing,  and brightening someone’s day without even knowing it. 

*Get outside more. Fresh air does a world of good. Even in the winter months, when it’s cold, bundle up and try and go for a short walk for a change of scenery. Clear your mind and take in your surroundings. 

*Stop feeling guilty for saying no. This entire pandemic our community has had to feel like the “bad guys” by saying “no” to social gatherings and functions. If you have to second guess something or if a decision doesn’t sit well with you, trust your gut. Don’t worry about disappointing anyone but yourself. Your health and well-being comes first. If someone wants to judge how you manage your safety, let them.

*Are mindful of what gives you energy and what zaps it from you. Focus on the people and activities in your life that make you feel refreshed, alive, and at home. Not everyone is going to love you, not everyone is going to mesh with you, don’t force it. Love the people who love you hard and don’t worry about the rest. 

*Stop the comparison game and focus on all you bring to the world as an individual, despite your illness. Rather than feel like peers have what you need whether relationship wise, lifestyle wise, etc…know that nobody’s life is perfect. Everyone has their own struggles. Chances are you just don’t know about them. Practice gratitude and mindfulness exercises to keep yourself grounded. 

In many ways our IBD has prepared us for coping with and handling with much of this pandemic. Despite the unknown before us, have confidence better times are ahead. With the vaccine available, hope is on the horizon.

Building Body Composition and Maintaining Weight While Battling IBD

For many of us, when we’re initially diagnosed with IBD or when we flare, we experience weight fluctuations. The number on the scale may plummet during times when eating anything hurts or seems to make symptoms worse. The number on the scale may skyrocket when we’re on prednisone and not only retaining fluid, but also wanting to eat everything in sight.

Andrew Jagim, PhD, CSCS*D, CISSN was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis in 2014 after being infected with an intestinal parasite (Giardia). He managed to remain in remission for a few years until things went downhill quickly at the end of 2016. He dropped 50 pounds over the course of 3-4 months, was going to the bathroom 15-plus times a day, was running constant fevers, severely fatigued, anemic, and had little appetite. In the spring of 2017, after two weeks on TPN and several days in the hospital, he decided that a sub-total colectomy was his best option at the time. Since then, Andrew’s battle has been a rollercoaster of ups and downs, resulting in 12 colorectal surgeries.

Sports and fitness have always been a huge part of Andrew’s life—so much so, that he made a career out of it. He has a doctorate in exercise physiology, is a certified strength & conditioning specialist and a certified sports nutritionist, so he has an extensive background when it comes to understanding the important roles of exercise and nutrition for health and performance.

“Throughout my life, a large part of my identity has always been tied to my physical appearance. I’ve always been known as someone who is athletic, big, and strong with a high state of fitness. I struggled immensely during my flares and surgery recoveries when I couldn’t work out, when I looked sick or couldn’t stop losing weight. It was like I was losing a sense of who I was and who I identified with. When I looked it the mirror, it pained me to see my hard-earned muscle just “falling off” when I was too sick or weak to workout. However, I have always been determined to rebuild my body and regain what I lost.”

This week on Lights, Camera, Crohn’s—a look at the impact disease flares and surgeries can have on body composition, and how you can try and counteract the changes through diet and exercise.

A cornerstone of the disease itself is a high state of inflammation – most of which is centralized to the gut; however, this can also have systemic effects thereby resulting in widespread joint pain, fatigue and even a state of anabolic resistance within muscle tissue. Essentially, this makes it challenging to maintain or increase muscle mass during a period of high disease activity. This can be coupled with a reduction in appetite which can exacerbate body weight loss and muscle loss.

Surgeries can range from minimally invasive procedures to treat a fistula to much larger and complex operations such as removal of sections of the bowel and placement of a stoma for an ostomy. Depending on the magnitude of the surgery, patients often must modify diet and physical activity based on the recommendations of the surgeon.

These modifications will likely lead to decrements in body weight, muscle, strength, and endurance in the short-term; especially individuals who may have been highly active prior to the surgery. However, in patients who may be extremely ill at the time of surgery, the procedure may help them regain lost weight and strength as their body may finally be able to heal and recover from the inflammatory cascade brought on by IBD.

The Case Study Andrew Conducted

A year and a half after Andrew’s colectomy, he decided to schedule the second step for the J-pouch procedure. However, prior to, he decided to take advantage of this unique opportunity and conduct a case study on himself to document the changes in body composition and performance throughout the recovery process. He was curious how a surgery like that would impact someone with his fitness state as most of the literature focused on smaller or more sedentary individuals. Leading up to surgery, he had been able to resume his regular fitness routine and got his weight close to where it had been for most of his adult life.

“As seen in the figure below from my published case study, there were significant declines in body weight (-10.5%), lean body mass (-9.9%) and endurance (-40.3%) 4-weeks post-surgery. At 16 weeks postoperatively, most parameters were near their baseline levels (within 1–7%), with the exception of my peak endurance, which was still 20.4% below baseline. Thankfully, I was able to leverage my educational background and expertise in exercise physiology and nutrition to use targeted exercise and nutritional strategies to retrain my body and build my physique back up,” explained Andrew.

The balancing act of trial and error

As many IBD patients know, there are a lot of nuances, misconceptions, and unknowns regarding how diet impacts disease. For Andrew, it has been a lot trial and error to find foods that worked for him and helped him achieve his goals.

“Early in the recovery stage, just getting my appetite back and trying to eat more while not interfering with any post-operative dietary recommendations was always my goal. For me, this meant trying to eat about 2,500 – 2,750 calories and 150-170 grams of protein per day. In my opinion, these are the two most important dietary goals when it comes to regaining any weight (especially muscle mass) following surgery or during a flare. It will also help support the tissue and incision recovery following surgery”

Regarding exercise, strength training, is the most effective form of exercise to regain lean body mass following surgery. However, most colorectal surgeons (for good reasons) impose a lifting restriction of no more than ~10-15 lbs. for about 6 weeks following surgery to allow the incisions to heal and avoid the risk of hernia.

“For my larger surgeries, this was easy to abide by as I was in so much pain and was so fatigued that it was a struggle to just get dressed and ready for the day, so there was no temptation to get back in the weight room any time soon. But for the smaller surgeries, as I got closer to the 6-week mark, I was anxious to get back to my old routine. I took a very conservative approach and used a lot of alternative training techniques (i.e. blood flow restriction training, isometrics, resistance bands, etc.) to elicit an adequate training stimulus while not having to lift heavy weights and to avoid injury,” said Andrew.

Andrew’s main piece of advice about life with IBD? “Be prepared for a rollercoaster of changes to both your body composition and physical abilities throughout battles with IBD – especially during a flare or following surgery. Unfortunately this also will likely take a toll on your mental health as well, or at least it certainly did for me. However, just know that you can always get it back in time and more often than not, come back even stronger. Be patient and give your body rest when needed but otherwise keep grinding.”

Everyone has their own battles they are fighting

“I think my experience with IBD has taught me that everyone has their own battles they are fighting – even if they don’t show it. Additionally, it is also a reminder that not all disabilities are visible as a lot of people are probably unaware that I live with a permanent ostomy. I have chosen to keep a lot of my health struggles private and I think a lot of people will be surprised when they hear what I’ve endured over the past five years as I have still managed to have a successful career and not miss much work – despite all the surgeries and time spent feeling very ill.”

Andrew’s IBD journey also shifted his research focus a bit and challenged him to apply my knowledge of how to increase performance, strength and muscle mass in athletes towards a more clinical application.

“A lot of the strategies that work well with athletes can be modified and used in clinical settings as several of the benefits (i.e. increased muscle, strength, endurance, energy, etc.) may also help improve quality of life in patients will a chronic illness, those who are critically ill, or those recovering from surgery. It’s just a matter of making the appropriate modifications and fitting them to the current need,” said Andrew.

Here’s how you can connect with Andrew:

  • Facebook: Andrew Jagim
  • Twitter: @Ajagim
  • Instagram: Sports Science/Performance Nutrition Focused: @andrewjagim
  • Instagram: IBD/Ostomy Focused: @the_chronic_comeback

“So, You Have An Ostomy: A Look Into Your Future and How to Support a Loved One—Part 4

For anyone with chronic illness, it’s safe to say living with a disease gives you perspective. Your patient experience and journey shapes you in ways you may never have imagined, until you’ve lived it—persevered—and can look back at all you’ve overcome to get to where you are today. In Part 4 (the final installment) of “So, You Have An Ostomy,” we dig deep into what ostomates wish they knew that they know now, how best family members and friends can offer support, and why some choose to show their ostomy and others do not.

Before we get started, here are links to:

Part 1: Coping with the Complexity

Part 2: Tips for Travel, Diet, and Bag Changes

Part 3: Recommendations for dating, intimacy, naming your stoma

What Ostomates Would Tell Themselves If They Could Go Back in Time

Brian Greenberg wants anyone who is contemplating getting an ostomy to know that life doesn’t end after surgery, it begins again. He says after being sick and thinking an ostomy would be worse, it gave him his life back. He went from being in bed and alone to being an Ironman and marrying the love of his life.

“There are a lot of ostomates out there and none of us are recreating the wheel. If you have a fear or question, chances are there is someone who already has created a solution. I went from being bedridden to completing a full 140.6-mile Ironman, which showed me anything is possible. My ostomy has allowed me to not only live a normal life, but a good life.”

Ashley Clark says she used to be scared to leave the house. Her ostomy has given her freedom that she never had before.

“Prior to my ostomy, I didn’t want to make new friends or spend time with people I wasn’t comfortable around, I had no energy and I felt like I was trapped inside this body that couldn’t do all the things my brain wanted to do. Since my ostomy, I feel like I’ve gotten myself back in a lot of ways. I make plans again and I travel and spend time with people I love. I don’t take life for granted.”

When Michel Johnson thinks about when he had an ostomy, he says it not only saved his life, but taught him to reframe the tough times. He believes he became a better person in many ways and that his level of gratitude and compassion for others grew exponentially. He’ll always remember when he had his first bag leak in public the first time he left the house after surgery.

“I was in at a grocery store and struggling to change my bag in the restroom. I got poop on my shirt. I was embarrassed. A lady noticed the supplies in my hand and the mess on my shirt when I went into the restroom. She told me she was a nurse. She had a store employee block the bathroom door and she came in to help me, even gave me her blouse to wear (she had a tank top on under her blouse). I cried and hugged her so tight. Couldn’t believe she was so sweet to me in my time of need. It’s moments like that, which change a person.”

Alison Rothbaum credits her ostomy for allowing her to be alive. She says she wouldn’t have made it beyond age 23 if she didn’t have her colectomy. Since surgery, she’s been able to travel, work, and actively participate in the lives of her nieces and nephews. She advises ostomates to cut themselves some slack and acknowledge how far you’ve come every step of the way.

“You’re learning a new lifestyle of personal care externally and recovering internally. There’ll be days you are so upset, and then there’s days you only remember you have an ostomy when you go to the bathroom. This new life may have not been what you had in mind years ago, it may not be ideal, but it’ll be ok.”

Gaylyn Henderson created Gutless and Glamorous, a non-profit organization, as a way to empower and uplift those living with chronic illness and to raise awareness and erase the misconceptions of living with an ostomy. She doesn’t want others to suffer because of the fear of being stigmatized; it’s her goal to eradicate the stigma.

“Through it all I have learned to remain constant in my beliefs and that is to not let the beliefs of others control how I view myself. I’ve learned the importance of loving myself and staying true to myself and knowing I am capable of overcoming anything. I’ve learned that one of life’s most rewarding challenges is to accept yourself for who you are and all that you are completely and consistently. I am so in love with my new body; my new body saved my life in more ways than one.”

Loved One or Friend an Ostomate? Here’s how you can offer support

Listen. Listen. And listen some more. And be there. You don’t have to know what to say, you don’t need to have the right words or give advice. Let your loved one or friend know they are not alone and don’t pretend to understand what your loved one is going through, because you simply can’t relate (unless you’re an ostomate yourself)! Ostomates say when they complain or having a hard day, they just want to be heard and believed.

Karin Thum says to find your tribe and love them hard, “It may be a friend, or maybe a family member. Someone who doesn’t have Crohn’s or ulcerative colitis may not fully understand. But the right support won’t try to understand. They’ll just want to be there for you.  Let them. It’s hard for those closest to us who love us to watch us go through what we do.

IBD mom and ostomate, Byrd Vihlen, recommends loved ones to ask questions and take the time to learn more about ostomies, the disease, and what this means going forward.

“This surgery is NOT A CURE. Knowing that you care enough to want to be educated means the world. I would also advise that going into surgery, the recovery could be very different than what is described by the doctors, prepare for that emotionally so you can better support your family/friend…and not put any extra unnecessary stress on them during a fragile time. Empathy goes a long way.”

Speaking of empathy, Tina Aswani Omprakash recalls how one of her friends once insisted on watching her change her ostomy bag. As first, Tina says she was freaking out saying no. But now, when she looks back, she realizes that was one of the most supportive experiences.

“She asked questions as I went along and was curious to understand how it worked and why people felt such a stigma around it. It made me feel like a human being and that someone actually cared and wanted to learn and support me. I’d say if you’re close family, be there when the ostomy nurse is teaching how to change the bag. Oftentimes, we are in such a rut and on painkillers that we have no idea what’s going on. Support us, ask questions, be there and take notes. It can only help.”

Kristina Schook, 24, of New York, was diagnosed with Crohn’s when she was eight. She needed an ostomy when she was in high school and says the entire experience was insanely hard on her. Her bag would constantly leak, and it messed with her self-confidence. She says she had to alter what sports she played because of the leakage, but is thankful she was never judged by her peers. When it comes to advice for family and friends, Kristina says, “Just let us rant if we are upset. Don’t tell us you understand because our intestine is literally out of our body. It’s extremely hard to deal with mentally. For me, reversal was a great option and I don’t regret it.”

Jordan Ditty says patience is key.

“This is a big change. There will be a lot of emotions around it whether it was planned and wanted, unexpected, or they were dreading it. Offer to sit with them while they change their bag, watch a movie together, bring them coffee, listen to their frustrations, hold them when they cry, they need your support. While at the same time don’t treat them any different, this ostomy did not change who they are as an individual.”

Lindsay Dickerson says if you care about someone with a digestive disability and ostomy, recognize the mental toll their patient experience can cause.

“We are shuffled from specialist to specialist, appointment to appointment. There are days we can’t function and (personally) I feel worthless as a friend, wife, mother, and person. Educate yourself on your loved one’s condition. Support them when they feel down. Help them understand it’s not their fault, even though we will feel like it is at times. On the days they need that extra help – give it to them. There are days we can’t do it all and need this help, it’s a lifetime condition. Empathy and love are what we need and the more you give of it the better.”

Showing Your Ostomy Bag to Others

Whether or not you choose to show your ostomy bag publicly is a very personal decision. Some people feel empowered by it, others prefer to be more discreet. You do you, boo boo.

Natasha Weinstein says sharing her ostomy with the world is so much fun. When she first got her ostomy, she would put duct tape all over the bag, thinking it would make it more “socially acceptable” for people to see. Then, she realized a few things.

“Number one—duct tape is uncomfortable. Number two—I was going through a lot of bags and duct just to go swimming, which made the bags heavy! Number three—the bags are already skin colored so what was I doing?! Once I got rid of the duct tape, everything got easier and all I had to do was choose my bathing suit of the day. Now it’s become routine to take a post-race photo with Ziggy out wearing my medal because we’re accomplishing and conquering life together.”

Tionna Forchion says being transparent about her life with an ostomy has been extremely fulfilling.

“I hid my bag from family and friends for many years and now I openly post pictures on social media showing my ostomy and it feels so empowering to show the love I have for myself in my entirety, and that includes my ostomy bag. It’s rewarding when other warriors on social media write me messages saying that me posting pics showing my bag has helped them embrace and love themselves flaws and all. That’s really why I do it, to inspire others to love everything about themselves and so other ostomates know they are not alone.”

Sahara Fleetwood-Beresford shares her ostomy with world so that people can see that it’s ok not to be like everyone else. She doesn’t feel embarrassed or ashamed and doesn’t think of her bag as an issue. “It is what it is—it’s part of me. The same as my moles, scars, stretch marks, etc.”

Speaking of scars (or battle wounds as I like to call them), Lindsay says, “I love showing off my ostomy.  I’ve had 14 surgeries in my lifetime at this point and the ostomy is a symbol of everything I’ve overcome and how I’ve taken the steps to improve my life for the better. All bodies come in different shapes, sizes, and abilities. I feel confident with my ostomy out and welcome anyone who has questions about it!

Payge Duerre says showing her ostomy doesn’t phase her anymore. She says it doesn’t make her feel empowered, either.

“I post for others. I show for others. I show and post because I’m 110% okay if I get hate or negative comments. I might cry if there are mean people, but I truly post and show my ostomy because I’m confident about it and hope to support others by doing so. My ostomy has completely changed my life for the better. There is no possible way I’d be this healthy version of me with my colon. I no longer shit my pants, I can travel more than five minutes away from the bathroom, I’m not missing every other day of work/school/events because of pain so immense I can’t get off the couch. I don’t have to spend an entire day every four weeks getting my infusions.”

Tina and many others I interviewed, choose not to show their ostomy or their stoma. But each ostomate said they respect the many people who do.

“I don’t feel that I need to show it to talk about it or to empower others. Culturally speaking, I think for me, it’s better left to the imagination. I do show what a stoma bag looks like and show different activities you can do with an ostomy but I think this is an individual’s choice to show or not to show and still feel empowered.”

When Life Comes Full Circle

Over the course of the past few weeks, I’ve had the privilege of connecting with more than 20 ostomates around the world who have candidly and whole-heartedly shared about their personal experience. As someone with Crohn’s who does not have an ostomy, I consider your ostomy a symbol of strength and survival. What each ostomate endures prior to surgery, through recovery, and in life, takes patience and perseverance. It takes strength from within. A strength I can’t even begin to fathom. Ostomies are a visible reminder of the often invisible battles those with IBD and other digestive diseases face while having chronic illness. It’s normal to grieve and be devastated. From what I’ve learned through these warriors, the best way to view life with an ostomy is to think of all the positive it will bring to your life and how it will improve your health and condition. Shifting your perspective and thinking of your ostomy as a gift rather than a curse seems to be the best medicine of all. Thank you for following along through this series. I hope you feel better educated about life with an ostomy and have learned something, I know I did!

Celebrating Ostomy Awareness Day (October 3rd, 2020)

This year marks the 10th Anniversary of National Ostomy Day. This day serves as an opportunity to spread awareness about ostomy surgery.

Twitter Chat (#ddhchat): Diet and Digestive Health Chat about Nutrition for the Ileostomy hosted by ostomate Tina Aswani Omprakash and Neha D. Shah, MPH, RD, CNSC, CHES Friday October 2 at 12 p.m. EDT.

Check out this Facebook Live hosted by United Ostomy Associations of America, Inc. at 12 p.m. EDT, October 3.

Run for Resilience Ostomy 5k (Virtual)—Saturday, October 3

Gali Health will be sharing videos from ostomates—connect with them (@GaliHealth) on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook.

Helpful Resources:

Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation

United Ostomy Associations of America, Inc.

Ostomy Support Group Finder

The J-Pouch Group

WOCN: Wound, Ostomy, Continence Nurse Society

“So, You Have an Ostomy”: Tips for Travel, Diet, and Bag Changes—Part 2

Navigating life with an ostomy takes patience and persistence. The adjustment is not only emotionally and mentally taxing for many, but the physical day-to-day takes some getting used to as well. In Part 2 of “So, You Have An Ostomy,” I interviewed ostomates about everything from diet, to bag changes, and how best to pack when you’re away from home. It’s my hope that by hearing these words of wisdom, that you’ll feel better equipped and more at ease should you need to make these lifestyle changes for yourself.

Discovering Your “New” Diet with an Ostomy

After ostomy surgery, it’s recommended to stick to a low residue diet for about six-eight weeks. Once you reach that point in recovery, work with your surgeon and GI dietitian to reintroduce foods one by one to see how you tolerate them. Hydration is key every single day. When you are outdoors or more active, you will want to make sure you hydrate before, during, and after, not only with water, but having some sodium and sugar in your system for better absorption. This can either be a homemade mixture, powders (ex. DripDrop, Liquid I.V.), or premade drinks (ex. Pedialyte, Metamucil Water, or Gatorade). Ultimately, you want to keep a pudding consistency of output.

If you’re eating high fiber foods like nuts and raw veggies and fruits, ensure you are chewing well, eating a bit slower, and drinking water throughout the meal, as these foods are harder to breakdown.

Sahara Fleetwood-Beresford, 32, of the United Kingdom, was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis at age 19. Since then, she’s had three stomas. When it comes to diet with an ostomy, it’s very much trial and error, like it is with IBD. For many, marshmallows, unsweetened applesauce, and peanut butter are the ‘go-to’s’ to thicken output, but unfortunately those don’t do the trick for Sahara.

“My main piece of advice is not to be afraid of trying things. If you chew thoroughly, that minimizes the risk of blockages. Your stoma will be settling in for up to twelve months, so if something doesn’t agree with you in the beginning, try it again later. My diet is healthy now, thanks to my stoma. I can eat all of the fruits and vegetables that I couldn’t eat before due to pain caused by strictures.”

Karin Thum, 42, of Florida, battles not only Crohn’s disease, but Spina Bifida. She says an ostomy isn’t as bad as it seems and that in time, you’ll find it’s the best thing you could have done for your health and your quality of life. When it comes to her top dietary hack she says, “I’m a salad girl. I learned from my doctor to use scissors to cut up lettuce so that it’s easier to digest. This way I don’t have to give up eating salad completely and can enjoy one of my favorite foods in moderation.”

For Andrew Battifarano, 26, of New York, he noticed he has higher output after having a sugary drink, like soda. Steering clear of these has helped his bag from filling up so quickly.

“At the same time, I try and have as much water I can tolerate. You can easily get dehydrated without even realizing it (I have and it’s not fun), so staying on top of that is super important. And eating less at night, or having smaller meals spread out will make you have less output when you’re sleeping, which might help prevent any leaks and also let you sleep longer without having to get up during the night.”

Tim Albert, 32, of Wisconsin, received his ostomy this past November. If he ever feels dehydrated, he swears by DripDrop ORS. He says if he drinks 16 ounces of water with DripDrop he starts feeling better in 30 minutes.

“As far as output, I’ve learned to think of things the same way a diabetic might manage their blood sugar. If I eat something that will water down my output, I need to counter it with something that will thicken it. Foods are going to be different for each person, but for me, I am able to thicken things up with apple sauce. I like to buy the little pouches; they are great for on the go.”

Sarah Byrd Vihlen, 33, of Georgia was initially diagnosed with ulcerative colitis in January 2014, but has since been switched to Crohn’s. She underwent subtotal-colectomy surgery right after bringing her two-year-old daughter, Penelope, into the world via c-section. Talk about a rockstar IBD mom. When it comes to diet, she says it’s very much like what you’re told with IBD.

“I typically avoid anything with large seeds or nuts, and if I do eat them, I chew thoroughly, the same with fruits and vegetables that have skin. I still do not eat popcorn. Since getting an ostomy I have been able to eat a wider variety of foods than before, but I have heard mushrooms are dangerous and I miss eating them a lot. To thicken output I eat marshmallows, rice, potatoes, and bananas.”

Some foods are known to increase output and gas. Carbonation drinks, chewing gum, and even something as simple as using a straw, can increase your gas ingestion which will need to be expelled. The challenge is, what may increase one person’s output, may not for someone else or vice versa.

Oh, The Places You Will Go…With an Ostomy

Once it’s “safe” to travel post-pandemic (can you even imagine?!), there’s a lot to keep in mind when you’re packing your bags and you have a bag. The first rule of thumb—be overly prepared and always carry-on your supplies in case your suitcase gets lost. Ostomy supplies are needed to be temperature controlled; they are permitted to go through TSA as carry-on.

Be proactive and if you need to cut your wafer, try to cut some before you travel, and pack your favorite scissors in your checked baggage. The consensus among all ostomates I spoke with—pack extra of everything. You don’t know if you’ll have a defective appliance or have any issues arise while you’re away from home.

Natasha Weinstein always considers how long she is traveling and how she is getting to her destination. She says, “I always pack for up to 3 changes a day. If I am flying, I pack a bit more, as air travel seems to affect my adhesive. I seem to do better with car travel. If I am being exposed to extreme temperatures or my itinerary is more active, I take that into account. I do everything I can to alleviate any possible stress about supplies, so I can enjoy my vacation.”

Double and triple check to ensure you have all your supplies and bag changes packed before you head out the door. An ostomy isn’t like a regular prescription; it can be impossible to find when you’re in another city and you’re simply out of luck at that point. Many of the ostomates I talked with recommend organizing your supplies in a travel toiletries holder.

For additional travel—both domestic and international—with an ostomy, check out this helpful article by ostomate, Tina Aswani Omprakash.

Ch-Ch-Ch-Changesss…the ins and outs of changing your ostomy bag

How long a bag will last varies depending on a few different factors: activity level, weather, bathing, sleeping, etc.There isn’t a one size fits all for bags, it takes a while to figure out which appliance and ‘accessories’ work best for you, that can also change over time, even after you think you have found the right one. Skin allergies are common. It’s best to get free samples from several different companies and try them out. Deodorizing & lubricating drops are also helpful.

For any new ostomates, if insurance/payment allows, it’s recommended to have an ostomy home care nurse help you through any trouble shooting with changing your bag at home.

“I don’t know what I would have done without my ostomy nurse, she was an absolute angel. She would come weekly and was able to talk me through problems I was having and give me several new tips. If that’s not available, several people on social media have videos posted. Organizing your supplies is important too so you know your inventory levels and don’t run out. I have a small stocked caddy in my bathroom ready in case I need to do a middle of the night bag change,” says Byrd.

Byrd typically changes her bag every four days, but has gone longer on occasion. Morning bag changes seem to work best for her (before she eats anything) otherwise she says you can wind up with a mess.

Lindsay Dickerson, age 30, of Georgia, was diagnosed with colonic inertia, gastroparesis (digestive tract paralysis) at the age of 17. When it comes to changing her ostomy, she says it’s key to lay out all your supplies prior to making your first move.

“Know you have everything there, so you don’t have to run to your supply closet and risk a spill. I use a grocery bag and tuck it into my waistband to collect any output and trash.  When I used the Hollister brand, I had a thousand supplies that went into a bag change. Now that I’ve switched to the Sensura Mio Convex 2-click appliance, I need the wafer, a bag, and skin-tac that helps the bag stay on longer. My Hollister (which I used for 3 ½ years) lasted two days; my Coloplast Sensura Mio lasts at least 5 days.”

Lindsay recommends always having a water bottle with you when you empty. Since output can be sludgy and hard to empty, it enables you to rinse your bag with some water after you’ve dumped it. She says this tip will change your life!

Michel Johnson, 56, of Tennessee, had a temporary ostomy for nine months. He recalls changing his bag every three to four days. At first, he said he would relive the trauma every time he had to change or empty it, but then his perspective shifted.

“I realized my ostomy saved my life. Rather than moping around, I brought a music speaker in the bathroom and created a dance playlist for my bag changes. I looked forward to it! I danced and sang while I changed my bag. Doing this completely reframed how I looked at this process.”

Several ostomates also mentioned showering bag free and what a wonderful feeling it is to not have anything attached to your body. Just remember to keep soaps and shampoos with perfume and moisturizers away from your stoma and peristomal skin, as they can cause irritation.

Jordan Ditty, 27, of California, was diagnosed with Crohn’s at age 11. When it comes to changing her bag in public, she recommends hitting up Starbucks, as they usually have single bathrooms. If you need to change your bag in public, she says it’s also helpful to use the stall with the changing table so you can lay out all your supplies. Jordan always keeps disinfectant wipes in her bag along with extra paper towels to make sure she’s able to clean the surface area and stoma well.

“You can also sample different companies supplies for free. Email them with what you are wanting to try, and they will send you 2-3 of them as well as others so you are able to find what works best for you. In the past year and a half, I have changed my pouching system at least five times if not more to find what works for my skin, activity level, daily life, and stoma.”

Overall, the recommendation—expect the unexpected. You can’t control what the stoma does, so when it’s not cooperating, try your best to go with the flow (literally and figuratively!). And don’t wait too long to change a bag. If your skin is burning underneath, it’s probably leaking, change it. If you think the adhesive is coming off your wafer and may not last sleeping through the night, change it. Overestimate the time you will need and please give yourself grace upon grace.

Stay tuned for Part 3 of “So, You Have An Ostomy…” Monday (September 28th) we’ll cover disclosing you have an ostomy on a date, intimacy, styles of clothing and underwear that work best and the unique names some IBD warriors have for their stomas.

In case you missed it, click here to read Part 1 of “So, You Have an Ostomy”—The Complexity of Coping, which focuses on what it’s like to find out you need an ostomy, the complexity of coping, and adjusting to your new normal.

Living life unapologetically as a Black woman with Crohn’s disease

When Melodie Blackwell was initially diagnosed with Crohn’s disease in October 2018, she felt alone. Not because of how isolating IBD can be, but because she couldn’t find many people who were speaking about their journey from the perspective of what it’s like to be a Black or Brown woman in the IBD community. JPixStudio-8924 copy

When I looked for information from the IBD organizations, I felt like there was little to no one who looked like me. Sometimes, and history shows this, we can’t be unapologetic about being a person of color. We must tell our stories in a way that seems more digestible to White America. When I started sharing my journey, I wanted to reach those in the minority community from various walks of life who felt isolated or alone, to let them know they weren’t by themselves and there is a space where they belong. With my non-profit Color of Crohn’s and Chronic Illness (COCCI), I believe that’s what I have been able to do,” says Melodie. 

Dealing with feeling “uninvited”

As a wife, mom, entrepreneur, Black woman, and Crohn’s warrior; Melodie’s view of the IBD community has multiple perspectives. At this time, inclusion and diversity isn’t one that’s at the top of the list. “In order for any organization to be inclusive, they have to have to have a deeper understanding of a community. And when it comes to those who are in the Black community, most people don’t go where they don’t feel invited. Where does that thought process come from? Let’s talk about history and “whites only” venues, seating on the back of the bus, segregation ending less than 100 years ago, and the Tuskegee Experiment to name a few things. Many of us still have family members who can discuss all of the aforementioned like it happened yesterday.” IMG_4657

When it comes to Melodie’s thoughts on not feeling invited, “I am fine with that, because personally, I go where I am not invited. Not having an invitation doesn’t mean that I don’t belong. But as a culture, that’s not a resounding thought process. I know that that can seem odd, it’s a systemic issue. If you don’t know the culture, cultural differences, and historical oppression, you won’t understand that. There are some deeply rooted healthcare adversities – they live on today.”

Leading up to her diagnosis and even today, Melodie has dealt with ignorant physicians along the way. Her Crohn’s presented differently than most. It started with random body parts swelling. She had a doctor tell her she just needed to “squeeze those parts to help the blood flow”. She’s had doctors display their implicit bias and not listen…which resulted in abscesses bursting in her colon and emergency surgery.

Health equity isn’t given, it’s fought for

It’s the inequity that has inspired Melodie to go above and beyond and amplify her voice to show others they can do the same. She launched Color of Crohn’s and Chronic Illness (COCCI) to help lift people up and let them know they aren’t alone and they didn’t choose the challenges before them. She’s received countless messages from people embarrassed about their symptoms. Melodie is driven to show there’s no reason to feel ashamed about your IBD and she’s focused on creating a space that feels safe to get answers and receive help physically and mentally. IMG_1783

I want to empower people of color and beyond, to take control of their healthcare and not feel like they are a victim. I want them to have the resources that they need. I want COCCI to be readily available to help them find doctors, learn more about healthcare, provide a safe space to express their thoughts, help them advocate/lobby for their needs – I want health equity and to decrease the undeniable disparities in this community.”

Don’t be afraid to live

As an IBD mom and patient advocate, Melodie’s main advice is to live. IBD and chronic illness causes all of us to make changes and adjustments throughout the process, but we are still here, and we still can have full lives.

Some days will be tougher than others, but a mindset that says, “I choose Life” every single day, will change your life in the absolute best way,” says Melodie. “You set your limitations, and you determine your victories; don’t let IBD take that away from you.”

You can follow Melodie and COCCI on Instagram:

@melodienblackwell

@colorofcci

Check out her website

 

The Chronically Honest: The Inspiration Behind the Illustrations

She’s the person behind the artwork that has helped connect thousands of chronic illness patients on Instagram. I’m talking about a 20-year-old woman named Julia who created “The Chronically Honest” in hopes of making others feel less alone. Diagnosed in November 2019 after struggling with symptoms for three years, Julia is coming to grips with her battle against IBD in the middle of a global pandemic.

The first in her family to take this disease on, her experiences thus far have felt a bit isolating. As a college student, she often feels out of place amongst her peers.

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“When I was first diagnosed I really searched for something, whether it be art, or blogs that portrayed all the feelings I was experiencing and let me know that it was okay to feel them,” says Julia. “I was met with countless stories of positivity and turning a bad situation into a good new perspective on life. While I definitely appreciate that and know positivity is vital when dealing with IBD I was searching for something that showed struggle and depicted the crappy side of living with this disease (pun intended)!”

Striving to dig beneath the surface

With The Chronically Honest, Julia strives to show both the ups and the down of living with IBD. She hopes that by showing the struggles, she can make fellow patients feel better understood. Image

“My inspiration to create my illustrations often comes from struggles or triumphs I’m experiencing in the moment. If I am not doing well and have had a bad day, I will create an illustration that reflects that, and vice versa. However, I also get inspiration from others. If I am scrolling through my Instagram feed and see a quote that really resonates with me and my experience and I think it could help others, I will make an illustration based off that.”

Creating art to cope

“My art honestly helps me cope with my IBD more than I could ever imagine. It’s the best distraction and it’s a wonderful outlet for exploring and sharing my feelings. Often when I’m super sick or have to stay home because I’m symptomatic, I will channel my frustration and sadness into making art.”

Julia’s artwork can take her anywhere from five minutes to multiple hours. Some of her biggest fears lie in finding love, becoming a mom one day, and ultimately needing surgery. All aspects of living with IBD that many of us can relate to. Image (1)

The Chronically Honest is as beneficial to Julia as it is the rest of us. Her artwork exemplifies what so many of us feel throughout the rollercoaster ride that is life with IBD. As a 36-year-old, who has lived with Crohn’s for 15 years, I’m constantly amazed and inspired by the work Julia is doing to not only help herself, but others. Her art is raw and genuine—it will speak to you. You will feel seen. You will feel heard. If you don’t already, be sure to give The Chronically Honest a “follow” on Instagram.  She says if you want a custom illustration, you can send her a direct message!