He made me an IBD mom four years ago…here’s what I’ve learned

Four years ago, today, I became a mom. Our son Reid Robert was born and placed into my arms for the very first time. Like any parent, especially one with a chronic illness, those initial moments were emotional and overwhelming in the best way. A wave of relief rushed over me as I lied on the table after my scheduled c-section, grateful my body that had fought Crohn’s disease since 2005, had brought a perfectly healthy baby boy into this world. But I was also nervous about my abilities as an IBD mom and what the journey of parenthood would look like as I juggled taking care of myself and this tiny little human. How would my life with a chronic illness and as a mom play out?

Fast forward four years. I am now a mom of two, with a baby boy on the way (24 weeks tomorrow)! Over these last 1,460 days, I’ve learned and grown a great deal both personally and as an IBD patient. Today—I share that perspective and knowledge with you. Perspective and knowledge, I wish I had when I first became a mom and what I’m continuing to learn along the way.

  1. Fed is best. There is so much pressure on how women choose to feed their babies. It’s ridiculous. I breastfed Reid the first three days and he had formula from that point forward because I was nervous about my biologic. The second time around, I did more research, and chose to breastfeed my daughter. Our journey lasted for six months (my milk supply ran out once I got my period). I supplemented with formula. I’m hoping to nurse our final baby when he’s born in July. That being said—no matter what you choose, it’s your choice. Your baby will thrive. Don’t beat yourself up over it. Drown out the judgement and speak up if someone questions your decision for you and your baby. For me, breastfeeding is a labor of love. I’m not going to act like I enjoy it, because it was hard for me. It’s not something that comes natural for all, and that’s ok. No one is going to ask my kids when they are in elementary school or high school how they were fed or know the difference.
  2. What they see, doesn’t always hurt them. When you’re cowering on the toilet in pain and they’re watching with eyes that speak of concern. When you’re sitting on your couch about to do your injection. When you’re struggling to stand up straight because your abdominal pain is too much. Don’t shield them from your pain. That pain is part of your family story and it’s important you are honest and upfront. It’s those moments that shape their little hearts and their everchanging minds.
  3. Kids roll with the punches. Have to cancel plans or have a low-key day inside watching a movie instead of going for a walk or to the park? —that’s ok. Your children will feel loved and taken care of just the same. Kids are flexible. They don’t need to stick to a rigid schedule to be happy and fulfilled. At the end of the day, it’s your love and support that matters most.
  4. Innate empathy from a young age. With my oldest being four, I can’t tell you enough how many times I’ve been blown away by his empathetic heart. Before he was even two years old, he would kiss my thigh after my injection and walk up to me in the bathroom, give me a hug, and pat my arm or stomach to comfort me. Now, he asks me if I’m hurting or in pain. He knows mommy isn’t always healthy, but that she’s always strong and gets through it. That empathy goes far beyond me—I see it in the way he is with others and it makes my heart feel like it’s going to burst with pride. I credit that aspect of his personality to what he’s witnessed these first few years of life, and for that I’m grateful. I can guarantee you’ll see the same with your children.
  5. Greatest source of motivation. Even though I’ve been in remission since August 2015, my kids still serve as my greatest motivation on the difficult days with the disease. Whether it’s pain, prepping for a scope, or going through a procedure, I keep my eyes on the prize—them. Just thinking of them gets me through everything. They give me so much to fight for, day in and day out. It’s not just about me—it’s about all of us.
  6. The importance of communication. When you become a parent, communication becomes even more paramount in your relationship. If you don’t share when you’re struggling or symptomatic, your partner can’t offer the support you need. Even if you’re not in a full-blown flare, it’s beneficial for everyone involved (you, your partner, and your kid(s)) that you share when your IBD is causing you issues. I always text my husband when he’s at work or simply say, “I’m having a bad Crohn’s day” or if I’m in the bathroom for a long time after dinner while he’s trying to get the kids to bed …and that’s all it takes to get the message across.
  7. Asking for help doesn’t make you weak. You’ve probably heard the saying “it takes a village to raise a child” …and it really does. You are not failing or less than because you ask or help, need a break, or time for yourself. You will be a better mom if you take time for you. You’ll be better able to keep your disease in check if you have time to relax and de-stress. I’m not always the best when it comes to accepting or asking for help, but as I gear up for three babies four and under, I know I’m not going to be able to do it all on my own and that I’m going to need more out of my village.
  8. Your health can’t go on the backburner. When you’re a mom, your needs often go to the bottom of the totem pole. When you are an IBD mom, they can’t. While I used to try and “brave out” my symptoms until the last possible moment, as a mom, I’ve completely changed. After nearly 16 years living with Crohn’s, I know when my body is speaking to me and now, I listen and address what’s going on immediately. I credit being proactive and sharing with my GI when it feels like my remission may be in question for the reason why I’ve been able to stay in remission all this time. I’ve gone on bursts of steroids, had my trough levels checked for my biologic, and done fecal calprotectin tests through the years when needed. The last thing you want as a parent is to be hospitalized because of your IBD. To me—it’s inevitable. It’s not a matter of if it will happen, but when. But I do everything in my power to keep myself home and out of the hospital and will continue to do so until that’s no longer possible.
  9. Every “tummy ache” and loose stool from your child is not IBD. When my kids say they have a tummy ache or I seem to think they’re going to the bathroom more often one day than not, I’m immediately worried and concerned. Could it be IBD? Why are they feeling this way? Is it my fault? What do I need to watch out for? All the questions flood my mind and sometimes my emotions get the best of me. Then, my husband normally talks me down and says it’s probably nothing and I need to stop jumping to conclusions. He’s right. Chances are potty training could be causing tummy aches. Or maybe like the rest of the population, they are going more because of something they ate. The chance of passing along IBD to your child (when one parent has it) is only 2-9% (according to the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation). Remember that.
  10. You are their hero. Of course, there are times I wish I wasn’t an IBD mom…and “just” a mom. At the same time, I credit my disease for much of my outlook on life and how it helps me cope with setbacks, but also celebrate what to many others may be the mundane. My kids don’t see me than less than. When they sit through doctor appointments in the stroller and blood draws, or watch me make faces drinking colonoscopy prep, or count to 10 while doing my shot before they go to bed, they simply see their mama. This is their normal—they don’t know anything different. When I talk to teenagers or young adults who grew up with a parent who has IBD, I always hear the same thing— ‘they are my hero’.

Along with being a hero to your little one(s)…you are also…

Someone who takes unpleasant moments in stride.

Someone who wears the title of “mama” with great pride.

Someone who will never stop fighting for the feel-good days.

Someone who doesn’t allow your illness to rob you or your child of joy.

Someone who goes after their dreams—like that of being a mom—even though your back story may be a bit more complicated.

Someone who is just as worthy as anyone to be a parent.

We’re four years in, Reid. Like everything in life, each moment—beautiful and challenging—is fleeting. Thank you for being patient with me, for understanding me, and for being a daily reminder that I’m so much more than my Crohn’s disease. Being your mom is my greatest title and has been the best chapter of my life story and patient journey thus far.

Participating in PIANO: Why I choose to be a part of research while pregnant and beyond

As an IBD mom I see it as a responsibility and an opportunity to participate in research studies while I am pregnant and as my children grow. I’m currently 20 weeks pregnant (tomorrow!) with my third baby and this time around I’m enrolled in the Pregnancy in Inflammatory Bowel Disease and Neonatal Outcomes (PIANO) study. The project was conceived, lead, and executed by Dr. Uma Mahadevan, Professor of Medicine at the University of California San Francisco in 2007.

Since the project launched, more than 1,800 women have participated in the registry. Of that number, over 900 stayed on biologics throughout their pregnancies. I’m thrilled to be a part of this initiative. If my pregnancies and children can provide clarity for a future generation of IBD moms, the extra effort on my part is more than worth it. Thanks to women before me who have been on a biologic and been a part of research while pregnant, I have peace of mind knowing that staying on my Humira is best for me and for baby.

Without studies that indicate how babies in utero respond to medication exposures we would be in the dark about what is best for mom and baby not only during pregnancy, but with breastfeeding.

“There is so much misinformation about pregnancy and IBD including being told not to conceive at all or to stop medication. This is incorrect and dangerous. PIANO was started to provide reliable data for women with IBD considering pregnancy so they and their providers can make an informed choice for themselves and their babies,” said Dr. Mahadevan. “Every pregnant woman with IBD has benefited from the generosity of PIANO moms who contributed their outcomes, good or bad, to the pool of knowledge we have. Every PIANO mom who contributes benefits not herself, but future mothers with IBD. It is an invaluable and precious gift.”

What PIANO measures

There are four main areas the PIANO study looks at:

  1. Whether the level of biologic drug transferred across the placenta to the infant by the time of birth predicts the risk of infection or other adverse outcomes
  2. Whether the achievement of developmental milestones is affected by medication exposure
  3. Whether the rates of birth defects, adverse pregnancy outcomes and complications of labor and delivery are affected by IBD medications
  4. Whether second trimester drug levels can be used to adjust drug and minimize transfer across the placenta to the baby

Since I am just now reaching the halfway point of my pregnancy, I have only had to fill out questionnaires. You are required to do so during each trimester, at the end of your pregnancy, and then at 4, 9, and 12 months post-delivery. Along with that, you can provide follow up until your child is 18, once a year. During this trimester I will also provide blood work and a fecal calprotectin. On delivery day, bloodwork will be taken from me, my baby, and my umbilical cord. Depending on my son’s blood work at delivery, I may be asked for more when he’s 3 and 6 months. If at any time I am not comfortable with him getting his blood drawn, I can always opt out. The cord blood is similar to the baby blood at birth so that is adequate. I can also choose to stop the annual questionnaire at any time.

If a woman receives the COVID-19 vaccine during pregnancy, the PIANO study is also measuring the antibody levels found in the cord blood (on the day of birth) to confirm that the benefit transfers to the baby. Breastmilk will also be measured for the transfer of protective antibody against COVID.

The Findings Thus Far

In a presentation this past fall, Dr. Mahadevan shared findings from PIANO.

“We looked at pregnancy, birth and developmental outcomes in the infants at one year, based on exposure to drug, and found no increase in negative outcomes and no reduction in developmental milestones. Biologic‑exposed infants did have some statistically increased improvement in developmental milestones compared to the unexposed group. Overall, what this study suggests is that women with inflammatory bowel disease should continue their biologics and thiopurines throughout pregnancy to maintain remission, given no evidence of harm, and evidence that  disease activity can increase miscarriage.”

The study also found that disease activity can increase preterm labor and birth, all the more reason for women to stay on their medication and not try and go med-free while pregnant.

Looking to the Future

Currently, there is no end date for the study. As long as there is funding, the project will continue. Dr. Mahadevan says with all the new medications coming down the pipeline there is a need for safety data. She says, “The infrastructure of PIANO allows us to study new medications as they come to market, even before they are approved for IBD.”

To participate in the study women must have IBD and live in the United States. Interested in learning more or getting enrolled? Email PIANO@ucsf.edu or call 415-885-3734.

Pregnant with #3 and excited to share more news with you!

Well, the cat’s out of the bag. I’m 14 weeks pregnant (tomorrow) with a baby BOY! We will be family of five in mid-July. Since as long as I’ve remembered, I’ve envisioned my life with three children, I just never thought it would happen in the middle of a pandemic! Bobby and I feel extremely fortunate with all the outpouring of love, support, and congratulations during this exciting time for our family. As an IBD mom, I feel constant gratitude that my remission has held strong these 5-plus years and enabled me to have healthy, uneventful pregnancies. So far, out of all four of my pregnancies (miscarried between Reid and Sophia), this one has been my “easiest”. Aside from too many migraines to count, the nausea and fatigue in the first trimester were minimal and I feel great most days.

While I plan to be transparent and share content over the next six months about my experience being a high-risk pregnancy during these crazy pandemic times, I also want you to know I’m cognizant of the fact that pregnancy announcements, and pictures of baby bumps can be a trigger for our community. I am empathetic to the fact that family planning can look differently for those of us with Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis. Because of this—I’m excited to announce I’ll be launching a special series on Lights, Camera, Crohn’s entitled “IBD Motherhood Unplugged”.

IBD Motherhood Unplugged topics will include (but are not limited to):

  • The decision not to have children due to IBD
  • Being told you can’t carry a child and coping with that loss
  • Adoption
  • Surrogacy
  • Infertility
  • IBD pregnancy after loss
  • Single parenting with IBD
  • Biologics and pregnancy/breastfeeding
  • The list goes on…

If you want to share your experience of navigating family planning or motherhood with IBD, please reach out. I already have several women lined up, ready and willing to share their personal journeys. I’m anxious to share their brave and resilient words with you.

My advocacy focus has always been to be the voice I so desperately needed to hear upon diagnosis and through all of life’s milestones. I want you to feel seen. I want you to feel heard. I also want you to remain hopeful that pregnancy and motherhood is possible for most women with IBD, we all just get there in different ways.

IBD and Adoption: Insight from a Crohn’s mom about the journey

When you have IBD, the path to motherhood can look different for many. There is added stress about whether your body can create and sustain a new life successfully. There’s worries about flare ups and medications and how to stay well-managed while keeping the health of your unborn child in mind…just to name a few. For 30-year-old, Audrey Bolton, of North Carolina, adoption had been a calling in her life since high school when she stood at the airport and watched a family friend bring home their daughter from Guatemala.

She knew from that day forward, she would adopt one day. What she didn’t know is that she would be diagnosed with Crohn’s disease 10 months after getting married and struggle to conceive. This week on Lights, Camera, Crohn’s, Audrey shares her journey of becoming an IBD mom through adoption and what she wants others to know about the process.

NH: Many women with IBD fear their bodies are incapable of carrying a child/or are told they aren’t well enough. What would you like to say to them?

AB: “I would tell them that every journey to parenthood looks different, but at the end of the day, we are all moms. I think it depends on everyone’s situation and it’s a conversation they need to have with their doctor(s) and their spouse. For me, I was sick at the time my husband Crawford and I wanted to have a baby. I was not sick enough to where I wouldn’t be able to parent, but I do not think my body at that time could have been healthy enough to carry a child without problems. With that said, I’m nearing remission so I do still hope that one day we can have a biological child. If a person wants to be a mom, I fully believe that there are many different avenues a person can take to be a mother.”

NH: What are some of the struggles/challenges about adoptions that you wish other families knew?

AB: “Adoption comes from a place of brokenness, so while it is so beautiful that our son Camden made me a mother, it is not lost on me that his birth mother made a huge sacrifice that left a piece of her heart missing. It can be beautiful and heartbreaking at the same time.”

NH: Was the fact you had IBD ever an issue with adoption agencies?

AB: “Not at all! I love this question because I wasn’t sure what to expect when we started the process back in 2017. For all adoptions, you must complete a home study which includes health questionnaires, a physical, and several meetings with a social worker. In those meetings, we talked about my Crohn’s disease and how I was working with my doctor to treat it. If a person is well enough to parent and take care of a child, there are not any issues with having IBD and being eligible for adoption.”

NH: What are your tips for navigating the adoption journey with a partner/spouse?

AB: I could write a book on this one, but the truth is, Crawford has been my rock. He had no idea when he married me that I would be facing a chronic disease that would land me in the hospital multiple times a year for days on end. He has truly stuck by his vows “in sickness and in health.” I think the best tip I have for navigating Crohn’s with a partner/spouse is to communicate. Crawford knows when I’m not feeling well, the best thing for me is to rest and he makes it happen. He also is my voice of reason and tells me if I’m doing too much or if I need to say no to some obligations so that I can properly rest. Communication is key!

NH: What was it like when you first met your son Camden?

AB: “I always envisioned the moment we laid eyes on our son to be beautiful and the best moment of my life. When we arrived at the hospital, we had not slept in 24 hours and had driven straight through the night. We thought we would be meeting our son, but we were told he was being transferred to a Children’s hospital for further testing on his heart. He was hooked up to all kinds of wires and it was one of the scariest moments of my life. We only got to see him for about an hour before the ambulance came and took him to the Children’s hospital. It was whirlwind of a day, but God saw us through it and the next day, he passed all of his tests with flying colors and I was able to bond with my baby for the first time and have my “beautiful moment.”

NH: What’s been the most magical aspect of being an adoptive parent?

AB: “Most days, I forget that Camden is adopted. He looks just like Crawford and he’s been with us from his second day of life, so he belongs with us. Every now and then, I will have a moment and remember that he has another mom somewhere out in the world. I always say that she is my hero because she chose life for her baby boy and I would say that has been the most magical part for me. Knowing that I owe everything to a woman that I have never met. I pray that she has peace in knowing how loved he is on a daily basis.”

NH: If someone is on the fence about adoption–what would you tell them?

AB: “Pray, pray, and pray some more. If it is God’s will, he will give you that peace. I receive messages every day asking how the process works and people are scared about the cost. If it’s meant to be, don’t let the cost stop you! There are so many ways that it CAN be done.”

NH: You recently announced you’ll be adopting baby number two in 2021, you must be so excited! Did that process differ at all from Camden’s?

AB: “We are extremely excited. So far, it is the exact same because we are going through the same agency. I’m sure there will be some bumps along the way, but we are so excited to bring home baby #2.”

NH: How has already being an adoptive parent helped you through the experience this time around?

AB: “I know what to expect this time, so I am better prepared for the timeline and the traveling that is involved. With that said, our adoption with Camden was extremely quick. I was at work one minute, waiting for the phone call to meet a birth mom and the next I’m told that there is a baby waiting for us to come get him. There was no time to think or for anything to really go wrong. That makes me a little more nervous this time, as I know that it doesn’t normally happen that fast. I’m just praying that everything happens the way it should in the Lord’s timing.”

NH: How has faith played a role in how you navigate your IBD and motherhood?

AB: “I would be lying if I said I never questioned why God would allow a 25-year-old newlywed to be diagnosed with a chronic disease with no cure. It has been a tough journey, but I think God has shown me a glimpse of how strong I can be in tough situations and it ultimately prepared me to be a mother. Not long after we brought Camden home, I had a full circle moment one night while rocking him to sleep. I realized that Camden would not be in my life if it had not been for all the trials I faced with my health and months and years of seeing only one line on a pregnancy stick. While the journey was really difficult in the moment, it is the privilege of a lifetime to know God handpicked me to be Camden’s mother and that He was with me through all of the really low times.”

Connect with Audrey on Instagram: @audreyabolton

Click here to check out her blog.

Why Busy Boxes are one of my favorite IBD mom hacks

When you’re a parent keeping your kid(s) entertained and engaged throughout the day is a constant challenge, especially as most of us continue to hunker down at home. When you’re an IBD parent, throw extended bathroom breaks, overwhelming fatigue, and debilitating pain into the mix. Keeping up with your kids, while making sure they’re safe and not getting too much screen time can sometimes feel like an insurmountable task. Just as it’s imperative we are proactive at managing our IBD, it’s also extremely beneficial to be proactive as parents. This is where busy boxes come in.

I first heard of this concept when I was pregnant with my daughter Sophia. My son wasn’t even two when she was born. I had intentions of breastfeeding (and I did), but between nursing and pumping, that’s hard to do when you have a busy toddler running around the house, while managing the day-to-day of life with a chronic illness.

What’s so great about busy boxes is that you can be creative, tailor them to your child’s age and interests, and do so without breaking the bank. As a mom of a 3.5-year-old and a 22-month-old, with winter approaching in the Midwest in the middle of a pandemic, I’m starting to update my busy boxes for the long months ahead. I started this past weekend. I went to the Dollar Store and got this haul for a mere $14.

All this for only $14!

Whether you’re at Target, Hobby Lobby, or on Amazon, you can pick up little activities as you go to continue to keep the content within the busy boxes fresh.

Creating your busy boxes

Sensory busy box: Hide farm animals, dinosaurs, or cars in rice, pasta, or kinetic sand.

Themed activities. My daughter loves Frozen, so I included stickers, puzzles, books, and trinkets. My son loves dinosaurs and sea creatures so I will keep that focus in mind as I update his busy boxes.

Letters/Words and Numbers/Counting: Include items that help your child learn the alphabet, recognize numbers, spell, learn opposites, matching and rhyming.

Shapes: Puzzles, felt designs of food and people, and paint-by-sticker books, you get the picture.

Storing your busy boxes

It’s best to keep busy boxes out of reach from your children so it’s something that’s not always accessible. That way, it feels like a fresh new activity. We keep our busy boxes stowed away in the kid’s bedroom closets (where they can’t reach them). As an IBD mom, I recommend keeping a box nearby the bathroom so if needed, your child can sit at your feet and be entertained with little to no effort on your part. Busy boxes also come in handy when you’re trying to cook dinner or having to be on a Zoom call for work. I knew it was time for me to update Reid’s busy boxes this week when I looked over during a Zoom call and he was jumping up and down on a bag of opened pretzels. Fun times! 🙂

Helpful busy box resources

Still looking for some inspiration? Pinterest is a great resource to check out ideas and to come up with activities for your little ones.

Here are some Instagram handles that provide helpful activities and guidance about educating and entertaining your child at home (no affiliations, just giving them a shout out) in hopes of helping you:

@busytoddler

@countingwithkids

@schoolathomeandbeyond

@simplybessy

@playdough2plato

@bestideasforkids

@happytoddlerplaytime

@dayswithgrey

@modernpreschool

@growingupyang

As we gear up for the winter months and this pandemic drags on, I hope you find this useful as an additional tool in your chronic illness parenting arsenal. I know it does my heart good to know I have something fun and engaging to share with my kids, especially on the days when my Crohn’s interferes with my plans or expectations for the day.

Navigating IBD and IVF During a Pandemic WITH A Toddler

When I asked 34-year-old Amanda Osowski how she’s juggling Crohn’s disease, motherhood, and IVF during the pandemic, she said “with caution.” And rightfully so! These times are complicated and overwhelming for everyone. Add some chronic illnesses and trying to maintain your health, sanity, and emotions while doing all that and trying to get pregnant with a second child through IVF, and I’m amazed she found the time and energy to write this guest post! I’ll let her take it away.

Here we are, more than 7 months into a global pandemic, still wondering if and when life may “resume as normal”. To be honest, in my house, life has in some ways paused and in other ways accelerated since the March quarantines began. As an IBD patient on Remicade (an immunosuppressant medication to manage my Crohn’s disease), I have chosen from the beginning to adhere strictly to social distancing, mask wearing, unnecessary exposure and other risk reducing options. 

This also meant that my job, my income, and my ability to support others has transitioned from mainly in-person to entirely virtual. The silver lining of this is that I’m able to work with clients all over the world. Balancing that alongside parenthood, and IBD during a pandemic requires a good bit of patience, strategic thinking, and deliberate planning.  

Gearing up for Baby #2 Through IVF 

My husband and I were diagnosed with Unexplained Infertility in 2017 while trying to conceive our first child. After several failed treatments, we had one successful round of IVF in which I became pregnant with our daughter in the fall of 2018. As soon as she was born, we knew we wanted to have another baby close in age – both for our family planning goals and in hopes that I would be able to maintain my Crohn’s remission status long enough to complete another pregnancy. 

While we began trying naturally as soon as we were ready, we knew that the recommendation for fertility treatment was to wait until 12 months passed after delivering our daughter. I desperately hoped that we’d get lucky before then, and that we’d end up with natural conception, rather than going through the physical, emotional, and financial journey of another cycle of IVF. I also knew that I wanted another baby, and that would happen however it was meant to. 

How the pandemic has impacted fertility treatments

We were scheduled to begin fertility testing in March 2020, with treatment starting in April. As I’m sure you guessed, that was immediately halted with the closing of most fertility offices and the pausing of all new treatment cycles with the influx of COVID-19 cases and concerns. Having my treatment (and my timeline) be paused indefinitely with the continuing anxiety and stress of the pandemic caused my IBD symptoms to increase – something that then caused me more anxiety and stress about its impact on my IVF plan if and when I was able to reschedule treatment. 

After an exceptionally long few months, my doctor’s office re-connected with me about getting my appointments scheduled. My IBD while not flaring, was not perfectly calm either, and that’s such an important part to me about preparing for pregnancy, so we gave it a little more time. FINALLY, this month (September), I began the treatment protocol I should’ve started five months earlier. Our daughter Brooklyn just turned 16 months old.

Today you’ll find me managing IVF medication injections around business calls, my Remicade infusion schedule, chasing a toddler and being stuck inside my home around the clock. It’s HARD, and exhausting, but it’s the only way I know how to make my hopes come true. 

Tips for handling IBD + IVF

  1. Communication with your partner is critical. From parenting responsibilities to COVID-19 precautions to childcare to work stressors to fertility treatment planning and execution – there is an entire machine full of decisions and emotions that are part of every single day, and not being on the same page as your partner can have devastating effects. My recommendation: schedule time once a week on your calendar after bedtime to talk. Keep a list running during the week of things to add to the conversation. Ask all your questions to each other then, when you can focus and talk and connect. You’re a team, and it’s important in this season to work together. 
  1. Mental health is just as important as physical health. When managing IBD + ANYTHING, let alone motherhood, and a pandemic, and fertility treatment, taking time to check in with your mental health and care for yourself is imperative. Each of these things come with so many feelings, and burying them all will only make it harder to deal (& keep your IBD in check!) I personally recommend working with a counselor, taking time to journal or meditate or center yourself, and ensure you’re checking in with your own needs regularly. 
  1. Social Media Strategy – During the pandemic, I think we’ve all admitted to more screen time than usual. I know firsthand that the amount of pregnancy announcements, gender reveals, new baby births & seeing families with multiple kiddos can cause feelings of guilt, frustration, jealousy, anger, etc. Social media can make things feel extra difficult for those struggling to get pregnant, undergoing fertility treatments AND managing something like IBD. Here’s what I recommend. The beauty of social media is that we can choose what we do and don’t see while we scroll. This is a perfect time to click “hide” or “unfollow” on any hashtags or accounts that make you feel sad or icky. That’s not to say you don’t love your neighbor/friend/co-worker, but in my opinion you also don’t have to constantly watch their highlight reel. On the flipside, utilize social media to connect with your TRIBE. Whether that’s other IBD and IVF warriors, others struggling with infertility, etc – there’s so much more space for online communities now than there ever has been before. If you’re having difficulty finding and connecting with others, please DM me and I’m happy to make some suggestions! Also, please know that whatever you’re feeling during this experience and this season is so valid, and you’re not alone!  
  1. Give yourself grace. There will be days when you feel inadequate – as a parent, as a spouse, as a patient – these moments don’t define you. You’re juggling so much, it’s so important to know that you’re doing the best you can, even if that looks different than it used to or different than you’d like it to. 

If my story resonated with you, or you’d like to connect, please reach out! You can find me on Instagram personally as @amanda.osowski and professionally as @heartfeltbeginnings.  

Digging in the Archives: Emails I wrote following my Crohn’s diagnosis in 2005

When I started my blog, Lights, Camera, Crohn’s, four years ago, my main mission was to be the voice I desperately needed to hear upon diagnosis. As I reflect on my 15 year diagnosis anniversary, I thought it may be helpful to give you a behind the scenes look at some of my email archives from 2005…days after finding out I had Crohn’s disease. I’ve never shown these to anyone (other than the recipients, of course!)…but my hope is that in sharing private feelings, you’ll be able to see how my perspective about life with IBD has shifted and evolved since I was a 21-year-old girl feeling up against the wall with nowhere to turn.

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Photos taken in May 2005 (prior to diagnosis) and September 2005 (while on 60 mg of prednisone).

This article is dedicated to the newly diagnosed. We’ve all been in your shoes. What you’re thinking. What you’re feeling. What you’re struggling with. We get it. It’s not fair to compare where you are in coping to someone like me who has been dealing with Crohn’s for 15 years and been in remission for nearly five.

Here are snippets from my emails to friends. Reading the pain in my words and re-living this difficult time can be a trigger, but reflecting and seeing how far I’ve come is also incredibly empowering.

“I’m having a really hard time with this, harder than I ever could have imagined or dreamed…and I’m having a hard time trying to act like everything is great on the exterior. I feel like I’m on the brink of a breakdown…the drugs are getting to me so much. I woke up with visible shakes this morning and have been shaking all day. My moods aren’t me. I feel like I am a different person and that as much as I want to be the old Natalie, it’s just so hard to wake up smiling and happy. I’m getting tired of my family constantly asking me if I’m doing ok and feeling ok and everyone staring at me while I eat…I just feel like a pity case to so many people. I feel so alone in all this. I’m trying to be upbeat…and I know that it is going to take time to get acclimated to the lifestyle changes and everything, but right now I’m just having a difficult time figuring out who I am and where I’m supposed to be in life. The insomnia has left me up every night just thinking and wondering what the future holds and if I am ever going to feel normal again.”

“I try so hard to be strong and tough about this and it just all stays bottled up and I just started crying and am having a hard time stopping. It’s just so hard. I look at pictures and think back to even graduation time and it just freaks me out that I went from living a carefree, healthy life…to this. I know it is something that I will always have and that I have to get used to it…but it’s hard for me to handle at times. I don’t mean to complain or worry you or anything, I just feel as though I need to get out some of this frustration before I go to bed. I’m scared of getting sick again and having to go in the hospital sometime again…and I just feel like I can’t go a day without a thinking about all the what ifs. You know I analyze so much…haha…it’s like a living nightmare!”

“I’m sorry if I talk about this too much. I’m sure it isn’t the most appealing or attractive thing to have to hear from your gf…but sometimes it becomes a little overbearing on me…and I can’t hide my fears when it does. I mean I refuse to let this change who I am and the life I will lead, it’s just at times it seems so much bigger than me, and so much larger than life. I know I have been complaining a lot about my puffy cheeks and stuff…and I know that prob gets old…I just get so self-conscious about it…and it just sucks that I have exactly 2 more months left on the steroid. As my dosage gets lower and lower the side effects should stop and start to go away…I’ll believe it when I see it!  I guess it’s just scary to me to see the effects of a drug that are helping me on the inside and hurting me on the outside. I just want to look the same to you as I did the last time you saw me.”

“What I won’t ever apologize for is this summer, because I was going through a living hell, and I saw which friends were there for me and which weren’t. I was ridiculously ill from June 5th-my bday (August 24) and you were angry with me for not keeping in touch. I couldn’t even stand to get myself a glass of water for weeks and was hospitalized for days. I never heard anything from you. I know that people handle those types of situations differently… but that was the hardest thing I’ve ever gone through in my life, and I really needed a strong support system. Battling with a disease and feeling like I completely lost myself has made me have to be a little selfish these past few months. I’m just coming to grips with it all now and thank God I’m feeling well…but it is still an adjustment and has given me a complete different perspective on life.”

You guys. I’m sitting here crying. I’m that girl. I wrote those words. That was 15 years ago and thinking about that time still feels like a knife in my chest. Even though this disease has enabled me to gain so much gratitude and perspective, it still robbed me of a lot. It still hurts…sometimes more emotionally than physically these days since I’m in remission. These diagnosis anniversaries stir up a lot of memories. While I choose to think of it as a time to celebrate another year of taking this disease on with all the strength I can muster, it’s also a time that takes me back to some of the most challenging and difficult moments in my life.

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I colored this in my hospital bed after being diagnosed with Crohn’s.

I wish I could hug that girl and tell her it was going to be alright. The career, the love, the family…it would all happen. If you’re in that difficult space right now coming to terms with your newfound identity following diagnosis or getting over a flare up, please know this disease ebbs and flows. It’s not a constant. The good and the bad moments are fleeting, but your resilience and your confidence in coping becomes so much a part of who you are, it’s hard to recognize who you were before.

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

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

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

My Crohn’s disease had different plans

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

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

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29 weeks pregnant with baby Nora

Turning to my most trusted fellow IBD warrior, my mom

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

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

Struggles in the Second Trimester

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

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Final date night at 37.5 weeks

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

An early induction

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

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

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Three lessons from one IBD mom to another

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

 

Cooking in Quarantine: Recipes we’ve found and loved

Cooking during quarantine has taken mealtime and meal prep to a whole new level. Like many people, I constantly feel like I’m thinking about what I’m going to feed myself and my family and it feels like I spend the other time doing dishes. As an immunocompromised IBD mom of two little ones, I’ve used these past few months to be a bit more resourceful in the kitchen.

Prior to the pandemic, I wasn’t the most adventurous. I had my 10-15 “go-to” recipes and never really branched out. While these past few months have been physically, mentally, and emotionally taxing, I’ve found spending some time in the kitchen, while listening to music, is a sweet distraction amongst the unknown chaos going on outside our home.

Since March 12th (102 days!), we have had take-out four times. So, as you can imagine, I’ve had to get creative with my cooking!

NOTE: These recipes do not follow one specific IBD or autoimmune “diet”. I am always hesitant to talk food, as each and every person has unique dietary needs and is able to tolerate food groups differently. If there was one way of eating that was a magic bullet for IBD, we’d all be following it. The best advice I can give when it comes to diet, is to keep a food journal and see what your individual triggers are.

Here are my favorite recipes I’ve found online since quarantine, that have been a hit in the Hayden household:

  1. Slow Cooker Chili. I’ve tried four different recipes these last few months and this one was our favorite. Since my kids are 3-years-old and 17 months, I did not add the hot sauce.
  2. Crispy Chicken. This is SO delicious, but heavy on the calorie count. (Worth it in my opinion!) Made for great leftovers, too. The pasta is to die for.
  3. Slow Cooker Greek Chicken Gyros with Homemade Tzatziki. You guys. As a Greek girl, I more than approved. The tzatziki sauce was fantastic.
  4. Slow Cooker Chicken and Rice. Super simple recipe. I make this with crescent rolls and green beans. Bonus: Makes the house smell great.
  5. One-pot Sausage and Peppers Pasta. Yummy meal, hits all the food groups, with minimal dishes. That’s a win! IMG-3692
  6. Crockpot Pulled Pork. So simple and so tasty. We pair up the meat with Hawaiian rolls and Bread and Butter pickles.
  1. Salsa Fresca Chicken Bake Recipe. I’ve always been a fan of making casserole-type dishes where you put everything together, put the dish in the oven, and that’s it!
  1. Slow Cooker Shredded Chicken Tacos + Mexican Rice Casserole. We’re big fans of Mexican food. These paired up great together along with all the toppings (tomatoes, cheese, sour cream, avocado, lettuce).
  1. Crispy Breaded Pork Chops. + Warm Cinnamon Apples. I’m usually not a huge fan of pork chops, but this meal is good. I usually make green beans for the side. IMG-2680
  1. Ground Beef Taco Casserole. Like I said above, we’re all about Mexican food. My husband loved this one.
  1. Mediterranean Rice Bowls. I found this recipe last year in a Women’s Day magazine and it has been one of our absolute favorites as of late. You can make this with lamb or beef, we’ve only done beef so far. I also buy mini pita breads to go with this. If you don’t have cucumber or don’t like it, I’ve made this with green bell peppers as well. I couldn’t find the recipe online—so I’ll share it here.

Ingredients:

1 lemon

2 tbsp. olive oil (divided)

2 cloves of garlic (I only use one clove)

4 cups of cooked long-grain rice

1 tsp ground cumin

½ tsp ground coriander

1 pint of cherry tomatoes halved

½ a seedless cucumber, cut into ¼ in. pieces

¼ cup of fresh mint

Crumbled feta, for serving

(I tweaked the directions a bit, so I’ll share how I make this)

  1. Make rice according to the box (will take 25 min. so start this first)
  2. Chop the tomatoes, cucumbers, garlic, and mint and put to the side.
  3. Finely grate zest of lemon, then cut lemon in half. Heat 1 tbsp. of olive oil in a large nonstick skillet on medium-high. Add beef and cook, breaking up with a spoon, until browned. (Once browned, discard fat). Add garlic and ¼ tsp of salt and pepper and cook, stirring 1 minute, toss with lemon zest. Transfer beef to a bowl and squeeze juice of 1 lemon half on top.
  4. Once rice is done cooking add it to the bowl with the beef and season with cumin, coriander, and ¼ tsp of salt and pepper.
  5. Squeeze juice from the remaining lemon half into a medium bowl. Toss with chopped tomatoes, cucumbers, and ¼ tsp of salt and pepper. Fold in the mint.
  6. Add the mixture to the beef and rice and top with crumbled feta. ENJOY! IMG-3693

Bonus recipe: While we were visiting the Lake of the Ozarks recently, I created a salad that is simple and delicious:

Butter lettuce

Chopped apples (I use Honeycrisp)

Chopped strawberries

Chopped grapes

Feta Cheese

Pecans (or whatever nut you’d like to add)

Honey Mustard dressing

Crohn’s and COVID: Hear one IBD mom’s experience battling both

Imagine having a fever for 31 days along with debilitating fatigue, a scratchy throat, cough, and trouble breathing. That was the case for Jessica I., age 34, of St. Louis. She is a COVID survivor, a Crohn’s warrior on immunosuppressant medications, a wife, a mom to two little ones, and an attorney.

Hindsight is 20-20 and of course we know a bit more about COVID-19 now than we did when quarantine and chaos ensued in mid-March, but let me take you back to how this all went down for Jessica and her family. DSC00747

Her daughters, age 4 and 19 months go to the same preschool and daycare. Their last day was March 11th. Jessica received an email from the director of the school saying a record number of teachers and students were out with the flu and strep. Except later it was determined the sickness going around the school was COVID-19. Two teachers landed in the ICU and multiple kids and parents tested positive in her older daughter’s class.

How the symptoms presented

“The first change was extreme fatigue and a scratchy throat, almost like cotton balls were stuck in my throat. Two days later I started with a low-grade fever. I felt pretty lousy for three days—fever, chills, and aches,” says Jessica. “I had one day where I felt better (March 26), but the following day I felt worse than before with a much higher fever and I had a dry cough. I felt constriction in my chest with every breath I took.”

Jessica’s husband was proactive and had ordered the family a pulse ox back in February, so she was able to monitor her oxygenation throughout her illness. She never dipped below 92, but the chills, painful aches, headaches, and fever from 99-101 stayed with her for over a month.

Still not 100%

“Though I no longer have a fever, I still have good days and bad days. I still have chills, aches, and extreme fatigue. It’s way more manageable, but I’m definitely not 100%,” says Jessica. “Luckily, I did not have the smell and taste issues, but because I felt so awful, I’ve lost 25 pounds.” 20190921_161434

Jessica is grateful her Crohn’s disease has not caused her problems in recent weeks. Diagnosed at age 12, IBD has been a part of her life for as long as she can remember.

She had two bad flares during her second pregnancy and most recently an eight-month flare last year. When her Remicade infusion was due this month, her GI was adamant she stay on schedule since she no longer had a fever. Jessica was terrified about getting a biologic on the heels of having COVID-19, so she chose to extend her medication schedule by one week. Her worries were justified.

“In 2006, I got my Remicade when I had mono (hadn’t known at the time) and got encephalitis and had to be in a UK hospital in the ICU for a month. I lost my ability to talk. I almost died. My GI doctor knows of this history, but insisted that I needed my Remicade because of my history of getting flares the last few years.”

Despite her apprehension, Jessica trusted her long-time physician’s recommendations and stayed on her Remicade and Imuran.

Balancing motherhood while fighting COVID-19

The first 12 days, Jessica isolated herself from her family in her master bedroom. Her husband worked a full-time job from home, while taking care of both girls on his own. Once Jessica’s fever persisted after two weeks, they decided as a family to have her come out of isolation because the burden was nearly impossible for her husband to continue to take on. Igielnik-8

“We knew almost for sure that my children were asymptomatic and gave me COVID-19. The next two weeks anytime I was out of my room I wore a mask and gloves. I didn’t make any food. This was so hard because I was still extremely sick and was just supervising play and TV watching for my girls. To this day, my husband and I are still sleeping in different rooms and not hugging and I’m not going anywhere near his food.”

Jessica’s husband is an avid news consumer and was following everything that was happening in China. He started to stockpile food and wipes back in January. Friends thought he was overreacting. His grandparents are Holocaust survivors. Jessica credits his “alertness” to that.

What Jessica wants people to know

Even though Jessica was able to fight the illness without being hospitalized, she says if we weren’t in the middle of a pandemic, she would have gone to the hospital in “normal” times.

“Mild COVID isn’t mild COVID. What I had was considered mild and I was so sick for so long…and I’m still not feeling completely better. I think people would change their mind about the severity of this if they knew someone who had COVID-19 or they themselves experienced it.”

To this day, Jessica still has chest pain and backaches. Her care team believe she has inflammation in her lungs because she was sick for so long.