IBD Motherhood Unplugged: Taking on the trials of Crohn’s, infertility, and adoption

When Megan Cape of Georgia was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease in January 2004 at the age of 14, she didn’t know what the future would hold in terms of pregnancy and motherhood. After years of doctors dismissing her excruciating pain as a stomach bug or a reaction to stress, she finally received an answer. During her initial hospitalization, she had an abscess the size of a softball in her abdomen that was pushing on her spine. She was also going septic. She was rushed to surgery where surgeons removed the abscess and part of her intestine, ultimately saving her life.

Fast forward to her college years and Megan met the love of her life and future husband, Colton. She studied to be a Child Life Specialist, a career near and dear to her heart since she spent so much time in and out of the hospital growing up. One of her worst flares happened on graduation day. She was able to muster up the strength to walk across the stage and grab her diploma, but then had to be carried to the car. That week—CT scans shows she had five strictures (narrowing in the intestine which doesn’t allow food to pass through). At this point, her wedding was less than a month away. Her care team delayed surgery so that she would be able to walk down the aisle. 

“On the day of my wedding, I couldn’t even take a bite of food because the pain was so intense. After our wedding and honeymoon, my health declined quickly and got to the point where I couldn’t keep water down. I was throwing up all day and night and my family was taking turns staying up with me. I had at least one ER visit a week, but, somehow, the doctors kept missing how bad things were and would send me home,” said Megan.

She ultimately landed in the hospital for five weeks, as a 23-year-old newlywed. At the time, she wasn’t thinking about children. Megan was focused on getting better and placed faith in God’s hands that when the time would be right, she would be a mom. That was until she went into her GI doctor following the hospitalization and her second surgery. There, she was told she would never have children. Megan was devastated, as you can imagine. This week’s IBD Motherhood Unplugged sheds light on navigating this heartbreaking realization and how adoption changed Megan and her husband’s lives in the most beautiful way.

The unforeseen miracles in the making

Much to Megan’s surprise, three years into their marriage, she got pregnant the first month her and her husband started trying. Unfortunately, they lost that baby. Heartbroken as they were, they were hopeful they’d get their rainbow baby. Each time, getting pregnant happened easily, but time after time, they miscarried.

“Interestingly, God laid adoption on my heart at such a young age. I always knew I wanted to be a wife and a mom, and I always saw myself adopting. But I still felt so many emotions, wondering if and when it would ever be my turn to carry a baby.”

After four miscarriages, they decided to seek guidance from fertility specialists. It was determined that because of Megan’s Crohn’s and past surgeries, the embryos weren’t attaching correctly to her uterus and blood clots were forming, causing her to miscarry. Her physicians believed IVF was her only option, and she was ready to jump in with both feet. Megan and Colton went through all the testing and blood work, but everything came to halt when her doctor conveyed his worries about complications with egg retrieval and such in Crohn’s patients. Megan said the unknown of how her body would respond to IVF in addition to the daunting cost of it all, caused them to re-think their approach to family planning.

Preparing their hearts for something bigger

While in waiting, Megan feels God kept bringing amazing adoption stories in front of her. Stories that reminded her of when she was a little girl and told herself that would be part of her family one day.

“After years of TTC (trying to conceive) and miscarriages, I approached my husband and brought up adoption. I was truly shocked by his response because, without any hesitation, he said, “Let’s do it!” We both had an amazing peace about it and quickly began the adoption process. We had no idea what all goes into adoption and, woah, it’s a lot!”

Megan says adoption was the best and hardest thing they’ve ever done. She credits much of their “success story” to their amazing support system of family and friends who rallied around them to help raise money, to encourage them through the journey, to let them cry on hard days, and celebrate the exciting milestones.

“Nine months into the adoption process, and a month after being an ‘active’ waiting family, we got the call. A birth mom had picked us! She fell in love with us, our story, and our family after looking at our profile book. We were going to have a daughter in 3 short months!” Megan did not include that she had Crohn’s in their adoption profile book, but shared she was unable to have children. 

The blessing of Vivian Rose

Megan and her Colton’s daughter, Vivian Rose, was born October 14th, 2019. She is the answer to years and years of prayer, their miracle baby, and the light of their lives.

“Managing a chronic illness when you’re a mom is definitely hard at times! Thankfully, my Crohn’s has been under control since Viv was born and I’ve just had a few bad days here and there. Because of COVID-19, my husband has been working from home for the last year. So, on my hard days, he will take Vivian for a few hours to run errands and such so I can rest,” says Megan. “I definitely think it takes a village to raise kids in general, but, even more so, when you have IBD.”

Since becoming a mom, Megan has taken her health more seriously.

“I don’t ever want Viv to say, “Ugh. My mom is sick again.” And I don’t ever want to miss out on her day-to-day life because I’m not feeling well – as unrealistic as that may be! I have been much more intentional about eating foods that make me feel well and give me energy. I also make sure to listen to my body more and I try not to push myself as much as I always have!”

The main IBD-related symptom Megan has struggled with recently is fatigue—the kind of fatigue where you feel like you could sleep for two weeks straight and still wake up tired. 

“I get frustrated with myself, sometimes, because I don’t have the amount of energy other mamas do, but I do my best and I know that’s all I can do.”

The role of faith through IBD and infertility

Megan says she never questioned God’s plans for her life when she was diagnosed with Crohn’s during her teenage years, but infertility made her do so.

“It was, truly, the loneliest and darkest point of my entire life. I had a constant ache in my heart and the sadness I felt was unreal. As one friend after another told me they were pregnant, I felt like I couldn’t breathe. I was so happy for everyone around me, but it did make it that much harder. I felt so left out and so alone. I remember, so clearly, God speaking two things to me during this time: The age 29 and the thought that I wasn’t going to be left out.”

Megan wishes she could go back in time and tell her 26-year-old self what she knows now. 

“I wish I could tell her that everything is going to be okay. I wish I could tell her that 29 is the age she will become a mama to the most perfect baby girl. I wish I could tell her that God has big plans for her family, and he has not forgotten about her, but that His timing is perfect.”

Megan’s advice for IBD mamas in waiting

Megan’s best advice—do not give up. Lean into your spouse because they are not only serving as a caregiver for your IBD, but they are also hurting about the struggle to have a family. If you become an adoptive family, you’ll see that your child is handpicked for you and that the make-up of your family will be knit exactly how it was meant to be.

“We would love to give Viv a sibling, but, at this point, we are just enjoying our girl and soaking up every minute with her! Adoption doesn’t cure infertility – meaning that it is still hard sometimes that we can’t just decide to give Viv a sibling and do so easily! And I will never have a big belly or carry a baby to term. But that’s okay! If God calls us to adopt again, we will do so. We may even go the surrogacy route or Vivi may be an only child. I know, if God wants us to grow our family, it will be made obvious and we will trust Him and follow His lead.”

Megan says she refuses to allow her Crohn’s disease to define her, even though it’s dictated and shaped much of her life journey. Her IBD is the reason she can’t have kids. The reason adoption was laid on her heart at a young age. The reason she’s mom to Vivian Rose. The reason she’s disciplined. The reason she chose her college major. The reason her faith and her marriage are so strong. And the reason she has the perspective and maturity to understand that despite the setbacks and trials placed before her, she still lives a blessed life that she is grateful for.

Connect with Megan on Instagram: @mrsmeggcape

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

From IVF to surrogacy: This IBD mom’s resilient journey

IBD and surrogacy. Those are loaded words. Both evoke emotions and opinions for unique reasons. For Jessie Magaro, 34 of Atlanta, the decision came after the unfathomable struggles she had with her Crohn’s during pregnancy and after. To provide you with the backstory, Jessie was diagnosed with Crohn’s and endometriosis when she was 15. She underwent an elective surgery her senior year of high school for her Crohn’s that put her into surgical remission for 15 years. IMG_7818

Jessie got married in 2016. While she was loving every second of newlywed life, she started feeling endometriosis pains. Less than a year after tying the knot, her doctor discovered her fallopian tubes were blocked. It was unclear if the blockage was due solely to endometriosis, or if it was a result of scar tissue from her bowel resection. Either way, IVF seemed to be the only option to get pregnant, and her fallopian tubes would need to be removed for that to be successful. In November 2017, Jessie underwent the surgery. When she woke up, she thought she would be stripped of the ability to conceive a baby naturally. But, her surgeon told her they were able to save and repair one of her tubes.

Jessie ended up getting pregnant right away, but unfortunately had an ectopic pregnancy that ended up severely rupturing her fallopian tube. During emergency surgery to remove the remaining tube, it was determined her endometriosis was severe and IVF needed to happen sooner than later. I had the chance to interview Jessie about her harrowing experience to bring a baby into this world, while living with IBD and endometriosis. IMG_7820

NH: How did IVF impact your IBD?

JM: “The moment we started IVF, I felt a shift in my body. A storm was brewing, and I could feel it. My completely dormant Crohn’s appeared to be waking up, but I didn’t want to believe it. I battled through the IVF process while experiencing my first flare in a decade in a half. The Reproductive Endocrinologist and GI were miffed. No one could say if this was an isolated reaction to the hormones, or if I was truly experiencing an active flare. After a lot of back and forth, and hard conversations with medical professionals and our families, we decided to proceed with implanting an embryo. The thought process was that most women tend to do better in pregnancy with Crohn’s, if they had been in remission prior. The hope was that this “flare” was an isolated incident from the IVF drugs/hormones, and that everything would calm down once I was pregnant. It was a risk, but one we decided we were willing to take. After a short round of prednisone, the flare subsided, and we proceeded with the transfer.”

NH: You now have a beautiful, healthy 13-month-old daughter to show for it. What was your pregnancy like?

JM: “My pregnancy was a terrifying whirlwind of trying to manage an awful flare while keeping the baby safe. IMG_7821I developed a new manifestation of the disease I never had before: Perianal Crohn’s. Not a pleasant situation and one that is very difficult to treat/manage while pregnant. Things got so bad at one point, I had to have surgery to drain an abscess and place a seton to help a fistula heal. No one wants to have surgery pregnant. It was one of the scariest moments of my life. The first trimester was spent hoping and praying the baby would make it with all the turmoil going on in my abdomen. The second trimester was spent hoping and praying we could keep her in there long enough to be viable outside of the womb. The third trimester was spent in an unbearable amount of pain fighting the urge to take the prescribed pain pills and being so scared about how the increased biologics, steroids and other new drugs being introduced into my system might affect her.”

NH: You must have been going through so many emotional struggles at this time, on top of all the physical.

JM: “The level of anguish and guilt I felt was unimaginable. I already felt like I was failing at my motherly duty to protect her and keep her safe. By 32 weeks it was clear I was rapidly deteriorating, and we had exhausted all treatment possibilities deemed “safe” while pregnant. I desperately needed more aggressive treatment, and that couldn’t happen until she was out. IMG_7823With the newly manifested, aggressive, perianal disease, a vaginal birth was out of the question. I held on until 36 weeks and on New Year’s Eve of 2018 we welcomed our baby girl. We were so incredibly relieved she was ok, and the focus quickly shifted to how not ok mom was.”

NH: As a fellow IBD mom, we all know how challenging the postpartum time is, along with chronic illness. How did you navigate that?

JM: “The first five months of her life were spent in and out of the hospital non-stop. At one point we were traveling down to the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville for weeks at a time (without her) for testing and treatment. Leaving her the first few months was by far the hardest, most gut-wrenching thing I’ve ever experienced. I would sit in the hotel bathtub staring at the IV in my arm sobbing. The physical and emotional pain was unbearable. I remember agonizing over the decision to start the new meds, or continue breastfeeding her, and the doctor saying to me “you NEED these meds, Jessie. You HAVE to get better. She needs you to get better more than she needs you to breastfeed her right now …” cue the waterfall of tears again.”

NH: You started to turn the corner when your daughter was six months old. Tell us about that.

JM: “The pain had begun to subside enough for me to take care of her without help, I could finally leave the house and I was starting to feel a little more like myself again. I was, and still am a year later, in an active flare, but we’re making progress. IMG_7824After talking  to many medical professionals, we decided it was not safe for me to carry another child. We still don’t know if it was the IVF drugs/hormones that caused the flare going into pregnancy, or if hormones in general and my Crohn’s disease just don’t mix, but we’re not willing to put myself, or another baby at risk like that again.”

NH: I can only imagine what a difficult and complicated decision this has been for you and your husband.

JM: “This was not a decision that was made easily or lightly. As we go through the motions of finding a surrogate to carry baby number two, my days are filled with a roller coaster of emotions. We know we want another child, but at what price? I can’t take care of my family if I am unwell. If carrying another child myself leads me to be unwell again … is it worth it? Or, do I trust someone else, a safer vessel, to carry a precious sibling for our daughter. We’ve chosen to pursue a safer vessel. I am so unbelievably grateful that surrogacy is an option for us and will allow us to continue growing our family while keeping me safe.”

This story is not meant to scare anyone with IBD who is looking to start a family. Make sure you are in complete, clinical remission before you conceive, and know it is completely possible to have a happy, healthy pregnancy with IBD.

Taking on IBD, infertility and being a triplet mom: How my college roommate does it all

When it comes to life, I often say I don’t believe in happenstance. Meaning, I believe everything happens for a reason. This rings true with one of my closest friendships. Stephanie and I were random roommates freshman year of college and had an instant connection. photo by J Elizabeth Photography www.jelizabethphotos.comWe ended up living together throughout our entire college experience, stood up in each other’s weddings and have managed to stay very close, despite thousands of miles between us since graduation.

On college graduation day in May 2005, I aspired to be a TV journalist. She had dreams of being a Physician Assistant. Both of us accomplished those goals—what we didn’t see coming was that we would both be diagnosed with inflammatory bowel disease in the years ahead (the first and only people in both our families)—me with Crohn’s in July 2005, her with ulcerative colitis in February 2009. She was working as a Physician Assistant in Family Practice when her symptoms developed. She knew the pain and bathroom habits were not normal.

Stephanie recalls, “Once I admitted to myself these symptoms weren’t going to go away, I reached out to the doctor that I was working for at the time. He contacted the GI Doc we referred all of our IBD patients to, and he got the ball rolling toward a diagnosis pretty fast! When the GI walked in the room after my colonoscopy with a solemn look on his face and just shook his head, I was devastated. natandstephI teared up. I was so fearful of the unknown, as far as what this is going to mean for me for the rest of my life.  There is such a variation in the way patients with IBD can experience the disease… my mind immediately went to worst case scenario for myself.”

Stephanie’s journey with IBD and motherhood is one that is sure to inspire and provide hope to many. Along with juggling chronic illness, she also dealt with another devastating hurdle, infertility. Luckily, once she became pregnant through IVF, her ulcerative colitis symptoms were silenced.

“It was never far from my mind that while I was not pregnant, my uc was waiting quietly, like a ticking time bomb ready to go off, and that would then halt all the time, money and effort we were putting into getting pregnant. But, thankfully my uc behaved itself. We got pregnant on our first round of IVF with triplets (identical girls and a boy) who are happy, healthy and my entire world!”

Today, Stephanie and her husband have beautiful triplets who just started kindergarten. To take on IBD is one thing—add triplets to the mix… amazing! IMG_2885

“I’ve had IBD since day one of being a mom, so I don’t know any different! Just like when people ask me “What’s it like to have triplets?” my response is usually “It’s all I know, I didn’t have a singleton before my triplets, so this is the way I know how to be a mom!” For obvious reasons having IBD sometimes makes our mom responsibilities a little bit more challenging, but you have to figure it out and take the good days with the bad, because your kids need you!”

Stephanie says since having her kids, she’s noticed she’s much more willing to “wave the white flag” and reach out to her GI sooner when things start to go south. stephanieShe used to ride out the symptoms much longer before admitting there was a change that needed to be addressed, mostly because she was fearful of having to go back on steroids. I can attest to being the same way. Prior to becoming a mom, I waited until going to the emergency room was the only option. Now, I am more mindful of listening to my body and nipping flares in the bud, because my family needs me.

“Having a chronic disease definitely gives you a new perspective. It makes you appreciate the good days so much more! And when the not so good days creep up on you, having a good support system to help you physically and emotionally is crucial! Thank those in your life who lift you up and let them know you appreciate them! When you overcome each and every not so good day, nat and steph2it makes you feel just a little bit stronger and gives you the confidence that you can handle the curveballs life is bound to throw at you over and over!”

Beyond grateful to call this fellow IBD warrior mama one of my dearest friends. I’m sure after reading about her journey, you can see why.