Caregiving During COVID-19: How IBD has helped one couple navigate the unknown

Rebecca Kaplan was only 20 years old when she met Dan, the love of her life. It was move in day her junior year of college and as she recalls “this skinny guy knocked on my apartment door to ask for toilet paper”. Her family laughed it off – because who knocks on a random person’s door asking for toilet paper – little did they know how that chance encounter would change the course of both their lives. This week, Rebecca explains how her role of caregiver has evolved over the course of a decade and how it’s helped her cope with the pandemic.

Dan and I began dating four months after that initial toilet paper introduction. Two months later, he was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, right while my mom was starting chemotherapy for Stage 4 Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. As someone who has been plagued with crippling anxiety her whole life, you would have thought I would fold under the stress of two of the most important people in my life receiving life-altering diagnoses at the same time. But I didn’t– in fact, my anxiety motivated me to embrace the role of caregiver.

Dan’s first hospitalization and the colonoscopy that went wrong

We had been married less than a year, living 90 minutes away from our families and our full support system. RK 5His disease had gone unmonitored for years and his new doctor was performing a colonoscopy to see just how bad his IBD had gotten. We were unaware that he had developed a stricture that was so severe that when she pushed the scope through, it nicked the wall of his intestines, causing a perforation and bacteria to get into his bloodstream. Within 45 minutes of waking up from the procedure, he had spiked a 104-degree fever and kept telling me and the nurses he thought he was dying. I was TERRIFIED. But I also found myself motivated by the fear and the anxiety I felt.

Instead of going into a full-blown panic attack, I went into caregiver mode. I knew I needed to be Dan’s voice because he could not speak up for what he needed. It was my job to demand the best care he could get, advocate for his needs, and focus just on him.

While taking care of Dan in the hospital required most of my time and attention, I did notice that I could only do it to the best of my ability if I were also taking care of myself. We lived 45 minutes away from the hospital with a new puppy and no one to take care of him. So, while I wanted to spend 24/7 with him while he was inpatient, I knew that I couldn’t do it for my own sanity. So, I made sure I went home multiple times a day and created a separation between myself and the hospital so I could decompress, eat (SO IMPORTANT), and sleep (ALSO IMPORTANT). Being able to do that meant that I was able to be at the top of my game when he needed me the most. RK 3

It’s been almost 10 years since the series of hospitalizations that started with Dan’s perforation and ended with him having a bowel resection to remove the stricture. And in those 10 years, I’m so thankful that Dan’s health has improved greatly. He’s gained nearly 50 pounds, works full time, works out, plays softball with his dad and brother, and deals with me.

Coping with the COVID-19 Pandemic

With his health stable now, the biggest challenge we’ve been facing the past few months is coping during the COVID-19 pandemic. I have been coping with the pandemic much better than Dan. I jokingly say that I’ve been training for quarantine my whole life, since my obsessive-compulsive disorder has always had me washing my hands, avoiding sick people, and wanting to stay home more than going out. However, Dan does not do well with change – whether that be moving to a new apartment, being diagnosed with a chronic illness, starting a new job, or having life turned upside down by a pandemic. Going from working full-time in an office to being trapped at home, isolating to stay healthy, has been hard for him. His regular life and hobbies have been stripped away from him, and not being able to leave the house and go places has left him stir crazy and agitated. RK 2

Because of this, I’ve put my caregiver hat back on in a different way. I’m not caring for his active disease; rather I’m helping him cope with change and the accompanying stress. I encourage him to do things outside as much as possible, whether that’s taking the dogs on a walk, kicking the soccer ball in the backyard, or going on a hike. I also try and help him see the bigger picture – we’re staying home so that he and our high-risk relatives stay healthy. And I remind him that this is not forever – it will get better and we will get back to normal at some point.

Rebecca’s Top Three Tactics for Caregiving

  1. Make sure you are taking time for yourself – that means eating, sleeping, and doing things to relax and take a break from being a caregiver. This is so important to help you be fully present for your loved one.
  2. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. When Dan had his surgery, our house was a mess and I wasn’t prepared to come home from the hospital with him. So, my mom and sister went to our apartment one night and cleaned/straightened it up for us so I wouldn’t have to do it after spending all day at the hospital.
  3. Find your tribe who will support you as the caregiver. It’s so important to build your own support system separate from your loved one’s support system. Being a caregiver is hard and making sure you have people you can talk to and rely on is so important for your mental health.

 

My five year old has Crohn’s and was tested for COVID-19: A Mother’s story

UPDATE: Since this story was shared on March 30th, Jadyn’s COVID-19 test came back. After two weeks of waiting, the test came back positive.

Imagine your 14-month-old baby being diagnosed with Crohn’s disease. That was the reality for Anna and Jon Richt of Georgia. Fast forward a few years and their daughter, Jadyn, is now five years old and thriving with IBD. This past week though, the Richt family had quite a scare. E06A1215Jadyn woke up with a fever and a slight cough. Given the craziness of the times we live in right now, they immediately called the COVID-19 hotline. Once the person on the other line heard about Jadyn’s health history and the fact she is immunocompromised, they agreed, Jadyn needed to be seen. In urgent care, Jadyn was tested for the flu, strep throat, and COVID-19. The Richt’s were told they would have a test result in five days, it’s been more than a week now, and still no result.

Prior to all the discussion on social distancing and sheltering in place, Anna and Joe had traveled domestically. Family members who had been staying in their home had recently traveled internationally. Anna says, “The strep test came back positive, which gave us a sense of relief. But it didn’t cancel the possibility of COVID-19. We have been watching her closely, ready to sound the alarm at any sign of health deterioration. Thankfully, she is feeling much better and I believe she is bouncing back to her normal self.”

What’s it like to raise a daughter with IBD from such a young age? Jadyn has a G-tube, and Anna is passionate about spreading awareness about feeding tubes to educate others. E06A1193I’ll allow Anna to take you back to the beginning, so you can have a better grasp of their ongoing journey and how it’s brought them to where they are today.

Seeing blood when my baby was six months old

I started seeing blood in Jadyn’s stool when she was around six weeks old and immediately called her pediatrician. He chalked it up to a couple of things, mostly related to breastfeeding issues and didn’t seem too concerned. When she was eight months old, my husband’s job moved us far away from family and her symptoms worsened. Her new pediatrician was concerned about her weight loss and sent us to the hospital for further testing.

A colonoscopy showed lesions all throughout her GI tract. Crohn’s disease was mentioned but the gastroenterologist was hesitant to diagnose it because of Jadyn’s young age. I did exactly what they say not to do and Googled Crohn’s Disease. The symptoms were spot on: “Bloody stools, persistent diarrhea, vomiting, loss of appetite, weight loss.” I’m not sure I’ve ever told anyone this, but deep down, I knew.

Dealing with the diagnosis

The diagnosis eventually came when Jadyn was 14 months old. fullsizeoutput_38f9The first couple years were nothing short of a dog fight. I remember sitting in my sister’s living room after an appointment when all of the sudden the doctor’s number popped up on my phone. She was calling to say that Jadyn’s lab results didn’t look good and we needed to head to the hospital right away.

My sister and I sat there in disbelief and cried. I remember her saying through her tears, “I feel like you are under attack.” We were. But we fought back. There have been countless doctors’ appointments, feeding tubes, eating therapies, procedures, you name it. She has been a trooper through it all and I am so happy to report that her current medication is working. Thankfully, she is a normal 5-year-old for the most part, which I don’t take for granted.

What has the journey been like for me as her mother?

It’s by far the hardest thing I’ve ever faced in my life. At the beginning I assumed it was something we could easily get under control and move on. I now know it is a marathon race, not a sprint. Watching my child suffer, and not being able to fix the problem despite my best effort made me feel like I was failing her. IMG_6044

It’s been lonely at times. Don’t get me wrong, we have the most amazing family and friends. They have supported us unconditionally every step of the way. But because she was diagnosed so young, we’ve never met another child her age with Crohn’s. I couldn’t call one of my mom friends and ask, “What anti-TNF drug worked for your child?” or “How are you potty training your two-year-old who is flaring?” Instead, we’ve pioneered this head-on, and I’ve completely relied on my faith to get me through. People often say how strong I am, but honestly, I believe it’s God’s strength in me that they see. When I look back on these past five years, I know without a doubt He has carried us. I can honestly say I am proud of the mother I have become due to this disease. I am brave and empathetic. I’ve developed grit and survive on grace.

What I want to say to parents of children with IBD

Take care of yourself. I always think of the airplane safety guide. Secure your oxygen mask before helping others. You cannot fully care for your child if you don’t take care of yourself first. Some days that may mean a 30-minute workout and drinking plenty of water. Other days it’s meeting with a counselor to address the emotional toll the disease has taken.

Let others help. They really want to. Use that time to step away and catch your breath.

See your child for who they are. Your child is more than their disease. They are uniquely designed for a specific purpose.

You can do this. I firmly believe that you were handpicked by God to be your child’s mother.  Continue to advocate and cheer them on. Take it one day at a time.

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Jadyn and her little sister

“And I am certain that God, who began the good work within you, will continue his work until it is finally finished on the day when Christ Jesus returns.” Philippians 1:6

You can follow Anna by checking out her blog: Grit to Grace

Anna’s Instagram: @grit.to.grace

Finding faith through the storm that is IBD

Prior to falling ill two years ago and finally receiving a Crohn’s disease diagnosis in December 2019, 33-year-old Kolby Noble, kolby5 of Maryland, never knew how much her strong faith would help her through the ups and downs of chronic illness. As a wife, mom of three, and an educator, Kolby shares a heartfelt, eye-opening piece that beautifully captures how faith correlates to the daily battles we face as people with IBD. 

Picture it. Jesus had left His disciples in their boat on the sea so that He could spend some time alone. It wasn’t long before a powerful storm developed. Jesus returns to the disciples, walking on the water through the wind and the waves, but they don’t recognize Him and are afraid. Jesus speaks to them, saying, “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid”. (Matthew 14:7) kolby

I’ve always been in awe of the ocean. As a child I used to play in the waves of the Atlantic or stare into its horizon and I always felt so small in comparison. I would often wonder how the same God that made the ocean, so vast and wide and deep, would create me, too. How could the same God who told the waves to dance along the shore love and know me so intimately? My life has been much like the ocean. Much of it has been beautiful and calm. But like the disciples and everyone else there have been storms, too. Somehow it’s always through the wind and the waves of those storms that I hear Jesus call to me.

It’s been two years since I first thought something was wrong with my health. For two years the wind and the waves have strengthened until, like the disciples, I found myself in the midst of a powerful storm. kolby4I was as sick as I’d ever been in my life, and couldn’t figure out why I wasn’t getting better. In December 2019, I received confirmation that I had Crohn’s Disease.  I was afraid. But through the wind and the waves, I heard Him say “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.”

Back in the boat with Jesus that day was a man named Peter. Peter saw Jesus on the water and when Jesus called to Peter to step out of the boat and come to Him, Peter didn’t hesitate. In the midst of the storm Peter climbed out of the boat and started walking to his Savior. kolby3Soon, though, Peter took his eyes off of Jesus and focused instead on the wind and the waves and began to sink. He cried out “Lord, save me!” (Matthew 14:30) and Jesus instantly reached out His hand to catch Peter. When He pulled Peter from the water Jesus simply asked “Why did you doubt?” They returned to the boat and the wind and waves cease.

Much like Peter, I knew Jesus before the storm of Crohn’s Disease developed. I had witnessed His miracles in my life, just as Peter had before the storm arose on the sea that day. When I received my Crohn’s disease  diagnosis, I heard Jesus tell me not to be afraid. As I stepped out to meet Him in the storm for comfort it wasn’t long before I took my eyes off of Him and focused instead on the wind and the waves. It’s easy to focus on feeling sick, being in pain, being too exhausted to get up each day, or not having the energy to take care of your family. I was taking medication multiple times a day just to function, to somehow get through each work each day. kolby2 I found myself focusing on all the tests and doctor’s appointments I had to go to, and the infusions I’ll have to take for the rest of my life to maintain any sense of health I used to know. I focused on the unpredictability that is Crohn’s, and not on the predictable, steadfast love that can only be found in our Savior.

God doesn’t promise those that believe smooth seas or calm waters. He never says that life is going to be easy. He actually tells us just the opposite. Isaiah 43:2 says “When you go through deep waters, I will be with you.” What a comfort to know that in the midst of our storms we can look out and find a Savior. God knew before I ever took a breath I would have to fight this disease. He knew that it would be hard, and painful, and exhausting. But He loves me, and He is with me, and it’s because of Him that I can face the storm. You can, too.

If you have just been diagnosed with a form of IBD, I encourage you not to focus on the wind or the waves. Focus instead on a Savior who is ready to reach out and catch you when you start to sink. Don’t doubt His love for you. Don’t doubt that He will be with you through the storm. Instead, listen for the voice that says “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid”. For mightier than the waves of the sea is His love for you. (Psalm 93:4)

 

Love and IBD: What I wish I would have known

Love doesn’t always come easy. Especially when you have a chronic illness like Crohn’s disease. Dating, relationships and finding “the one” becomes a bit more complicated when your health isn’t on par with that of your peers. Before I met my husband Bobby, I had several eye-opening experiences that left me feeling unlovable and unworthy.

When I was diagnosed with Crohn’s in the emergency room two months after college graduation in 2005 and hospitalized for eight days, my boyfriend never visited and broke up with me over the phone the day I got home. Prior to my diagnosis we were head over heels in love and talked about the future.

When I was hospitalized with an abscess in my small intestine that was the size of a tennis ball over Fourth of July weekend and on the brink of surgery in 2008, my boyfriend of seven months never visited and told me gas prices were too much (for a 3 hour drive) and told me he preferred to go fishing.

When I was about to jump in the shower for a first date in 2009, I fell to my knees in my bathroom from excruciating pain and had to text the guy and tell him my Crohn’s was flaring and that I was headed to the hospital. He laughed at me and told me it was comical that I used that excuse and should just admit I didn’t want to see him. I was hospitalized with a bowel obstruction that night. Never heard from him again.

These were poignant moments in my 20’s that stick with me to this day. I look at those experiences now as a blessing of course, but hindsight is 20-20. When you’re in the thick of taking on IBD and trying to find someone to spend your life with, these struggles can feel overwhelming and extremely daunting. Not everyone is cut out to be a caretaker, and that’s ok—but if you live with a chronic illness like me, it’s imperative you find someone with a nurturing heart, a patient personality, and a comforting way about them.

bobbyWhen you fall in love with IBD, there’s an extra layer of complexity, trust, dependency, and appreciation. There’s no telling what the next hour will bring. You need to be flexible. You need to be understanding that plans may not go as expected. You need to trust that when the next flare up strikes that you won’t be on your own and that your partner will be there every step of the way.

Imagine doing a trust fall. You need to count on your person to ALWAYS be there to catch you when they least expect it. Bobby3You need to believe that when the going gets tough you won’t be deserted; you won’t be made to feel as a burden. You need to trust that your partner sees you as much more than your disease.

Love and IBD isn’t always sunshine and rainbows, but that’s the case with every love story. It’s navigating unknown waters and knowing that just because you go under for a little while, doesn’t mean you won’t be floating in the calm soon. It’s being vulnerable with the fact that your body will continually let you down, but it’s also capable of surprising you, too. It’s knowing when to ask for help and not being scared to communicate your needs. It’s making sure your partner knows how much you appreciate all that they do, even if they don’t feel like they’re going above and beyond. It’s the comfort of knowing that any minute of the day, you can tell your partner you’re unwell and everything else going on becomes background noise.

If you’re reading this and you haven’t found your person or if you’re unsure about whether your significant other is meant to be, think about the type of person you want alongside you as your #1 confidante for everything in life, including your disease.

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If you feel like a burden, if you’re made to feel like your disease is a joke, if you feel like you’re ghosted anytime your health goes awry, take all those feelings as red flags. Sure, the way some of my ex’s treated me when it came to my Crohn’s was extremely disheartening, but at the same time those flare ups were the truth serum I needed to see people’s true colors. Use this to your advantage.

When you find the person who genuinely chooses to stay, to be your rock, to be your sounding board, that’s when you know you’re where you’re meant to be. IBD causes us to be vulnerable, but it also opens our eyes to the true character of others and helps guide our way for finding love that’s meant to last.

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.

Motherhood and IBD: The parallels and what I’ve learned

Let me tell you how small a bathroom feels when you’re on the toilet, your crawling baby is at your feet going after the garbage can and your toddler is pulling at the toilet paper. This has been the scene of my life, multiple times a day, over the past year. Sophia turns one tomorrow (Jan 14!). mom3I feel like we blinked and her first year passed by. That being said, having a baby and a two-year-old, while being a stay-at-home mom and freelancer, who happens to have Crohn’s disease, has its challenges.

Each day, while often exhausting, has been an incredible blessing. I remember being pregnant and wondering how motherhood in general, along with IBD would be. I remember when Reid was born in 2017 and learning to adjust to parenthood and having a family. I remember being pregnant with Sophia, wondering how I would have any capacity energy-wise to take on being home with two little ones, but I did it. Somehow you find a way to get by, to exist, to adjust to your new normal.

Much like navigating chronic illness, with motherhood, you have moments where you feel you’ve found your groove, and then suddenly something happens to prove otherwise. But, that’s the beauty of it. The hard times are temporary and then the beautiful, fill- your-heart with overwhelming joy and happy tears in your eyes moments happen when you least expect it. mom2

Parenthood isn’t all sunshine and rainbows. Some moments really suck. Some moments are incredibly frustrating and overwhelming. Some moments you wonder how you’re going to get through. I think there’s this expectation and this fake persona (thanks to social media) that makes us all think we need to do more, be more, and love every moment of parenting, when we all know that’s not the case. Raising little people isn’t for the faint of the heart, but it’s one of the greatest gifts we can be given.

Through motherhood I’ve learned the importance of health—physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.

Through motherhood I’ve learned how imperative it is to rely on your support system. There’s no sense in trying to do this alone.

momof2blog2Through motherhood I’ve learned to soak everything in, because you blink, and another year or milestone goes by.

Through motherhood I’ve learned the importance of listening to my body, resting when necessary, and saying “no” to plans that don’t fill my cup.

The thing is—when you live with a chronic disease like Crohn’s, you learn all these “lessons” long before you become a parent. But, the actual meaning shifts, when you have more to think about than just yourself.

One year ago, today, I went to bed a mom of one and the very next day I woke up, had a c-section and my heart doubled in size and we became a family of four. The addition of Sophia to our family has been an incredible blessing. I don’t know how I ever lived without her. It’s amazing how families adjust to their new dynamic and change in such beautiful ways as they continue to grow.

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Photo credit: Alexandria Mooney Photography

Whether you want to be a mom someday, are currently trying to have a baby, are pregnant, or a mom of one or several kids, let’s all practice a little more grace and less judgement. The only shoes we’ve all walked in are our own. No matter how people choose to present themselves, everyone has bad days, everybody has their own set of struggles and worries, and chances are, we can all relate.

Coming of age with IBD: The 20s and the 30s and how they differ

The new year and new decade have almost everyone reflecting on the last 10 years of their life, looking back at then and now, and anxiously excited to see what the next 10 years will bring. Framing life into decades is interesting, especially when it comes to chronic illness. I wasn’t diagnosed with Crohn’s until age 21, so I can’t speak to what it’s like to live with IBD as a child or a teen. What I can speak to is what it’s like to live with a chronic illness in your 20s and in your 30s and how your lifestyle, your expectations for yourself and for others, shifts as you age. natalie20s2

In my opinion, each decade with IBD presents its own unique set of challenges. Of course, each and everyone of us has a different looking “timeline” as our lives play out, but for the most part, certain aspects of “coming to age” happen at one time or another, depending on what’s important to you. Here’s what my 20s and 30s has looked like:

The 20s:

Said goodbye to being a child and truly became an adult.

Fulfilled education goals, navigated professional life, followed career aspirations.

Dated and found love.

Enjoyed a fun social life with friends.

Moved out at age 22 and lived on my own in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Illinois.

Adopted my dog, Hamilton.

The 30s:

Got into a groove professionally, felt more confident in my skills and what I’m meant to do.

Moved to Missouri to follow love and got married. engagement

Got pregnant and had two babies.

Fewer social hang outs and more family time.

This may just look like a list, but when you live with IBD these life changing milestones and moments have different meaning and carry different weight. When I was diagnosed at age 21, it was before I landed my first TV job. I had just graduated college and spent years interning for free, worked four nights a week on the college TV station…for free, only to be blindsided with a disease that made me wonder if all my hard work was for nothing. At 21 I wasn’t sure if I would ever find a man willing to stick by my side through the ups and downs of chronic illness or if I was worthy of a long-term relationship. At 21, I moved eight hours away from all friends and family, three months after being diagnosed, while on 22 pills a day, to follow my dream of being a journalist. There was great responsibility in living on my own, taking my medications and being a compliant patient, while the rest of my peers’ greatest worry was what going out shirt they were going to wear to the bar that night. natalie20s

During my 20s I put more emphasis on what others thought of me and just wanted to fit in. I didn’t want my disease to hold me back in any way.

Now that I’m 36, and can look back on what it was like to live with Crohn’s throughout my 20’s and now well into my 30s, I must say…while life with this disease is never “easy”, it becomes a lot easier to live with as you get older. Here’s why.

I followed my dreams of being a journalist and worked successfully full-time for more than a decade in TV stations and PR agencies, despite my diagnosis.

I found a man who loves me for me and didn’t think twice of being my partner even though I had Crohn’s. I met Bobby one month before turning 30. Dating him, marrying him, and building a family with him has brought a great sense of comfort and stability into my life. When I flare or I’m having a rough day, I rely heavily on him to be my rock and lift my spirits.

blog2Fatigue from motherhood when you have a chronic illness can be mind-numbing and debilitating, but seeing your body create a life and then bring a baby into this world makes you feel a renewed sense of love for a body that you’ve been at odds with for years. IBD and motherhood has it’s worries and challenges, but at the end of the day, your children will be the greatest light in your life, and the most magical motivators of strength. There’s almost too much going on to worry about your own well-being, which is both a blessing and a curse!

natalieblog2Gone are the days of going out at 11 pm, now I rarely go out and when I do, I’m usually home before 10. There’s no pressure to stay out until bar close or take a shot. My friends are all grown women, many of them are moms, our priorities have shifted. Adult conversation over brunch or a glass of wine and some sushi or tapas is refreshing and rejuvenating. I openly communicate about my disease when asked and don’t shy away from the conversation like I once did.

blogarticleIf you’re reading this and you’re newly diagnosed, a teenager, a 20-something, trust me when I say that balancing life—all your obligations, your network of support, your job and what you’re meant to do with your life will find it’s way. Don’t beat yourself up by creating a timeline or a vision board that sets you up for failure. Don’t try and keep up with the Jones’. Don’t compare where you are in life to your peers. Because there is no comparison. When you have IBD you are being unfair to yourself if you try and be just like everyone else, because you’re not. And that’s ok. Use your experience as a patient to give you patience within yourself. Everyone faces struggles, everyone faces setbacks, but someday I promise you’ll look back and those very same struggles will be the reason you are strong, focused, driven, empathetic, and living the life you were meant to live.

Why Crohn’s is the gift that keeps on giving

When you think about your IBD, chances are many thoughts race through your mind. This holiday season, I started thinking about how Crohn’s is the immaterial gift that keeps on giving. I know, it sounds crazy. But hear me out.

The unpredictability and uncertainty of IBD has forced me to live in the moment and stop worrying about tomorrow and the future. IMG_0597

The pain, setbacks, and flare ups have provided me with perspective and empathy for others that’s only possible when you live with chronic illness.

The fatigue reminds me of the importance of slowing down, not pushing myself too hard, and practicing self-care.

The ups and downs and in between have given me an innate truth serum about other people’s intentions and character and allowed me to know who I can truly count on.

The side effects of steroids and the scars left behind from my bowel resection and c-sections have humbled me.

The dark moments that tried to break me have instead showed me that God truly does give his toughest lessons to his greatest teachers.

The hatred I felt for my body through the years (especially my abdomen) disappeared the moment I became pregnant and watched my body transform to bring two healthy babies into this world. santa with the kids

The hospitalizations that have tried to break me have forced me to bounce back and be stronger physically and mentally than I was before.

The initial years of isolation when I kept my patient journey under wraps led me to go out on a limb, share my story, and feel the support both near and far from a community that’s like family.

It’s taken me nearly 15 years to think this way about my disease, about my reality. I’m not trying to sugar coat or diminish the seriousness of IBD, but instead share my mindset and how I choose to take on Crohn’s disease. Yes, some days are terrible. IMG_6855Yes, there have been times when everything felt heavy and bleak. Yes, there are still times I feel sorry for myself. But those days are far outnumbered by the joy-filled, happy days I choose to focus on.

My hope for you this holiday season is that you’re able to pause and embrace the hand of cards you’ve been dealt and think about all you’re capable of, all you’ve accomplished, and all that lies ahead. Give yourself credit for all you do today and tomorrow, all you’ve endured in the past, and all you’ll overcome in the future.

 

How art helps Kate take on her Crohn’s: Tips for unleashing your inner IBD artist

When 32-year-old Kate Schwarting of New York was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease in June 2009 she was less than surprised. The symptoms that had insidiously weaved their way into her life had finally reached a point where their impact on her daily life was undeniable. A colonoscopy confirmed it. headshot_schwartingAt the time she was diagnosed, Kate was immersed in her undergraduate studies that were divided between Geoscience and Studio Art and took on the role of caregiver for her mother. This week Kate shares how art has benefited her patient journey and offers up helpful ways you can incorporate art into your life, even if all you can draw are stick figures (like me!):

While in college, I was focused on understanding my passion for science and art. I was passionate about discovering the possibility for art to express the unseen, and build an emotional bridge for relating to complex scientific problems. But all of this was set against a backdrop of Crohn’s flares, fistulas, strictures, hospitalizations (for both myself and my mother), and doctor appointments.

These constant disruptions often left me feeling like I was struggling to move towards my goals, preserving my identity when it’s so easy for illness to be all consuming, and caused me to frequently reflect and reevaluate my relationship with the art and science that I studied.

How Crohn’s brought me closer to understanding the benefits of art

As a student involved with the arts, it was common for me to have a few spare art materials. Over the course of 10 years of dealing with Crohn’s, I had several flares that resulted in extended hospitalizations, periods where I was at home recovering, or as a caregiver for a parent that made me aware of how important it was to have spare materials with me.

Being sick and in the hospital, or even stuck at home away from your daily routine, is stressful and isolating at best. Having these tools allowed me to cope, escape, and create meaning. It gave me a sense of accomplishing something positive and tangible in a setting where a significant amount of time is spent anxiously waiting for results, procedures and to feel better. IMG_5852

Not only have I noticed how much it helps me to have this diversion, I have also noticed the impact it has on those around me. In situations that are emotionally heavy with the burden of illness, a brief conversation with another patient, nurse or doctor about art seems to uplift everyone’s mood and passing along this joy had an exponentially good effect on my own outlook.

How a flare inspired meaningful artwork 

During a flare in 2016 I began to investigate how to create meaningful artwork relating to both the microbiology and to my experiences with my own body. I was drawn to the microbiome. Trillions of bacteria exist in everyone through a symbiotic relationship in the digestive system. detail1 - Kate SchwartingThe microbiome is a hot spring of unanswered questions in relation to its role in IBD, as well as many other conditions. Applying the methods I have used in other projects, I researched the different types of bacteria and their shapes and used them to create a series of abstract drawings that relate to the digestive system and allow people to develop a sense of the complexity of the human body.

5 tips for incorporating art into your life

Create a pack of art supplies. Get a small sketch book, a pouch including a woodless pencil, travel sized watercolor palette and brush, assorted pens, and a ruler. Add to this whatever materials you prefer. 

Start simple. Use mindfulness to find inspiration around you, whether it’s a color, a pattern, or texture

Be mindful of self criticism! As put best by Bob Ross, Let happy accidents happen!

Experiment! Art at its core relies on the very basic act of creating and requires no prior artistic training to get started. It is a place to abandon judgement and focus on an exclusively human experience.

Share! I found it helped hold me to my goal of setting aside time to relax and create art by making an art related post once a day or every other day depending on how I felt to Instagram and also helped me find a supportive community during times where I was feeling the most isolated. I’d love to see what you create! Feel free to use the hashtag #chronicallycreative when sharing your work!

You can follow Kate on Instagram and Twitter at: @microbioscapes.

 

A close-knit family: The story behind this Crohn’s blanket

There’s nothing quite like a grandmother’s love. They have a way of bringing comfort, peace, support, faith, and love to family, among many other incredible traits. IMG-2601When seven-year-old Penny was diagnosed with Crohn’s in January 2017, her grandmother, Mary, started knitting her a purple blanket. She chose the color purple because it’s not only Penny’s favorite color, but also the color that represents Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD).

“Penny has always had a special little gauze blanket, but I wanted to make something for her that would hopefully comfort her on days when she does not feel well,” said Mary Otto. “It’s the same idea as prayer shawl people make for those who are ill. As I knit, I pray for Penny.”

Other times, Mary says she prays for her family, for others battling Crohn’s, for those with other illnesses and diseases, and for people in general. As of now, the blanket is 44” wide and 42” long. Mary jokes she isn’t a consistent knitter and that she has a long way to go before the blanket is “adult size”. Penny currently stands 3’9”. IMG-2600

The passion project has been a special hobby between Penny and Mary. It’s Mary’s hope that in the future Penny will look back fondly on the memories and that each time she is snuggled up under the blanket she feels not only its warmth, but the warmth of her love now and always.

“I hope when Penny isn’t feeling well or in the hospital that she will find physical comfort in it (due to its weight), but also emotional and spiritual comfort because of the love and prayers that were part of its creation,” said Mary.

Every time Penny sees the blanket, her face lights up and she asks when it will be done. It’s a labor of love for Mary, every stitch made with purpose. As a grandparent, she says it’s heartbreaking to see a grandchild take on a disease like Crohn’s.

“No one wants to see their loved one suffer. I don’t like the helpless feeling when there is nothing I can do to make the situation better. I worry about Penny. I’m also concerned about her parents and brothers, because an illness like this affects the whole family.”

IMG-2918At the same time, Mary says she’s impressed by Penny and how she is taking all the baggage that comes with Crohn’s in stride at such a young age: the daily medications, the infusions, the lifestyle changes.

“Penny demonstrates so much strength, she is my little hero!” A hero who will one day hold on tightly to that blanket and not only feel the love it exudes but be reminded that she’s never alone in her struggle.

While Penny was dealt a difficult hand of cards when it comes to her health, there’s no denying she hit the jackpot when it comes to her family.