59 marathons and counting: How this IBD warrior perseveres despite her disease

When you think of a marathon runner what words come to mind? Grit, resilience, drive, focus, strength…the list goes on. Michelle Ladonne, 34, of Massachusetts, isn’t your typical long-distance runner. Not only was she diagnosed with Crohn’s disease in 2010, but she’s also managed to participate in 59 marathons in 35 states and 3 continents. Yeah. You read that correctly. Incredible, isn’t it?!

Like many of us, Michelle is the first person in her family to be diagnosed with IBD. When she was told she had Crohn’s, she frantically started Googling from her hospital bed. All she remembers hearing the doctor saying are “lifelong” and “no known cure”. She was certain she’d been handed a death sentence. Her life, at age 23, flashed before her eyes.

Going the distance

As time passed, Michelle learned how to listen to her body better. She says she’s become better at determining whether pain is a “routine Crohn’s symptom” or an acute issue that needs immediate medical attention. Finding the balance of when to push through and when to rest has enabled her to feel more in control of her life and her disease.

“I used to think that the ideal was to never let Crohn’s hold me back from reaching my dreams, or to not let Crohn’s become an excuse. But the reality is that I live with a chronic condition, and despite all the determination and effort in the world, sometimes Crohn’s wins, and I need to be ok with backing off, resting, and focusing on my health,” Michelle explains.

She admits—she doesn’t always listen to her body. She’s ran some races while in the middle of a flare or not long after a hospital discharge.

“I think with experience – both with running and managing Crohn’s symptoms – I’ve learned when I can push through the symptoms, or when I will make things worse if I don’t back off. I try to listen to my body and accept that sometimes not running is the safest and healthiest choice – whether that means skipping a training day, missing a race, or twice coming to that realization mid-race and walking off the course.”

A team effort between care team and patient

Michelle recalls her experience running in the 2018 Berlin Marathon while in the middle of a Crohn’s flare, about a month after being hospitalized. She says her GI was not overly excited about the idea of her traveling out of the country to run a full marathon.

“My abdominal pain wasn’t well controlled, and I was underweight after having been on a liquid diet for several weeks. But my GI knew how important it was to me and supported me. I started the race knowing that if I didn’t feel well, I could slow down or walk, and worst case, I would stop. I started at a conservative pace and focused on hydrating and tuning into how my body felt.  I remember seeing my friend cheering at mile 16, and I ran into her arms and exclaimed, “I am doing it!  I’m going to finish this!” 

Crossing that finish line felt like the biggest victory for Michelle. Right after finishing the race, she texted her GI doctor a photo wearing a medal and thanked him for his support. True to form, Michelle’s GI reminded her that beer is a clear liquid, and since she was in Germany, she should have one to celebrate! 

Persevering through Crohn’s and running

Michelle says having the mindset to persevere through life with Crohn’s and running marathons is similar. She says there’s an adage in marathon running, “when your legs can’t run anymore, run with your heart.”

“Miles 20-26.2 of a marathon bring some of the most brutal pain and physical exhaustion imaginable. At that point, you learn to trust that you are strong enough, tough enough, and brave enough to keep moving forward. You learn to push on when you feel like giving up, because forward is the only option,” says Michelle. 

During a recent 22-day hospitalization, she was in more pain than ever before. COVID visitor restrictions left her feeling lonely, anxious, and afraid. She had to draw upon that same reserve of mental strength as at mile 20 of the marathon. She was physically and mentally spent but knew that digging deep and pushing forward was the only option.

“Just like in running marathons, I had to trust in my experience; I had overcome other challenging situations when I wasn’t sure that I could, and this was just one more challenge that I would eventually overcome.”

Michelle’s advice for fellow IBD runners

  • Figure out how nutrition factors into your running – specifically what you eat and drink before you run. It can be different for everyone. Some of it is trial and error. If running a shorter distance, Michelle doesn’t eat 2-3 hours prior. For longer distances, fueling becomes more important, so she’ll eat something soft and “safe”, like white toast with peanut butter and honey.
  • Plan your route in advance and evaluate the bathroom options.  For longer runs, particularly if you are flaring, try to be strategic about running in locations with bathrooms. Think about local parks, gas stations or fast-food places (support those businesses after your run!).  In a pinch, construction porta-potties work, too. 
  • Don’t perseverate on the bad runs. You’ll have them – the days where everything hurts, you are exhausted, and it’s just a miserable kind of slog. Choose to celebrate the victory of having made it out the door. Know that just like Crohn’s, the bad days happen, but so do the really good ones, and that’s what makes it all worthwhile. 

Not allowing Crohn’s to keep her on the sidelines

Michelle is grateful she’s able to run, and do what she loves, despite her disease. She knows not everyone with IBD is able to be physically active. While Crohn’s has sidelined her at times, it’s never completely robbed her of her passion or changed her focus. On the difficult days, Crohn’s has made her even more appreciative of running and the gift that it is to her.

On the days when I don’t feel like running – it’s too cold, too hot, too rainy – I remind myself that I don’t “have” to run, but I “get” to run.  Not everyone is so lucky, and I don’t take that for granted. Having Crohn’s, it is easy for me to think of my body as somehow broken or defective. Running has helped me to appreciate that my body is capable of some amazing things.  Running has taught me to focus less on what my body looks like (the weight fluctuations of flares and steroids can be tough!) and more on what my body is capable of.”

Taking steps to control fatigue

Even though Michelle clearly has magnificent endurance and strength, it doesn’t mean she isn’t familiar with fatigue and that makes even the most basic daily tasks feel insurmountable. If she’s feeling that overwhelming sense of fatigue, she’ll skip a run or lay on the couch with a heating pad and watch Netflix like the rest of us. At the same time, she says it’s important to distinguish between physical fatigue and just not feeling motivated to go for a run. She tries not to let her Crohn’s become an easy out during the long Massachusetts winters, or in the pouring pain, or even after a long day of work.

She currently takes 6MP and is on Entyvio every six weeks to manage her IBD.

Running goals now and in the future

Since 2016, Michelle has been focused on running a marathon in each of the 50 states. COVID put a hold on that goal, but she hopes to get back to traveling soon so she can cross the finish lines in every state.

“During COVID, since I couldn’t travel, I started focusing on running every street in the towns south of Boston. So far, I’ve finished 11 towns and over 4,000 streets. I have enjoyed exploring so many interesting places close to home and seeing all the history in southeastern Massachusetts. I am toying with a goal of running all the streets in Boston – I think that may need to happen!”

Michelle has also been checking off all the Marathon Majors—New York, Chicago, Boston, and Berlin.

She underwent a hemicolectomy—the removal of a portion of her large and small intestines in March 2021 and was readmitted two weeks after surgery with blood clots in her abdomen. At that point, she was diagnosed with a clotting disorder, in addition to endometriosis in her bowel. After 22 days in the hospital, and six weeks off from running so she could heal, she’s started to slowly build her mileage back up as she regains her strength. Michelle ran a 5K a few weeks ago and is running a half marathon later this month. Her main goal—to run the London Marathon in October, and potentially a few other fall marathons. Once she finishes London—she’s planning a trip to Tokyo to complete the Majors.

Michelle enjoys sharing her patient journey—the ups and downs, the blood, sweat, and tears, and everything in between, in hopes her experiences might help others feel less alone and to know that anything is possible.  From weeks in the hospital to completing a 100-mile ultramarathon, she’s done it all, all while living with Crohn’s disease.

Connect with Michelle on Instagram: @run4life262

IBD Motherhood Unplugged: “I have IBD and so does my Mom”

In the spirit of Mother’s Day—today’s article celebrates mother and daughter duos with IBD. Rather than focusing on the hereditary factor of Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis, this story celebrates the camaraderie, bond, and connection created when a parent and child both share the same disease. While the chance of passing on IBD when one parent has Crohn’s and ulcerative is relatively low according to the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation (between 5% and 20% of people with IBD have a first-degree relative, such as a parent, child, or sibling who has one of the disease), it happens. My hope is that if you dream of being a mom or a dad, you don’t rob yourself of going after that dream because of the fear of passing on your disease to offspring.

As a mom of two (soon to be three!), I am the only one with IBD in my entire extended family. But, I often worry and wonder if my Crohn’s will be passed on to my children. I know this is a common fear many in the community grapple with. Check out these thought-provoking and comforting firsthand accounts from 8 mother-daughter duos that show how families unite in their diagnosis and lift one another up.

Corri Gardner and her mom both have ulcerative colitis. Her mother’s father also had UC. Corri’s mom was diagnosed with IBD while she was pregnant with her. All she knows since being diagnosed herself is having her mom and grandpa to confide in through the ups and downs of the disease.

“My mom has always been there to validate my fears and feelings on such a deep level since she knows exactly what I’m going through. When I was diagnosed, she expressed how guilty she felt over and over again. I always assure her that I would much rather be on this earth, living with UC, than to not be here at all. If someone is hesitant about having children due to their IBD, I would urge them to not make life decisions based on fear.”

Camryn Asham and her mom both have Crohn’s. She says having a parent with IBD helped her feel less lonely and more understood when she was diagnosed. Like anyone with a chronic illness she’s gone through a range of emotions on her patient journey—everything from anger to grief.

“I’ve had the “why me” feeling, but deep down I know it’s not my mom’s fault and there is no one to blame. I know my mom has felt guilty watching me go through traumatic moments and all the ups and downs. I’ve been able to witness my mom get through the highs and lows of IBD, and that reassures me I can get through any flare up or procedure, too. I know I can always count on my mom for help and support when I don’t feel heard or understood.”

Rachel Martin and her mom both have Crohn’s disease. Her mom was diagnosed at age 14, she found out she had the same disease when she was 22. While the diagnosis was devastating for both, Rachel says she finds comfort in knowing that she has someone close to her who can relate.

“I do feel as though my mom feels guilty for passing Crohn’s. I have a twin sister who does not have Crohn’s and it has been hard seeing her live her life without going through everything that I have gone through. Never in my life would I wish this upon anyone, especially my sister, however I wish that I never had to go through this. I never exactly blamed my mom, but I have spent a lot of time wishing I “lucked out” like my sister did. I know that my mom feels bad that I have had a really hard time coping and accepting that I also have a chronic disease.”

Diagnosed prior to a parent

Mary Catherine Kirchgraber was diagnosed with Crohn’s when she was 10 in 2000. Her mom was diagnosed during a routine colonoscopy when she was 50-year-old in 2013. Since her mom served as her caregiver and advocate since she was a pediatric patient, it’s made for a unique journey and perspective. They both seek medical care through the same GI practice and have been on the same medications. Mary says it’s nice to have someone to commiserate with about frustrations with insurance, feeling poorly, side effects, and more.

“My mom is the toughest person I know and never complains, so she inspires me in a million different ways. I wish she didn’t have to struggle the way I have, but it’s nice to have someone to lean on and ask questions to. My mom has always been my advocate and greatest support. She fought for accommodations at school, taken me to Mayo Clinic, dealt with insurance, and taken me to every doctor appointment and specialist I’ve ever needed. She created binders of medical records for me and often reminds me of my own health history when I don’t remember things from when I was a kid. I am so lucky to have her on my team.”

Sharan Kaur was diagnosed with Crohn’s in 2002, her mom found out she had ulcerative colitis in 2017. She says prior to her mom’s diagnosis she felt alone dealing with the day to day struggles of IBD. Sharan says because of her knowledge and experience living with IBD, when her mom began to experience symptoms, she was able to push for their general practitioner to take action immediately and reach a diagnosis. She is grateful to have another family member who can grasp the severity of the disease and who understands how easy it is to go from feeling perfectly fine one day, to barely managing to get out of bed the next.

“I think we find strength in one another. For years, my mom supported me through my worst days and although she didn’t completely understand how things were before her diagnosis, the support was always there. Finding out she had UC broke my heart because she’s always been so active, truly a supermom. I realized then that this would have to change for her as she would probably go onto face the same daily struggles that I do with fatigue. As an adult I’m sure this change in lifestyle is much harder to accept than it was for me.”

Mary McCarthy was also diagnosed with Crohn’s at age 12 in 1995, her mom didn’t discover she had Crohn’s until 2015 when she was 62 (and her dad has UC!). IBD was foreign to the McCarthy family when Mary was diagnosed though. She says her mom had a difficult time coping with having a child with a chronic illness. Even though her mom was well-versed on IBD by the time of her own diagnosis, hearing the news was still difficult for her.

“We deal with it mostly through empathy and humor. Being able to talk openly about the emotional and physical aspects of the disease helps. My parents and I joke about how we are colonoscopy experts and have seen every gastroenterologist in the city of Chicago. My mom knows exactly what I need before colonoscopies, which is often to get some alone time and get in the zone. We laugh about it now. “Mom, I love you, but I gotta get in zone. You can wait in the waiting room now.” My mom has been there for ALL important moments in my IBD journey. We sometimes reminisce about the complete chaos we went through when I was 12. We may have IBD, but we know life must go on.”

Michelle Schienle and her mom were both diagnosed with Crohn’s in 2015, she was 23 her mom was 52. Michelle’s diagnosis was the catalyst for her mom to seek additional treatment from a new gastroenterologist. As we all know it can be challenging to articulate IBD symptoms to those who haven’t experienced them. Michelle knows she can always count on her mom no matter what she’s going through. Even though she doesn’t blame her mom for passing on IBD to her, she did get frustrated that she didn’t recognize the suffering earlier as a child because that was her mom’s “normal”, too.

“Since she was living her life that way, she thought my problems were “normal”, so I had to wait until I was old enough to advocate for myself to get the answers I needed. I wish she wouldn’t feel guilty for passing it on to me, because it’s not her fault. Seeing my mom push through gives me strength. I’ve seen firsthand how she’s successfully raised a family, had a great career, and traveled the world (all things I aspire to do!) and done it with IBD. It’s a relief not to have to explain the pain and worry in detail because we just know what the other is going through. As unfortunate as it is that we both are going through this, having my mom understand what I am feeling both physically and emotionally helps to validate it. If my children are to ever get IBD, I am now confident that I am in the best position to take care of them because I know what to watch out for and how to be proactive about treatment.”

History repeating itself

Both Ellen Jenkins and her mom were diagnosed with Crohn’s when they were 18 and freshman in college at the same school! Ellen says her mom still feels responsible for her being sick, even though she has never blamed her for IBD.

“Growing up and watching my mom live a normal life despite her IBD comforted me when I was diagnosed. I am so thankful to have someone who understands firsthand what I go through. Although no parent would choose to pass Crohn’s on to their child, IBD has made us closer. I have never been upset that I got it from my mom. Instead, I’m thankful to always have her as an advocate in my corner who truly understands the struggles.”

A heartfelt thank you

As an IBD mom, hearing these experiences and perspectives really puts my mind and heart at ease. As you can see, there’s a common thread throughout. Rather than blame their parent for passing on IBD, these young adults look to their parents as a pillar of strength, a source of understanding, and as partners in taking on their illness. Through the pain and suffering there is also gratitude, clarity, and unbelievable resilience. Just how you have grown and evolved as a person after your diagnosis and throughout your patient journey, your child will do the same.

Special thanks to everyone who made this story possible. Your words, your raw emotions, and your candidness are sure to help many and shed light on the incredible dynamic that is created when a parent and a child both battle IBD…no matter what age their diagnosis comes about.

Working from home is more than a job perk for those with IBD

The COVID-19 pandemic has normalized talking about chronic illness in the workplace and shed light on not only what it means to be immunocompromised and how it impacts one’s quality of life, but also the benefits and possibilities that working from home provides for everyone involved.

Prior to the pandemic, asking to work from home or setting up accommodations with your boss looked different. It could feel a bit taboo. Maybe you worried how the rest of your team would perceive you as possibly getting special treatment. Maybe you didn’t want to appear as if you couldn’t keep up or do what was expected of everyone else. But one of the positives to come out of this crazy time is that the way we work and how we work has shifted.

I’ve been a freelancer/blogger and stay at home mom since I became a mom in March 2017. That being said I worked full-time in the TV news industry, at a PR agency, and in corporate America at a natural gas utility the first 12 years I had Crohn’s disease. I am well-versed in how to navigate those difficult conversations with your boss, how to balance your health and well-being with your career, and what it means to thrive professionally while making sure your health doesn’t take a hit.

An opportunity for change

If the past 13-plus months have shown us anything, it’s how adaptable and flexible work can be. Businesses and organizations have real-life intel now that can help guide what the future of working looks like, and how employees can best be supported, engaged, and accommodated.

The chronic illness community can use this time as a springboard into the future and communicate their needs and hopes moving forward. According to the CDC, nearly 60% of adults in the U.S. live with at least one chronic illness. Even though that’s a huge percentage, many leaders still don’t know how to properly support employees who fall into this category and those of us who live with a disease such as IBD often question our own abilities and what we’re able to bring to the table compared to our healthy co-workers and counterparts. Working from home through the pandemic has evened out that playing field.

Having the flexibility to work from your couch or run to your bathroom in the comfort of your home versus in the middle of a big work meeting with your peers makes a huge difference. Knowing that you can schedule meetings and availability around blood draws, appointments with specialists, scopes, infusions, etc. offers great flexibility in managing your illness and getting the job done without feeling guilty for taking care of yourself.

How to better understand and support employees

From a chronic illness perspective, we push ourselves in all aspects of life, even when we’re running on empty because we constantly fear being viewed as less than. There are many ways business leaders can better support employees who are taking on a disease like Crohn’s or ulcerative colitis.

As people with IBD we worry about how we’re perceived by others because of the stigma that surrounds chronic illness. There’s guilt. There’s fear of being considered lazy. There’s the worry about coworkers judging you and thinking you’re a complainer or weak, when in fact they may not be aware of your whole back story.

So how can we improve the support of our managers?

Initiate communication: Ask your boss about setting up a 15-minute monthly one-on-one touch base to discuss how you are feeling and if you need additional support. Talk about what the next month looks like as far as doctor’s appointments, labs, tests, etc. I personally always felt better supported and understood by sharing my health struggles with my coworkers—whether it was my co-anchor and meteorologist or the communications team at the company I worked at. When I was hospitalized (which happened on multiple occasions) or needed surgery, I would email the entire team and give them a heads up about what was going on, so they heard it from the “horse’s mouth” and not through office hearsay or gossip. By articulating your patient experience you give others a chance to be empathetic.

Make the invisible—visible: It can be easy for us to downplay our pain or put on a smile when we’re flaring to protect ourselves, even on Zoom calls! The unpredictability of IBD makes work-life a challenge because you can start the workday feeling energized and ready to take on the world and after lunch feel like you can’t even stand up straight and need to lie down. The constant uncertainty of when symptoms are going to strike can be debilitating in and of itself. By being open and transparent in these moments of struggle you help paint a clearer picture of what you’re experiencing for those who don’t live our reality. In corporate America, I used to sit in the boardroom and start a meeting by casually saying “I just want to let you know my Crohn’s is acting up. I’m in a lot of pain. It’s hard for me to sit up straight so I’m going to slouch a bit and I even had to undo my pants!” I approached those moments with humor, but moreso to take off my “mask of wellness” and be transparent that there was much more going on in my mind and body than just the presentation I was giving or listening to. I feel being honest like this made my co-workers helped us build a stronger relationship and rapport.

-Come up with a hybrid schedule: As the world starts to open and companies discuss what the future will look like as far as working from home or in the office, consider what it may look like to work a couple days a week doing each and finding balance. Working from home hasn’t been a detriment to productivity, if anything this time has proved how flexible we can all be in the face of adversity. By creating a space of support and understanding, everyone can be successful. Talk about the options available, your comfort level with returning to work in the office (especially if you’re immunocompromised or haven’t had a chance to be vaccinated), and what the expectations are moving forward.

Improve inclusiveness: When a business or organization makes employees feel embraced, regardless of their health struggles, it speaks volumes. Even those who are completely healthy should see this as a valued characteristic of their working environment—whether in person or virtual. Nobody knows when their life could take a turn for the worse or when an unforeseen health issue could pop up. For many in the chronic illness community, we went from being healthy to waking up with a disease that will be a part of us, always. It’s on leadership and Human Resources to ensure those with chronic illness are provided with the support they need.

Stop celebrating overwork: Touting the employee who works around the clock and answers emails at 2 a.m. sends the wrong message. Instead, find ways to commend employees for different reasons. There isn’t one set of parameters that makes someone a great employee. Having work-life balance and recognizing the importance of having time to decompress, put health first, and spend quality time with family, matters and says a great deal about leadership style. The number of hours worked doesn’t equate to the quality of work or one’s competence. The onus is often on the boss or leader to speak up and set these expectations. Being able to manage your team’s energy will keep morale in check and make employees feel appreciated and more invested in doing their best, because they have the energy to do so and aren’t ready to tap out at any given moment.

Remote work is more than a job perk

COVID has forced the conversation and illuminated the challenges those of us with chronic illness are up against when trying to balance our health, providing for ourselves and our families, and being an invaluable employee. Thanks to the pandemic, employers are now looking to re-evaluate what sick leave and disability policies look like, especially as they relate to working from home. Those of us with a chronic illness may finally feel like we’re on an equal playing field when it comes to job opportunities and not having to worry as much about our bodies cooperating so that we’re able to do it all.

IBD is Not Your Fault

You did nothing to cause your diagnosis or your disease. Read that again. It’s not your fault. No matter what you may see on social media or hear from friends or family, those of us with Inflammatory Bowel Disease did not live “incorrectly” or do anything damaging that “sparked” our chronic, autoimmune issues to come to life.

I was incredibly disheartened recently by a post on Instagram that in so many words claimed that bad habits in life led to a man’s Crohn’s disease. He made blanket statements about how medication and surgery are not necessary and that it just takes a long time and reflection to reverse the damage he caused on himself after years of smoking, binge drinking, etc. The post was not only on his own feed, but also shared by a community IBD page with more than 8,000 followers. After days of endless comments from those angered by his assertions and claims, the post was taken down and the patient “advocate” made his Instagram private, but the damage was already done.

Hold up—what’s with the blame game?!

You may wonder why patient advocates like me get their feathers ruffled by claims like this. I can tell you why. I, along with so many of my counterparts in the IBD community, work tirelessly to educate and inform not only those with Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis about the patient journey, but also caregivers and friends. When misinformation is disseminated it sets the clock back, bigtime. It further stigmatizes our illness, especially when the false statements are said by someone who lives with IBD. Not only does it hurt those grieving and trying to come to terms with their lifelong diagnosis, but it’s a direct attack on those diagnosed as pediatrics and those who did everything by the book (ate well, exercised, got lots of sleep, managed stress, etc.) and STILL got IBD.

If there was a magic bullet or diet that helped “cure” or manage all of us, we would do it. If there was a way to prevent IBD, people would do it. Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis aren’t like lung cancer, which is sometimes caused by smoking or diabetes which is sometimes caused by being overweight or liver disease which can be caused by excessive drinking. IBD is complicated and mysterious. There is not a behavior or habit that is associated with possibly “getting it” one day. The two known factors—hereditary and environmental—leave much to the imagination. I personally have no family history. I was a picture of health until the two months leading up to my Crohn’s diagnosis in July 2005. It felt as though a light switch went off and my world went from being healthy and able-bodied to being chronically ill.

You did nothing wrong

If you’re reading this and wondering what you did to cause your disease, the answer is nothing. If you’re reading this as a parent and feel as though you could have fed your child less processed food or breastfed them instead of giving formula or shouldn’t have had your child vaccinated, please stop believing that. I know we all want a reason. We all want answers and some clarity as to the why—but, at the end of the day, does it really matter? Focusing on the why doesn’t help us focus on the how. HOW are we going to get through this? HOW are we going to manage our disease and live a full life? HOW are we going to cope during flares and periods of remission? HOW are we going to navigate the unknown and thrive? HOW are we going to find the right treatment plan? HOW are we going to target our triggers and learn what to avoid? Focus on what you can tangibly do to improve your patient journey and less on the coulda, shoulda, woulda’s, because just like each case of IBD is unique, so is each back story.

Here I am as a little girl. Long before being diagnosed at age 21. This little girl did nothing to deserve or cause Crohn’s disease.

Stop the finger pointing and the blame game. Stop making the medical community out to be the bad guys and the adversary. Stop acting as though those who depend on medication and need surgery failed in any way.

Start collaborating with your care team and finding physicians who listen and genuinely care about the approach you wish to take to manage and treat your disease, while also understanding that a holistic and “med-free” approach may not be feasible for your type of disease process. Start getting involved and educating yourself about how IBD manifests and the complicated nature of not only Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis, but also the extraintestinal manifestations and mental health aspect that are often not talked about. Even if you’re on medication or have had surgery you can still take whatever measures make you feel better in a complementary way. It’s not all black and white. There’s so much gray area. You can be on a biologic and still try any “elimination diet” you’d like. It’s just a matter of doing what works best for you, without pointing the finger or demeaning others in our community. Start connecting with those who live your reality and lift you up, rather than make you feel like you’re taking the easy way out.

This is 21-year-old me. There were moments where I felt very sick while on this Spring Break trip my senior year of college in March 2005. I attributed the abdominal pain to traveling and eating different food in the Bahamas. Little did I know four short months later I’d receive my Crohn’s diagnosis.

I know that if my 21-year-old self came across posts on social media claiming I caused my Crohn’s and that I could “heal my gut” on my own, I may have believed it. I can tell you nearly 16 years into this, I know without a doubt that is not the case. I am not a failure for taking medication, needing surgery, or trusting my physicians. I credit my 5.5 years of remission to being a compliant, proactive patient who believes in science, educating myself on the facts, and realizing that this disease is bigger than me and a constant learning process. I don’t need to know my why because I’ve done a damn good job of discovering my how’s and you can, too.

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.

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

How a physician with Crohn’s in Ethiopia is helping others with IBD cope

She’s a physician in Ethiopia looking to pave the way for those with IBD. She understands the need because she was diagnosed with Crohn’s in August 2016 at age 22 while she was a fourth-year medical student. After suffering from debilitating symptoms for eight months, she finally received a diagnosis. Dr. Fasika Shimeles Teferra says in her home country and in developing countries, she had always been taught that inflammatory bowel disease was non-existent. She felt isolated and alone as she embarked on her journey with chronic illness. There were no resources. No support. She had no clue where to turn when it came to being understood and knowing how to navigate nutrition.

In her school of medicine, an IBD diagnosis was morbid. She was told if she continued to learn about her illness, she’d die from the stress.

“Despite my medical background, I expected death to be imminent. The breaking point which later turned out to be a turning point for me, was when I was suffering from ovarian cyst torsion, explained Dr. Teferra. “Even though I was in remission at the time, every OBGYN who saw me in the ER refused to operate on me. One doctor refused to operate on me because I’m a “complicated patient with IBD”. He wanted to wait to see if pain meds will help solve it.”

Luckily, one doctor decided to operate on her, but unfortunately, she lost her left fallopian tube and ovary in the process. At age 23, she lost half her chance of being able to conceive a child. Her Crohn’s relapsed a few weeks later and depression set in. (Note: Luckily, she is due with her first child in June!)

“I went to my doctor and told him I was quitting med school (I was 5th year at the time and just starting my medical internship). But what he said changed me forever and made me feel less alone. He told me he was treating multiple IBD cases and that my disease was much more common in Ethiopia than most thought. He also told me Crohn’s was manageable with medication.”

Holding onto new hope

With a renewed sense of hope, Dr. Teferra started advocating for herself and looking for local support groups to connect with others who lived with IBD. The problem—she couldn’t find any! She joined a Facebook group based in the United States and recognized the need for support in Ethiopia.

“I reached out to a couple of gastroenterologists here in Addis and told them I wanted to start a support group in Amharic focusing on sharing experiences, supporting one another. My hope was to help others who were struggling with coping with their diagnosis. I thought sharing my story would make a difference in someone’s life.”

Launching Crohn’s and Colitis Ethiopia to make a difference

After speaking with multiple doctors, Dr. Teferra decided to start an organization that would not only focus on support groups, but also advocacy work for policy makers. The last published data on IBD in Ethiopia dates back to 1990s! She recognized this lapse in research led to major gaps in treatment for IBD patients. This inspired her to launch Crohn’s and Colitis Organization Ethiopia in January 2020. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March 2020, it put everything on hold as the world stood at a standstill.

Even though the organization exists, Dr. Teferra is struggling to garner participation in support groups, because sadly the stigma of IBD leaves many in Ethiopia to suffer in silence and shame. She says fellow IBD patients prefer to communicate directly with her, so she has taken it upon herself to meet them and their families to better explain their condition and how to live a full life with it.

“I try and explain to the patient and their family how they can best take care of themselves and how family members can offer compassionate and empathetic support along the way,” said Dr. Teferra. “Many people discontinue their medication the moment they experience a side effect. I’m also passionate about discussing family planning and breastfeeding. Because of my medical background, I am able to give reliable information about IBD and I am able to use my story to guide the narrative.”

Dr. Teferra also has a registered dietitian who serves as a board member for Crohn’s and Colitis Organization Ethiopia. The nutritionist can provide guidance about how to enjoy Ethiopian cuisine and manage diet in the context of cultural foods.

But Dr. Teferra is only one person and can’t address the growing need for support and care. Even though local gastroenterologists have her contact information, and she tries to meet with as many people as possible, as you can imagine, it gets to be a lot.

Bringing IBD to Prime Time in Ethiopia

During an interview about COVID-19 on national television in Ethiopia, Dr. Teferra took it upon herself to also speak about IBD.

“Since it was Primetime, I was able to reach multiple people at once and I was able to send out the message that those with IBD are not alone. I plan to use such platforms to continue to share facts about IBD and that it does exist in Addis. In the meantime, I am working hard to find a researcher who can work on this with us. We cannot challenge policy makers without evidence, and we cannot change the minds of the medical community without research.”

Dr. Teferra says gastroenterologists in Ethiopia can testify that IBD cases are increasing daily. There is lack of medicine, lack of education, and lack of understanding. Many patients struggle to afford medication and choose to discontinue it because of lack of availability.

Overall, Dr. Teferra main mission with Crohn’s and Colitis Organization Ethiopia is to improve the quality of life and health literacy of people living with IBD in Ethiopia and provide the patient community with a better understanding of their condition by empowering them to take charge of their own health.

Connect with Dr. Fasika Shimeles Teferra on Twitter: @DrFasika.

Email: fasikateferramd@gmail.com

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

Why Every Person with Chronic Illness Needs to Read “What Doesn’t Kill You”

Prior to receiving a chronic illness diagnosis, it’s incredibly challenging and nearly impossible to fathom ‘forever sickness’. In Tessa Miller’s book, “What Doesn’t Kill You: A Life with Chronic Illness–Lessons from a Body in Revolt”, she masterfully articulates the highs and lows of life with Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD). From navigating the diagnosis, flare ups, the healthcare system, relationships, and the mental health component, she’s created an invaluable resource that I wish every single person with chronic illness could be handed the moment they find out their life story has taken an unforeseen turn.

As someone who was diagnosed with Crohn’s in 2005, two months after college graduation, I wish my former self had these powerful words at my fingertips. The overwhelming nature of IBD can be nearly suffocating at times. As I read this page-turner of a book, I felt seen and understood. I found myself nodding my head, because I could relate to so much of her story and so much of her sage advice. I felt like a college student highlighting what felt like the whole page, because it was ALL so important.

Tessa and I are both journalists. We both have Crohn’s. We both randomly grew up in Illinois. I connected with her over social media after reading her New York Times article, “Five Things I Wish I had Known Before My Chronic Illness.” The article had an impact on me, so when I heard she landed a deal with a publisher, I anxiously awaited for this book to drop.

In the beginning of “What Doesn’t Kill You,” Tessa writes, “I became a professional patient, and a good one. I learned that bodies can be inexplicably resilient and curiously fragile. I would never get better, and that would change everything: the way I think about my body, my health, my relationships, my work, and my life. When things get rough, people like to say, “this too shall pass.” But what happens when “this” never goes away?”

Finding the Right Care Team

When you live with a disease like Crohn’s, it’s imperative you trust your gastroenterologist and care team and are confident in how they help you manage your illness. I always tell fellow patients to take a moment and think about who they will feel comfortable with at their bedside in a hospital room when they’re flaring or facing surgery. If it’s not your current doctor, it’s time to look elsewhere. Tessa breaks down the “qualifications” for getting a care team in place. From finding a doctor who explains why they’re doing what they’re doing and why to a doctor who looks at you as a human, not an opportunity.

“Good doctors see their loved ones in their patients; they make choices for their patients that they would make for their own family. Asking a doctor, “Why did you choose this line of medicine?” will reveal a lot about what drives them and how they view their patients.”

The Grieving Process of Chronic Illness

Receiving a chronic illness diagnosis forces us each to go through the grieving process. For many of us, we were naïve and felt invincible before our health wasn’t a given. We’re so used to feeling as though we’re in control of our destiny, that when we lose that control, we spiral, understandably. Tessa interviewed Paul Chafetz, PhD, a clinical psychologist based in Dallas. Dr. Chafetz is quoted in the book saying, “We go through life with an illusion of safety, guaranteed health, even immortality. Acquiring a chronic illness pierces that illusion, and this is a loss. Grieving this loss is an integral part of adjusting to the illness.”

Take a moment to stop and think how you coped those first few weeks and months after finding out you had a chronic illness. While acceptance takes time and comes in different stages, Tessa explains how flexibility and willingness to adapt to your new “normal” is even more important.

“Rather than searching for big, sweeping acceptance, then feeling like a failure when it doesn’t come, chronically ill folks can enact small, empowering steps, such as taking required medications, learning everything we can about how our diseases work, seeing doctors regularly and being prepared for appointments with a list of questions, advocating for our needs and wants, figuring out which foods makes us feel good, and going to therapy and/or connecting with a support group.”

In my own patient advocacy and experience living with Crohn’s I can attest to the fact that we all spend a lot of time wishing for our past and worry about what our futures will hold, rather than focusing on the right now. The majority of IBD patients are diagnosed prior to age 35. This leads most of us to experience the big milestones of adulthood (career, finding love, living on our own, family planning, etc.) with a disease in tow and wondering how that disease is going to complicate life or hold us back from accomplishing all we aspire to.

Bringing on the Biologics

Tessa calls herself an “infliximab veteran,” she spends a great deal of time talking with new patients and caretakers, mostly moms of young IBDers, about their fears. Most questions I receive through my blog and social media also revolve around biologics and the worries people have about side effects and whether the drug will fail them or be a success. I feel confident deeming myself an “adalimumab veteran”, as I’ve been giving myself Humira injections since 2008.

As patients we are faced with difficult decisions all the time and must look at the risk versus the benefit. Having health literacy and understanding your actual risk from a biologic is something that should be communicated with you from your physician. Tessa’s doctor explained to her that six in 10,000 people who take anti-TNF agents (Humira and Remicade) get lymphoma. But as patients, all we see on the internet and in the side effect notes are “lymphoma.” Force yourself to dig digger and remind yourself of your alternative—to not feel better.

The Truth Serum of Chronic Illness

One of the superpowers of chronic illness is that we get to see which family members and friends come to the forefront and which fade to the background. Not everyone is cut out to be a caregiver, but you’ll quickly see who has empathy and who genuinely cares. In my own personal experience, it’s helped me get out of relationships with guys who were no where to be seen while I lied in a hospital bed and allowed me to distance myself from friends who couldn’t find the time in their day to check in when they knew I was flaring.

Tessa says that chronic illness forced her to peel back the layers and the isolation wall she put up, too. Chronic illness has shown her that people do more than just hurt each other— “they nurture, they listen, they enrich one another’s lives.” Her IBD also empowered her to be brave enough to put an end to unhealthy relationships that weren’t benefiting her well-being, both with friends and love interests. Her Crohn’s has showed her that not every friendship is meant to support you in the same way.

This is a great piece of advice. As you live with a chronic illness, you’ll come to know which friends you can share your deep dark secrets and worries with, and which you give the high-level cliff notes version of your experience to. Your chronic illness will help you set those boundaries in a graceful way.

Her love story with her husband embodies what those of us with chronic illness deserve, a partner who sees us as more than our disease, but understands the severity and complexity at the same time.

Juggling a Career and Crohn’s

One of the biggest challenges of life with IBD is knowing how and when to disclose your health situation with your employer. You may wonder how the news will be received, if it will jeopardize your chance for promotion, if your coworkers will resent you…the list goes on and on. As someone who worked in the TV industry as a producer, news anchor and reporter for nearly a decade, and as a PR professional and corporate communications specialist, I’ve been lucky that all my bosses have been incredibly understanding of my struggles with Crohn’s, but never used them against me in any way. I’ve always waited until after I have received the job offer and then told my boss in a meeting the first week of work. This alleviated some of the stress on my shoulders and ensured my coworkers wouldn’t be blindsided when I had a flare that landed me in the hospital. By communicating openly, it also to set an expectation that I may not always feel up to par and that I may need more bathroom breaks or to work from home or come in late after doctor appointments.

Tessa so eloquently writes, “You want your boss to understand that while your disease affects your life, you’re still capable of doing your job. Deliver the necessary facts about your illness without bombarding your boss with information—keep it direct and simple. Be clear about how you manage the illness and that although you do your best to keep it under control, it can flare up. Tell your boss what you’ll do if and when that happens.”

Realizing the Power of Pain

One of my favorite analogies that Tessa shares in the book is that each of us carries an invisible bucket, some are heavier than others, and the weight of that said bucket is constantly in fluctuation. She says that as she started connecting with those in our community, she came to realize that her personal pain was no better or worse than anyone else’s. So often we weigh our struggles against those of others, and that’s not helpful to beneficial for anyone.

“Think about it: If a friend came to you in pain, would you tell them that other people have it worse and that their pain isn’t valid? If you did, you’d be a lousy friend—so why do you speak to yourself in such a way?”

Rather than thinking that ‘someone always has it worse’ ask for support when you need it. Don’t downplay your struggles out of guilt thinking you aren’t deserving of help. Give support when you can but don’t forget about the person you see looking back in the mirror, be loving, kind, and patient to them, too.

Leaving the Rest to Imagination

Some of my other favorite excerpts from the book are Tessa’s “Seven Secrets”. The secrets (both big and small) she keeps from loved ones and friends about her experience with IBD. The secrets are relatable. We don’t want to come off as a burden. We don’t want to scare those who mean something to us. We want to hold on tightly to the notion that our illness doesn’t define us, so we often don’t disclose the true reality of what encompasses our illness.

Another section I know you’ll love is “Thirty-Eight Experiences of Joy” where Tessa shares quotes from 38 different people with chronic illness and how they’ve discovered joy despite their illness. I’m honored to be featured in that section of the book.

She understands the power of community and how finding your tribe within your disease space and outside of it is an important aspect of disease management and life fulfillment.

“Connecting with other chronically ill people teaches you how to carry each other’s weight—when to lift when you have strength, and when to share the burden when you have no energy left,” writes Tessa. “I’ve found the chronic illness and disability community to be one of endless empathy and generosity.”

The Gratitude That Comes with Chronic Illness

I’ll leave you with one of my favorite quotes from the book and a perspective that I wholeheartedly share:

“At the beginning of my illness, I was so inwardly focused on what I’d lost that I couldn’t see the gifts illness had given me. Mom, a determined optimist, taught me to always look for the silver lining. Mine is this: Yeah, my body won’t allow for any bullshit—no jobs I hate, no relationships I’m not fulfilled by, no hours crying over wrinkles. Illness made me braver, kinder, and more empathetic, and that gives me way more radical power than the faux control I was clutching to for so long. In the most unexpected way, illness freed me. It compelled me to begin therapy, which kick-started the process of tending my wounds old and new. It made me focus on the present more than the anxiety of the future. And it made me be in my body in a way I never experienced before. Suddenly, I had to mindfully care for my body and brain as best I could and understand that beyond that, it’s out of my hands.”

Connect with Tessa:

Twitter: @TessaJeanMiller

Instagram: @tessajeanmiller

Her website

Purchase “What Doesn’t Kill You: A Life with Chronic Illness–Lessons from a Body in Revolt”

Amazon

Barnes & Noble

IndieBound

Stay tuned to my Instagram (@natalieannhayden) for a special book giveaway kicking off today (February 8)! Five lucky followers in the United States will receive a FREE hardcover copy of Tessa’s book.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Parsa with his parents.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Decision to Open Up

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

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

The Power of Connecting with the IBD Community

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

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

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

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

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