The steps one IBD mom and teacher takes to stay healthy, while being immune suppressed

Biologic drugs have the ability to give many of us in the IBD community a chance to live a much fuller, and well-rounded life. But there are trade-offs, especially when it comes to our immunity and the ability to fight off infections. As a mom of a 2-year-old and 6-month-old whose been on Humira for more than 11 years, I’m extremely cognizant of protecting my kids from sickness to not only protect them, but myself. I often feel as though people may think I’m over the top with worrying about illness in my household, but quite honestly, unless you or someone you love is immune compromised, it can be a difficult concept to grasp.

This week–a special feature from a Maryland elementary school teacher with indeterminate colitis. Meet Lisa Lacritz. lisaShe’s a 38-year-old wife and mom who juggles two autoimmune diseases. She also has Hashimoto’s disease. Since she started on Remicade in 2018 following her IBD diagnosis, she’s experienced the difficulty of  warding off illness while being an elementary school teacher and a mom to a young child.

“Shoes off, hands washed!”  My son knows the routine by heart. Every time we come into the house, shoes come off and hands get washed. I like to think that all of my years spent worrying about germs when I didn’t need to be, were fantastic training for when I actually needed to be concerned.

When I was diagnosed with IBD, I was hesitant to get on a biologic because of my fear of being immunosuppressed. I’m an elementary school teacher and when I started on Remicade infusions, my son was only six. I basically spend my day in a Petri dish. fullsizeoutput_269aDealing with the symptoms of IBD was more than enough–how on Earth would I be able to handle that plus avoid picking up viruses at school and in public?

Taking steps to be proactive 

After I got sick on the second day of school last fall, I decided that washing my hands frequently wasn’t going to cut it. I have always been a frequent hand washer, especially at school, but I needed more protection. At first, I was nervous about how others would perceive me. There were a lot of confused looks by coworkers and students when I would politely decline to use someone else’s pen. I started carrying a pen with me everywhere to ensure I wouldn’t have to use a communal pen. Now people know that I always have “my” pen with me and that I don’t share it with others.

Another thing I’m very careful about is touching door handles and knobs, especially the door to the main office. The main office is where you can find the school’s health room, where every sick kid passes through. I either wait for someone else to come and open the door, or I use a barrier such as a paper towel to open it and then wash my hands right away.

I never touch my face and I keep my phone in a plastic bag (quart size bags work great!) so that I keep school germs at school. Kids are definitely puzzled by that last one, but I explain that I need to keep germs away as much as possible, and if I need to touch my phone then my phone gets the germs on it so I protect it with a plastic bag.

Worrying less what others thought and making my needs a priority

fullsizeoutput_3800I really needed to stop caring about what others think and prioritize my health. One of the most surprising things to me was that people really don’t understand what immunosuppression means. Some people think I’m just a paranoid germaphobe even after I’ve explained that I’m immunosuppressed. They don’t understand that a simple cold for them, can mean days of sick leave for me due to a secondary infection. Or a fun day swimming in the bay can mean a bacterial infection for me that lasts for weeks and causes symptoms similar to a bad flare.

Yes, it is mentally exhausting to worry about immunosuppression on top of all the other things chronic illness brings. Plus being a teacher. Plus being a mom.

As much as I hate getting sick, the worst part for me is missing out on doing fun things with my son. IMG_0580Somehow my body knows when we have something fun planned and chooses those times to conk out on me. When I’m lying on the couch at home feeling sorry for myself while my husband and son are at a friend’s New Year’s Eve party or Memorial Day BBQ (both events I missed this year), I try to remind myself that Remicade is what allows me to lead a relatively normal life and be able to do things like go sledding with my son on a snow day and take him Trick or Treating. I couldn’t do those things when I was in a bad flare before treatment and definitely can appreciate them more now. I just make sure shoes come off and hands are washed right when we get home.

 

Why you shouldn’t put ‘self-heal’ and Crohn’s in the same sentence

This article was written earlier this month, while getting my hair done. 

I hear her cry. I glance at the clock that reads 4:55 a.m. I clutch my abdomen. The pain I went to bed with hours earlier is amplified. IMG_4409It feels like a fiery pain inside my rib cage that travels all the way down my stomach. The gnawing makes me feel raw internally and externally. I put my glasses on and as I’m standing up and rocking my daughter in her nursery, I try to think of her warm little body as a heating pad.

I wrestle with my thoughts about how to handle my pain. Last time I took pain medication I couldn’t breastfeed my daughter for 20 hours. I decide to take one 600 mg ibuprofen left over from my C-section recovery, with the understanding that as someone with IBD I shouldn’t be taking that. But I’m desperate. Desperate to get a reprieve from the pain and the inner monologue racing in my head as I lay back down. While at the same time, trying to keep my painful moans quiet so I don’t wake my husband.

I wake up and the pain is still there, but I have no choice but to take on the day. Thanks to my mom being in town, I’m able to head to the hair salon for a much needed hair cut and color. The stylist asks me questions and my Crohn’s comes up fairly quickly in the conversation. Her response—“one of my best friends has Crohn’s and she’s completely self-healed herself by eating very strictly”. She goes on to say her godmother has Crohn’s, too—and constantly posts pics on social media eating and drinking, so it’s no wonder she struggles, acting almost disgusted by her godmother’s lifestyle and patient journey.

I bite my tongue. The pain from the night before and the worries weighing heavily on my mind and heart are still fresh. Self-healing and Crohn’s, if only it were that easy, that simplistic. But I don’t have the energy to get into that discussion. IMG-3099The fact that so many people without IBD are under the assumption that our pain and symptoms are self- imposed upsets me. We already beat ourselves up mentally as it is. My husband and I took our son for ice cream last night, so immediately I wonder if all of my pain is a result of the choice to have ice cream with my 2-year-old.

As a mom who’s battled Crohn’s for nearly 14 years, the background noise and ignorant comments about IBD tend to bounce off me. I have thick skin, now. But, it’s worrisome at the same time. What if the girl getting her hair done wasn’t me? What if she was newly diagnosed and struggling? What if she chose to go off all medications and “self-heal” because someone cutting her hair told her it was possible? This is what we’re up against as patients. Everyone tries to relate and thinks they are offering “words of wisdom” or assurance, when really they’re just contributing to the hurt and feelings of being less than. IMG-4410

Luckily, I’m not that girl. But—if you’re reading this, know that your patient journey is unique to you. What works for one person, will not necessarily work for you. Needing medication to manage symptoms and keep your disease from progressing is not a sign of laziness or weakness. You need to take the steps necessary to improve your quality of life and overall health. Living with IBD is not black and white. There is so much gray area. Trust in your physician. Trust in the support available both online and in your community from fellow patients. Be patient in discovering what works for you, be flexible, and do what you need to do to self-heal.

10 Tips for Ensuring Your Significant Other Can Handle Your IBD For the Long Haul

This article is sponsored by Healthline. Thoughts and opinions are my own.

Dating is complicated. Dating can be stressful. Dating can force you to get out of your comfort zone.

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One of my first photos with my husband, Bobby.

When you live with a chronic illness, dating can be downright daunting. When should you bring up your IBD with a significant other? How can you navigate the ups and downs that come along with your illness? How can you reach a sense of comfort when you need to run to the bathroom or cancel plans?

There’s not only one correct answer to any of those questions. But, as a woman who was diagnosed at age 21, who is now 35 and married with kids, I’m happy to share what worked for me. I recently led a Live Chat on Healthline’s IBD app about this topic. The main areas of concern revolved around significant others failing to grasp the severity of the disease. It’s difficult to fault what can sound like shortcomings, but being a caretaker isn’t easy. Not everyone is cut out for it.

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Celebratory post- colonoscopy cheesecake!

And that is ok.

Here are my top 10 tips for educating significant others—whether it’s dating or marriage about what your experience as a patient is like.

  1. Bring your loved one along to doctor appointments.

Oftentimes, people have no clue how severe and debilitating IBD is. Let your partner hear it from the horse’s mouth (i.e. the doctor). By sitting in on appointments, not only is it a source of support for you, but a chance for them to ask questions, listen to the discussion, and hear about all that goes into managing your chronic illness.

  1. Have a social worker or counselor speak with you both so that you’re on the same page.

Oftentimes a loved one isn’t acting maliciously; they just don’t know how to cope with what life with IBD entails. Talking with a professional gives you a safe space and an even playing field to ‘air your dirty laundry’ and gather advice about actionable ways you can improve your relationship.

  1. Communicate when you’re in pain—don’t sugarcoat or downplay your symptoms.
    If you’re hurting, say it. IMG_7446If you’re struggling, tell them. The more you keep your mask on and your wall up, the more your partner will think you have everything under control and that your IBD isn’t much of a “big deal” in your life.
  2. If your feelings are hurt—articulate why. Resentment leads to stress and can activate symptoms. Be brutally honest and open. You can’t expect your lover to be a mind reader. By bottling up your frustration you may take out your anger in a big way, when an issue could be solved and nipped in the bud before it becomes bigger than it needs to be.
  1. Connect with fellow IBD patients on Healthline’s IBD app.

Whether it’s a live chat, reading articles, or matching up with fellow patients, Healthline’s new IBD app is a space where we all get you. We’ve all been there. We’re all standing ready. Ready to lift you up. Ready to answer your questions. Ready to listen to you vent and share advice. Advice that can make a major impact in your most personal and important relationships. Because at the end of the day, you want someone who loves you for all of you, and that includes your IBD.

  1. Share blog articles and social media posts from fellow IBD advocates that may be able to articulate what you’re going through.

Sometimes as patients, we’re going through so much but it can be difficult to put into words. While each person’s disease presents uniquely, chances are we’ve gone through similar experiences. If you read an article that resonates or see a post on social media that hits close to home for you—share it. This is an easy way to casually show the person you love that this is what you’re going through. A simple email with a link to an article—works wonders.

  1. If you want your person by your side at procedures and during hospitalizations, say it.

During the live chat, there was some discussion about fiancés and husbands not going to procedures or being by the bedside during the hospitalization. That a put a lot in perspective for me, as my husband has never left my side when I’ve been hospitalized (not even for an hour) and has gone to every colonoscopy.

Photo by J Elizabeth Photography www.jelizabethphotos.com

Photo cred: J. Elizabeth Photography

I’ve never had to ask. Bobby just does that because he wants to. If you want your significant other there, tell them. The disease is isolating enough, the last thing you need is to be lying alone in the middle of the night with your racing thoughts and the beeping machines.

  1. Be with someone who you can be vulnerable with.

IBD isn’t pretty. There are days where we’re cooped up in the bathroom. There are times we’re in the fetal position for hours. If you feel at ease at your worst with your person, that’s a good sign. Recognize how you feel when you’re at your lowest point and at your best. Pay attention to how they respond when the going gets tough.

  1. When the red flags are waving feverishly in front of your face, don’t be afraid to walk away.

Listen to your gut. You know deep down if you constantly feel like a second thought or if your partner repeatedly lets you down. If they make you feel guilty, less than, or put off by your patient experience, time to say buh-bye. Trust me, you will count your blessings in the future.

  1. Take them along to local Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation events. IMG_8059

By attending local events you’ll be able to connect face-to-face with fellow couples and families living your same reality. You’ll discover how much you have in common right away. This also enables your partner to have someone who “gets” what it’s like to be a caretaker. Set up a double date or a time to hang out outside of public events.

How it feels to be hospitalized as a mom with Crohn’s

It’s my greatest fear, having to be hospitalized with a Crohn’s flare as a mom of two little ones. It’s something I think about all too often. The thought alone scares me. It’s difficult to imagine the reality of the experience. Since becoming a mom, I’ve been fortunate enough to stay out of the hospital. Unfortunately, for a friend of mine in the IBD community—she’s had to face this reality all too often.

Her son, Beckham is two months older than Reid. Our little guys could pass for brothers. This week—a guest post from Brooke Retherford, a fellow IBD mama from Wisconsin. She shares the raw emotions she’s experienced since her diagnosis at age 13.

IMG_2014I’ve had my fair share of surprises and obstacles with Crohn’s disease. My patient journey includes numerous surgeries, multiple doctor appointments a week, sitting in hospitals getting Remicade infusions, switching up medications to tame a flare and my all-time favorite, hospitalizations for days at a time. Please note the sarcasm in that last sentence.

These instances are not by any means convenient or something I or anyone else with Crohn’s looks forward to. Hospitalizations are such an emotional time for someone fighting this disease. The uncertainty, the physical pain, being absent from work and home and causing those around you the inconvenience of throwing off schedules for a week at a time. But, the absolute worst part is adding an infant to the mix.

When my son was just 4 weeks old my Crohn’s reared its ugly head and sent me and my disease packing to the hospital for a week. IMG_2015When the pain presented, I tried everything I could to avoid the trip. I just wanted to stay home and live my life with a newborn, enjoy the snuggles and oddly enough the 3 am feedings. Then, the time came when I couldn’t even get through a feeding without needing to set him down so I could run to the bathroom. I knew it was time.

It was no walk in the park having to be away from a little one. I cried. I was upset and mad at my situation. I felt like a terrible mom for letting the disease consume my life and take me away from my child. Luckily, I have a great support system that understands the emotions behind a hospitalization. My husband always brings our son Beckham to the hospital. I get to FaceTime my family to say goodnight and get pictures of my son throughout the day. Family (1)

Unfortunately, that wasn’t my last stint in the hospital for Crohn’s. Now that our son is two, I have officially lost count of my time spent away from him. Hospitalizations never get easier. Especially now when he knows I am physically absent from his life and he asks, ‘where did Mommy go?’ It’s heartbreaking and frustrating.

There are always tears involved, mostly mine, but I’ve come to terms with the fact that I am a better mom for realizing that I need to make myself healthy and not let this disease define what type of parent I am.

Band of IBD brothers: The power of paying it forward

Through the years, I’ve come to notice that much of the IBD advocacy space is female dominated, even though according to the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation, men and women are equally likely to be affected. While there are some vocal and passionate men who share their patient journey, I’ve always felt there’s a need for more.

justin 3I recently connected with Justin Birnbaum. He’s a 26-year-old grad student at Northwestern University who was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis in 2015. He underwent a Colectomy in 2016 and six surgeries later, still has an ileostomy. Justin is studying journalism. As part of a school project, he profiled fellow IBD warrior, Robby Denien. Robby has served as a mentor to Justin and helped him take on his disease. This week—a guest post by Justin—about the benefits of their brotherhood, and how their bond has inspired him to give back to those in our community.

On occasion, I remember picturing what Robby Denien looked like.

Despite being in contact for almost three years, we had never met in person — communicating primarily by email and text message. I connected with Robby through a friend from college. She had come to visit me in the hospital and mentioned that her cousin was going through the same thing, a few months further along.

This past summer, being that we were both located in Chicago, we arranged to finally meet. I wanted to share Robby’s story, partly because of how remarkable it was and partly because it mirrored the very same struggles with ulcerative colitis that plagued my life.

After that meeting, there was one observation that stuck with me above all else — he looked healthy. J-Pouch surgery does not work out for everyone. It has a high success rate, but people are still condemned to live with alternative solutions such as a permanent ileostomy.

As someone who already dealt with failed surgeries and remains skeptical about finding a resolution to all of this, it meant a lot to see Robby thriving. He represented what my future could be like.

Leaning on others for support

justin 1When I was diagnosed, my mother and I were terrified. We jumped at the opportunity to speak to someone who knew the ropes and could safely tell us there was light at the end of the tunnel.

And that’s how it all began. Days before my third, and what should have been my final surgery, I sat down with my mother and composed a crisp 250-word email. Twelve hours later, Robby responded.

Robby lives a full life, working full-time as a music teacher. He had no obligation to answer that quickly or respond whatsoever. But he understood what I was going through. In my first email, Robby could see how paralyzed I was with fear of the days to come. He willingly opted to be a mentor to me. Why? Because someone had chosen to do the same for him during his tough times.

“When you meet somebody or have a friend who has ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s, there’s almost like a tight brotherhood of sorts,” Robby said.

Life after surgery with IBD

Having surgery is a tough experience to bear. In the case of IBD patients, one of the biggest concerns can be wondering what life will be like after going through all of this. In the first week of our correspondence, I sent him a long list of questions and he responded with a 2,000-word email. His words and his experiences helped calm my fears.

It was more than I could have asked for – a person, with IBD, to bounce any question or idea off of. Someone who was willing to tolerate my craziness and help me come to terms with what would be my new normal.

Paying it forward as a mentor

It also taught me a valuable lesson. When dealing with a life-altering condition like IBD, the best thing you could do for those around you is to share your knowledge and to pay it forward. Ever since Robby became a mentor of sorts to me, I have resolved to do the same for anyone who will allow me. And by doing so, I’ve made some great friends.

It’s always nice to have others to commiserate with when IBD is giving you a tough time. It’s even better when that person knows exactly what you’re experiencing. IBD can have such denigrating effects on your life that it’s easy to ball up and shut out the outside world, but that’s the not the right way to go about it.

We have to stick together. We have to continue to fight. And most of all, we have to keep our heads held high even when this disease brings us down to our darkest of days. That’s what this brotherhood is all about.

A letter to my 21-year-old, newly diagnosed self: From 13 years in the future

This past week I turned 35. Birthdays for me are always a time of reflection on what was and excitement for what the future holds. Each year is so transformative, especially when it comes to how you handle and deal with chronic illness. natalie35bdayWhen I was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease at age 21, a month before my 22nd birthday—life had so many unknowns. I bottled up a lot of fears about how my life story would unfold and if I would be able to accomplish the hopes and dreams I had thought were a given.

This week, a letter to my 21-year-old, newly diagnosed self—from my current 35-year-old self. With time and experience, comes perspective. Perspective that I wish I had back when my world came crashing down upon me after learning I would forever have a disease for which there is no cure.

For those embarking on this journey—whether you’re the patient or the parent—you may feel like you are drowning in worry of what is to come with your lives. I hope my words will bring you comfort and the knowingness that you have a lot of life to live, and you will do just that.

Dear Natalie (age 21),

I can still see you looking at yourself in the mirror—feeling like a skeleton of who you used to be. Cheeks sunken in, eyes tired, arms covered with bright purple bruises from all the IV sticks, pokes and prods. You’re sitting up in bed, popping big bubbles with your chewing gum, trying to deal with the insomnia and ravenous appetite that comes along with taking 60 mg of prednisone. You’re thinking about how easy and simplistic life was a matter of weeks ago, graduating from college—hoping to land your first television gig as a news reporter.

Everything feels like it’s in shambles. You are perplexed about why you were dealt this hand of cards and why the rug was completely pulled out from under you, when just a matter of months ago you had the world by the tail.

Here’s what I want you to know. Nothing comes before your health. No job, no relationship, no friendship. There are going to be difficult times ahead as you figure out which people in your life genuinely want to be by your side, and which are only around for the fun, healthy times. feb13blogmainphotoIt’s a path that will bring you heartache. Significant others will let you down—you’ll be disheartened when they fail to show up when you need them most…but, then it will happen. You will meet the person who was meant to fight this fight beside you. You’ll know. You’ll see how that person loves you unconditionally and even more so, because of your illness. They will see you as so much more—see yourself the way they see you. Not some sick person. A person who has a sickness that is part of them, but far from all of them.

Professionally—you may need to take a different path that better suits your needs. natalienews2Don’t allow this illness to make you think you aren’t capable—because you are. You will surprise yourself, if you continue to be positive and find alternative ways to make your dreams become your reality. I know you’re sitting there with your huge spreadsheet of 200 U.S. cities, wondering which TV station you’ll be able to work at…and if your journalism career will ever happen. Looking back—I’m so proud of you for continuing that job search amidst your very first flare. Looking for jobs across the country, as you swallowed 22 pills a day, grappled with a chronic illness diagnosis and dealt with all the side effects and pain that is Crohn’s. Work ethic and attitude will take you far with this disease. IMG_4248You will shine under those bright studio lights.

Stop with the timelines and deadlines in your mind. You don’t need to be married and have kids by age 30. I know you think you want that, but trust in God’s plan for you and know that your future will fall into place the way it is meant to. Don’t rush yourself. Don’t feel less than just because all your friends seem to be checking off those boxes. Your time will come.

When you attend doctor appointments and when you are hospitalized be vocal. Be your own best advocate. Don’t be intimidated by the people in white coats. You know your body better than anybody else. It’s ok to cry. It’s ok to be angry. It’s ok to lash out. Have patience with yourself as you navigate your new normal and trust that the temporary hardships and hurt are just that, scary. The first of anything can be scary. FullSizeRenderThat first CT scan, that first colonoscopy, that first surgery, that first injection…it’s a lot to deal with. You’ll shake like a leaf and then as time goes on—you won’t bat an eye. You will find a strength within yourself that you never knew was there. You’ll be a seasoned warrior in no time.

What seems so foreign to you now, will soon be something you understand and can decipher immediately. Those symptoms—the pain, it’s all new now. In the future, you’ll have a good idea of what’s happening. What triggered it. How to help yourself. You won’t be as alarmed. You’ll know exactly what you need to do and when a hospital visit is a must.

I want you to know that everything is going to be alright. It’s going to be more than alright. You will thrive. You’ll beat the odds. You’ll land multiple TV gigs. You’ll fall in love. You’ll meet the one. You’ll be a mommy. IMG_6401You’ll do all these things. All with your sidekick—your enemy, but also your ally, Crohn’s. The one thing that really sets you apart. In the future you won’t keep your disease a secret, rather it will come up in conversations almost immediately, with a sense of confidence. A badge of honor. Yes, I have Crohn’s. Yes, it’s not ideal. But, yes…it’s made me sort of a bad ass. I’ve been through a lot. I haven’t backed down. And there’s so much life left to live.

You are not broken. You are not less than. This disease will take you on a journey you never imagined. Hold on tight, hang in there through all the scares and celebrate all the wonderful feel good days when your quality of life feels untouchable. And smile. Smile on the good days, smile through the bad days. Trust me. You got this. _F6B6137

Love yourself—everything that makes you, you—

Natalie, age 35