When you have IBD and you start to notice GI symptoms going awry, it’s easy to allow your mind to start racing and your worries to become all-consuming. This past week I did an in-person patient advocacy speaking engagement, came home, and started feeling extremely fatigued. Within an hour, I vomited, and the diarrhea began. Not to be TMI (is that even a thing when you have IBD?), but this wasn’t just “normal” diarrhea. It felt like I was prepping for a colonoscopy. Straight water-like diarrhea that hit me like a ton of bricks. I couldn’t stop. In that moment, I thought about how I was on an antibiotic for a sinus infection and bronchitis and knew that alone, with Crohn’s disease, put me at greater risk for C.diff.
For those who don’t know, “C.diff” or Clostridioides difficile is a bacterium that causes an infection of the large intestine (colon). Symptoms can range from diarrhea to life-threatening damage to the colon. According to the Mayo Clinic, C.diff typically occurs after or during the use of antibiotic medications. In the United States, about 500,000 people are infected each year.
The risk of C.diff and IBD
When I couldn’t stop going to the bathroom, I immediately contacted my GI. Being that it was 4 pm on a Friday, the timing of it all was challenging. She called me from home and said she normally wouldn’t be too concerned, but the fact I had just finished a course of prednisone while being on doxycycline put me at greater risk. She warned that if I had diarrhea the following day or if I had a fever at any time, that I would need to get tested for C. diff and go to the hospital. She put in orders so I would be able to do so and told me to contact the Fellow on staff if I had concerns over the weekend.
Saturday came and with the bathroom trips came unbelievable abdominal pain, reminiscent of what a bowel obstruction feels like. I could barely walk and was grasping my abdomen in pain hunched over. I had already called and spoken to the Fellow on call three different times. In that moment, my husband called his mom so she could watch our three kids and we rushed to the emergency room.
A study by the University of Michigan recently looked into the relationship between IBD and C.Diff. The study found that people with IBD are at an increased risk for C.diff, even if we haven’t taken antibiotics. It’s believed something about the IBD gut supports C.diff colonization and growth, but the actual relationship is still a bit mysterious. This study looked at a mouse model and found, “inflammation and changes in the gut microbiota associated with IBD promote C.diff intestinal colonization.”
For those of us with IBD, our immune system mistakes normal intestinal microbes as harmful invaders and attacks them, leading to inflammation in our guts. The cause of C.diff is similar, with the immune system, microbiota, and C.diff itself playing a role in infection.
The burden of C.diff on the IBD population
According to an interview in Pharmacy Times, we’re at greater risk for C.diff when our IBD is active. This is because active inflammation changes the flora in our microbiome and puts us at greater risk for developing infection. In this piece Bincy Abraham, MD, MS says we see C.diff in both ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease patients but tend to see it more in those with UC since the colon is directly impacted.
Get this—A database of patients with IBD showed 10% will have at least one C. diffinfection over the course of their lifetime. Half will have more than one. WebMD shares that C.diff infection begins with frequent, watery, foul-smelling bowel movements and cramps in your abdomen. When I was unsure if I had C.diff that was the number one question I kept getting asked. People told me the smell was very unique—like a barnyard, sour smell. Thanks to my sinus infection congestion, I had no idea what it smelled like. But—it’s important to look out for that if symptoms present. Medical professionals told me they can tell right away by the smell, if it’s C.diff.
Symptoms of C.diff
While watery diarrhea with a strong odor is the main indicator—there are other symptoms to watch out for:
-Abdominal pain and cramps
-Fever (I had the chills, but my GI assured me that was due to dehydration from the diarrhea)
-Nausea and/or vomiting
-Loss of appetite
-In severe cases, blood or pus in stools
For anyone with IBD, these symptoms are reflective of what we experience with an IBD flare. So, it can feel especially concerning in the moment as you try and figure out what’s going on.
My rough ER experience and finally getting tested
I always him and haw and dread the thought of seeking medical care at the ER. It brings about so many emotions and past trauma. But in this case, I knew I needed to wave the white flag and get to the bottom of what was happening. After waiting four excruciating hours in the ER, I wasn’t sure how much more I could take. I was moaning in pain and hobbling back and forth repeatedly to the bathroom. Bobby was using a wheelchair to push me around. The nurses in triage were incredibly unprofessional and lacked any empathy. It was like nothing I’ve ever experienced. I was basically reprimanded for showing emotion about my pain and told others had it worse. It was despicable. She waved her “RN” badge in my face and said she had a woman die from a pulmonary embolism while in the waiting room and she didn’t make a peep. As I was crying, I yelled back, “I’M NOT A WIMP! I have Crohn’s disease!”
Once I was finally brought back to a room, the same nurse acted sweet as sugar. Gag me. The ER doctor had no clue what was going on. I was taken for a CT scan with contrast while in the waiting room and the young doctor walked up to me all cocky and said, “ So, you have an ileostomy.”…I said, no I don’t have an ostomy. He then proceeded to say, “Oh, so you had a reversal.” NO. I had bowel resection surgery. The fact the doctor was clueless to IBD and thought that because I had an anastomosis indicated a reversal (even though I have Crohn’s) was scary. I was given Zofran, fluids, and Dilaudid and was told it was most likely a stomach bug, but that they would like to do a stool sample to rule out C.diff.
Unfortunately, since I had literally shit my brains out in the ER for hours, I had nothing left. I hadn’t eaten in almost 30 hours. By the grace of God, around midnight, I was able to go. I was so grateful to have a stool sample and get some answers. The shift changed and a new doctor walked in. She was empathetic, kind, and knew her shit about IBD. I felt an immediate sense of relief. She told me they were going to do one more round of Zofran, fluids, dilaudid and add in Benadryl and Droperidol for anxiety and to calm things down and if that didn’t help, I would be admitted. Luckily, that heavy hitting dose of IV fluids and meds did the trick and I was finally comfortable and able to go home around 1:30 a.m., knowing that I’d get the C.diff result the next day.
Despite testing negative for C.diff, my diarrhea and excruciating abdominal pain lasted from Friday at 2 pm until Tuesday evening. This stomach bug was no joke and I always feel when you have IBD with a stomach bug, it’s next level.
The Patient Experience: What you had to say about C.diff
I ran a poll on Instagram, 307 people with IBD responded. Of that group, 37% have had C.diff. On Twitter, 147 people responded and 28% shared they had C.diff at some point during their patient journey. I was blown away by the hundreds of DM’s I received on Instagram when I asked for advice and was freaking out about the possibility of having it. I learned a great deal from all the insights shared. Here are some of the messages I received that I feel can benefit our community moving forward:
“I went through a case of C.diff this summer after two rounds of antibiotics and a round of steroids at the same time. I was miserable, only eating boiled potatoes with a little salt and bananas. Once I got meds (dificid), I saw improvement quickly. I also take Visbiome probiotic (prescription strength) and taking that regularly helped me in a period of waiting for results.”
“I had C.diff back in 2015…awful. It was so brutal. I was sick for over a month with it, just couldn’t shake it even with the crazy dosing of antibiotics.”
“Keep an eye on your temperature and if you’re running a fever with the diarrhea—that’s a big indicator.”
“I had C.diff on and off for four years and just got a fecal transplant in November and have been “cured” since. I’ve never thought C.diff was like the stomach flu/norovirus. C.diff to me is more like a bad IBD flare with some fever/chills and diarrhea that’s very distinct from whatever your “normal” IBD diarrhea may be.”
“I battled C.diff for a year. Ask for Vancomycin right away. It’s the best medication for it. Having Crohn’s and C.diff is a horrible combination. It caused me a lot of issues.”
“I had C.diff earlier this year. My symptoms included a very smelly gas, low-grade fever, abdominal cramps, and mushy stool. Pedialyte, broth, and tea helped a lot.”
“Every time I take antibiotics, I take saccharomyces boulardii (probiotic). The specific strain helps prevent C.diff.”
“C.diff is MISERABLE. I can normally smell if it’s C.diff. I’ve had it five times. Go to the ER and do not wait. It’s so horrible. It’s exhausting and being that sick is the worst. The pain is awful, too. No one ever discusses how much pain it puts people in.”
“I’ve had C.diff so many times. Output is like colored water, and I go 20-plus times a day. Mine way always a weird yellowish color. Going to the ER means a quicker diagnosis and for me I end up inpatient, too. With C.diff I’ve found liquid Vancomycin works best as it’s absorbed faster, the pills just went straight through me.”
“C.diff is super hard to get rid of, so fast treatment is key. I had a recurrent infection for nearly a year. I took Vancomycin 4x/day for a few weeks and eventually tapered down. I think it was just a nasty strain, but I eventually kicked it out.”
“C.diff is a doozy to have. The hardest part for me was keeping family and friends away as it’s super contagious, too. I remember a lot of Zofran. IV fluids and sleeping as much as humanly possible. Use wipes instead of toilet paper so your bum doesn’t get raw.”
“My brother had C.diff and the only thing to get rid of it was very strong antibiotics. Every time I’m on an antibiotic, it makes me very sick and puts me in a flare and I have choice but to start probiotics.”
“C.diff is rough and highly contagious. I had it right before I went on Humira. Make sure to bleach your bathroom and not to prepare food. My GI was super concerned about me giving it to my husband. My treatment was Vancomycin 125 mg orally 4x a day for 10 days.”
“I have been battling reoccurring C.diff for almost 2 years. Coming up on my second Fecal Transplant as the first failed. I was in a flare and absolutely nothing was working. Finally discovered underlying C.diff. Vancomycin changed my life. Within 48 hours I went from 15-20 bowel movements a day to 1-2.My doctors are baffled by how well I respond to it.”
“I’ve had C.diff more than once, the first time I waited almost too late to seek testing and ended up with dangerously low potassium, EKG changes, and was hospitalized. The second time I didn’t even know I had it until I was being worked up to join a clinical trial for my UC and had to do treatment, again. Liquid IV packets help ward off dehydration.”
“My son who has Crohn’s has had C.diff two times. Vancomycin with a long, slow taper was key to get rid of it both times. Wipe the bathroom down with bleach constantly.”
“C.diff is the actual worst. If you have it, skip Flagyl and go straight to Dificid. Flagyl made me SO sick. Like so much worse and it didn’t get rid of it…and that’s the case for multiple other people I know who’ve had it.”
“I had C.diff. I played the waiting game, and it was miserable. If your stool is completely watery and very foul smelling, then it’s C.diff.”
“I take Culturelle Probiotics Digestive Health Extra Strength whenever I’m on an antibiotic to prevent it.”
“I had reoccurring C.diff during the pandemic, a few months after my bowel resection, and for recurring months after. They would usually do a fecal transplant, but they were on hold because of COVID. It took months to get better.”
Kick C.diff to the curb
Ironically, while C.diff can be brought on by antibiotics, the only way to get rid of it…is to take more antibiotics. The three most prescribed are Vancomycin, Flagyl and Dificid. In severe cases, especially when toxic megacolon becomes an issue, you might need surgery to remove the damaged portions of your bowel. Other options for reoccurring infection include Fecal Microbiota Transplant (FMT), where donor stool is introduced in your colon. Probiotics and antibody therapy are often used as well. Certain antibodies are known to provide immunity against the toxins produced by C.diff. A combination of the medications actoxumab and bezlotoxumab can lower your changes of the infection coming back.
When I received the negative C.diff test result I felt such relief. So many of my symptoms aligned with the tall-tale signs, I wasn’t sure what to expect. The entire process has been such a learning experience and I hope that you’ve taken away some helpful nuggets of knowledge should you ever question you have C.diff yourself.
Mental health often takes a major hit when you’re diagnosed and live with a chronic illness like IBD. I ran a poll on Instagram and Twitter this past week and the results were extremely eye-opening. Not only for the patient community, but for any caregivers, friends, or family who know people with Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis.
On Instagram—out of 350 people polled over 24 hours, a resounding 93% responded “yes” to IBD impacting their mental health and causing depression and anxiety. On Twitter, I ran the same poll for 48 hours, of the more than 205 votes, 86% of people responded “yes”.
Dr. Yezaz Ghouri, MD, Director of Inflammatory Bowel Disease Services, University of Missouri School of Medicine at Columbia, offered helpful insight on the topic. I had the pleasure of meeting “Dr. ZaZ” (as he commonly goes by) in person at the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation’s Mid-America Chapter Gala in November. Dr. ZaZ was awarded the 2022 Catalyst for Mission Advancement award and I was so inspired and intrigued by his work as I was emceeing the event, that I knew we would have to collaborate on Lights, Camera, Crohn’s! We made it happen.
Here’s my interview with Dr. ZaZ about how our IBD can impact our mental health.
NH: “During the first day of the Crohn’s and Colitis Congress 2023 conference it was shared that rates of anxiety and depression are about twice as high in the IBD community compared to the general population–why is that?”
Dr. ZaZ: “The exact cause of IBD is not known. There are some common theories that have been suggested, these include genetic factors, changes in gut microbiome, alteration in immune function of the body, and effect of certain environmental factors. Interestingly, some of these factors have also shown to be associated with mental disorders like anxiety and depression. The gut-brain axis is a nervous system-based pathway that connects the nerve cells from the brain to the gut. This gut-brain axis has been found to play a role in the release of nerve cell chemicals (or neurotransmitters) in the intestines. One such neurotransmitter is Serotonin, which has a well-established role in several psychiatric disorders like anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, etc. Studies have pointed out an alteration in serotonin activity in the intestines of patients with IBD 1.
The gut microbiome comprises of trillions of species of organisms mainly consisting of bacteria. The healthy gut-microbiome is altered in individuals with several conditions like anxiety, depression, Alzheimer’s, Autism, etc. This alteration is also seen in IBD and has been a subject of active research to better understand the various changes in the bacteria of the gut. Some of these bacteria produce chemicals that can serve as neurotransmitters in the gut. It is unclear if these chemicals could influence the gut-brain axis and contribute towards the occurrence of mental disorders. Last year we published a study that showed this association of increased prevalence of anxiety and depression among IBD patients 2. The added burden and distress was not just limited to IBD patients, the study also showed an overall increased healthcare cost and burden to hospital systems. It is in the best socio-economic interest of the government and the public to address mental health issues in society, especially among those with chronic illnesses like IBD.”
NH: “How can patients best articulate their concerns and communicate with their doctor about their mental health?”
Dr. ZaZ: “IBD patient sometimes suffer from anxiety, depression, sleep disturbances, and other mental conditions like eating disorders. Your GI doctor hopefully has established a healthy physician-patient relationship where you are comfortable to bring up any issues that you would like to discuss with your GI specialist. During my clinic visits apart from addressing the medical aspects of IBD, I frequently have a friendly conversation about my patient’s life in general with a focus on their overall well-being, including talking about their mental health. In addition, several individuals have a primary care provider (PCP) with whom they generally have a good relationship and feel comfortable bringing up any health-related concerns.
Psychiatric conditions can manifest with sleep disturbances, fatigue, loss of appetite, lack of interest in activities that you previously enjoyed, depressed mood, suicidal thoughts, etc. Sometimes IBD flares can contribute to some of these symptoms, especially sleep disturbances due to night-time diarrhea or constant abdominal pain. Use of biological medications can be frequently associated with fatigue that may last a day or two after taking the biologic. In a large-scale UK based study, presence of a diagnosis of IBD was associated with a higher likelihood to cause deliberate self-harm, anxiety, depression, and insomnia. Interestingly, the risk was higher among those with Crohn’s disease than with ulcerative colitis 3.
Remember, mental stress can also contribute to an IBD flare. Frequently I see some of my IBD patients go through an uncontrolled spell of psychological stress, maybe related to personal relationships or their place of employment. This when unchecked can precipitate an IBD flare, and in some cases develop psychiatric illnesses like anxiety or depression. Hence, it is important to have a stress-free life or mitigate stress to minimize its effect on your mind and body.”
NH: “I know you see a lot of college students; how do you navigate these concerns as their care provider? Do you tend to see this more with your younger patients—or is it across the board?”
Dr. ZaZ: “College life of a freshman can be quite stressful. The move away from the comforts of their homes to a new city or town and being surrounded by strangers can be overwhelming. This can cause psychological stress which may precipitate an IBD flare. Moving to college can also disrupt the continuity of care received from their established pediatric or adult GI specialist. Students may skip their medications due to storage issues, changes in insurance, feeling of shame of having IBD or fear of not being able to ‘fit-in’. All these factors can contribute to inadequate management of their underlying IBD. We at the University of Missouri try our best to accommodate college students in our clinics so they are cared for and IBD flares are prevented from occurring. The student health clinics are efficient in recognizing students with chronic illnesses and referring them to GI clinics. I frequently encourage students that they continue to see their primary GI specialist but also establish care in our clinic/hospital system, so in case there is a medical emergency or if they experience a flare, we will be well-informed beforehand about their medical history and have a plan in place to adequately treat them.
In a large study comprising of more than one million IBD patients, it was shown that being a female, having diagnosed with IBD as a child or a young adult and having a diagnosis of Crohn’s disease have been associated with higher likelihood of suicide attempts and suicide death 4.
Mental disorders in IBD are seen across all age groups but are somewhat more pronounced in those individuals whose disease is not well controlled or have not achieved remission since their initial diagnosis. Majority of IBD cases are generally diagnosed at a young age, several times in college students. Unfortunately, we also see frequent occurrence of mental disorders in younger age groups. Students have additional mental stressors when they have a chronic bowel condition like IBD. Many feel that they the lack of freedom in choosing to eat anything they like when they go out with friends or their need for frequent bathroom breaks, which can sometimes hinder them from participating in activities they choose or in making new friends. Many feel embarrassed to disclose their medical conditions to new friends or acquaintances, this perhaps cannot be stressed enough among those with an ostomy bag.
This leads to a state of inadequate social/family support which may push at risk students into developing mental conditions like depression, anxiety or eating disorders.”
NH: “Any advice for caregivers of young patients–who may have concerns about their child/teen/young adult and are unsure how to make sure their child is not dealing with anxiety/depression, but don’t want to overstep or upset their loved one?”
Dr. ZaZ: “It is very important for not just the physicians but also the caregivers involved in managing IBD in young patients to recognize signs of depression or other mental disorders. Do not always assume that if an individual is constantly tired, has disturbed sleep or looks depressed, that it is due to their IBD. Several times these are early signs of depression, and these young individuals need the support and help that they deserve to address these issues. Perhaps adult patients who have depression may recognize it and seek help, but kids or teens generally do not perceive these signs as an abnormal expression of behavior and may not even disclose them to their loved ones. Caregivers who attend clinic visits with pediatric specialists should bring up any unusual behavior they notice about their child and discuss it with the provider.”
NH: “How can mental health issues exacerbate IBD symptoms?
Dr. ZaZ: “Studies have shown that individuals with mental disorders who have IBD have a higher chance of developing IBD flares, they require escalation of their therapy and have increased incidence of death 5. (See Reference 5) This is quite alarming and should be brough to the attention of providers who take care of IBD patients. “Providers are not just prescribers”, simply writing prescriptions for medications, some of which are very expensive, is not enough to heal the patient. IBD is a chronic disease which lasts a lifetime, and medications alone cannot be the solution. Providers need to step up and participate in the mental well-being of their patients. If they are not able to address the mental health related issues themselves then referring to experts in the field is perhaps the best alternative approach. Depression may cause patients to skip their infusion visits or physician visits, uncontrolled anxiety or paranoid states may make them apprehensive about any therapy that they have been appropriately prescribed and may even stop the treatment. IBD patients with eating disorders may starve themselves or eat uncontrollably causing worsening of their bowel condition. These eating disorders are commonly present among young and female IBD patients who have body image disturbance 6.”
NH: “How is anxiety and depression typically managed in patients with IBD? (Medication, talking to a psychologist, etc.?)”
Dr. ZaZ: “The first step to treating anxiety and depression is to approach a provider with whom you are comfortable to freely express your medical complaints, problems, or any issues that you would like to discuss. Psychotherapy or behavioral therapy is probably the preferred approach in mild cases but in individuals with more profound symptoms, medications may be preferred in addition to psychotherapy. Finding a good therapist and setting up sessions at frequent intervals is important. In severe cases with suicidal ideations or attempts perhaps hospitalization may be required.
Multiple medications are commonly used for treating anxiety and depression. A PCP or psychiatrist may be able to find the right one for you, and please make sure you follow up with these providers since these medications may need to be monitored for their side effects and to adjust the dosage. Sometimes GI physicians may feel comfortable to prescribe these medications, but that may generally not be true for majority of gastroenterologists.”
NH: “As a GI, how do you try and facilitate positive relationships with your patients to help ensure they feel at ease with taking on their disease, managing it, overcoming flares/surgery, etc.?”
Dr. ZaZ: “My first step towards approaching IBD is to make sure that the symptoms that my patients are complaining of are truly from IBD and not from IBS or any other illness. Once IBD is diagnosed, I have a detailed visit with my patient with their new diagnosis. I usually encourage them to read up as much as they can and write down questions about their illness prior to this clinic visit. During the visit I start by giving a broad overview of what IBD is and the mechanism of disease process.I do this little exercise of talking about mechanisms by which IBD develops because I have noticed in my experience that several patients feel guilty about having their illness, and believe that in some way it was ‘their fault’ that they developed IBD. We then focus our attention on what are the available treatments why I think the recommended treatment would be a good fit, so the patients can make an informed decisions about their choice of therapy. I highlight the signs or symptoms they need to look out for that could suggest a complication or flare up of IBD. We provide them access to communicate with our clinic team if they have any questions; if they are concerned about a flare or if they suspect side effects from their therapy. Next, I answer questions they may have come up with during my discussion or from their personal research prior to the visit. Once the questions are answered I provide them with written material about their illness. I frequently encourage our patients to join patient support groups and direct them to online sources for information about IBD like the website for the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation.”
NH: “Why is it so important to focus on whole person care–and recognize that IBD impacts more than the GI tract?”
Dr. ZaZ: “If we understand the mechanism by which IBD develops in the body, we can say that a dysfunctional immune system perhaps has the central role in the disease process. This immune system is connected to the entire body, it’s in our blood, guts, and other organs. Abnormal functioning of this immune system is likely to affect the entire body, although in IBD this abnormality primarily targets the bowels. But we frequently encounter what are called the “extra-intestinal manifestations of IBD”. These are referred to conditions that cause joint pains, skin rashes, eye redness, oral ulcers, liver disorders and other symptoms or signs that can be encountered in patients with IBD. Beyond these, patients with IBD are shown to be associated with higher incidence of mental disorders, pregnancy-related complications, chronic fatigue, and vitamin/mineral deficiencies. The effect on the bowels by this disease has a major impact on what one can eat, thereby limiting their nutritional intake. It is only fitting to treat these individuals as a whole, and not just their bowels. In terms of methods of treatment, apart from allopathic medical therapies, several other modalities of treatment are now being explored and accepted. Addressing diet and exercise is an important aspect to maintain healthy lifestyle in general, and especially so in patients with IBD. Running or other forms of cardio-based exercises have been shown to have a positive impact on the disease. Consuming healthy dietary supplements, like probiotics have been shown to be beneficial. Relaxation techniques and meditation also help keep oneself stress free, and perhaps prevent development of mental disorders as well.
One last thing we must also remember is that in today’s world social media can contribute to a lot of mental stress and anxiety, especially where disinformation campaigns can lead to confusion and poor choices in life. Hence it is important to have reliable resources to gain knowledge about IBD and its therapies. Sources like the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation and its members like Natalie have been leading in educating several individuals through various platforms. In summary, eat healthy, exercise regularly, educate yourself about IBD, try to relieve stress and follow up with your doctor for medical care.”
I hope this article sparks a conversation and allows you to feel less alone in your mental health struggles. The findings show it’s anything but “just in your head.” Your feelings, fears, and struggles are valid. You are loved. You are not a burden. You are worth it. You matter. We need you here. Remember that.
If you’re thinking about suicide, are worried about a friend or loved one, or if you would like emotional support, call 988 any day of the week, any time. The 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline (formerly known as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline) provides free and confidential emotional support to people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, across the United States.
Reference Guide List
1: Coates, M. D., Mahoney, C. R., Linden, D. R., Sampson, J. E., Chen, J., Blaszyk, H., Crowell, M. D., Sharkey, K. A., Gershon, M. D., Mawe, G. M., & Moses, P. L. (2004). Molecular defects in mucosal serotonin content and decreased serotonin reuptake transporter in ulcerative colitis and irritable bowel syndrome. Gastroenterology, 126(7), 1657–1664. https://doi.org/10.1053/j.gastro.2004.03.013
2: Tarar, Z. I., Zafar, M. U., Farooq, U., Ghous, G., Aslam, A., Inayat, F., & Ghouri, Y. A. (2022). Burden of depression and anxiety among patients with inflammatory bowel disease: results of a nationwide analysis. International journal of colorectal disease, 37(2), 313–321. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00384-021-04056-9
3: Umar, N., King, D., Chandan, J. S., Bhala, N., Nirantharakumar, K., Adderley, N., Zemedikun, D. T., Harvey, P., & Trudgill, N. (2022). The association between inflammatory bowel disease and mental ill health: a retrospective cohort study using data from UK primary care. Alimentary pharmacology & therapeutics, 56(5), 814–822. https://doi.org/10.1111/apt.17110
4: Xiong, Q., Tang, F., Li, Y., Xie, F., Yuan, L., Yao, C., Wu, R., Wang, J., Wang, Q., & Feng, P. (2022). Association of inflammatory bowel disease with suicidal ideation, suicide attempts, and suicide: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of psychosomatic research, 160, 110983. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jpsychores.2022.110983
5: Fairbrass, K. M., Gracie, D. J., & Ford, A. C. (2022). Relative Contribution of Disease Activity and Psychological Health to Prognosis of Inflammatory Bowel Disease During 6.5 Years of Longitudinal Follow-Up. Gastroenterology, 163(1), 190–203.e5. https://doi.org/10.1053/j.gastro.2022.03.014
6: Stoleru, G., Leopold, A., Auerbach, A., Nehman, S., & Wong, U. (2022). Female gender, dissatisfaction with weight, and number of IBD related surgeries as independent risk factors for eating disorders among patients with inflammatory bowel diseases. BMC gastroenterology, 22(1), 438. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12876-022-02526-0
Managing a chronic health condition often means receiving medication through an infusion or a self-injection. If the thought of getting or even giving a shot brings on tears and fears, you are not alone. It’s no surprise, two-thirds of children and one-fourth of adults have apprehension and anxiety around needles. So, what do you do when your child needs to take self-injections to manage their IBD? It’s a complicated and emotional process for everyone involved.
This week on Lights, Camera, Crohn’s we hear from a certified Child Life Specialist, a former pediatric patient who experienced self-injections, and two mothers whose children were diagnosed with IBD at a young age.
Phylicia Petit is a Certified Child Life Specialist at a Children’s Hospital in Minneapolis, Minnesota. She says being truthful with your child about the self-injection helps to build trust.
“Prepare your child for what they may experience in an age-appropriate manner. Use soft language. For instance, instead of saying “don’t move,” say “hold still.” Avoid phrases like “you’re almost done” and “it’ll just take 3 seconds”. Instead, praise your child for what was done well. Say, “you did a great job holding your arm still” or “thank you for telling me how you felt during that.”
Phylicia also says if you are calm and relaxed, your child will be calmer and more relaxed.
“Children often feed off their parent’s emotions. Use gentle and helpful words such as, “do the best work that you can do,” “you did it!” and “your job was to hold still like a statue, and you did that so well.”
Setting a routine
By giving the injections at the same time of day and in the same place, children cope best when they know what to expect. Children’s bedrooms are a place of comfort, so use a different space.
Phylicia says that by offering choices, it gives your child a sense of control. You can achieve this by saying “do you want the injection in your right leg or left leg?” and “do you want me to count to three?”
Reduce the pain
No matter your age, most people don’t enjoy needles. You can help reduce the pain for your child by using numbing cream. Contact your local pharmacist or GI to discuss topical anesthetics.
Buzzy uses vibration and ice to distract the brain from feeling pain.
Shot Blocker uses several blunt contact points to saturate the sensory signals around an injectionsite to distract from pain signals
“Don’t forget, you are a comfort to your child. Comfort positioning can be used by parents and caregivers during injections to reduce stress and anxiety in your child and help safely immobilize an arm or leg,” said Phylicia.
Comfort and distraction items:
Favorite TV show
Squeezing a squish ball
Have your child sit up. Children are often more scared when they are lying flat. If you need help holding your child still, try holding them in your lap in a firm, but comforting position.
Practice deep breathing. Take a big breath through your nose, then blow out through your mouth. Have your child do this 3 to 5 times. To make this more visual for a little one, you can use a paper flower, pinwheel, or bubbles, and practice this before, during, and after the shot.
“As a former pediatric patient there were a couple of things that helped. Finding ways to numb the spot prior, whether it was ice or a numbing cream. Using a room, I could distract myself in (typically with a TV). If I was able to do it myself, I would set up the space, so I was comfortable. If my mom helped this still applied, but we talked through the entire injection to occupy my mind. It came down to comfort and finding ways to manage my anxiety around the shot. Over the years, it got easier, especially when we switched from the auto-injector to the manual shot,” said Natasha.
Here are Stacy’s tips for caregivers when it comes to injections:
Acknowledge that as a mama this is going to be hard. “You are going to feel sad and wonder why you and your child have to go through this. It’s going to be hard to watch them have anxiety about the shot and to feel pain. Get support for yourself for this.”
Try not to let your child see your pain. “Even though you are feeling this way, you know that giving them their meds is going to (hopefully, although it might take a few different meds to find the one that works) make them feel better and happy and more like themselves so approach your child with compassion and assurance about the potential of the meds to make them feel better.”
Try to have a calendar that shows when the shot is due but don’t talk about it too much if they are not bringing it up. “Remind them the day before or the morning of the shot and set a time to do it.”
There are practical things that may work to ease the pain of the shot. “Ice before and after. Rubbing the site after it goes in. Emla cream is a great numbing cream. My son is 22 and has been getting infusions, injections, and blood tests since he was 2 and numbing cream is our friend. We also used the Buzzy. It’s held on the skin before and after the shot and it stimulates the skin to reduce pain.”
Offer a reward. “At times I offered something post shot that motivated him when he was younger. Perhaps being able to watch a little more TV that day. Or a small new toy. Or a food treat that they can have, and it could be special for the shot day.”
Look into having a home nurse, if needed. “My son has been on so many of these meds since he was 7. When he was on Humira from age 9-10, it was before the citrate free (pain free) version and the Humira shot was very painful. It became too hard for me to do it and was too difficult for our relationship. It is rare that you can get insurance to cover a home nurse to do this, or to bring the child to get the GI office nurse to do it. We were able to pay a nurse to do his Humira shot for a brief period of time until he adjusted to it. It helped a lot.”
Cindy’s 12-year-old daughter was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease four years ago. She helps her daughter with weekly Humira injections and also offers helpful advice from a caregiver’s perspective about what it’s like to give your child an injection and cope with the difficult experience.
Don’t let your nerves show. “When I became responsible for giving the injections at home, I was nervous about doing it and it was important to me that I not transfer my own personal anxiety to my daughter. To this end, I really wanted to practice giving shots on anything other than her, so that when I had to inject her, I felt comfortable with what I was doing. Unfortunately, I only came upon the advice later, so it didn’t help me at the time…but I heard to use an already used syringe on a naval orange for practice.”
Do the injection in a neutral space. “A psychiatrist advised us to do injections in a neutral place. I had been giving my daughter her injections in bed because to me, this was the place where she was most comfortable. Unfortunately, she developed sleep problems, and our psychiatrist helped me understand that a negative association with the injection is not something that you want to combine with a happy place. In the summer, we inject it on our back porch and in the colder months we usually do it in our guest bedroom.”
Syringe instead of auto-injector. “We also find the syringe to be so much better than the pen. The pen made us feel tense and the lock was Pavlovian. The syringe allows for more control. No sounds. Go fast or go slow. My daughter takes a lot of comfort in her Buzzy.”
It gets easier. “Not better…but easier. For the first couple months, we had to physically restrain my daughter when injection day rolled around. It was soul shattering. However, we all did become used to what needed to happen and now (while not fun at all, it is a non-event). We do the injection now and move on with our day. We are thankful for the ease and convenience of injecting at home, and always thankful this medication is preserving my kid’s quality of life.”
It’s considered the most common surgical procedure for ulcerative colitis patients when medication fails to keep IBD under control. The ileal pouch anal-anastomosis (IPAA) or j-pouch, is created after a surgeon removes your colon and rectum and uses the end of your small intestine to form an internal pouch, which looks like the shape of J.
This week on Lights, Camera, Crohn’s we hear from a colorectal surgeon and IBD patient himself, along with several women with j-pouches about their experience, what they’ve learned along the way, and what they hope others know who are living similar realities.
What does the j-pouch procedure entail?
Before we dig deeper, a short “lesson” on what the j-pouch procedure involves. It’s typically a one, two, or three stage process.
According to the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation:
The first surgery removes your colon and rectum and preserves your anus and anal sphincter muscles. The ileum is made into a j-shaped pouch and connected to the top of your anal canal.
A temporary ileostomy is typically created to give your newly formed pouch a chance to heal. A loop of your small intestine will be pulled through an opening in your abdomen, called a stoma, to allow waste to exit your body into an ostomy bag.
During this time, you will need to always wear an ostomy bag, and it will need to be emptied several times a day.
You will have your second surgery eight to 12 weeks later, once the pouch has healed.
The second surgery will reverse the temporary ileostomy and reconnect your small intestine. Your internal pouch will then collect waste and allow stool to pass through your anus in a bowel movement.
Some surgeons choose to perform this surgery in just one stage, in which the pouch is created and joined to the anus without a temporary ileostomy. This is done less often than the two-stage procedure because of an increased risk of infection.
This topic resonates with Dr. Stefan D. Holubar, MD, MS, FASCRS, FACS, IBD Surgery Section Chief & Director of Research for the Department of Colorectal Surgery at Cleveland Clinic, for many reasons. He was diagnosed with Crohn’s colitis when he was 7 years old and was on and off steroids (the only treatment at the time) for many years.
“I had learned to live with chronic embarrassing urgent incontinence, as well as being small and skinny, and with a swollen face from the steroids. I was offered an end ileostomy as a teenager (not a J-pouch as it was Crohn’s) and was lucky to get a second opinion with the famous Dr. Daniel Present (RIP) at Mount Sinai. I went on NPO and TPN for one year which helped get me into remission and grow about a foot in one year. Somehow, I made it through college and got into medical school, but it turned out I hadn’t had a colonoscopy in about a decade.”
Over Christmas 1999, Dr. Holubar had a colonoscopy and received a call a few days later while he was skiing that he had colon cancer.
“That same day, the tumor swelled from the biopsies, and I developed a large bowel obstruction. I had emergency subtotal colectomy w ileosigmoid anastomosis without an ileostomy. After chemotherapy and completing medical school, I needed the rectum removed (due to risk of rectal cancer) and underwent a modified 2-stage J-pouch without ileostomy one month before surgical residency. I’ve been great ever since, not perfect as I have had some complications over the years, but great, with three kids, the best job and wife in the world.”
During the second half of medical school, Dr. Holubar was considering going into GI or Medical Oncology and learned that colorectal surgery was a specialty.
“Once I learned Colorectal was a specialty and they are the IBD experts, my future path was set in stone. It’s rare to know that you want to be a colorectal surgeon that early in training. I’m blessed to share my successful story and give patients with complicated IBD like me hope every single day of my life. My experiences have also influenced me to do clinical research to try to change care more broadly and ideally, globally. My IBD history is a source of endless inspiration for our innovative work.”
I asked Dr. Holubar what advice he has for patients who are on the fence about getting a J-pouch. His most important advice—is to seek expertise.
“I would recommend looking for surgeons who specialize in IBD. J-pouch surgery is a niche these days (hence “IBD Surgeons”), and your care team should be expert in taking care of the complications that may develop. A majority (>90%) of patients with a pouch would do it again and/or recommend it to a friend or family member.” (Fazio et al., Annals of Surgery, 2013, PMID: 23299522).
Dr. Holubar wants to highlight a couple important points in terms of this article:
Only about 10% of people who are deemed candidates for a pouch choose not to have it, for personal reasons such as work, or lifestyle-related reasons such as lack of access to a toilet for many hours at a time, or those who prefer a one-and-done approach (Holubar, Inflamm Bowel Dis, 2009, PMID: 19266572). We have a new article on this, but it has only been published as an abstract so far (Total Proctocolectomy with End-Ileostomy Versus Ileoanal Pouch for Ulcerative Colitis: Who Doesn’t Pouch, And How Do They Do? Dis Colon Rectum 64;5; Meeting AbstractPOD169)
On the other hand, the overall long-term pouch survival is about 90-95% which is very high (in other words, it works out most of the time, but not always) (Fazio et al., Annals of Surgery, 2013, PMID: 23299522).
In the current digital era, we are blessed to have support groups on social media and active discussions on #SoMe4IBD. That said, it’s important to know that not everyone who has a pouch – whether the experience is great, or they have complications – is vocal on social media. It’s important to check with your care team to discuss the best treatment options for you.
When it comes to the risk and benefits of having a J-pouch, Dr. Holubar says each patient needs to chart out the pros and cons of end ileostomy (or rarely a continence ileostomy aka Kock pouch) vs. IPAA as the risk-benefit profiles are quite different.
“The main benefit is that a patient can maintain transanal defecation and avoid a permanent ileostomy and care of the ileostomy. An added “benefit” of having a pouch is that you can almost always go back to an ileostomy if it doesn’t work, or you are not satisfied with the function. Going back into the belly is of course with some risk of further surgical complications,” he explained.
The j-pouch patient perspective
Jackie was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis in March 2009. She was 24 years old and had been given a multiple sclerosis diagnosis before that. At the time, her care team was concerned a biologic could set off her MS.
“Less than a year after my diagnosis, I was told that I’d run out of medication options and I’d need to have my colon removed and opted to schedule surgery at that time to work towards a j-pouch,” said Jackie.
Getting acclimated to having an ostomy didn’t come easily. She says her biggest obstacle was getting over her own biases.
“I didn’t know anything about ostomies except from what I read online from other patients at the time and the consensus in the online forums was not good. I was nervous, but I learned almost immediately that I felt better, was healthier, and could do more. After my first surgery, I traveled across the country and hiked through some parks in Oregon. None of that would have been possible before my ostomy. It only took a few experiences like that to realize how much the ostomy had really given me.”
Of course, there’s a learning curve. There’s new terminology to learn, you must find what works on your body, and that can be frustrating.
“I was curious from day one. I knew that I was sent home in the appliance the hospital had set me up with, but I wasn’t convinced that was the best one for me, so I took it upon myself to test lots of brands and products to get the one that worked best for me.”
Jasmine was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis in 2017 when she was 19. She was a freshman in college. Two years later she dealt with a flare she started Entyvio, but the drug failed her shortly thereafter. She switched to Remicade in January 2020 and had the same problem, even after receiving the highest possible dosage every 4 weeks. Her health continued to rapidly decline, and she was hospitalized in March 2020.
“This was the first-time surgical intervention, an ostomy, and a j-pouch were mentioned to me in a real way, however, the doctors continued to say they felt cautiously optimistic Remicade would pull me out of my flare. Throughout these months, I tried a variety of diets including SCD and AIP, visited multiple dieticians and nutritionists, met with natural health doctors, sought out second opinions, and followed a robust supplement regime that was continuously updated by my functional health doctor.”
Despite every effort, by April of 2020, her health was the worst it had been her my entire life. Weighing 105 pounds, she lived in constant, excruciating pain, unable to sleep or eat, too weak to stand in the shower for longer than five short minutes.
“IBD completely ruled my life. When I spoke with my doctors in early May, they told me I had two options: I could try Stelara, the last drug available to me, which my team was 99% sure would not work and would result in emergency surgery since the drug takes months to kick in and provide relief. Otherwise, I could have surgery immediately. My options hardly felt like options when both resulted in the same outcome, just at different times. I opted to have surgery sooner rather than later. If it was inevitable, I wanted to begin the process and start feeling better as soon as possible, rather than continuing to needlessly suffer.”
A few days later, Jasmine met with a surgeon, and less than a week after that appointment (and the morning after her college graduation), she was rolled into the operating room to have my colon removed.
“No life experience prepares you to look down and see an internal organ on the outside of your body. A stoma is far outside the lines of normal human experience, and despite all the preparation in the world, your brain can’t fully process what it will be like until it’s happened. I found the transition to be difficult; while the nurses in the hospital were helpful, the nurses sent to my home barely seemed to know what to do. I had to teach myself how to empty the bag, and at first, it often took me an hour to change the ostomy. However, with time and as my body healed from surgery, I became more confident and able to quickly take care of the ostomy in under five minutes,” said Jasmine.
Even though the physical acclimation was challenging, Jasmine says the mental acclimation was even harder.
“At the time, I was 22 years old and had never in a million years imagined my life to involve a bag of waste attached to my stomach. I felt like I was constantly grieving the life I’d imagined and the life I’d never get to live. The ostomy felt like a reminder of all that had been taken from me that I couldn’t ignore, concrete proof of how different I was from all other 22-year-olds and how far my life had diverged from the normal college experience. I spent many days looking in the mirror and crying at what I saw, struggling to accept the ostomy as the life saver it was. Over time, as I began to regain more freedom and control over my life, eating the food I wanted, sleeping through the night, exercising, and traveling, I slowly began to make peace with the ostomy through the lens of all it enabled me to do.”
Aimee was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis in 2011 when she was 22 years old. She struggled responding to medical intervention and dealt with severe abdominal cramping and high levels of blood in her stool which destroyed her quality of life.
“I had to give up my job, my life, my apartment, my social life and moved back to my hometown to be taken care of by my parents. In one hospital admission 9 months after first symptoms, the surgical team advised I do the ostomy to avoid a tear or rupture to the colon which could lead to emergency surgery or worse, sepsis.”
The ostomy relieved Aimee’s constant cramping and she felt instant relief from her chronic pain. Going into surgery the plan from the start was to do a three-step surgical journey over 12 months that resulted in a j-pouch May 2012.
“There is so much help in the hospital that it was only the day I was leaving that it hit me that this was going to be something that would be hard to get used to. I was 22 and I was embarrassed to tell everyone and conscious of my looks, so there was a vanity piece that was hard to overcome. When I was home, I felt alone. I wanted to manage the bag all by myself, I didn’t allow anyone to see the stoma or my bags or anything. Looking back at my young self, I wish I had let my family and friends in more to help me, I didn’t need to hide it.”
Elissa was initially diagnosed with ulcerative colitis when she was 14 years old, back in 1994 and years later, Crohn’s, in her small intestine. Her diagnosis journey was a difficult one. She was told she was lactose intolerant, had food allergies, IBS, anxiety, and a nervous stomach.
When Elissa was 20, she underwent emergency surgery to remove her colon. She was one of the first patients to participate in a clinical trial for Remicade back in the day. Unfortunately, the medications kept failing her, she became dependent on high doses of steroids, and she had precancerous cells in her colon.
“I was in college at the time and didn’t feel comfortable telling most people. There were a few occurrences of my bag leaking (one especially memorable experience in the middle of a fraternity party), and I was mortified. However, my recovery also highlighted the thoughtfulness and generosity of my best friends and family members who would drive me to the pharmacy to pick up medical supplies, drive me to doctor appointments, even just sit with me and rest. People really come out of the woodwork – sometimes asking for help is the hardest part.”
At times Elissa felt very alone. She wishes she had known the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation was available, along with support groups. She says, now, there are so many amazing resources available for people in recovery, including the forum j-pouch.org.
Dani was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis in 2005, when she was just 8 years old. She was initially managed on oral medication then switched to biologics and went through Remicade, Humira, Xeljanz, Stelara, and Entyvio.
“I always knew that surgery was on the table, and I felt like I was always buying time until a new medication came out. In January of 2021 I became extremely sick and was admitted to the hospital for IV cyclosporin to try to lessen my immune response. I was ok enough to leave the hospital and was feeling ok for about four days out of the hospital and then I started to become sick again. My surgeon came around a few times to check on me and introduce himself. He said, “I just want you to know that I’m not the scary man with a knife.” At that time, I didn’t know he would be my surgeon. When I started to get sick again after leaving the hospital, I knew that surgery was going to be the next step.”
From then on, Dani met with her GI doctor and Colorectal surgeon (who work together), and they scheduled her for a subtotal colectomy a few weeks later. She began the 3-step surgical process in March 2021.
“It was a huge adjustment. I constantly felt my bag and it felt so foreign to me. At the same time, it gave me an independence that I had never had before. My plan was to go through all 3 j-pouch surgeries to have an ostomy for nine months and then have a j-pouch. I felt confident that I could adjust to an ostomy again if necessary and that I wanted to give a j-pouch a try.”
Dani got her take down surgery J-pouch in December 2021.
The hope of reversing from the start
Jackie: “The plan was to reverse, but I did have a major panic moment a few months before I was supposed to have another surgery. A friend of mine who had started his journey to a -j-pouch around the same time I did, was one step ahead of me in his surgical sequence, and he was having some major problems. I figured the ostomy was the devil I know, better stick with what you know, because I was afraid of what the other side looked like. But I knew myself, and I knew I had to at least try for a reversal, otherwise I’d spend the rest of forever wondering how it would have gone.”
Jasmine: “From the start, the colectomy was presented to me as a step toward the larger goal of getting a j-pouch. I went into the first surgery planning to try the j-pouch.”
Elissa: “I knew the ostomy would be temporary, but I really had no idea what to expect as far as recovery was concerned. My doctors and surgeons did not explain any potential complications. I wish I had known more questions to ask.”
For Elissa, a pouch was created at the time of surgery that removed her colon. Three months later, she had reversal surgery during college spring break – unfortunately, the reversal failed, she caught an infection and ended up in the ICU. The ostomy was placed again for her body to recover from an additional open abdominal surgery. She then went on to have a successful reversal in July of 2000.
Making the decision to go for a j-pouch
Jackie: “I knew that I could have chosen to keep my ostomy, but there was a real sense of “why wouldn’t you get a j-pouch” from the medical team. There was an undertone in what they said and did that insinuated the j-pouch was the more ideal situation and that I should clearly want to go that route. At the time, I was still regularly following most professional medical advice and didn’t really question it. But the option to keep the ostomy was never really discussed and it was always assumed I would reverse it.”
Jasmine: “Because I was young, otherwise healthy, and it had been confirmed many times through testing that I had ulcerative colitis, rather than Crohn’s disease, my doctors said I was a great candidate for j-pouch surgery. In general, my surgeon told me that close to 90% of j-pouch surgeries are successful, and I felt confident trying based on my background and the conversations with my medical team. By the time I’d had surgery, I’d only had ulcerative colitis for three years and had been in remission for two of them. The j-pouch felt like the best avenue for a life as close to normal as possible given the circumstances, and at 22, with (hopefully) a lot of life ahead of me, that sense of normality was important to me.”
How it felt leading up to reversal
Jackie: “I kept reading about all the things that could go wrong and it really freaked me out. I knew people personally who had some complications and it made it seem less like a potential statistic and more like a reality. The reality is that more people do well but are not often talking about it online. At that time there weren’t enough stories about people thriving after j-pouch surgery. I knew what life with the ostomy was like and I knew I could do that. Welcoming another major surgery and another major change just seemed really overwhelming.”
Jackie started the process in March 2010. She unfortunately had a few complications along the way which resulted in more surgeries and a longer sequence to the j-pouch, so her takedown occurred in mid-2012.
Jasmine: “I often worried something would go wrong that would prevent me from getting a j-pouch. Everything that could go wrong had gone wrong for me to even end up 22 and colon-less, and it was hard for me to imagine something could go “right.” I felt very distrustful after the variety of promises made to me by my medical team over the past year that never came to fruition and struggled with cynicism about what might happen. Coupled with all the negativity online about life with a j-pouch, I became very apprehensive about something either going wrong with my surgeries or my j-pouch failing.”
Jasmine’s j-pouch was created in December 2020 with a diverting loop ileostomy and was fully connected in February 2021.
Dani:“I had read about ‘butt burn’ and that when you first get a j-pouch you are going to the bathroom frequently, so I was concerned about that. I had just gotten used to being able to go where I wanted and not worry about the bathroom, and I was concerned that I was going to be putting myself back into a position where I was more limited.”
What j-pouch recovery was like
Jackie: “The takedown was one of the easier surgeries to recover from for me because that was the only thing they were doing in that surgery. Sometimes surgeons combine steps that can make certain parts more difficult to recover from, but for me it was just hooking up the plumbing, which had already been healing internally for months. Despite the complications I had that resulted in more surgery, it gave my body more time to heal, which I think is part of why my j-pouch has been so successful. The hardest part was understanding that the j-pouch can take a year or so to settle, which means you may still have some accidents here or there in the beginning. It wasn’t an immediate magical fix, but over time I learned to understand my j-pouch and to predict its behaviors.”
Jasmine: “J-pouch recovery is an exercise in endurance and mental fortitude, but I didn’t find it as terrifying as it seemed from reading online. From the beginning, I felt like I had far more control than I did with ulcerative colitis. There was almost no urgency, and I could take a minute or two to finish what I was doing before going to the bathroom, rather than having to drop everything and run. Although you do go to the bathroom quite often at the start, having that control makes a huge difference. One of the harder parts of recovery is the acidic stool – waste in the small intestine has more stomach acid in it, which usually gets broken down by the colon, however, without a colon, that acid creates burning on the skin. My skin was constantly raw and sore the first few weeks no matter how much butt cream or fluffy toilet paper I used. Sometimes the burning pain was so bad it would wake me up at night, but now, almost two years out, I rarely have butt burn.”
Aimee: “This was the hardest surgery because it was so long and so much handling of my intestines, my bowel lost function, so I vomited for eight days after my surgery. My doctors considered TPN, but luckily peristalsis started again, and I could eat!
Elissa: “Honestly, recovering from surgeries itself wasn’t too bad, especially after years of IBD flares. Getting rid of my colon provided almost immediate relief. I just had to be patient and let my body heal.”
Dani: “The recovery was the easiest in terms of there weren’t new incision spots. I had to get used to seeing my stoma hole as it closed in naturally and I was still very sore. I also was going to the bathroom frequently and wasn’t sleeping through the night for the first few weeks, which was hard. I was frustrated that I felt like I always needed to be near a bathroom, but that feeling was temporary. “
Pros and Cons of life with a j-pouch
Jackie: “Honestly…it has been so good. I have a total rockstar j-pouch. I eat anything I want (popcorn? yes! all the nuts? yes! spicy food? Yes, please!), I can hold my bowels for hours upon hours. I rarely have any urgency and in general have peace of mind that I can live my life, go where I want, and UC no longer can control that. The cons exist, but for me, they’re small. I’ve had pouchitis a few times, which feels like UC again, but it’s treated with antibiotics and then you’re back on your feet! I have accidents at night maybe once a year. I still use the bathroom more often than a person without IBD, but it’s mostly because I choose to for peace of mind. My digestive tract in no way resembles a normal one, it’s different how everything works now, but it’s not a detriment in my life.”
Jasmine: “My j-pouch has given me a level of freedom I never thought I’d experience with IBD. I don’t currently take any medications, and I don’t worry about flaring or failing a medication the way I would with my colon. Although I know there’s always the possibility of needing medication in the future, I’ve been given more freedom and autonomy over my life than I ever thought possible. I eat what I want when I want. I sleep through the night. I sit through meetings and classes without thinking about the bathroom. I go out with friends, travel, and exercise. For me, the j-pouch has brought me closer to my pre-IBD or deep remission self than anything else, and although there are permanent tradeoffs to having such major surgeries, I don’t regret my decision in the slightest. There is an adjustment phase and a new normal, but that new normal has enabled me to integrate IBD my life, rather than having my life completely consumed by my illness.”
Aimee: “I have had fistulae since at the anastomosis, so they have been tricky to manage, but Humira has been wonderful to me, keeping them at bay and giving me energy to live a full life. I also need to have the scar tissue at the anastomosis stretched surgically every 6 months.”
Elissa: “J-pouch life has been amazing! I was in the bathroom 20+ times a day before my surgeries and felt like a shell of a human being. I’m now 42 and have had my j-pouch for 22 years. I can do pretty much anything a “normal” healthy person can do, just need to take occasional extra precautions like electrolyte replenishment or dealing with occasional pouchitis or Crohn’s flares. (My Crohn’s diagnosis came after my j-pouch surgery).”
Dani: “The first few weeks/months with a j-pouch were tough. Your body needs to figure out how to function with a new man-made organ. I was only comfortable laying down for the first few weeks after the surgery. I really hit a turning point when I was able to start taking Imodium and Metamucil. They were helpful for me in the first few months and now I don’t need them. Three months after my final surgery, I had moved out of my house and was starting a new full-time job. So, the initial discomfort and increase in bowel frequency were very temporary!!”
What j-pouchers wish they knew prior to their reversal
Jackie: “I always say its trading a large set of problems for a smaller, more manageable set of problems. UC was awful for me and ended up being life threatening. It was no way to live. My j-pouch has given me my life back, but it’s not a cure. It’s not perfect. I still have some small problems here and there, but it’s all manageable and in no way resembles life before surgery.”
Jasmine: “It’s hard to find information on j-pouches, and I think many of us turn to the internet to learn about what life with one might be like. I personally found the internet to contain a lot of negative information, making me more fearful going into the surgeries than I would have been had I just listened to my surgeon. I would recommend limiting time spent online and trying to connect with individuals who have j-pouches/ostomies through your doctor or the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation. These resources provide a more accurate peek into life with a j-pouch and can allow you to ask questions and connect with someone who’s been through the same thing. Most people who are healthy aren’t online complaining about their j-pouch, which skews the sample of information accessible to the rest of us. Whenever I started to feel overwhelmed by everything online, I reminded myself of something a nurse once said to me: the internet is a showcase of the best and the worse situations, more often than not, you’ll end up somewhere in-between.”
Aimee: “I was told this would be the end of treatment and medicine which wasn’t the case. As I had Crohn’s, not UC, I had many more hurdles ahead. Also, a new pouch is new so it’s behavior post op, is not your life. Your body adjusts to the pouch and output goes slower as the post-op weeks go by. The j-pouch is an alternative to an ostomy bag, but has to be adjusted to also. It’s different from having your colon. After a few months though, you will have longer periods between toilet runs and sleep through the night. I go 11pm to 6am with no pooping, which is so much better than those few months post-op when I thought oh dear, this is hard!”
Elissa: “When I had my surgeries, I was 20. No doctors discussed potential fertility issues. My daughter was born via IVF 9 years ago, though all additional efforts have failed. This is something I wish I had known about – I always wanted kids and would have frozen my eggs. Obviously, every person is different. Also, I still go to the bathroom 6-7 times a day. This is apparently normal (though again, everyone has different experiences).”
Dani: “I can eat salad for dinner with no problem!”
Advice for ostomates on the fence about going for a j-pouch
Jackie: “If you feel healthy and strong both physically and mentally, I would say, try it. I know it’s more complicated than giving a new restaurant a try, but I knew that I’d always have wondered. I knew on the bad days I would have idolized a life with a j-pouch, and I needed to know that it either would or wouldn’t work. I felt like the worst-case scenario was that my j-pouch would fail, and I’d return to an ostomy, which I already knew I could do, and I liked those odds.”
Jasmine: “I think it’s a personal decision dependent on the history and circumstances of each person’s illness. Going through the j-pouch surgeries means additional time spent in the hospital and recovering, which is worth it for some, but not others. Although I can share my experiences, everyone’s body is different, and you can’t always predict how someone else will respond. I think the best thing to do is find a colorectal surgeon skilled in these procedures and discuss whether they think you’re a viable candidate. Finding a skilled surgeon is the best way to hedge against future problems and increase chances of success. Beyond that, I would advise talking to as many people as possible with a j-pouch and permanent ostomy, to get questions answered and hear the pros and cons of each route. Having this information should help you feel more confident in your decision, and if you’re still undecided, you can always put off the decision until you’re ready.”
Aimee: “Tell them to get support, don’t expect instant results, give yourself time to adjust to yet another way of going to the toilet…reach out to the online community.”
Dani: “I think this is a very personal decision and there is validity to both sides. An important thing for me was to remember that people are more likely to write online if they have a bad outcome rather than a good outcome. Everyone’s instinct is to research things online and at some point, I felt like reading everything (both good and bad) was too overwhelming.”
Post-op expectations with a j-pouch
Like any surgery, recovery takes time and patience. The Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation shares the following on their website:
Some patients may experience an increased number of bowel movements, sometimes up to 12 times per day. This will typically decrease over time.
Some male patients may experience sexual dysfunction as a result of nerve damage.
Some female patients may develop scar tissue that surrounds their ovaries and fallopian tubes, which may lead to infertility.
Both men and women should discuss sexual function with their surgeon and ask when it is safe to resume sexual activity.
Ask your healthcare providers what supplies you may need at home, especially if you have a temporary ileostomy.
Your healthcare team will advise you on how to manage your temporary ostomy and how to keep it clean.
Jackie: “This is a weird one, but I had to use brain power the first time I had to poop after my takedown. It had been almost 2 years since I had used my butt, and I had to really think about how to use those muscles again. It was a little funny at the time.”
Jasmine: “In terms of recovery, the most important thing to remember is j-pouch surgery completely alters one of the body’s major systems and adjusting takes significant time. Recovery doesn’t happen overnight, and it can feel frustrating. I tried to give my body some grace and the time it needed to heal, while reminding myself that life with a j-pouch during the first few week’s post-op isn’t indicative of what living with a j-pouch will be like long-term.”
Aimee: “It’s a journey. I have a few good months, a few bad months. Part of me knows that quality of life could be better with an ostomy, but I’m not ready to say goodbye to my pouch yet. I have been unlucky with the scar tissue, but those small procedures are like going to the dentist for me, I’m so used to them.”
Elissa: “Do it! Healing takes time, but you will feel like a new person. Life is too short to be in pain all the time. So many improvements have happened over the past 10-15 years and awareness is absolutely the key. “
Dr. Holubar wants to remind patients, “The J-pouch cannot save your life – it is a lifestyle operation like cosmetic surgery in some way. Overall quality of life is excellent with both a pouch and with a permanent end ileostomy. Finally, we should think of surgery as an excellent “medical” therapy in patients suffering from colitis despite modern medicines. One of my expressions is that a good ileostomy (or pouch) is better than a bad colon, rectum, or anus (and a good ileostomy is better than a bad pouch). The great news is you cannot make a wrong choice.”
It’s safe to say every prep for a colonoscopy is a shit show. The show just looks a bit different each time. I completed another annual colonoscopy this past Friday, and the process still keeps me on my toes, even after more than 17 years of living with Crohn’s disease. As those of us with IBD know, it’s so much more than the prep. It’s the anxiety of wondering if our disease is active. It’s the worry about whether our IBD is going to act up and be triggered by the ungodly amount of laxative we are ingesting in one sitting. It’s the fear of going through more trauma getting an IV and dealing with nurses and a care team we’re unfamiliar with. It’s resenting the fact that you’re a young person needing a colonoscopy…and the list goes on.
I did my second-ever pill prep (SUTAB) this time. I find swallowing 24 pills to be easier than guzzling anything that tastes unpleasant. There was a bit of a monkey wrench in my game plan this time around, when my gastroenterologist’s nurse informed me over the Patient Portal that magnesium citrate saline is recalled. Because of that, my doctor created an additional prep to make up for that. For some reason, the 24 pills deemed worthy for the rest of society to take to get cleaned out isn’t good enough. I received instructions two weeks prior to my scope that quite frankly scared the bejesus out of me.
Along with the 24 SUTAB pills and 96-plus ounces of water, patients are expected to:
Take 1,500 to 1,600 mg of magnesium citrate pills, twice (This adds 12 pills to the prep, and they are horse pills)
30 ml of Milk of Magnesia
Two enemas…yes, you read this correctly.
…the moment I received this news, my chest tightened, and I started to freak out. Regardless of the prep you choose (you’re “allowed to choose any one you like:”) …this is also “required”. Knowing this ahead of time made my mind race and I kept going back and forth about whether I was going to put myself through it or be my own advocate and go a bit rogue. It’s a bit daunting when the instructions are in CAPS and there’s the threat of needing to do everything over again.
Here’s what I did for my prep
It’s easy to talk a big game and say “there’s no way I’m doing this” …but at the same time, there’s a worry that looms that if you don’t, you may need to do another scope because you aren’t cleaned out enough. I’ve always been a bit of a rule follower, so it tends to take a lot for me to go against the grain.
I always do a self-imposed liquid diet to give me some buffer in case I encounter issues with the prep. My last meal is generally the Sunday night before a Friday scope. I allowed myself some crackers on Monday night, but other than that, I was strictly liquids all week. It’s brutal, but it always pays off in the end.
I bought magnesium citrate pills, the SUTAB pills, and the fleet enemas. I didn’t bother getting the Milk of Magnesia.
I took the first 1,500 mg (6 pills) of magnesium citrate, starting at noon the day before my 11:30 am colonoscopy. To me, it was a lot easier doing the pills than having to drink an entire bottle of magnesium citrate, which immediately causes me to vomit. I then timed out the 12 SUTAB pills, by setting a timer on my phone. I took one every 2-3 minutes. All you do is take the pills with 16 ounces of water and then follow that with drinking 16 ounces of water two more times over a couple of hours. I was “done” with my prep by 4 pm the day before my scope and wasn’t running to the bathroom too much.
I went to bed and set my alarm for 5 a.m. with the intention of doing the other 12 SUTAB pills + the additional 6 magnesium citrate. At this point, I was still on the fence about whether I would try an enema.
I walked downstairs in my dark house as my family slept and turned on a few lights so I could lay all the pills out on the kitchen counter. It was just me—all these enormous pills—and my thoughts. I got the 12 SUTAB down and after about 30 minutes I started feeling ill. I ran to the bathroom and vomited quite a bit…at the end I puked up bright red blood. It was petrifying. I screamed for my husband while I was on my hands and knees on the bathroom floor at 6 am. He ran down the stairs and could see how much anguish I was in. I immediately called my mom who is a nurse and she told me not to take anymore pills and that my prep was done.
My mom, who lives out of town, has been with me for every single prep since diagnosis, but this time around, she wasn’t since it’s so close to the holidays. Not having her by my side added a bit to the stress. I asked her if I should do the enema and had some choice words. She told me not to do it. I agreed. Hospitals are running low on enemas right now, so the instructions said to “bring an enema to the hospital in case you need it.”
Speaking up prior to the procedure
My scope wasn’t until 11:30 a.m., unfortunately it was very busy at the hospital, so I didn’t get mine until 1:15 p.m. When you haven’t eaten in nearly a week and your head is pounding from dehydration, every minute feels like an eternity. When the nurse finally got me from the waiting room, we got to the endoscopy suite and while I was still in my street clothes, she asked me if I had my enema with me. I froze in my tracks. I told her I forgot it on my counter (I purposefully forgot it on my counter) …and I proceeded to go into an explanation about how ridiculous it is to expect this of patients, how unnecessary and over the top it is and that I refuse to do it. She asked me if I did the enema earlier in the morning, I said no. To my surprise, she completely empathized with me and said she couldn’t agree more that it’s making all their procedures run late, that no other GI’s require it, and that she knows after 17 years with Crohn’s I know what I’m doing. She was whispering in cahoots with me, and it felt SO good to feel validated and heard.
When I told her I had difficult veins, rather than rolling her eyes or downplaying my fears, she listened and was so kind. She took a close look at all the options and ended up choosing a vein in my right hand. She got me with the first stick and immediately all my anxiety around the IV went away.
I informed my GI and anesthesiologist that I had vomited blood while doing the prep. They let me know that was from throwing up and it caused the capillaries in my esophagus and stomach to break and bleed. Because of that I was told prior to my procedure that in the event there was blood down below, an endoscopy would also need to be performed. Luckily that was not the case! I was given an antacid in my IV to help resolve any possible issues. I made the mistake this time of not taking my prescribed Zofran to prevent nausea. If you have a history of vomiting with prep, I highly recommend getting a script and taking this 30 minutes prior to starting your prep. In the moment, I was already taking so many pills I didn’t feel like adding one to the mix, but I wish I had.
The colonoscopy results
When I woke up from that amazing propofol nap I was thrilled when my GI gleefully walked into the recovery room with a huge smile on her face and told me that my small bowel and colon were “pristine”, that everything looked gorgeous, and that I was still in remission. The discharge notes state there is “normal mucosa in the entire examined colon” and that my “end-to-side ileo-colonic anastomosis” (where my small intestine was reattached to my large intestine from my bowel resection surgery in 2015) is characterized by “healthy appearing mucosa”. No biopsies were taken and the “quality of the bowel preparation was excellent”.
Remission is a complicated term and one I don’t take lightly. I reached surgical remission in 2015, after a decade of ups and downs. While I’m so grateful to continue the 7-year-streak of remission, I’m aware that tomorrow things can change. All any of us can do is focus on the right now and try not to dwell on what could be or what can happen. Remission is just a word—I didn’t do anything to deserve it, no one does. So much emphasis can be placed on being in remission, and I get that it can feel like a big deal—but IBD, whether you’re in “remission” or not is unpredictable, so there’s no sense in thinking you’re in the clear or invincible just because you’re told you’ve reached it. Remission does not mean you are completely free of symptoms.
My tips for going through a colonoscopy
Schedule your scope during an early time slot. Not only does this allow you to eat a lot sooner, but you’re also more likely to be taken right on schedule and not face any delays. For my 11:30 a.m. scope, I wasn’t at a restaurant until 3 p.m. I will say as an IBD mom, the 11:30 a.m. time was ideal in the fact I was able to get my two older kids ready for school and drop offs had already taken place before my husband and I left for the hospital.
Arrange childcare as you’re scheduling your scope. It’s challenging as an IBD mom or dad to have to worry about who is going to take care of your kids during procedures. Get the available dates for your colonoscopy and figure out childcare as you’re scheduling so there’s one less moving piece to deal with. My mother-in-law watched our kids from 9:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. and it was comforting to know I had nothing to worry about while my husband and I were away.
Add in some buffer with a liquid diet for a few days. I’m not saying you need to go crazy with the liquid diet, but even doing one extra day of liquids will really ease your prep when it comes to what you need to pass. It also gives you a bit of leverage if things don’t go as planned when you’re trying to get it all down.
Listen to your body and do what you’re comfortable with. While there are guidelines and recommendations if you are vomiting, feeling sick, struggling to make it through the prep, just do what you can. Don’t push yourself to the brink of putting your health at risk. The SUTAB pills specifically say “Do not take other laxatives” … so how is a patient supposed to feel when their GI tells them to do a laundry list of additional laxatives?! The general population does the prep, without any add-ons. We should be able to do the same. I had to chuckle when I was told my prep was excellent, when I went off the grid and did what I felt was best. Before my procedure I smiled at my doctor and told her I did my best…and that’s all they can ask for.
Get labs ahead of time. The past few years my care team has tried to save me a trip to the lab and tried to get lab work through my IV. Each time, it’s been a nightmare. Last year the nurse in recovery stuck me 8 times and I was so dehydrated she never got any blood. She was unkind and rough and left me in tears. That was it for me. This year, I did labs the Monday before my scope. Having that checked off my ever-growing patient to-do list eased my anxiety and the nurse who did my IV said because she didn’t need to get labs through my IV, the needle could be a lot smaller—score!
Count the pills. I noticed this time I was given one extra SUTAB pill in my prescription bottle. I triple counted to make sure. There should be 24, total. Make sure not to take any extra.
Be cognizant of the time of year you get your scope. Get tests and procedures done prior to the end of the year when you’ve most likely reached your deductible, so you save money. I have a bone scan scheduled this week as well, crossing everything off the list when it’s covered.
Always remember gummy bears are a liquid. I share this year after year but so many people still seem unaware that this is the case. The day prior to a scope you need to steer clear of red and purple gummy bears, but you can eat gummy bears throughout a liquid diet and the day before your scope. The ability to chew something and have something sweet is a gamechanger. It’s a great way to chase prep that doesn’t taste good, too. This time around my sweet daughter took it upon herself to take all the red gummy bears from the bag so I wouldn’t accidently eat one…she made a pile of red gummy bears and proceeded to eat all of them.
Check about patient savings options. SUTAB is a bit pricier than other preps, you can save by going to http://www.sutab.com and printing off a coupon that brings the cost down to $40 with most insurances. Look into this regardless of what prep you do to make sure you’re not overpaying.
Feel empowered in what you’ve endured. Going through colonoscopies with IBD is not for the faint of heart. Chances are you have your own routine and know what works for you. Stick to it and speak up if something doesn’t sit right with you. Plan that post- scope meal ahead of time and reward yourself afterwards. You’ve been through a lot and deserve to recover and rest.
You’re told by your gastroenterologist you need a biologic to treat your IBD and that medication is received through infusion. Thoughts race through your mind–what’s it going to be like hooked up to an IV receiving your medicine? It’s completely normal to feel anxious, nervous, and uncertain. I’ve done self-injections since 2008, and never have needed to receive my medication through infusion, but I know that’s not the case for many.
This week on Lights, Camera, Crohn’s we hear from patient advocate Jenna Ziegler. Jenna was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis in 2014 and has recently added enteropathic arthritis and a rare autoimmune non-alcohol-related liver disease called primary sclerosing cholangitis (PSC) to the list.
Over the years, Jenna has learned how to prepare for infusions so that she can walk into the outpatient center with confidence. Check out her empowering tips for doing so—whether your infusions are at a medical center or at home!
Do Your Prep Work
Know if you’ll be given Benadryl. Some biologics require pre-medications that help prevent adverse reactions. These meds may include Tylenol, prednisone, or Benadryl. Find out ahead of time if you’ll be given Benadryl. Knowing you’ll be sleepy at and after your infusion can help you decide if you’ll need a driver and if you need to make arrangements for the rest of your day.
Plan out the rest of your day. You may be tired after your infusion—especially if you’re given Benadryl! Weeks before your infusion, make proper post-infusion arrangements .Maybe you’ll want to take the day off work or arrange for childcare so you can take a long nap or reschedule that evening’s outing to another day. Jenna encourages you to schedule time in your calendar to recuperate after the infusion.
Know your dosing and required blood work. By knowing your dose and what labs that will be drawn, you’ll feel more in control of your day. Ask your doctor for your dose and what (if any) labs the nurse will draw at your infusion. Then, when you arrive, you can double check that these things are correct.
The Day Before Your Infusion
The day before your infusion is critical: make sure you’re drinking enough water!
“Infusions require IVs, so it may ease your nerves to do everything in your power to make your veins as plump and visible as possible. I drink one gallon of water the day before my infusion. I chug 32 ounces every three hours and set reminders to keep me accountable. When I do this, my infusion nurse almost always gets my IV in with one poke! Also, a nurse told me that sodium retains water, so eating salty snacks the day before will also help keep water in your veins. Of course, run this by your doctor first!”
The Day Of your Infusion
Today’s the day! Here are three tips to help remove some of those infusion-day nerves.
1. Eat a proper meal. The day of your infusion, you want to fuel your body with healthy foods. This means a balanced meal with both protein and carbs. This is especially important if you’ll receive Benadryl or get blood drawn!
2. Dress in layers. One of the best things you can do for yourself is make sure you’re comfortable for your infusion.
“I find infusion centers very cold, so I suggest you dress in layers—just make sure you choose something where your veins are easily accessible. I tend to wear warm shoes, comfy pants, a long-sleeved shirt over a tank top, and a sweatshirt. Cozy and practical!”
3. Bring entertainment. Different biologic infusions vary in length, so if you’ll be there for a while, bring something to keep you entertained! Some of Jenna’s personal favorites are: books, journal, laptop, headphones, and snacks. If you receive home infusions, be sure to gather your supplies by your couch or the location in your house where you plan to receive the medication.
At Your Infusion
When you arrive at your infusion center, you’ll check in, probably sign some forms, and your nurse will show you to your chair. It’s okay if you’re feeling nervous. But remember, as the patient, you are empowered. Here are Jenna’s top tips to ease your nerves.
Ask for a warm blanket and pillow. Not only will this help you get comfortable, but placing a warm blanket over your arm will help prepare your vein for the IV.
Tell the nurse which arm/vein you prefer. Don’t be afraid to tell your nurse which vein you want them to poke. They’ll probably ask, but if they don’t, don’t be afraid to voice your preference.
Take your Benadryl slowly. If Benadryl is one of your pre-meds, they’ll probably either give you a pill or push it through your IV. If it’s via IV, ask the nurse to go slowly. Pushing the syringe too fast may make you feel lightheaded or nauseous. Again, don’t be afraid to speak up.
Confirm the info on your medication bag is correct. When the nurse is hooking your medication bag to your IV, it may make you feel better to see the label for yourself. Ask the nurse to show it to you, and you can personally ensure it has the correct patient name, medication, and dose.
After Your Infusion
You did it! Your infusion is over. Best of all, you’ve already planned out the rest of your day, so now you don’t have to stress about your to-do list.
“I encourage you to listen to your body—you might want to take a nap, take a hot bath, or have a relaxing night in with your family and pizza delivery. You’ve had a long day and you deserve to destress and relax.”
Remember, You Are Empowered
Over time, getting your infusions will become easier. Normal. Routine. And, one day, maybe even relaxing.
“I would have never thought that I’d find peace in my infusion days—these days that once made me nervous and stressed. But I now see my infusion days as relaxing, self-care days. This will come with time, and it starts with one thing: remembering that you are strong, empowered, and your own best advocate.”
Managing and treating inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) with medication is often necessary for those who live with Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis. But for many, it’s a difficult decision that often comes with pushback and worry. This week on Lights, Camera, Crohn’s we hear from well-respected registered IBD dietitian and ulcerative colitis patient extraordinaire, Stacey Collins, about how she breeches this subject with patients and caregivers and how she utilizes her own patient journey to help empathize with those who are struggling to take the plunge.
Holding space and helping patients accept their reality
When it comes to needing medication, oftentimes conversations are harder on parents or caregivers, than the patients themselves. Stacey tries to encourage caregivers to find the support they need to accept the reality of their loved one needing medication to have a quality of life.
She says, “If someone wants to work with me on their nutrition “instead of medication,” I try to understand where the person is coming from. Usually, it’s from a place of fear, or uncertainty, and I really affirm that experience and hold space with them. Medications, side effects, accessibility, and adherence…it can all be so…heavy. There’s plenty of room to hold those two truths: meds are hard. And they’re often necessary.”
Stacey says when having these conversations she always begins with listening and holding space and then she puts her clinical hat on to ensure that it’s understood that these diseases are progressive and inflammatory, and that science shows that it’s best to get ahead of the inflammation, often with a medical provider, rather than chasing down the symptoms and the inflammation while quality of life suffers.
“I see my role as a registered dietitian as supportive of both treatment goals: helping patients have a quality of life, while assisting with the inflammation. But, I can’t provide medical nutrition therapy without the medicine component, and since diet isn’t ultimately the cause of these diseases, it works best as a complementary therapy with the support of a GI team; not as a cure.”
If patients aren’t trusting of their GI provider, Stacey tries to encourage them to seek out an IBD-specific GI doctor, if possible, while ensuring there’s also frequent follow-up with their local GI team, if they’re living somewhere rural. She says a lot of these conversations are born out of not feeling supported by GI providers, so she tries to help patients find GI’s who specialize in IBD, who are that are a better match.
“I’m upfront about not feeling comfortable about using nutrition in lieu of medication. That puts a lot of non-evidence-based pressure on my job as a dietitian, removes a lot of joy from the experience of eating, and further perpetuates the stigma associated with medicine. IBD is not a preventative metabolic disease, and patients should never feel blamed for eating their way into an autoimmune disease diagnosis. It’s simply not true, and it’s harmful messaging.”
How Stacey’s IBD journey inspired her to become a registered dietitian
At the time of her IBD diagnosis, Stacey was desperate for anything to stay alive. So, when it was either steroids, a biologic infusion, or having her colon removed, she was thankful the outcome wasn’t terminal.
“I happily agreed to the meds without even thinking about it. Within a month, I felt like a “normal” college student again, and honestly the changes that I experienced within my body due to the disease itself (losing my long, thick hair in clumps from malnutrition; seeing my body change rapidly to look emaciated), were far more difficult than any side effects from the medication. I felt like it was very much a night-to-day scenario, and I was so grateful for the medications as a result.”
But once she started feeling a little bit better and opened up to some family members about her disease, she heard a lot of negative chatter about the aggressive nature of the IV meds that she had “chosen” and thought, “Hmm. Maybe I’ll try juicing and holistic wellness,” never mind the fact that she was 21 years old with no professional support in making that decision.
“I quickly ended up hospitalized and needing an emergency Remicade infusion (the good ole days when hospitals kept it stocked in their pharmacy). The attending GI doc gave me some tough love, and really took the time to explain to me how “this is lifelong” and “you can’t be late on an infusion, because your immune system will lose response to the medication” and that really clicked for me. It was a hard moment and a tough pill to swallow, but it was a lesson of “maybe my well-meaning family members don’t know what’s best for me, and I’m going to have to trust my body, this med, and this doctor.”
In the years after, she went on to lose response to medications, start new ones, and it was always a night-to-day scenario all over again.
“I think this black/white sort of dichotomy of my experience on and off medication helped me accept that this was my reality pretty easily compared to others’ experience perhaps where maybe they’re less sick and the meds (not to mention the insurance gymnastics required to obtain them regularly) might seem daunting and leave people thinking, “Do I really need this?”. I was able to truly see that meds (and a whole GI team advocating on my behalf repeatedly for access to them) absolutely are the reason I’m still here.”
The challenge of receiving infusions
Infusions were psychologically a little “icky” for Stacey at first. She went from being a young, fun college student on campus with peers one minute… to driving 5 miles away to an infusion center where she was the youngest by a longshot, usually next to someone twice her age receiving chemotherapy or dialysis, and then she would go back to campus and pretend like nothing had happened.
“My boyfriend at the time (now husband) and I had a favorite haunt: Homeslice Pizza in Austin, Texas. Before my diagnosis, we were there on a date, and I spent the whole time in the bathroom. This was one of those places where there’s only one toilet…so I’d immediately finish and get back into line for the bathroom.He was really kind and said, “It’s okay! We’ll take it to-go, and when you’re feeling better, we’ll come back and have a pizza day and celebrate!”
Stacey says they were both so grateful for the night-to-day improvement with medicine that they named infusion days “Pizza Days” and this gave her a reason to look forward to infusion days, instead of dreading them. Over the years, we started inviting our friends to “Stacey’s Pizza Day” everywhere we moved: from Austin to Houston to Oklahoma City, and her friends had so much fun celebrating her infusion schedule every 2, 4, 6, or 8 weeks.
Utilizing research to help back the need for medication
As a dietitian, medications are out of Stacey’s scope of practice. As a patient, she knows them to be helpful. She tries to connect patients to resources so they can make informed decisions for themselves with a GI team that they trust. Resources like the IBD Medication Guide on the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation’s website are really useful, as well as IBD And Me if patients and caregivers are having some cognitive dissonance about finding a biologic that feels right for them.
“Then I’ll ask them about what their takeaways were. Sometimes, talking out these conversations really helps patients find useful, effective ways to communicate to their GI doctor, so while I understand that it’s not my role as a dietitian to provide guidance on medication selection, I’m happy to help patients sift through what sort of questions or concerns they need to express to their GI doctor. So often as patients we brush off our concerns or our fears because we don’t want to be a bother, and I really encourage patients to have these hard conversations with their GI provider; A good doctor will want to know.”
Why taking medication is not the “easy way out”
It’s fine to struggle with medications; medications can be hard. It’s not fine to feel shamed out of using them under the dogma of gut-health and over-supplementing, and unfortunately there’s a lot of misinformation in the IBD space of people professing left and right how they’ve “healed their gut” naturally.
“I feel like I’m uniquely in the middle of loving the science of nutrition and needing modern medicine to still be here. For me, it’s been damaging and debilitating to also make society comfortable with my need for medicine for so many years until I learned to let that go. Now I speak up when I can if it’s worth my energy. There’s nothing easy about needing medicine for life to stay alive, and the people who say otherwise just haven’t seen that in their life, and that’s okay. It’s not okay for them to think their experience can be applied to all people with gut health issues though. Would also love to have clarification on “gut health.” IBS? SIBO? Constipation? Nervous stomach? Gas? IBD? These are different things that can’t have the same, convenient solution.”
How we can rely on nutrition as a valuable tool in managing our IBD
Stacey sees nutrition as the shiniest, easiest available tool in a toolbox full of other tools: mental health, sleep, pain management/PT/movement, medicine, and surgery.
“Sometimes when I work with IBD patients, nutrition is not even the most important tool- it just depends on what’s going on in each person’s life. Maybe surgery is the most important tool, or it’s mental health. Different life moments with IBD will require different tools, and while my obvious favorite tool is nutrition, the other tools mean a lot, too.”
Nutrition is a tool that is compatible with all the other tools, and nutrition interventions might take some fine-tuning, mindset shifts, and some tailoring to each person’s lifestyle. But the beauty is that it can be picked up as needed, and that’s nutrition’s superpower: it’s a tool, and it’s also a bridge for connection, safety, comfort, and a quality of life within the context of IBD.
“I teach my patients individualized nutrition for IBD as the remissive/relapsing beast that it is, not just for what it looks like during the time that I work with them.”
Stacey’s advice for patients
Expect non-linear. Try not to compare. Feel the feelings, let the energy and the emotion move through you whatever way it needs to, brace for impact, and know you’re still here. Make room in your day to celebrate a good one!
Recognizing there can be two dualities that are true. You can hate needing medicine and be grateful that they kept you alive. You can feel deep sorrow for losing your health before you were old enough to acknowledge its presence and embrace this new, unprecedented, post-op reality, even though it’s different than what you expected.
Embrace your emotions. You can cryabout the reality of having needed an ostomy and be thrilled to eat a chocolate croissant in a moving car without pain BECAUSE the ostomy granted you a pain-free eating experience. You can be fearful about choosing a j-pouch and celebrate that it’s possible and wild to live with one.
Resenting the diagnosis is normal. You can resent your IBD diagnosis and be grateful for who you are with it (and thankful for all the people you’ve met because of your diagnosis!).
Lean on support groups and the IBD family. The support groups through the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation have been helpful for a lot of Stacey’s friends, and for her personally. She’s a huge fan of Spin4 and Team Challenge. Finding a safe, welcoming community who gets your reality (wherever that may be!) can be powerful and uniquely helpful.
This post is sponsored by Smart Sharps Bin. All opinions expressed are my own and do not necessarily reflect the position of HealthBeacon plc or Hamilton Beach Brands, Inc.
I started doing my self-injection more than 14 years ago, long before I became an IBD mom. I went from being a single 20-something alone in my apartment mustering up the strength… to having a family around me while I receive my medication. The experience has changed greatly and so has my perspective.
There are many reasons why I have chosen not to hide my injections from my three children. Crohn’s disease impacts more than just the person who lives with it, it’s a family disease. Even though my children are ages five, three, and 16 months, there’s a deep level of understanding and empathy that starts from a very young age. My disease is part of me. I always try to be transparent about my health and well-being. I have never said “I have a disease” since my children wouldn’t understand that, but I try to explain that sometimes my “tummy” hurts and that “Mommy’s shot keeps me healthy, safe, and strong.”
My process for self-injecting every other Monday
Once dinner is over, I pull my injection out of the fridge and let it warm up on the counter, out of the reach of my kids. I’ve always preferred to do my shot at night so I can rest afterwards and have a sweet treat like ice cream as a reward after. After about 30 minutes to an hour, I head over to the couch, and my children hover around me. They watch as I wipe the alcohol swab counterclockwise and oftentimes help me hold the ice pack on my thigh for five minutes. Then, once it’s time to pull the top and bottom off the injection and get down to business, I let them know they need to give me some space and not to move or make any jerking motions. I pause. Smile sweetly at them and start my countdown, slowly and calmly…one one thousand…two one thousand…all the way to 10. They smile back at me and bounce around when I have finished self-injecting. They immediately want to see if I’m bleeding and want to make sure I’m not in pain and don’t need a band aid. I bounce up off the couch and act like it’s just another part of our bedtime routine.
Since we’ve been doing this “process” for as long as they can remember, it’s part of our family, and part of what it’s like for me as an IBD mom. My kids are my greatest cheerleaders and my reason “why” for everything I do in life.
The sweetest distraction
I find it empowering to look into their innocent eyes and joyful faces while I self-inject, it’s the best distraction. I used to stare at a focal point on the wall, a photo of someone who inspires me, or a show on the television, but looking at my kids—my greatest motivation to push through the difficult moments—is the best medicine, literally and figuratively. I make a point to smile at them and never show signs of weakness, so they see that I’m ok and doing something positive for myself. This has become a lot easier since the formula for Humira changed and is no longer painful. I used to really struggle to smile when the medication burned the first year and a half of my oldest son’s life.
When my injection used to be painful, my son would see through my smiles. He would often hold a toy and pretend to give himself his own injection. After I was done doing my shot, he would come up and kiss my thigh and say he loved me. At this point he wasn’t even two years old—kids of IBD parents just “get it,” their empathy and understanding of health is incredibly unique and special.
How that strength carries over into my children’s’ lives
Since my kids see me self-injecting every other Monday, they’ve become quite desensitized when it’s time for their own vaccinations at the pediatrician. When my older two children get their flu shots, they take them like champs. The nurses always laugh that they’re braver than some teenagers. When my kids smile and tell me they’re strong like me when I do my shot it’s bittersweet. While I wish they didn’t have to see me self-inject, it’s building their character and understanding of health in a beautiful way.
When it comes to the biologic, Humira (adalimumab), I am somewhat of an OG. I’ve taken Humira to manage and treat my Crohn’s disease since July 2008. We go wayyy back. Since my first loading dose 14 years ago, I’ve had hospitalizations, had bowel resection surgery, gotten engaged and married, traveled, worked full time, had three children, breastfed, been a stay-at-home mom…the list goes on. I’ll never forget how overwhelming it felt when I was lying in a hospital bed with an abscess the size of a tennis ball in my small intestine and when my GI at the time told me “It was time to break out the big guns.” The big guns being biologics.
My mom and I were upset. We were frantic. We were Googling. We were fearful of what this would mean for my childbearing years. I couldn’t fathom the thought of giving myself injections or getting infusions. My world came to a standstill. In that moment, I would have given anything to have a resource like this. An article that outlines patient experiences across the board. The good, the bad, the ugly. I write these articles, so you feel empowered and educated when you take the plunge or when you are forced to switch medications because another biologic fails you. I write these articles, so you feel confident in making informed choices and realize that the “big guns” are oftentimes necessary and not as scary as they sound.
As you read this article and others like it, please remember these are individual experiences. Just because one person had a terrible response or reaction doesn’t mean you will. Just because I haven’t had any side effects and have been able to stay on Humira for more than 14 years, doesn’t mean the same will be the case for you. Use these experiences to level your expectations and have a better grasp of what it’s like to be someone with IBD on a biologic drug and make an informed choice with your gastroenterologist.
If you haven’t done so already, be sure to check out previous Patient Experience articles I’ve shared on Lights, Camera, Crohn’s about:
For those who are “new” to Humira, those who are preparing to do their loading dose, or those who aren’t familiar with the drug—in the United States a new and MUCH improved Citrate-free formula came to market for pediatrics and adults in late summer/early fall 2018. I did my first Citrate-free or as many of us call them, “pain free” injection in September 2018 while pregnant with my second child. If you’ve been on Humira for a long time like me or tried it prior to that time, you know how painful the injections used to be and how much easier they are now. It’s a gamechanger. The loading dose used to be four injections—all in the same sitting that felt like liquid fire were going through your leg or abdomen. Fast forward to 2018, not only is the needle gauge smaller, but the formula no longer stings. Click here to watch the video of me experiencing Citrate-free Humira for the first time while pregnant.
I went from dreading my injections (even a decade in) to doing injections on my couch and smiling ear to ear while my kids watch me because I feel next to nothing. This is important context for this article. Some of the experiences you will hear will be from people who never had a chance to experience Citrate-free Humira, and others who say the shot is “easy” to do most likely started or were switched over to the pain-free version. This change in the formula has been an incredible win for anyone on Humira in the United States. The loading dose not only won’t hurt but is only two injections now versus the original four. The challenge is getting used to the mechanics of doing a self-injection and getting into the right headspace each time you’re due for a dose. Regardless of whether it hurts or not, you are still injecting a heavy-duty medication, which suppresses your immune system, into your body. I’m often asked if I get “sicker” being immunocompromised and being a mom of little ones—my answer to that is no. I am mindful of washing my hands and not eating or drinking off anyone. My GI has me do “safety labs” every three months to monitor my bloodwork, along with an annual colonoscopy.
Debbie: “I was on Humira for four years. I responded well at first and liked the ease of doing injections myself. The Citrate-free version was much better and less painful than the original version. I unfortunately ended up developing antibodies and have been switched to Stelara. I didn’t have any side effects with Humira other than some itchiness at the injection site. Ice helped a lot with that.”
Melanie: “After a reaction to Remicade, I was so anxious to try another biologic. This was in 2009 and Humira hurt so much. I had a massive panic attack trying to do the loading dose of the original version. I was 19 at the time. I couldn’t continue with it. Now, I’m on Cimzia, but had to take a mental health break from biologics for a few years.”
Brad: “I started Humira back in March of this year. It’s been a complete gamechanger for me. Humira has me in clinical remission as of my last colonoscopy. I don’t have much reaction to it. Sometimes, the injection can hurt a little bit, but usually not at all. I’m shocked at how easy it’s been. I was originally very nervous about starting an injectable.”
Jenn: “Humira was traumatizing. It took well over a year for me to self-inject without stressing and crying beforehand as the injection hurt so much. While it did provide relief from symptoms for a while, the reaction I ended up getting was significant, and impacted my ability to live normally. So not only had my Crohn’s symptoms returned, but they were also joined by additional symptoms caused from a reaction I was having to the medication. I will never not be a proponent of taking meds as they do help, but I will also never forget the experiences I lived due to them.”
Natasha: “I was in the pediatric trials for Humira. I don’t remember it doing much, but almost 15 years later, I’m still traumatized by the trigger mechanism and feel the phantom pains in my legs from doing them for so long. Anytime a new medication it brought up and it’s a shot, I ask if there are self-administered options vs the auto injector. The PTSD is bad.”
**It should be noted Humira can be administered with an auto-injector pen (where you press down on a button and there’s a clicking sound) or with a syringe where you draw up the medication. I have only used the auto-injector and prefer the ease of it, but it’s all personal preference and what you are comfortable with.**
A mixed bag of experiences
Sofia is now on Stelara after having surgery to remove some of her bowel. When she thinks back to her time on Humira, it’s not a pleasant memory.
“I experienced all the normal flare up symptoms while taking Humira and gained a lot of weight. I just remember my self-esteem plummeted as well as my hopes for remission.”
Kathy: “I was on Remicade, but I’ve been on Humira now for five years and have had great results with minimal side effects.”
Kaitlyn: “I have been on Humira for a few months to treat my Crohn’s disease and Hidradenitis Supprativa and it has been life-changing. My Crohn’s is in microbial remission, and I no longer have to get weekly, painful steroid injections for my HS.”
Jessica: “I’ve been on Humira for four years and my last colonoscopy showed there was mucosal healing and no active Crohn’s. I inject every 14 days and it has gotten easier, especially when I inject and tell myself that it is healing my body. Then, I don’t feel the shot. I’m very thankful for it!”
Myisha was on Humira for a year and then had a major allergic reaction.
“The last injection I gave myself, my face, lips, and mouth swelled up and I got lightheaded. My husband immediately called my GI and I had to be given an EPI pen along with 4 Benadryl intravenously after being rushed to the emergency room. I experienced hypersensitivity anaphylaxis and angioneurotic edema.”
Keyla: “When I was on Humira, it made me lose my hair. I felt terrible on it, and I never noticed much improvement with my IBD.”
Danielle has struggled to find a biologic that manages her disease. Both Humira and Entyvio failed her. She’s now on Stelara.
“I was on Humira for three months in 2021. It worked amazing right off the bat, then suddenly I had no response whatsoever. The injections were quite traumatic for me as I had one injection needle fall apart as I was giving the injection.”
Sarah: “Humira has improved my life and helped manage my Crohn’s symptoms and allowed me to eat a wider variety of foods then when on previous medications. However, there have been some compromises on my part. I’ve dealt with some bad injection site reactions that have caused me to have to take allergy medication prior to administering it to help manage the reaction. I’ve also experienced severe sinus congestion and uveitis that I did not have prior to taking Humira. I’ve lost some sense of smell due to how bad my congestion can get, and I can’t touch or rub my eyes without risking a flare up of uveitis. Overall, I would say that it has been worth taking Humira. I’ve learned to manage my side effects and have gotten over my fear or self-injection.”
Catie: “My experience with Humira was good at the beginning. The medicine helped me achieve remission. The injections were always so painful no matter what tricks I tried. I ended up getting drug-induced lupus from Humira, so I went off the drug. The drug-induced lupus took more than a year to recover from—it was awful.”
Hayley: “I was on Humira for a year and was doing great on it, practically in remission. Unfortunately, I developed psoriasis (which I’ve been told is a rare allergic reaction to the drug itself). My sister who has Crohn’s was also on Humira and had the same reaction. I wish I could’ve stayed on it longer because it was easy and helped me so much, but unfortunately, I had to come off it. It was my first biologic and gave me a lot of hope!”
Krista: “I was on Humira for about 6 months. It was working great—other than extremely painful injector pen that I dreaded using every month. I started to develop scaly patches on my legs, back, stomach, and scalp. My hair started falling out where the scaly patches came up on my scalp. My dermatologist thought I had biologic-induced psoriasis, so I stopped taking it. My biopsies came back negative for psoriasis, but I still ended up switching medications.”
Melissa: “I was on Humira in the past. It didn’t work for me and caused me so many issues. My body itched so badly while on it. I would scratch sores on my body from it. My joints ached all the time. And on top of it, my ulcerative colitis got worse while on it.”
Adriana: “I was on Humira for a year. I did weekly injections, but they wanted to increase my dosage to two injections. For me, it didn’t work (as with a lot of drugs I was on), but out of all of them, it worked best at making me feel better. I don’t remember having too many side effects from Humira besides slight bruising around the injection site, but definitely worth a try!”
Ellie: “I started Humira in 2019 after a four-month bout with steroids. I went into remission a month later after only two injections. I have remained in remission ever since.”
Dana: “I was on Humira for around 2 years. It put me into remission, and I was doing very well, but then I started to have Crohn’s symptoms. My doctor thought about increasing the frequency of my dosage, but my blood levels were adequate, and she didn’t want them to become too elevated with an increase in dosage. I also developed severe psoriasis on my scalp as a side effect. I ended up flaring and having to stop Humira to try something else.”
Jessica: “Humira has been great for me! Really no side effects. I did have to increase my dose to weekly because I metabolize medication too quickly.”
Phil: “I had a small bowel resection in 2004 and after a 10-year remission, my Crohn’s became active again. I was put on Humira, and it was amazing for about 7 years with a few side effects, biggest one being hypersensitivity to the sun. I miss being on Humira because it also helped my joint pain and psoriasis.”
Stacey: “Humira was my final effort to save my large intestine and felt pretty good on it! Aside from horrid cystic bacne, which isn’t listed as a documented side effect (but I swear there was an association there!), I had no side effects, and I felt great on Humira! It gave me a quality of life! I was on Humira when I made the hard choice to have a total colectomy, and the disease had spread since my scope four months prior. Goes to show that symptoms don’t always correlate with inflammation. But I’m grateful for my experience and the opportunity to safely take Humira.”
Pregnancy and motherhood with Humira
As an IBD mom of three, I stayed on Humira until 39 weeks pregnant with my oldest, and 37 weeks with my second and third child. I had scheduled c-sections with all three, so I was able to coordinate my injection schedule with my GI ahead of time. I breastfed my second child for about 6 months and supplemented and just finished exclusively breastfeeding my 14-month-old—all while on Humira. I have three, perfectly healthy children and had flawless, Crohn’s-free pregnancies. I also did not experience post-partum flares and I credit that to the fact I stayed on my medication and picked it right back up the day we brought the babies home from the hospital.
Check out these helpful resources for pregnancy and biologics and have long-term research that shows the safety and efficacy of staying on Humira through the entire family planning process, pregnancy, and beyond:
Dani: “My experience with Humira has been wonderful. I’ve been taking Humira for two years. The nurse ambassadors are so nice and helpful. I was nervous about the injections, but they really are so easy and don’t hurt. Humira has helped me to feel the best I’ve felt since my Crohn’s diagnosis 4.5 years ago. I stayed on Humira through my pregnancy, and I had no Crohn’s related issues during or after. It’s been a life-changer. Most days, I almost forget I have a chronic illness. I’m praying things stay like this, at least until we have another child.”
Stephanie: “I have been on Humira since 2016. I was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis postpartum after my first baby in 2015 and was incredibly sick. I had multiple blood transfusions, tons of steroids, etc. I had some reactions to Humira when I started taking it (skin rashes and almost withdrawal-like symptoms) before the two weeks was over, which almost presented itself like lupus, so I was put on weekly injections and have been doing that ever since. After I was put on Humira, it was a lifesaver. I felt the best I had in forever. Since having my second child in 2019, it’s been more up and down. At my next colonoscopy, we will look to see if I have inflammation still and if I do, I will go off Humira (which is so scary to me) and try something new.”
Katie: “I have been on Humira for 7 months. I was completely terrified to be on Humira, but I was so sick, and knew I needed to do something for not only myself, but my husband and my kids. Humira has gotten me back to the point of feeling back to my normal self. The only side effect I noticed for the first few injections is I would feel absolutely exhausted that next night. It’s super quick and I get on with life as usual!”
Sarah: “I have been on Humira for a little over a year now. I was on it while pregnant with my son. It was an easy process. But now that I’m 4 months postpartum, I am experiencing some weird side effects. My liver levels are elevated, and I am getting symptoms back. My GI and rheumatologist are thinking of moving me to once a week or adding another medication. I am fearful they will switch me off or add things and I won’t be able to breastfeed any longer. Humira has been wonderful, and I am just nervous my body has begun to build antibodies against it.”
Cece: “I have struggled with my ulcerative colitis symptoms on and off since I was 19. At 36 years old, after trying 3 years to get pregnant, I had a colonoscopy that revealed active inflammation. That was what finally pushed me to get on Humira. My symptoms settled down and luckily, I’ve been in remission and feeling great ulcerative colitis-wise through IVF, pregnancy, and breastfeeding.”
The Pediatric patient point of view
Emily is a 13-year-old who has been on Humira for three years. She says Humira has done a lot to help her get Crohn’s under control.
“Doing injections myself has helped. It feels better to “be in control” of giving yourself the shot. I’ve been having less stomach pains and less joint pains from Humira. My joint pain and stomach aches used to be really bad. I used to cry myself asleep at night because how bad the pain was for both my joints and stomach. Now that rarely happens. Yes, I still get joint pains, but not to the point where I start crying. I get a little tired after the shot, but it helps me a lot. So many positives.”
Celia is 15-years-old and started Humira in October 2021. About two months after her initial loading dose, she started to notice less bowel movements, but still had urgency and abdominal cramping. Her GI decided to increase her dose to 80 mg since her inflammation markers were elevated and she was flaring. (Typically, we are put on 40 mg injections, twice a month).
“I feel better! I still have my bad days and have had minor issues. I’m hopeful that this will be the medicine to get me into remission! On the mental side of things, I have struggled with injection anxiety. I have never been afraid of needles, and I’m still not, but I overthink every injection. That has been my greatest struggle on Humira, but I’m hopeful over time I’ll overcome it!”
Cindy’s 8-year-old daughter is on Humira. She says the various worries and challenges all give way in the end to gratitude.
“Humira is saving my daughter’s life and giving her a tremendous quality of life. Thirty years ago, an 8-year-old would have had such a different trajectory my she is experiencing and hopefully will continue to have. I love science.”
Struggles with access to Humira
Regardless of the biologic you are on, dealing with insurance, prior authorizations, and specialty pharmacies can make access to drugs like Humira a challenge. AbbVie (the maker of Humira) offers several programs to help streamline the process and take some of the burden off patients.
Once you enroll in Humira Complete, you are connected with a Nurse Ambassador who will speak with you directly (and even do in-person visits) to help you gain confidence and understanding about everything from administering your medication to any side effects you may be dealing with. Humira Complete offers a Patient Savings Card and Prescription rebates, and offers injection training through videos, an App to help you stay on track, and 24/7 availability should you need to reach someone. The phone number for Humira Complete is 1-800-4HUMIRA (1-800-448-6472).
Even though Humira Complete exists and has helped me many times, there are still many patients dealing with access issues or completely unaware of the fact that the programs and savings are available:
Emily: “I have been on Humira since October of last year and it has been both great and horrible for me. Remicade stopped working for me after 5 years and Humira was able to help calm down the flare I had been experiencing. I learned with time that at home injections weren’t something to fear. Humira is very convenient. Humira came with large bills and a battle with insurance and Accredo pharmacy. Every month, unnecessary stress had been added to my already full college schedule. In between classes I found myself calling multiple people to make sure my medication was going to arrive on time and that it didn’t cost me $4,000 each time. I’ve had issues almost every single time I refill my medicine. It almost makes me want to switch medicine just so I don’t have to deal with it, which is unfortunate because the medicine itself helps me.”
Sydney: “I just came off Humira. It worked great until it didn’t anymore. The formula changed a few years ago, which made it a lot more tolerable, but for a very tiny human, the auto injector caused some atrocious bruises. I ended up having to use syringes because of the bruising. It was a fight with insurance almost every time I needed a re-fill. The medication was good, but the stress trying to get it was almost not worth it. I only reached remission for about a year on it and then my body figured it out.”
Sam: “I have been on Humira for five years. I would say the issues aren’t the drug itself. Insurance companies make it so hard to get access. Ordering my medication from a specialty pharmacy is the worst.”
Christie: “I have been on Humira for three years after being diagnosed with ulcerative colitis in early 2019. The decision to begin taking Humira was a tough one, but I wanted to try anything to reach remission. While I have had a few insurance hiccups here and there, my experience with Humira has been great. I am enrolled in the Humira Complete Program, where I can track my injections and a nurse ambassador calls me once a month to check in. The resources AbbVie offers are incredibly helpful. Overall, I credit Humira for getting me into symptomatic and endoscopic remission.”
All in all, you must always weigh the risks versus the benefits when determining a treatment plan with your physician, regardless of the medication. I personally have not dealt with side effects and have relied on Humira to help me maintain my remission and feel my best so I can be present for my family. What started out as a shocking change in my life, is now just part of my routine. Be patient with yourself and whether the injection hurts or not, reward yourself after. I usually enjoy some ice cream while watching reality TV. Giving yourself an injection isn’t easy, treat yourself to something for being a compliant patient who is doing all you can to help treat an unpredictable and complicated disease. And most importantly, remember you are not alone in your fears, your struggles, and your worries.
Life with IBD impacts our careers in many ways. Our disease can often dictate what path our future takes. As students, teachers, and families gear up for another school year, I thought it would be interesting to hear from educators who have IBD about what it’s like to lead a classroom while living with an unpredictable chronic illness. This week on Lights, Camera, Crohn’s hear the inspiring stories and perspectives of four unsung heroes who don’t allow their IBD to rob them of their career aspirations.
Sarah Rife has been a teacher for seven years, she’s also an IBD mom and an ostomate. She’s currently teaching eighth grade math in the Chicagoland area, but previously taught high school Geometry and Algebra.
“I have taught through many highs and lows Crohn’s wise. For the first 5 years, there wasn’t a single year that I didn’t use every single sick day I had (and then some unpaid days). I believe four out of five of those first years, I had at least one hospitalization where I missed consecutive days, as well. In this time, I was on four different medications and tried a clinical trial.”
While this was going on Sarah says she rarely ate at school and if she did, she stuck to 3-4 “safe foods” to help get through the day.
“I constantly taught with an escape plan in the back of my mind. You can’t just leave a room full of 28-32 kids sitting unsupervised, so I constantly had to think about things like ‘Who will I have cover my class?’ ‘What if I am gone more than 5-10 minutes?’ ‘What can they work on that they will know how to do if I have to step out in the middle of teaching them something new?”
Sarah is open about her IBD with students and their families and says having IBD has made her a more compassionate educator since she understands when students need to miss school.
“When I was younger, I was the student missing multiple days of school. I remember the things that some of my favorite teachers did that helped me to not stress when I felt like I had mountains of missing work. Whenever I have a student gone for health reasons, physical or mental, my standard answer when they come back is “Worry about everything else first, and then I’ll talk to you about what we can do to bring you up to speed in math class. Don’t stress, I will work with you on it.”
One year while being evaluated by her principal during a drop-in visit. He walked into her room, sat down, and started typing. He was aware of her Crohn’s, but Sarah panicked when she knew she needed to make a mad dash to the bathroom while he was in her classroom observing her.
“I ended up going over to him and asking “I really need to step out and use the bathroom. Do you want me to grab someone like I usually do, or do you just want to watch them since you are here” He agreed to watch them, and I ran out to go to the bathroom. Whenever I had to step out, I was also conscious of what time it was. This time, there were about 30 minutes of class left. In my head, I needed to get back ASAP because THE PRINCIPAL was in there and he was supposed to be observing me. When I heard the bell ring and I was still on the toilet, I panicked – I’m talking instant tears. I was able to finish and tried to hurry back to my room. My path crossed his on the way back and I started to say, “I’m sorry, I didn’t know I would be that long.”
Sarah says her mind was racing with crazy thoughts about her abilities as a teacher and what she was capable of. The principal could see she had been crying and more tears were starting to fall, and he interrupted her and said, “Sarah, I am not worried about it. This is your third year here and we know this happens. I am worried about what I see when you are able to be in the classroom and what I saw meets and exceeds our expectations. Please don’t worry about it.” – This reassured her so much more than even he will ever know, but the story replays in her head every time an administrator pops in her room for an unannounced observation – even 4 years later.
When Sarah taught high school, she was nowhere near remission, forcing her to be extremely transparent with her students.
“I told them that I had a disease called Crohn’s and that in a nutshell, my immune system was attacking itself, specifically my intestines. They knew that me having to step out of class and disappear to the bathroom was a possibility and witnessed it multiple times a week, sometimes in the same class period. They were also aware that often these bathroom breaks would result in pain, nausea, and exhaustion.”
Whenever Sarah would have an episode, she says the students went above and beyond to be empathetic and understanding.
“I had students volunteer to work out examples on the board so I could sit down, and they were extremely good at switching gears and changing the plan if I needed to do something with less walking around, standing, or talking – for example work on a worksheet instead of doing notes or bringing questions to me at my desk over me walking around offering help. I really do think high school students are more resilient and compassionate than people give them credit for.”
Since her ostomy surgery, Sarah’s life in the classroom has changed for the better.
“I feel like a completely different teacher. My energy isn’t nearly as much of an issue, I can teach without constantly having an escape plan or worrying how long I’ll be stuck in the bathroom, I can eat lunch at school like a normal person, without worry or only packing the same 3 things, and for the first time in my teaching career, I had paid sick days left at the end of the year. I had a chance to worry about the content I was teaching first and my health second, which I had never been able to do in the past.”
Sadly, this past week, Sara’s ostomy leaked while she was in the middle of teaching 30 thirteen-year-old students. Luckily, she works less than one mile from home so she yanked her shirt down as far as it could go and told the admin she’d be back in 15 minutes.
Sara Margolin of New York has been a professor of psychology for 15 years, with a focus on neuropsychology, cognition, and aging. She says her experience with ulcerative colitis and two other autoimmune conditions has made her more understanding toward her students. Sara says, “Robin Roberts said it best, “everybody has something.” And she’s right. I’m not the only person with a chronic illness. Many of my students struggle or someone they love struggles. Understanding that they deserve the compassion that I wish to have has only made me a better professor.”
Sara has had to leave the classroom on multiple occasions to urgently use the bathroom.
“I will either quickly show a film if I have one at hand or pretend to get a call from my children’s school and “need to leave to take it.” But in my smaller classes, where the discussion leads us there — in the discussion of medical trials, medications for chronic illness, or psychological issues stemming from chronic illness, I’ve discussed my condition. And there have been a handful of students over the years who have been diagnosed while in my class, and I share with them that I understand what they are going through. We bond over that.”
Now that classes are back to in person this fall, she has some concerns knowing she is not fully in remission and not able to teach remotely anymore.
“When I was teaching at home, I had a time or two where I turned my camera off and taught from the bathroom…. EEK! … and knowing that I may be in the position to need to do that but not be able to is nerve wracking. But I know that my colleagues will fill in for me if I do need them to.”
Madison Laspisa of New York has taught fourth grade for four years. She was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease in June 2020, during her first year of having her own classroom. Not only were schools shutting down when her severe symptoms began, but she was dealing with school closures and remote teaching, on top of being diagnosed with a chronic illness.
“My life was flipped completely upside-down to say the least. I was truly devastated at everything that was happening around me and to me. My first year in my own classroom should have been the most memorable part of my career (in a good way), but I sadly cannot say that. My life changed before I had a minute to truly process what was happening. However, since we were forced to stay home because of the Covid-19 pandemic I had the availability to see doctors and get procedures done as needed. Had it been a normal school year I would have had to take a leave of absence during my very first year of teaching.”
Since then, Madison says her IBD has impacted her experience as an educator in more ways than she’d like to admit.
“Aside from needing to take days off to receive my infusion, there have been days where I needed to take a last-minute half day because I desperately needed to see my doctor. At times, this can leave the main office scrambling to find a substitute for my class with an already existing shortage. Not to mention the schedule change my students have to now adjust to with their teacher leaving mid-day.”
Madison says the toughest challenge for her is the amount of time she needs to take off to receive her medication and meet with her care team. She does her best to schedule doctor appointments after school hours, but sometimes it’s not realistic. Right now, she receives her biologic every four weeks, which was changed from every eight weeks.
“This required change in my treatment plan will now require me to miss time in my classroom with my students twice as often. It’s not as simple as “taking a day off” as it is very time consuming to create thorough substitute plans on the days, I am absent. It makes me feel like I’m a “bad teacher” because I have to take time away from my students and classroom. I feel guilty when I’m making substitute plans because I know I am going to be absent the next day and my students have no idea.”
Madison says the weight of the unpredictability of her Crohn’s makes her anxious. She worries about waking up one morning and not being physically able to go into work and do her job.
“I love what I do with a passion and anything that can hinder my ability to do my job to the fullest breaks me. Having the summer months off allows me to slow down and take a break from my rigorous work schedule. In a sense, it provides me with some relief because I know being home, I don’t have to worry about missing work because of my IBD.”
Madison hopes that if someone reading this article aspires to work in education, that they don’t allow their IBD to deter them from taking the leap.
“Teaching and being with my students is my escape from my reality with IBD sometimes. IBD has robbed me of so much and I refuse to let it rob me of my dream job. Do not let IBD dictate what you can and cannot do. Being a teacher and having IBD are both full-time jobs and can be extremely overwhelming at times but loving what you do makes all the difference.”
Krista Deveau has been a teacher in Canada for seven years, she recently became a mom and is an ostomate. She currently teaches kindergarten but has also taught third grade and worked as an intervention specialist helping students with literacy and numeracy. She started her teaching career three months after having a bowel resection surgery. She ended up landing back in the hospital three months later, weighing under 100 pounds, in one of the worst flares of her life.
“My GI team told me that I had to work part time if I was able to or else my chances of being back in a hospital bed were quite high. Working part time has really given me a work- life balance where I can take care of my health and myself and also focus on my career.”
Prior to receiving her ostomy, Krista tells me it was difficult to teach, as she was having accidents almost daily and was vomiting in a garbage can outside of her classroom. During her first year of teaching, she had a meeting with an administrator after school and happened to have an accident. Krista had forgotten to bring a change of clothes.
“I was so embarrassed that I stayed behind my desk all afternoon so students couldn’t smell me. I cleaned up at recess as best as I could. After school I went to meet with admin and told them I had to leave because I had had an accident and didn’t have a change of clothes. I had already told them about my situation and how I was experiencing incontinence, so it wasn’t a big deal, but I was humiliated.”
Krista says teaching is a stressful and demanding job—and that it’s important to be honest with your admin team so there are no surprises along the way.
“Make sure to take care of yourself. Don’t stay late every day. Work smarter, not harder. Collaborate and share plans with other teachers so you aren’t reinventing the wheel. Lean on your coworkers. Find one good coworker friend that will have your back. Don’t work on weekends. Don’t take on too much of the extras, it’s okay to say no. Try to have a healthy work life balance. And find a school/school board that’s a good fit for you and where you feel supported.”
Helpful Tips for Educators with IBD
Be flexible and rework plans, not just in terms of being absent, but also what you can do instead if your energy level is too low to actively teachon your feet or if you need to talk for an hour straight multiple times a day.
For example: Create PowerPoint slides where every single step of a math problem animates itself with the click of a button so you can be sitting instead of standing up, exerting energy.
Teaching is a pleasant distraction. Teaching enables you to get your mind off your IBD and do what you love. Regardless of what you do professionally, your IBD is going to be a part of you, why let it take more from you than it already has? Enjoy the thing you can enjoy.
Make the appropriate accommodations for yourself. Once you are hired or work in a school district, provide school administrators with medical documentation as to why you are unable to work on a certain date. At the start of the school year, it can be helpful to turn in a letter stating your treatment plan along with a request to use the bathroom when needed stating your medical condition. Typically, teachers use the bathroom on their scheduled breaks, but this accommodation allows that in the event you need emergency use of a bathroom, someone will need to cover your class at any given time. This type of documentation for my district must be renewed every school year.
For example, if a typical teacher instructs five classes with an hour to plan and a 25-minute lunch, split with a 25-minute study hall, inquire about keeping your schedule consistent year after year and teaching two classes, then having a plan period, teaching two more classes, and then a ‘duty-free lunch’—meaning you get the entire 56 minutes for lunch, instead of having a study hall to give you a buffer for a bathroom trip along with minimal interruption to other classes.
Request a classroom close to a bathroom and department office so that there are people nearby in case you need someone to cover your class on a moment’s notice.
Try not to fear the worst. Being hospitalized is beyond your control and whether you have a chronic illness like IBD or not, life happens, and co-workers will need help from time to time. Rather than stress about who gave up what time to help you, focus on how to pay it forward and help other teachers when you feel well and when someone else is in need.
Teaching takes a village. Everyone is more than willing to help you out if you let them. Besides, it all becomes so much easier when you don’t feel like you must hide such a huge part of who you are. The sooner you realize people are willing to help you and you don’t have to try and keep it hidden, the easier teaching with IBD becomes.