My Tribute to the IBD Family: You are visible

The theme of World IBD Day (which was yesterday, May 19) was to make the invisible, visible. Here’s my tribute to my fellow IBD warriors and their caregivers.

To the newly diagnosed…

To the person going through their first procedure whether it’s a CT scan or a colonoscopy…colonoscopy

To the parent of a child battling this disease…

To the person being wheeled in for their first surgery…

To the person taking their first steps out of the hospital bed while on the road to recovery…

To the person glancing at their incision for the first time…

To the person looking in the mirror and not recognizing the reflection looking back…

To the person on a liquid diet because it’s too painful to eat actual food…

To the person on a steroid feeling unattractive, irritable and high strung…

To the woman wondering if her body is strong enough to carry a baby…IMG_3723

To the man who’s concerned about being able to be a source of strength for his family…

To the pregnant woman worried about flaring and how it will impact her unborn child…

To the person beginning a biologic or a new medication, who’s petrified of the laundry list of side effects…

To the person crying themselves to sleep because they feel alone in their struggles…

To the mom who feels like she’s waging a never-ending war against her fatigue…

To the teen wondering if they’ll be able to go to college…

To the college student embarrassed of going to the bathroom in the dorms…

_F6B4724To the person nervous to open up in a relationship and disclose they have this disease…

To the person who had to get out of a relationship or was left because the support was lacking…

To the bride or the groom worried about having disease symptoms on their wedding day…

To the person shaking with fear in the parking lot of their doctor’s office, nervous to walk in and face the music…

To the person boarding an airplane nervous about symptoms and being around germs…remedy-nsmith-stlouis-1284

To the person who’s just been told another medication has failed them…

To the person lacking a genuine support system…

To the person who feels misunderstood, frustrated, and judged…

To the person sitting on the toilet contemplating whether a flare is starting to strike…

To the person in the passenger seat being rushed to the emergency room, yet again…

To the person getting their blood drawn staring at a focal point on the wall…

To the person who is constantly approached with the latest and greatest “fix”, “cure”, or way to “heal” …

natalie mothers dayTo the person worried about passing this dreadful disease onto their children…

To the person with the bad veins dealing with their eighth IV poke…

To the person who feels lost and misses who they were prior to being diagnosed…

To the person lying in the fetal position trying to get through this moment…

To the community who feels like home to me.

I see you. I hear you. I believe in you. I’m here for you. I love you.

We’ve all been these people. We all know this is the reality of life with IBD. It’s not easy. It’s scary. It can be overwhelming. The emotional pain can oftentimes be worse than the physical pain. Living with a chronic illness, no matter what your age or circumstance is tough. There’s no sugar coating it.

At the same time, I want you to whole-heartedly believe that while this disease can rob you of joy, it can also provide you with perspective, strength, empathy, understanding, gratitude, patience, and clarity. You my friends, are far from invisible.IMG_3434

I see you. I hear you. I believe in you. I’m here for you. I love you.

Thank you for helping me to see the light on the dark days, inspiring me when I need it most, and showing me that there’s much more to life than being a patient. I hope I do the same for you, always. Use your journey. Use your story. Use your setbacks. Use all that you are, to inform, educate, and implore others to want to better understand your reality. I promise, you won’t be disappointed.

XOXO-Natalie

Why I cried talking about Crohn’s at my friend’s rehearsal dinner

I stood before a room of strangers last week and shared some sentiments about my friend Jenna who was marrying the love of her life the next morning. Chances are—you’ve been at a rehearsal dinner and participated in the ‘open mic’ opportunities.

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Jenna’s birthday, 2009

As a former TV newsie, I always enjoy a chance to speak and articulate my feelings! I started out talking about how we knew one another and the type of friend she was—and then I went for it. I broke out the “C” card…the “Crohn’s” talk. Most of the people in the room were strangers to me until that night, some probably had no idea what Crohn’s was.

In that moment, I tearfully thanked my friend of more than 12 years in front of a roomful of people for always being present, always genuinely caring and for always being there not only in life’s amazing moments—but also through every flare up I’ve experienced along the way. When you are diagnosed with a chronic illness, you don’t stop and think twice about which friends are going to be there, you just expect it. Unfortunately, you’ll find many ‘friends’ tend to fade to the background and will continue to do so throughout your patient journey.IMG-0841

This friend—is the opposite. This friend has sent me countless snail mail letters on adorable stationary—some with Ryan Gosling’s face plastered all over it, others with an inspirational girl gang type quote. Each time I’ve been hospitalized, she’s been my constant ray of sunshine. Always texting. Always calling. Always checking in on me. Her efforts seem effortless. And that my friends, is priceless. Rather than feeling guilt for being “that friend” she makes me feel empowered and loved.

When you live with IBD (or any chronic illness for that matter)—seek out your Jenna(s). IMG-0838Find the people who lift you up. Trust in the bonds you create with those who are there for you because they want to be out of the goodness in their heart, not as an obligation. Hold on closely to the relationships that spark joy and don’t extinguish your flame. Lean on those who are willing to give you their hand to lift you up, even when you don’t ask for it.

At Jenna’s rehearsal dinner, I wanted her to know. I wanted her to know how her compassion and empathy meant the world to me. I wanted her to know how much I appreciate all the effort she continually puts into our friendship, despite living out of state from one another for the past decade. I wanted her friends and family members, and her now husband to see the impact she’s made on my life and how her efforts to be there, make her who she is.

My hope for the IBD family is friendships like this. The ones that stand the test of time. The ones that ground you. The ones that show you the beauty of another’s heart. The ones that remind you that you aren’t ever going into battle alone. The ones that serve as your light when the days are dark. They exist. They are possible. You just need to find them.

Wedding photo cred: Savannah Kay Photography

A letter to my daughter, from your mom with Crohn’s disease

My sweet daughter,

In less than 30 days you will be safe in my arms. It’s felt like a long journey to get to this point with you. Much like your brother, you’ve made me feel a sense of health that I never knew was possible. Through the creation of you and your life, I’ve found a deeper appreciation for my own.

You’ve silenced a disease that has ravaged my body for more than 13 years. _F6B0473You’ve reminded me of what is possible and what I’m capable of. You’re already an inspiration to me and you don’t even know it.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve hoped and dreamed for you. A daughter. A best friend. A relationship so sacred, so unique. Words don’t do justice for how anxious and excited I am to bring you into this world.

Just like your brother, you will see me struggle some days. Not with being your mom, but with my Crohn’s disease. It pains me to think about making you worry about my health or question when my next flare up will be, as leaving you and Reid for an extended hospital stay will be so tough on me and on our family.

I never want you to feel scared or question my resilience. Instead, I want to show you how strong I am and instill a positive attitude in you from a young age. You will witness the highs, the lows and everything in between that comes with chronic illness, but trust that mama will always come out on top. _F6B0340You and your brother serve as my greatest motivation to push through the pain and be strong. You’ll see how your dad loves and nurtures unconditionally and rises to every challenge that comes my way.

Here are my hopes for you.

A kind, happy heart. Always try and see the best in others, rather than coming to quick judgement. Soak in the happiness bestowed upon you each day and light up the room with your smile, even when the going gets tough.

A confident attitude and demeanor. Stand tall and be proud of who is looking back at you in the mirror. Love yourself for all that you are and don’t let any person make you question your worth.

A compassionate, empathetic mind. Recognize the pain of those around you, and be supportive, thoughtful and caring. Be a positive light in the lives of others.

A patience with yourself and others. Understand that life has setbacks, disappointments and pain, but that God has a plan for you. Trust in it, even when the path seems daunting or overwhelming. Try and use each challenge that comes your way as a moment to learn and grow.

A strength to use your voice. Never be afraid to speak up, be heard and communicate your hopes, dreams and fears. Feel empowered by your voice and know that everything you say and think matters._F6B0313

A life without Crohn’s disease. While there are many qualities I would love to share with you—I hope and pray you stay healthy and never receive an IBD diagnosis. I will be there every step of the way, should that ever happen. I’ll be your best advocate and your closest confidant in sickness and in health, and always.

See you soon, my sweet girl. My rainbow baby. My darling. Someday you’ll know how you’ve made my heart fill with such joy and immense gratitude.

Mama

Food for thought: What it’s like to get all your nutrition through an IV with IBD

This week–a guest post from an IBD advocate who continually inspires me. Meet Sonya Goins. twibbon-profileShe is a news reporter for a community television station in the Minneapolis/St.Paul area. Sonya is also a Crohn’s patient, diagnosed with the digestive disease in 1985 while she was in college. I’ll let her take it from here:

While fighting the physical pain of Crohn’s is tough, the mental aspect is even harder.

On January 3rd, 2018 my doctor put me on TPN (Total Parenteral Nutrition), which means I was fed through my veins. All of the nutrients I needed to survive were in an IV bag and pumped through my veins throughout the day. My doctor wanted to give my colon a rest so ulcers could heal.  I endured this treatment for eight and half months.  It was one of the most trying times of my life. No food, just water, broth and on occasion, coffee.

Despite my circumstances, I named my IV catheter “hopeful.” 26677835_10155748847937819_1006971807936260031_oHowever, it took me a minute to adapt a positive inner attitude.  You see, in public I put on a good, cheerful attitude. There were times when I wanted to crawl up into a big ball and shut out the world. The first few weeks of constantly wearing a backpack full of IV fluids were very hard.  I did not like what I saw in the mirror. I was angry at my situation.  It wasn’t until I visited a pediatric Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation support group that I changed my way of thinking. Seeing young people living with the digestive diseases, and going about their lives despite their circumstances, motivated me to do better.

I had to live my new normal to the best of my ability.

The mental game of TPN

Mentally, not eating real food was very, very challenging.  Although I could not eat, I still cooked for my youngest child. The smells of the food made my mouth water, tempting me to taste what I know would make me sick. There were a few times I lived on the edge and took a sample. I paid for my mistakes—painful cramps and bloody diarrhea were my punishment.

After the first month on TPN, I knew I needed professional help if I were to survive.  So, I sought the help of a therapist.  I also prayed and meditated—a lot. 35682318_10156164555637819_6627378019424010240_n

First, I needed a distraction for when I was tempted to eat. A friend taught me how to crochet. She even purchased the yarn, hooks and beginner books to get me going.  I still cannot do a granny square, but I learned a new skill.

When times were bad and I wanted to give up, I would mentally go to my happy place—Turks and Caicos. Several years ago, I visited the Caribbean Islands. I imagined myself sitting on the pristine beaches, watching the waves crash.

The social impact

The loss of social invitations also did a number on me.  Some of my friends did not want to hurt my feelings by eating in front of me, so they stopped including me. However, I did have one friend who went out of her way and found a restaurant that served the best broth in town. We sipped on broth and caught up with each other’s lives. This was one of the highlights.

I was determined not to let this situation get the best of me. Instead of going out to eat with friends, I invited friends to go for a walk. I walked with former coworkers, acquaintances and family members.  The fresh air and good conversations did me a lot of good.

Taking steps to heal mentally and physically

Walking became my foundation. I was motivated to walk for another reason.  Before I got sick, I signed up for several half marathons to raise money for the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation. I finished the New Orleans half marathon in March, just three months into my treatment. I have never been so proud.  I had to walk the race, but I finished. Several months later, I also completed the Twin Cities 10 mile race, and the Savannah half marathon.

My unexpected journey made me stronger mentally and physically.  I am more outgoing and more self-assured than ever before.  After all, you cannot be shy walking around with an IV bag strapped to your body.

I share my story to give others hope.

Sonya Goins is also a Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation Board Member/MN Dakota Chapter.  You can find her blog at SonyaStrong.com. She also has a podcast on iTunes and GooglePlay entitled “Conversations about Crohn’s and Colitis.”

My Cause My Cleats: How Chicago Bear Anthony Miller is Representing IBD

When Chicago Bear standout rookie wide receiver, Anthony Miller laces up his cleats to take on the Los Angeles Rams this Sunday, his cleats will tell a story. A story many may not be aware of. Anthony’s longtime girlfriend, Alexandra Pounders, has battled Crohn’s disease for nearly 10 years. She was diagnosed at age 14. IMG_4488

This Sunday (Dec. 9), Anthony will participate in the NFL’s My Cause My Cleats campaign, as a way to spread awareness for inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) and show support to his girlfriend. Anthony’s cleats will feature the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation.

“Being able to bring awareness about IBD through football means a lot to me. When I wear these cleats against the Rams, I’m not only going to be representing my girlfriend Alexandra, but also the millions of people across the globe who suffer from this disease,” said Anthony.

This is the third year for the My Cause for Cleats effort. It’s a way for NFL players to take steps to visually show their support for causes near and dear to their hearts. Anthony and Alexandra have been together almost five years. Alexandra says Anthony has been there for her every step of the way, whether it’s attending doctor visits or motivating her to stay strong during setbacks.

“It feels amazing to know there is someone by my side who cares so much for me that they want to spread awareness about this illness. IMG_4487Anthony has seen me fight for so long. It makes me feel like I’m not going through this alone,” said Alexandra.

“We are thrilled to see several NFL players, including Anthony Miller, raise awareness of Crohn’s and colitis through this year’s My Cause My Cleats campaign,” said Michael Osso, President & CEO of the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation. “More than 3 million Americans live with these diseases, and, like Anthony, even more are touched by them as loved ones of patients. Using their platform as professional athletes to speak out about Crohn’s and colitis not only helps educate the public about the seriousness of these diseases but also underscores how wide-reaching these diseases are and how important it is to have the support of loved ones.”

Alexandra’s advice to the IBD community is to put your personal needs first and try to keep stress to a minimum, while accepting support from others.

“Surround yourself amongst people who may not completely know what it feels like to be in your shoes, but people who are willing to be patient with you and love you on the days that aren’t so great. Focus on being the best possible you that you can be in every aspect…mentally, physically, emotionally and surround yourself amongst people who truly care about you, it’ll be so much easier to overcome the obstacles you face with this disease. Stay positive. Hold on tightly to your faith. And don’t let this disease define you,” said Alexandra.bears

Chicago is my hometown and where the majority of my family lives. As a Bears fan and as a Crohn’s disease patient advocate who was diagnosed in July 2005, seeing professional football players put causes like the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation in the spotlight means a great deal. Check out the #mycausemycleats hashtag on social media to learn more about the cause.

Discovering Gratitude While Living with IBD

When you think about life with inflammatory bowel disease, are you able to think beyond the pain and suffering? Are you able to pause and take time to reflect on how your illness has shaped you into who you are today? Are you willing to look at something that continually challenges you, scares you and leaves you drained—and think…you know what, I wouldn’t have my life any other way? _F6B0037

It takes a lot of time and a lot of patience to come to this place of realization. Until recent years, I’m not sure I would have ever been able to say a positive word about what it’s like to live with Crohn’s disease. But now, more than 13 years later with this disease, I feel my vision has gone from black and white and changed to color. I have peripheral vision I never had before. I’m able to see how my past shaped me into who I am today. I’m able to recognize how the pain and hurt has altered my perspective and forced me to take the blinders off. I can see moments where I’ve risen above and shown courage and bravery. Some memories are painful, some make me feel sad, others make me feel proud.

There comes a time in a chronic illness patient journey that you stop thinking “why me” and instead “why not me.” I don’t like placing pity on myself. I don’t prefer to fantasize about the days before I was diagnosed. Instead—I enjoy reflecting on how I’ve evolved through the years, despite the setbacks and the scares. wedding1Chronic illness, while physically, mentally and emotionally taxing, also has the ability to show us the beauty of the world around us and all that we’re capable of. Instead of thinking how my Crohn’s holds me back—I think about how I’ve lived despite its restraints.

As the years go by, and the diagnosis “anniversary celebrations” roll on, I continue to grow and feel a renewed sense of self within my illness and within myself. As you experience procedures, self-injections, surgeries and the unknown, you get desensitized, but you also gain strength. The day-to-day management of an invisible chronic illness is exhausting and can be overwhelming, but there comes a time when you feel a sense of harmony with your body. You know what it’s trying to tell you. You know when you need to listen. You understand when you need to act.

_F6B0340My disease has helped me take on motherhood. It’s made me soak in the feel-good moments, take mental snapshots of the happy days and celebrate the beauty of life. My disease has forced me to press pause when I’m doing too much, it’s reminded me of the importance of self-care and taking time for me. It’s shown me which people are meant to be in my life and which are meant to be in the backstory.

It’s a season of gratitude. A season of thanks. A season of family, friends and celebrations. This year—I’m choosing to celebrate how Crohn’s disease has guided me to the present. Beyond thankful for a husband who’s my rock, a son who is healthy as can be and a daughter on the way in January. My body may not be “healthy” …but, it’s still managed to create miracles.

It hasn’t always been a fun ride, it’s been brutal at times. But it’s my life and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Please do yourself a favor and give yourself time to reflect on how your disease has shaped you into the person you are today. By showing gratitude about living with IBD, it’s one of many moments where you can show your disease who is in the driver seat and continually rise above.

Operation “Good Health” with IBD through finding love, raising kids and building your dream

“Crohn’s isn’t what I’d call a “sexy disease” – it’s hard to invite the love of your life to share a bathroom with you. You are scared, embarrassed, worried and everything in between. However, my bathroom habits are out of my control. And, even though I’d give my arm for my incredible man, I don’t want him to know what goes on in the bathroom. I want to be sexy, a woman of mystery … and IBD sometimes isn’t… well, hot.”

If that didn’t get your attention, then I don’t know what will. Katy Love is an IBD warrior who recently tied the knot October 21 with the love of her life. Katy+Vince-12Sickness and health truly take on a whole different meaning when you live with a chronic illness. Katy witnessed her husband Vince’s compassion and character while they were dating.

She had a wound vac that was loud, smelled and made it impossible to shower. Vince loved her despite her health complications and Katy said her Crohn’s brought them closer throughout their courtship.

“I’m extremely blessed to have a supportive partner. As anyone with IBD knows, you have great days and horrible days, sometimes within the same week. I truly believe IBD has made me a better, more understanding partner. I value each day, especially days without pain. And I value Vince and his support. From day one, he’s wanted to be involved in my Crohn’s journey. Going to doctor appointments, infusions, participating in fundraisers and holding my hair when I get sick,” said Katy.

While Katy doesn’t allow her IBD to define her, it’s a huge part of her day-to-day existence. It impacts her as a mother, a business owner, a partner, a friend…and especially as a wife. Diagnosed with Crohn’s at age 17, more than 21 years ago, she’s endured 40-plus colonoscopies, multiple bowel surgeries and removal of more than 75 percent of her bowel.

Preparing for the big day

Leading up to her wedding day she instated Katy_Vince_Family_137“Operation: Good Health.” She made it a priority to get a minimum of eight hours of sleep a night, as lack of rest tends to be a trigger for her. She was on a mission to hydrate, hydrate and hydrate some more. To set herself up for success and limit any surprise flares, she planned out her meals the entire wedding weekend. For example, she does well with bland foods, like noodles, rice, chicken and (big one) avoiding alcohol. And finally, she delegated responsibilities (aka stress) to friends and family. Katy admits she’s pretty Type A and would much rather do things herself than hand them off. However, she wanted to enjoy her wedding and because of her proactive planning, she was able to do just that!

Katy is a shining example of living life to the fullest, despite her disease. She was blessed with three, beautiful, healthy children. Fall 2017 Family 1Reagan, Grayson and Carter may not understand why their mommy is in bed or why she needs to pull over on the side of the road when she gets sick, but Katy’s Crohn’s has taught her children a great deal of empathy at a young age. A few weeks ago, she was in debilitating pain and her nine-year-old offered to make dinner for her brothers. She poured them each a bowl of cereal and that was everything.

Along with motherhood, Katy has managed to have a successful career in public relations, including serving as Vice President of Global Communications for Crocs, Inc. Recently, she launched her own PR firm, Comm Oddities Inc. that specializes in food, fashion and footwear. There is nothing this woman can’t do.

Advice after living with Crohn’s for 21 years

As far as advice for the rest of us? Boulder_Headshots_043

“Be kind to yourself. I’m very guilty of getting frustrated with myself. I want to do it all, all the time. Give 100 percent to my job, my family, my friends … and some days just getting out of bed is challenging.

One of my favorite quotes about living with a chronic illness (that’s most of the time invisible) is “Those with chronic illnesses aren’t faking being sick, they are faking being well.”  That really hits home. You don’t want to burden others, so you simply say, “I’m fine” and smile. But, asking for help isn’t a weakness. Those close to you want to help, they simply don’t know how.”

 

How living with Crohn’s inspires this medical student to make a difference

There’s never a good time to receive a diagnosis of inflammatory bowel disease. The earth shattering news tends to flip your world upside down. For 27-year-old Alyssa Alda Clements of New Jersey, her Crohn’s disease diagnosis could not have come at a worse time. Alyssa was in her first year of medical school and had recently lost three family members.

“The hardest part about my diagnosis was the time I spent in the hospital or being homebound, because it took me away from my schooling. Having to take medical leaves from my DREAM was so heart breaking. I had wanted to be a doctor since I was three. In time, I started to feel better when we got things under control and was able to go back to medical school and, knock on wood, I am still hanging in here,” Alyssa says.

Being sick never made her want to quit, if anything it made her realize how much we need doctors, especially ones who care. Alyssa says her patient perspective provides her with insight when it comes to the type of doctor she wants to be and the type of care she aspires to provide day in and day out to those who depend on her. alyssa7

“My first trip to the ER nearly killed me because the doctor didn’t believe my pain, told me it was in my head and that I was a crazy medical student, and didn’t even touch or listen to my abdomen. It turned out to be an obstruction and thankfully I listened to my gut and went to a different ER the next day,” Alyssa recalls.

Fast forward a week later, Alyssa woke up from her first colonoscopy to learn she has severe Crohn’s disease in her large intestine, small intestine and rectum. The GI spoke candidly and said her odds of ever becoming a doctor were slim, due to her health. But, Alyssa didn’t let the naysayers stop her from following her dreams.

Becoming a doctor while living with Crohn’s

As many know, working in the medical field is not for the faint of heart. alyssa6The profession entails a great deal of stress, both physically and mentally. Not only are the hours long, but you are exposed to a ton of people who are sick, while you are immunocompromised.

“I have learned so much about empathy and sympathy as a patient, the way some physicians made me feel pushed me to continue in medical school and be a better caregiver than they were to me at my worst moments. I have learned to listen to the patient because I have been ignored. I know just what being a patient feels like, how scary, uncomfortable, painful, that being sick can be, and I want to be there for others who are in that position. When I finally found my amazing care team that I have now, I became hopeful that I could be that person for someone someday,” Alyssa says.

As far as advice for fellow IBD’ers, Alyssa says be honest with yourself and what you can handle. Don’t let your disease limit you, but also know that it’s ok to be kind to your body and slow down when you need to. Alyssa says she’s modified her life so that she’s able to handle medical school and keep her well-being in mind at the same time. She relies heavily on the support of her family and boyfriend and makes self-care a part of her daily life.

Big city, bright lightsalyssa people

Alyssa was recently featured by People Magazine, that’s how her and I connected on Twitter! I saw her inspiring story and immediately wanted to share it with you. She went to New York City and was interviewed as a woman who is overcoming chronic illness. Talk about a great person to represent those of us in the thick of fighting this disease.

Her attitude is admirable, “I want to show anyone that they can be strong and resilient and still achieve their dreams after a diagnosis. I want to show young women and girls with illnesses that they are still beautiful, that their bodies might be constantly changing, but they are still themselves, they are still amazing.”

Bouncing back from difficult days

In her first year of diagnosis, Alyssa was in and out of the hospital. She endured more than 12 bowel obstructions, a PICC line, NG tube and tests galore. While at Disney World that November, Alyssa fell to the floor of her hotel room. She came to find out she had multiple abscesses and fistulas. After four weeks of total bowel rest, she had an ileocecectomy. A total of 13 inches of her intestine was removed. In her eyes, the surgery saved her life. Alyssa has been on Humira for almost five years. She says the new citrate free formula has changed her life (and I must agree!!)

“Days can be hard, filled with pain, fatigue, never ending symptoms, but always know that you are not alone. There is an army of us fighting diseases you can’t see.” You got that right, Alyssa!

The power of assuming positive intent with chronic illness

When someone questions how you manage your illness, or seems to belittle your patient experience, it’s easy to get combative and think the worst. But, recently—while on Twitter, I saw a fellow patient advocate and friend of mine respond to a tweet by saying “Assume Positive Intent” (API). This is the first time I had ever heard of the concept. It intrigued me immediately. Like most people, sometimes when words are said or actions are made—I immediately jump to conclusions and internalize what I think the person meant. Part of this is being sensitive and part of this is life with a chronic illness. office-620822_1920There aren’t a whole lot of “safe spaces” for those of us to feel understood and connected with.

Social media allows complete strangers and even those close to us to be keyboard warriors. People often feel like they can hide behind a screen and be hurtful. At the same time, just like with texting—posts on social media can be interpreted incorrectly. Rather than lash out or get defensive, take a moment to pause, gather your thoughts and remind yourself that most people wake up each day with a desire to live life in a positive way and do good in this world.

By not getting caught up in others’ actions and intent—we’re freeing ourselves of the stress that can be a key trigger to our inflammatory bowel disease and that has detrimental effects on our mental health. You will feel empowered simply by taking a moment to think about how you’re going to respond to someone else. You can’t control others, but you can control how you feel and how you react. say-yes-to-the-live-2121044_1920

No one is perfect. We all make mistakes. At the end of the day, by giving others the benefit of the doubt—you’re able to change the way you approach conflict and you’re able to rid some negativity from your life. I’m not saying never stick up for yourself and let everyone treat you how they want, but use this strategy as a way to handle your personal relationships and how you respond to others. It will say a lot about your character and make you feel in the driver’s seat, at a time you normally may feel out of control.

So, here’s my challenge to you. The next time you feel a guard go up or when you feel disappointed by another person’s words or actions—assume positive intent. bob_natalie_proposal_6615-107As someone who’s battled Crohn’s disease for over 13 years, I constantly find myself needing to take a step back and remember that the only person who’s lived my journey is me. It’s up for me to tell my story. It’s up for me to share it. It’s up to me to communicate to those when my feelings are hurt or I’m disappointed. But before I jump to conclusions, I need to assume the other person is trying to help me or learn more about my experience—rather than ruin my day or hurt my feelings. API all day, baby. Try it. Trust it. Live it.

 

 

 

Navigating IBD from age 12 to 22: How Emily landed her dream job at Disney

Navigating inflammatory bowel disease as a pediatric patient brings on additional stresses, concerns and worries. For 22-year-old Emily Gavol, this was the case. At 12 years old, she was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease. EMILY2This week, a look into her life and how she took on the disease as a preteen, went to college out of state and landed her dream job in California with Walt Disney, after growing up in Wisconsin. My hope is that Emily’s story of perseverance, brings comfort to parents and fellow children and teens experiencing IBD as their life story unfolds.

What was it like to be diagnosed with Crohn’s disease when you were in seventh grade?

Initially it was a relief to know that there was finally an answer as to why I had been so sick for months. But it was also difficult to hear that I was diagnosed with a chronic illness that I had never heard of before. Being so young I didn’t really full grasp the severity of being diagnosed with a chronic illness.

How do you think the disease impacted your childhood and your perspective on life?

Getting diagnosed so young forced me to grow up very quickly. I had to learn to manage my symptoms while still attending school, doing homework and other normal activities. My perspective on life also changed, it became clear to me that health is something to never take for granted and appreciate it while you have it. Along with realizing quickly that the little things in life are not important. While most of my friends were worried about what to wear to school, I was just hoping I would feel well enough to make it to school. Additionally, this disease has taught me that there are many things that are out of our control and you just have roll with it sometimes.

How did your family and friends handle your diagnosis and how have they been there for you throughout your patient journey?

My family and friends were always there for me to lean on during my diagnosis and have been ever since. EMILY3While I know that my parents were scared, confused and upset that I was going through this, they never let that show to me. They were and always have been the ones that lift me up when I am down, and never fail to stay by my side through all I have endured.

How did it feel to “fail” so many biologics?

Over my nearly 10 years with Crohn’s disease, I have struggled to find a medication that works for a continued period of time. When I first failed Remicade, it was frustrating because I had been getting better, then backtracked to experiencing more symptoms again. That frustration has continued and morphed into annoyance, as I have continued to fail more biologics. It is frustrating to feel like all these medications are being thrown at me to knock down this disease and nothing seems to work.

What inspired you to leave home and attend college in Minnesota, despite your illness?

Since I was nine years old, I knew that I wanted to become an Imagineer with the Walt Disney Company and work as an Interior Designer. As I got older, I knew I needed to attend a good school that would set me up for success. I researched the best programs in my area, and the University of Minnesota was the best fit for me.  Their program and campus seemed to be everything I was looking for, so I wasn’t going to let my Crohn’s disease stop me from trying to achieve my dream.

What’s it like to attend college away from home, while battling a chronic disease? What roadblocks/hard times did you face?

Attending a school so far from home without a doubt was a big challenge. EMILY4And there were times when I wished I would have decided to go to school closer to home, because that would have been easier. The biggest roadblock was the physical distance, because it meant a lot of back and forth travel. Especially, during flare ups. I found myself needing to make the 4-hour drive home more often than I wanted to, which resulted in the need to miss more classes.  Additionally, learning to manage my symptoms completely on my own and having to adequately communicate with my medical team from so far away, was challenging at first.

How do you overcome the setbacks that come your way and not allow them to de-rail your goals and plans?

I have always been a very determined and strong headed individual. I will always do my best to achieve my goals and not let anything stand in my way. Despite, all the setbacks my disease has thrown my way, I have just rolled with the punches and kept pushing forward. I do my best and my best is all I can do.

Talk about what it was like going through the ileostomy and knowing you are getting a permanent ileostomy? How do you feel about it–why kind of emotions does it bring?

Going through my transition of getting an ileostomy was the most difficult thing I have gone through as a result of my Crohn’s disease. 20171123_182143002_1534121126326My health took a drastic turn and it became clear that I would need an ostomy sooner rather than later. I initially was very scared and upset that this was happening. I didn’t know what an ostomy was or anyone that had one, so I had little idea of what to expect going into it. By the time I was a couple weeks away from surgery, I was honestly ready to have it done.  I had been experiencing more symptoms and was ready to have the surgery behind me and be feeling better. I was doing my best to go into things with a positive outlook and think about it as a fresh start, but this was no easy task for me. It was an overwhelming and emotional couple of weeks following the surgery getting used to having and caring for an ostomy. I am not afraid to admit that I was scared to look at it and care for it myself after my surgery. But then I realized, this isn’t going to go away anytime soon, so I had to start doing things myself. The more familiar I became with everything, the more comfortable I was and began to realize that I was actually feeling better than before the surgery. This was hard for me to admit to myself, because I didn’t want to be put in the situation of having an ostomy or needing one for the rest of my life.  While I am now on the road to needing a permanent ostomy, it still has not sunk in that it will actually happen yet. And I don’t think it is going to fully sink in until that surgery happens.

You landed your dream job post college. Speak to what it’s like to live across the country, away from family and friends–while living out your dream job…with Crohn’s.

I am literally living out my biggest dream. EMILY5This is something that I never thought I would get to experience, and I think having Crohn’s has made me appreciate this opportunity more than I could ever imagine. The last year has been a wild roller coaster ride. I am just thankful to be here, because there were many times where I didn’t think I would even be able to graduate last year. My family and friends have been very supportive because they know how much this opportunity means for me personally and professionally. It is hard to be this far away from my main support system, but they are always just a text or phone call away. Additionally, my providers were very encouraging to me, pushing me to continue to live my life to the fullest and not let my disease slow me down. Hearing them say that to me, was really the last push that I needed to make this a reality. Knowing that my medical team wanted what was best for me, and was willing to work with me to get me where I am today, helped give me the confidence that I could do this.

Do your coworkers/did your college roommates know about your Crohn’s? How are people towards you when they hear?

In college I deliberately chose to live on my own with no roommates in order to give myself the best environment to thrive in.  Over the past few years of having different jobs, I have told my coworkers about my Crohn’s disease. I don’t usually share it right away, because I want people to get to know me for me and not just my disease.  When the time feels right, I do tell people about my Crohn’s disease. After I tell people about my Crohn’s, I always feel like a weight is lifted off me. Once people know my story, they have been as sympathetic as they can be.  There always seems to be the range of people who know a friend that has it, to the people that have never heard of it before. For those who have never heard of it before, it is a good opportunity to teach them about it.

What are your hopes for the future?

My biggest hope for the future is an easy one, a cure for this disease.  Aside from that, I hope I can continue to live my life and do my best to not let my disease stand in the way.

Advice for newly diagnosed patients?

My advice for newly diagnosed patients would be to find a good provider that you trust.  20130923_135906001_1534122952628It is important to trust their advice and recommendations, as scary as they can be sometimes. Additionally, try your best to not dwell on the negative things that are currently happening and think about what your future can hold. Always do your best to roll with the punches and keep moving forward, your best is all you can do.

What would you tell yourself at 12 years old…looking back at what you know now?

I would go back and tell myself that this is only the beginning.  Life will be a never-ending roller coaster of ups and downs. Some of the downs will really take it out of you and knock you so far down you won’t think you will be able to find a way back up.  And the some of the ups will be achievements you never thought were obtainable. But things will get better and there is always something better to look forward to right around the corner.