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

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

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

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

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

Taking steps to be proactive 

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

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

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

Worrying less what others thought and making my needs a priority

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

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

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

 

Finding strength through your IBD tribe

Back in the fall, I had the privilege of sharing the stage with a fellow IBD advocate in the St. Louis area during a Crohn’s and Colitis event. Her name is Kelli Young. Kelli has battled Crohn’s disease for 28 years. She’s a veteran to the game, and has incredible perspective about how IBD not only shapes our lives, but dictates the kind of people we become. This week—a guest post from Kelli about why finding your tribe—an empathetic support system—makes a world of difference.

It took over a year and a half of being prodded and poked in every orifice of my body to receive the diagnosis of Crohn’s. I received the devastating news eight days before entering my sophomore year in college. IMG_1076The excitement of knowing “I’m not a hypochondriac” was overshadowed by the fear of having a “poop disease”. You see, my first year of college, I became best friends with my Suite mate. Ironically, she too battles Crohn’s. I was 20 years old, diagnosed with a disease that had no cause and therefore no cure…how can that be? Why me? What am I going to do?  I didn’t even know how to swallow a pill. I was never the sick kid! Now, I had to take 24 pills a day, which sometimes would take me an entire hour to swallow one dose, throw up, re-swallow again. Three times a day. It was as if I had entered “hell”.IMG_1077

Six month after diagnosis, I came home from college for winter break.  Tipping the scale at a whopping 75 pounds, my body was too weak to undergo surgery. For 45 long days, I received all my nutrition through an IV. This was so my bowel could rest as I prepared for a colon resection. The surgery was my only hope for living a more productive life.

What I’ve learned after nearly 30 years with IBD

Fast forward nearly three decades—and through the years, I’ve been labeled as “the complicated” patient. I’ve undergone multiple surgeries which include: three colon resections, gall bladder removal, appendectomy, countless ERCP’s and fistula repair. Can’t forget the life-saving blood transfusion I needed after my colon ruptured, causing me to lose half my blood volume. I dealt with TPN (Total parenteral nutrition)/bowel rest for each of the three surgeries. 45 days was my longest duration on NPO(no food). 30 days was my longest hospital visit. For the last 28 years, my body has had medication dumped in it.

My generation was taught differently. IMG_1078Which made my journey with the disease a little different than today. I was raised to think “only the weak complain!”  “Someone always has it worse!”  “Suck it up butter cup”.  “If you want the job done right, do it yourself”. This made me look at the situation as this was “my” disease, “my” problem and I don’t want to make anyone worry about me or feel sorry for me!  I became a master at hiding the disease and a master at hiding the byproducts of the disease.

It has taken me decades to evolve. Six years ago, I realized, I had to create a better “village” for myself. And my voice was starting to be heard. I just wanted my peeps to treat me as an equal, no matter how many bowel movements I’ve had that day. And most importantly, yearning for support and compassion, not to be mistaken for pity or despair! During my evolution process, big sacrifices had to be made. As a mother of two, I had more than just myself to think about.

The power of transparency

Today, transparency has set me free. Free from the misconception that I’m “lazy”. Free from the labels placed on me because of my thin statured frame. Free from the worry of how others view me. And free to live my life.

Today, I am able to share my journey with an audience that might share a similar experience or with an audience that has a loved one with Crohn’s Disease. I share my story, with the hope of inspiring others and showing anything is possible.

My disease has made me who I am today. It has taught me that I am strong, determined, confident and secure. kelliI’m a proud mother to two amazing children. I carried and gave birth to both of them with zero complications. I’m a business owner of a successful insurance agency, which I established 4 years after diagnosis. I didn’t allow my disease to derail my professional aspirations. I’m an active mother and manage to find time to be a room mother and Girl Scout cookie manager.

As a patient advocate, I serve on the board of the MidAmerica Chapter of the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation, in addition to other professional boards. I value the good days! I reflect on my bad days and listen when my body tells me to slow down and get rest.

My advice to you

If you’re newly diagnosed or in the thick of the battle, it’s important that you realize… “this is your normal”. Embrace it! Accept it! Own it! Speak about it!!  Get a “village” that gives you positive support, not to be mistaken for negative attention. If I can get thru this crazy game of life with Crohn’s disease, so can you!  Don’t let the disease define you.

While I know my journey will include the daily struggles from the disease, it no longer is my hidden secret. My village knows and loves me for me. They understand the disease and ask questions to understand it better. This is not just my “problem” any more. As we all patiently wait for a cure, it is important we speak up, join together and help one another.