Writing for a reason: IBD Pen Pals

Who says snail mail is a thing of the past? For one 10-year-old in the Chicagoland area, connecting with fellow IBD pediatric patients is helping her cope, comfort and help others as she takes on Crohn’s disease herself. emily4Meet Emily. This past February she received her chronic illness diagnosis. Even though she’s brand new to IBD life, she’s taking all the pain and all the setbacks in stride.

Her mom, Michelle, says watching her young daughter go through Crohn’s has been a punch in the gut.

“It’s overwhelming, lonely, and mentally draining for everyone involved. Her little body has been put through so much in the last few months and she just goes along with it all. I wish I could’ve done all the horrible tests and take away every ounce of her pain. My heart breaks every time she gets poked, every time she takes medicine, every time she has to do a test, or when I send her to school, knowing she feels horrible.”

Emily’s courage and compassion for others has inspired Michelle. Her Crohn’s diagnosis has spurred an interest to connect with other IBD kids. Rather than take on the disease in silence, Emily finds there is strength in numbers, a purpose for her pain. Emily penpalHer mom was able to reach out to fellow parents on Facebook about a pen pal program.

“How cool to come home from school and have a couple letters waiting for you from kids all over the country?!? Emily has already made 12 new friends with IBD from the U.S. and the U.K. I never want Emily to feel alone on this journey nor do I want any other kids to feel alone. I want Emily to see that other kids who have IBD are living a “normal” life and that she can, too! There may be days when I won’t understand what she’s going through, but her new friends will.”

Emilyand michelleFrom a parenting perspective, the pen pal group has introduced Michelle to other mamas going through the same fears and experiences. The connections have brought her peace of mind as she navigates these new waters with her daughter.

“Emily and I are firm believers in spreading positivity and what you give out, you get back. It’s up to us to find the good in this situation and what better way than emilylettermaking new friends? Friends who understand and continually cheer you on, no matter how far they are. My hope is that Emily will make life long connections and that these letters will serve as a constant reminder that she is never alone.”

Interested in joining this pediatric pen pal group? A Facebook page is in the works. In the meantime, you can get involved by emailing Emily’s mom, Michelle: positivelyshelly@gmail.com.

The IBD Parenthood Project: A Guiding Light for Family Planning

This post is sponsored by the American Gastroenterological Association (AGA). I am a paid program Brand Influencer; this post is sponsored and includes my own personal experiences.

When I was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease at age 21, finding out I had a chronic illness put my hopes and dreams on hold. I could barely think of the next day, let alone daydream about the future and the family I would one day hope to have. As the years went on, having a family was on my radar. I knew I wanted children, but wasn’t sure if my body already riddled with a chronic illness would be able to make that possible.IMG_6037

I had so many questions, so many worries. I wasn’t sure where to turn for accurate information. Advice from doctors tended to be conflicting. The internet was/is, well…the internet. I yearned for truthful, evidence-based information that would comfort me and guide me as I started my journey to motherhood.

The IBD Parenthood Project is just that. Rather than feeling like you’re wearing a blindfold and hoping for the best, moms-to-be in the IBD community can now feel at ease by having resources and a patient toolkit that answers all of those questions, and serves as a roadmap for family planning—from preconception to taking your baby home from the hospital and postnatal care.

IMG_6370One of the most helpful pieces of the toolkit is the FAQ, related to IBD and pregnancy. If I had this information readily available and at my fingertips prior to my previous pregnancies, I would have known about the importance of seeking care from a maternal-fetal-medicine (MFM) subspecialist at the start of my pregnancy. While I saw a high-risk OB, a “regular” OB and my gastroenterologist throughout my pregnancies, I wasn’t aware of what an MFM subspecialist was, or their role throughout pregnancy. After checking out the IBD Parenthood Project website, I found out there was an MFM subspecialist in my doctor’s practice, but I was never under his care. Moving forward, if I were to get pregnant again, I would want my care team to include him

The information in the FAQ about breastfeeding and medications is also extremely helpful. I felt a bit in the dark when I was pregnant with my son in 2016. I was nervous about breastfeeding while on a biologic. In the past two years, I’ve learned more and been able to educate myself on the benefits and the precautions associated with it. Now, my second child has been exclusively breastfed the first eight weeks of her life, despite my biologic injection, and I’ve been able to see how the benefits of breastfeeding far outweigh the risks for me and my family. It is resources like the IBD Parenthood Project that have helped guide my decisions. 09-untitled-9103

A common question I am often asked is “how likely it is for my son and daughter to have IBD in the future?” It’s a thought I hate to think about, but it’s always in the back of my mind. According to the IBD Parenthood Project and its Clinical Care Pathway recommendations, “up to 3% of children with one parent who has IBD will develop the disease (this means about 97% will not get IBD). If both parents have IBD, a child’s risk may be as high as 30 percent.” To me—since my husband does not have IBD, these odds are SO reassuring. While there’s a chance it can happen, it’s a reminder that IBD patients should not hold off on having a family out of fear of passing along the disease.

As a patient advocate and IBD mom, I hear from women around the world with questions relating to pregnancy, motherhood and life with Crohn’s.

The IBD Parenthood Project provides so many helpful tools. Whether it’s the IBD Checklist of Questions to ask your care team, the Myths vs. Facts Fact Sheet, or the After You Deliver Fact Sheet, The IBD Parenthood Project covers it all. From now on, women with IBD never need to feel alone as they take on their most important role of all—being a mom.

For more information, you can access more helpful resources by visiting: https://goo.gl/UY5r5r.

The IBD Parenthood Project: Creating a brighter tomorrow for IBD women

This post is sponsored by the American Gastroenterological Association (AGA). I am a paid program Brand Influencer; this post is sponsored and includes my own personal experiences.

IMG_6040Family planning is exciting, nerve-wracking, and daunting. Couple those emotions with battling inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) and the experience can be downright overwhelming. The tide is changing though when it comes to pregnancy and IBD, thanks to the IBD Parenthood Project. For current IBD moms, until now, there was never a one-stop-shop for factual information. The IBD Parenthood Project website is a resource dedicated to ensuring we have all the knowledge we need to feel comfortable and at ease, as we bring a life into this world.

As a mom of two under two, who’s lived with Crohn’s for nearly 14 years, I often felt as if it was a “learn as you go” and “trust what you’re told” type of experience during my pregnancies. As much as I worked hard to educate myself and advocate for my needs with my care team, there was always a part of me that wondered if my decisions were the best for both me and for my babies.

The same can be said for IBD Parenthood Project spokeswoman, Crohn’s warrior and mom of two, Jessica Caron. Mom and boysWith two sons, ages six and three, she felt even more in the dark during her preconception discussions and pregnancies.

“If I had the IBD Parenthood Project as a resource when I was having my children, it would have provided me with answers to questions that kept me up at night. I felt so alone and didn’t have much support,” said Jessica. “I never felt like those around me understood the decisions I was making regarding staying on my biologic medication throughout the pregnancies and breastfeeding while on it. I truly believe the concerns came from a kind place, but if I had this resource to educate my support system, I would have felt more at ease going through that experience.”

Jessica attributes her passion for patient advocacy to living life in the trenches with IBD and realizing how difficult it was to make plans for her future – plans that impacted not only herself, but also her spouse and family.

“When I was diagnosed at age 21, there wasn’t much information available that was easily understandable and digestible. It would have been great prior to having my sons if I had the information right at my fingertips. The accessibility of the IBD Parenthood Project makes the information available to patients, their partners and their family members,” said Jessica.

Launched in January 2019, the IBD Parenthood Project was created with the patient in mind. Jessica, along with other IBD advocates, had a seat at the table alongside physicians and helped inform the Clinical Care Pathway.

31959676668_65b104d1b7_o“The IBD Parenthood Project is a huge win for the IBD community. This resource is paving the way for how we work together with our clinical team. This is a proud moment for the IBD family. We’re showing the health community how to work collaboratively with patients,” explained Jessica. “I never want women to feel alone in the process. This initiative empowers IBD women and their support systems, and makes the experience of bringing a life into this world a whole lot more enjoyable and a lot less worrisome.”

Jessica had a flawless first pregnancy, but unfortunately, dealt with a difficult flare-up nine months after delivering her son. Before she got pregnant again, she made sure she was in remission. If she were to get pregnant today, she says she would start talking with her IBD specialist months ahead of time, while coordinating care with her ObGyn. Jessica would also add a Maternal-Fetal Medicine (MFM) specialist into the mix.

For those who don’t know, an MFM specialist is an ObGyn physician who has completed an additional two to three years of education in training. You can think of them as high-risk pregnancy experts. For pregnant women with chronic health conditions, such as IBD, an MFM specialist works to keep us as healthy as possible as our body changes and as the baby grows.

On a personal level, I went into both of my pregnancies in remission and my Crohn’s disease activity was silenced. IMG_6032Upon delivering both of my babies, I felt symptoms start to creep back into my life less than a week after they were born. I too would include an MFM specialist in the future, if I were to have another child.

“I’m so glad to know the IBD women of today who get pregnant will have the IBD Parenthood Project resources and have better access to our community,” said Jessica. “As IBD women, it’s key to be proactive by discussing preconception planning and waiting to get pregnant until you’re in a remission state. Work closely with your care team, make a plan that is specifically for you, and stick with it.”

 

 

 

Breastfeeding as an IBD mom: Why I’m trusting my gut and following my heart

Before I start this article, I want to include a disclaimer. Breastfeeding is a very emotional and sometimes controversial topic. By no means are my words meant to make you feel guilty or ashamed if this way of feeding your baby doesn’t work for you. I’ve fed my children both ways. My son was breastfed for three days and then given formula. He is a picture of health. IMG_6935My daughter is 4 weeks old today and has been exclusively breastfed. I’m by no means writing this as an expert or to point any fingers. I am completely of the mindset that ‘fed is best’. No judgement here, ladies.

Through the years I’ve experienced the guilt and the worry, I’ve had to explain myself time and time again. I sat in labor and delivery classes at the hospital prior to the birth of my firstborn and felt like an outcast when I was the only one who didn’t raise my hand about planning to breastfeed. I’ve been on both sides of the ‘issue’…I write this article to share my perspective, my journey, and how my thinking has evolved as a mother. It’s a way of showing fellow IBD mamas that I understand the hesitation and all the inquiries. I get how it feels to wonder if you’re doing what is best for your baby and for yourself.

I can’t quite pinpoint when it was during my pregnancy with Sophia that I decided to try breastfeeding. I just woke up one day in the third trimester and decided it was something I wanted to experience this time around.

My son, Reid, turns two next month. During my pregnancy with him, I was adamant on not breastfeeding. IMG_6402I was worried about the lack of long-term studies on my biologic drug (Humira) and I was concerned about the risk of having a postpartum flare that would land me in the hospital and interrupt my ability to feed him. Being a new mom, I was worried the stress that comes along with breastfeeding could cause me to flare. I ended up breastfeeding him the first three days in the hospital, so that he could receive the colostrum. After that—he was given formula until he turned one. It’s a decision I was confident in, but that tugs at my heartstrings at times, especially now as I breastfeed his sister.

Biologics, pregnancy and breastfeeding

Since I was pregnant with Reid, I’ve done a fair amount of research. I’ve talked with fellow IBD moms, educated myself on the benefits of breastfeeding for baby and me and consulted with my care team ( ObGyn, high risk ObGyn and my GI). _F6B0561According to MotherToBaby, mothers who breastfeed their infants while using adalimumab (Humira) have very low levels of the drug in their breast milk. Adalimumab is not well absorbed by the gut, so any of the medication that gets into breast milk is unlikely to enter the baby’s system from the gut. Side note: MotherToBaby is a wonderful resource. I have participated in pregnancy studies for both of my pregnancies—it’s always helpful to contribute to research, share your journey, and help pave the way for future chronic illness moms so that there is more clarity for families in the future.

Like many moms who depend on biologic medication during pregnancy, that in and of itself can be stressful. I stayed on Humira for both my pregnancies—from start until finish. For Reid’s birth, I did my injection two days before my scheduled c-section at 39 weeks, 3 days. For Sophia, my last injection was at 37 weeks, 3 days. My injection was due the day of my c-section with Sophia, but a matter of days before—due to cold and flu season, my GI instructed me to wait to do my injection until I was home from the hospital. IMG_6937That way—the baby did not receive a burst of the immune-suppressant drug through the placenta, the day she was entering the world and I would be at lower risk of developing an infection as well. Timing your biologic medication is key and a conversation you’ll want to have with your care team so it can be tailored to your pregnancy and your personal journey.

The challenge of the journey

Breastfeeding is intense. It’s emotional. It’s rewarding. It’s exhausting and time consuming. I like to call it a labor of love. There are so many expectations, opinions and judgements that come along with the way we decide to feed our children. Until you experience breastfeeding, it’s hard to truly appreciate all the blood, sweat and tears (literally) that goes into it. Today marks four weeks I’ve been breastfeeding my daughter. For me—each week that goes by is a huge accomplishment.

I pump mostly—and put the milk in bottles. That way—anybody can feed the baby, especially if I’m feeling fatigued or if my Crohn’s is acting up. I wanted to introduce a bottle early on, just in case I were to be hospitalized with a postpartum flare. Sophia had her first bottle at six days old and has done a great job and has not had any “nipple confusion” when I nurse her.

It can be a bit overwhelming when you are the sole food source for another living being, especially when Crohn’s symptoms strike, and you feel like you may need to make a mad dash to the bathroom.

In my research, I learned that people with IBD were often not breastfed as infants and that breastfed babies develop healthy bacteria in their digestive tract. Those healthy bacteria can be beneficial in helping the body’s immune system fend off many different diseases. It’s my hope that breastfeeding will help create a healthy gut and microbiome for my daughter.

IMG_6936When it comes to breastfeeding as IBD moms, whether a child is going to latch or if our milk supply is going to be sufficient, tends to be the least of our worries. Our chronic health condition, plus the medications so many of us are dependent on to treat them—adds another layer of stress. In the end, you need to do what you feel comfortable with, what works for your body and for your family. Always know you are not alone in your struggles. Celebrate the parenting wins and accomplishments along the way—no matter how big or small. Lean on your support system—especially fellow breastfeeding mamas who can answer your questions and calm your fears. I can’t tell you how long I’ll continue my breastfeeding journey. For now—all I can do is take it one day at a time. What I can tell you—is how rewarding it is to see what my body is capable of, despite my disease and how amazing it feels to know I’m nourishing my little girl and providing her with a healthy start.

Helpful Resources:

IBD Parenthood Project: A one-stop-shop for everything you need to know leading up to conceiving, pregnancy and motherhood.

Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation

Online Communities for Chronic Illness Moms:

IBD Moms—Website coming soon! Social media channels: Twitter: @IBDMoms, Facebook: @IBDMoms, Instagram: @IBDMoms

Mama’s Facing Forward—Social Media Channels: Twitter: @MamasForward, Facebook: @mamasfacingforward, Instagram: @mamasforward

 

 

 

 

 

 

How motherhood has helped me discover I’m so much more than my IBD

We walked out of the automatic rotating doors of the hospital and the cold air hit my face. I looked up to the sky in thanks, to show my gratitude and to take in the moment. We had our baby girl in tow, our Sophia Shea. img_5915It was a brisk January morning. Tears filled my eyes as I was overcome with emotion. Our rainbow baby is here, safe and sound. Another pregnancy behind me, a pregnancy that silenced my Crohn’s disease and provided sweet reprieve from my chronic illness. It was time to take Sophia home and start our life as a family of four.

When your health is taken from you and when you receive a diagnosis of inflammatory bowel disease, life prior to illness often feels like a distant memory. There’s something so sacred and so special about bringing a healthy life into this world, despite your own shortcomings.

My Sophia, much like my sweet son Reid, are my inspiration and motivation to push through the difficult days and find strength and perspective within myself. The creation of their lives has renewed my faith in my own body. img_5886Each time I have a procedure or deal with painful symptoms, I see their faces, I say their names in my head, and it brings me a sense of calm. My goal when Reid was born, was to stay out of the hospital until he could walk, luckily that’s been the case. He’ll be two in March. Now, I have that same goal following the arrival of my daughter.

Pregnancy and child birth bring about such an amazing, miraculous transformation. You see life created right before your eyes. You experience a shift in your own identity. There’s nothing like it. There are no words to capture the emotions and the overwhelming love you feel for your children.

Finding the balance: Motherhood and IBD

17-untitled-9166Motherhood and IBD can be a difficult and challenging balance. Some days the fatigue and symptoms are so debilitating you feel like you’re falling short. At the same time, the days where you’re feeling well, remind you that you are so much more than your disease. Just because you have a chronic illness, doesn’t mean you are robbed of experiencing the beauty of life and what it feels like to have your very own family.

Women often reach out to me with questions regarding fertility, conceiving, pregnancy and what it’s like to take on parenting while battling IBD. There are so many unknowns. I know it can be daunting. img_5751It all starts with recognizing where you are in your patient journey and then determining when your symptoms and body are in the best shape to get pregnant. While everyone’s disease experience is different—the worries, concerns and fears associated with parenting and chronic illness are often the same. Always know you are never alone. Communicating these feelings with those around you, makes all the difference. Lean on our patient community and all those who’ve lived your reality.

I treated my pregnancies the same. I had colonoscopies prior to trying, to ensure I did not have active disease. Once I received that green light, I discussed my game plan with my OB, high risk OB and my GI and had monthly and sometimes weekly appointments. Each time—I stayed on my medication and vitamins from start to finish, which includes the biologic drug, Humira. I had scheduled c-sections for both. It’s all about finding what works for you, what brings you comfort as you embark on this journey and being confident in your decisions. It’s your body. It’s your baby.

29-untitled-9292When Sophia Shea entered the world January 14, 2019, our family received a wonderful gift. Between our son Reid and our baby girl, we could not be more blessed. My chronic illness has given me such an appreciation for health and for life in general. With the pregnancies behind me, I often reflect on where I started back at age 21 in 2005. At that time, in my eyes, I was Natalie and I had Crohn’s disease. There was no telling what my future would hold. Now, nearly 14 years later, at age 35, I’m so much more. I’m a mom to two under two. I’m a wife. I’m a daughter. I’m a sister. I’m an aunt. I’m a friend. And I also have Crohn’s.

 

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.

An ode to Dads: A letter from a father of four with IBD

I’d like to give a shout out to all the dads out there who have inflammatory bowel disease, yet persistently persevere to make life happen. christian3  

I have been dealing with UC/Crohn’s for 18 years now, and in that time, I have had seven surgeries, countless procedures, two near death experiences, my colon removed, a j-pouch, my ego scared, and my relationship with God strengthened.  I’ve tried every prescription drug, had every side effect, and continue to fight the good fight on a daily basis. christianI’ve also been blessed with a beautiful wife and life partner, as well as four amazing children (10, 7, 3, and 9 months). This takes an already difficult situation, and adds more “life” responsibility as well.  

You see, as a father, you place the needs of your family and children above your own.  A father doesn’t really get a day off. And when you’re dealing with health issues that can cause daily battles, it’s easy to find yourself in a place of self-pity, weakness, or doubt.  That’s why I’m absolutely amazed to see the strength of all the dads out there that can deal with this struggle, but continue to be a dad first, push through, and ensure that “life” still happens. You see, Crohn’s doesn’t mean you can miss baseball practice, the soccer game, the anniversary dinner, or just “life” in general. Life will go on with or without you, so all those with chronic illness are heroes in my mind.   In fact, being a father of four has been the most motivating and rewarding things we could have done as a family. christian2

I can remember when I was recovering from one of my more recent surgeries, my family came in to visit me in the hospital.  Like most fathers, I felt the need to provide for my family, get back to work, I just had to get going. I just didn’t have time for this!  There are MORE than enough reasons for everyone impacted by IBD to feel defeated, want to give up, or take an easy route. My family is a CONSTANT motivation for me to keep going and keep fighting the fight. I cannot and will not let them down. I think most fathers feel that way. We are here to help shape our children, and ultimately provide the ability to learn, have fun, be kids, and eventually mold them into productive members of society.  It’s a tall order for us all, but I think men with IBD have learned to be persistent with their health battles, and that also helps us to persevere through the trials and tribulations of fatherhood.

So today and every day, I commend all of those fathers who refuse to let their disease dictate their life.christian4 Take the time to get to know a father with IBD, and you will meet one of the most courageous strong willed people in the community. As a man, we can sometimes let ourselves down because as an individual, it just impacts me. But as a father, that is not an option.  We must persist, have faith, and fight the fights every single day, so that we can continue to mold and shape our children, and provide support and guidance for our families that mean absolutely everything to us.  

We are motivated, we are strong, and we have IBD.  Above everything else though, we are blessed to be a father, and if lucky enough, a dad.