Intestinal Ultrasound: How IBD Patients Can Help Fuel Its Adoption in the US

Innovation and changes in healthcare are propelled by patients and caregivers speaking up about improvements that can change the way IBD is treated and managed. This week on Lights, Camera, Crohn’s we hear from pediatric gastroenterologists Dr. Michael Dolinger, MD, MBA, Advanced Pediatric Inflammatory Bowel Disease Fellow, Ichan School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and Dr. Mallory Chavannes, MD, MHSc, FRCPC, Pediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition, Children’s Hospital Los Angeles about the benefits of Intestinal Ultrasound (IUS) becoming a part of routine care, regardless of age.

The goal of IUS is to utilize a non-invasive method to monitor disease activity over time and it’s considered to be more precise than endoscopy in identifying both disease location and characterizing the severity of IBD. The IBD community—both patients and caregivers—can help fuel the adoption of IUS and gain access to receiving more information about their disease activity than ever before.

What is Intestinal Ultrasound (IUS)?

Intestinal Ultrasound (IUS) is an abdominal ultrasound performed during a routine clinic visit without preparation, fasting, or contrast to assess both the colon and the small intestine (terminal ileum most frequently) for the presence of disease activity. Probes are placed over the abdomen and the provider looks at images of the small and large bowel.

The beauty is that, unlike procedures and other image modalities available to assess disease activity of inflammatory bowel disease, IUS can be performed without any preparation or fasting,” said Dr. Chavannes. “In the setting of active disease, patients can have a thickened appearance of the wall of the bowel (termed increased bowel wall thickness) in both the small intestine and the colon, which can be detected via ultrasound.”

In addition, by using color Doppler, a feature that assesses the velocity of blood flow within and around the bowel wall, gastroenterologists can demonstrate inflammatory activity in the bowel wall. IUS can also detect IBD complications, such as fistulas, abscesses, or strictures (narrowing) of the bowel.

“Our expectation is that, with effective therapies, the aforementioned features of disease activity should improve or even disappear over subsequent clinic visits. If they do not, we now have an objective tool available in the clinic that can assist clinical decisions, such as ordering further investigations or even optimizing or changing therapy. Improvement of bowel wall thickening or decrease in color Doppler signaling is a reassuring sign that treatment is working. Lack of improvement signifies that optimization or changes in therapy should be considered,” explained Dr. Chavannes.

“Intestinal ultrasound is precise, we monitor bowel wall thickness down to the 0.1 mm. We are now able to make informed decisions with patients together, assessing their disease objectively in real-time so we can be aligned with our treatment goals. This reduces misunderstanding and may lead to better treatment adherence and improved outcomes,” said Dr. Dolinger.

Why the delay in the United States?

While IUS isn’t the standard of care across the world, it is used in several Canadian IBD centers and in Europe (Germany, Italy, Norway, the Netherlands, and Australia to name a few). However, there are still many areas of Canada and countries in Europe where this is not used as part of routine IBD care.

“There have been several barriers to adoption in the USA, the biggest of which are reimbursement and the lack of training/expertise. However, that is changing, as there is a tremendous amount of interest from most major academic centers,” said Dr. Dolinger. “Through the International Bowel Ultrasound Group (IBUS) there is now a formal training, while intensive, that can be completed by anyone willing in the USA, which did not exist 5 years ago.”

IUS fits perfectly in the treat-to-target algorithm by adopting a monitoring strategy that helps to prevent flares and bowel damage.

“There is no other test for patients to see their disease dynamically with a gastroenterologist in real-time, which enhances shared understanding and informs decision making like never before. All of this will help break the barrier in the USA and around the rest of the world,” said. Dr. Dolinger.

A study conducted in 2016 explored why IUS is not standard of care in the United States. The

authors surveyed nearly 350 physicians, of which 40% were pediatric gastroenterologists. Although a minority of gastroenterologists were using ultrasound to assess and monitor IBD (either bedside or within the radiology department), over three-quarters expressed interest in using it more.

“The main limitation identified or perceived by gastroenterologists who responded to this survey was a concern for inter-observer variability, a lack of familiarity with ultrasound indications and techniques, and a lack of interest and access to pursuing additional specialized training. In addition, the survey identified a common message that I have received previously from some radiologists; that other modalities are more precise or effective in assessing IBD. All these reasons can hinder interest and implementation,” said Dr. Chavannes.

However, considering the multi-center effort in disseminating training, knowledge, and engagement that has been ongoing in the USA in recent years, Dr. Chavannes is hopeful that IUS will rapidly become the standard of care nationwide.

How Children’s Hospital in LA and Mount Sinai in New York Use the Technology

The Henry and Elaine Kaufman Intestinal Ultrasound Program at Mount Sinai is one of the first in the country to employ the training of gastroenterologists and regular use of intestinal ultrasound for both children and adults routinely in the IBD center for non-invasive disease activity monitoring.

“This would not be possible without the leadership of Dr. Marla Dubinsky, who has worked painstakingly hard to bring this to patients at Mount Sinai, overcoming every barrier to lead the way in the USA. We would like patients everywhere in the USA to be able to have tight control non-invasive monitoring with intestinal ultrasound and in turn, are working with International Bowel Ultrasound Group (IBUS) to host the first hands-on training in the USA at Mount Sinai in the fall. We have faculty from around the country signed up to learn and this will hopefully begin to fuel further adoption,” said Dr. Dolinger.

Intestinal Ultrasound was introduced at Children’s Hospital in LA in the summer of 2020. This was incredibly helpful during the pandemic when access to endoscopy time was difficult, considering cancellations due to active COVID infection and decreased daily procedures to allow for intensive cleaning protocols.

We integrated using IUS for all patients coming to the pediatric IBD clinic. We have seen an immediate benefit in how we approach patient care and how timely clinical decisions can be made right at the time of the clinical encounter. One example is for patients presenting for a second opinion; these patients usually present with ongoing symptoms of varying degrees, yet incomplete or dated documentation of endoscopy, fecal calprotectin (a stool test helpful in indicating inflammation), and blood work,” said Dr. Chavannes.

During the visit, IUS gives an opportunity to understand the source of the symptoms experienced by patients and the degree of ongoing inflammation. Then, clinical decisions can be made that day, eliminating the need for additional testing. Dr. Chavannes says IUS even helps ease the discussions she has with parents and families.

“Many parents are stunned by the images they see and the changes over time. At the same time, they also notice when there is little difference from one appointment to the next, understanding the reason we are making the changes to the management plan that follows,” said Dr. Chavannes. “IUS has been invaluable for children under 6 years of age. This vulnerable population needs frequent objective reassessments, which is not possible otherwise. Using MR-Enterography would require general anesthesia, and access can be difficult. Similarly, for endoscopy, the prep can be poorly tolerated, and it also requires general anesthesia. IUS is non-invasive, painless, very well tolerated in young children, and available in real-time. Therefore, both parents and children are quite satisfied with their experience with IUS.”

Targeting treatment through IUS

Monitoring symptoms alone is not effective in reaching deep healing of disease in IBD, as many patients feel well despite having ongoing intestinal inflammation. IUS evaluates the inflammation that occurs within the thickness of the bowel wall (transmural inflammation).

“We often find that ultrasound is the only tool that shows continued inflammation when patients are in remission and labs have normalized. Optimizing therapies based on persistent inflammation seen on ultrasound may prevent us from falling into the trap of thinking our medications are working when our patients feel better and thus lead to better outcomes by not missing persistent inflammation that we have continued to miss with traditional monitoring strategies,” said Dr. Dolinger.

Although there are no fully established algorithms for the frequency of monitoring IBD using IUS, the best approach appears to have a baseline IUS at the time of IBD diagnosis or in the context of active symptoms or elevated inflammation markers on blood work (a flare).

“Then, the clinician can understand the features to follow over time. A repeat IUS can be performed at the end of induction treatment to assess how effective the management is. It would represent 6-8 weeks after the treatment was started. Provided that there is a marked improvement, the subsequent evaluations with IUS can be done every 3-6 months unless there are new concerns, with the closer timeline early in the disease course,” explained Dr. Chavannes.

In pediatric patients, this routine ends up matching most routine clinic visits. Therefore, as IUS becomes standard practice, and depending on how a patient is doing, their symptoms, and last assessed disease activity, patients can expect IUS as often as with each clinic visit. This modality would complement blood work and calprotectin stool tests in informing about disease activity and for complications of disease or flares.

What the future holds

Since a few IBD centers in the United States have already implemented regular IUS in their practice and have been disseminating knowledge about this technique, there is growing interest from pediatric providers to join the movement as well.

“Considering the challenges pediatric providers face in access to complementary imaging, operating room time, anesthesia exposure to endoscopy, and even the tolerance drinking contrast for radiology studies, IUS offers a fantastic way to assess disease activity in the pediatric IBD population. I am excited about the number of pediatric centers that have reached out about getting expertise in this field. The key is to promote buy-in from leaders in each institution to get the time and resources required for training and implementation,” said Dr. Chavannes.

Advice for patients and caregivers

It doesn’t hurt to bring up IUS at your next clinic appointment to gauge where your care team stands and if anything is in the works.

“If your provider is unaware of IUS and its benefit, it would be great to talk to them about the International Bowel Ultrasound Group. The curriculum for getting training involves three modules: an introductory module, a 4-week hands-on training at an expert center, and a concluding module and examination part of the European Crohn’s Colitis Congress,” said Dr. Chavannes.

She went on to say that hearing this request from patients may motivate administrators to provide the necessary time clinicians who are interested in getting expertise to implement the tool at their center would need.

Dr. Dolinger believes most major academic IBD centers in the United States will rely on IUS in the next 3-5 years.

“I would like to remind patients to be patient with their providers. Ensuring correct training and standardization is essential for adoption in the USA and this takes time and rigor to be done right and change the monitoring algorithm which has not been done in many years,” said Dr. Dolinger. “I began training in 2019 and it wasn’t until the second half of 2021 that we began using it very routinely for decision making, taking 2 years to become an expert. So, this will happen, but it will take some time.”

Patients and parents are big fans

The safety and efficacy of IUS can’t be matched. It’s also a big-time saver for everyone involved. A bedside ultrasound can be performed in a range of 20 minutes for the first thorough assessment, while an even more focused exam in a known patient can take less than 10 minutes.

“Both parents and children have been quite satisfied after their experience, as children can go back to school after the clinic despite undergoing this examination. Furthermore, the time saved in skipping additional appointments with the radiology department or procedures can be invaluable,” said Dr. Chavannes.

For parents, the imaging provides reassurance when there are improvements or when there are non-specific symptoms, yet the IUS is normal. IUS also bring validation when there are abnormal findings and helps to provide an explanation for why children are feeling a certain way.

“Children appreciate that it does not hurt and takes little time in addition to their clinic visits. In addition, they may not require additional appointments in radiology or endoscopy. Parents who had an opportunity of experiencing an ultrasound often request it afterward as part of their clinic visits. These families are more engaged and participate in shared decision-making. I am pleased and impressed at the engagement that actually “seeing” the disease together brings from families,” said Dr. Chavannes.

While the push is for IUS to be available to all IBD patients, both children and adults, it’s specifically beneficial for the management of pediatrics as it provides the unique opportunity to prevent bowel damage for a person’s entire life and reduce the need for invasive procedures, anesthesia, and sedation. IUS has the potential to alter scoping schedules in the future. While it will not replace the need for colon cancer screening or the assessment of mucosal and histologic healing, IUS can reduce the need for further follow-up scopes once those targets are achieved in between the need for cancer screening.

Additional Resources on Intestinal Ultrasound

Intestinal Ultrasound Ushers in New Era of IBD Treatment

Effect of tight control management on Crohn’s Disease (CALM): a multicentre, randomized, controlled phase 3 trial

Intestinal ultrasound for monitoring therapeutic response in patients with ulcerative colitis: results from the TRUST & UC study

Ultrasonography Tight Control and Monitoring in Crohn’s Disease During Different Biological Therapies: A Multicenter Study

Defining Transabdominal Intestinal Ultrasound Treatment Response and Remission in Inflammatory Bowel Disease: Systemic Review and Expert Consensus Statement

Point-of-care Intestinal Ultrasound in IBD Patients: Disease Management and Diagnostic Yield in a Real-world Cohort and Proposal of a Point-of-care Algorithm

Intestinal ultrasound and management of small bowel Crohn’s disease

Point-of-Care Testing and Home Testing: Pragmatic Considerations for Widespread Incorporation of Stool Tests, Serum Tests, and Intestinal Ultrasound

Propel A Cure Zoom Interview: Intestinal Ultrasound Discussion with Dr. Michael Dolinger

An update from Ukraine: Aid for the IBD community, heartbreak, and hope

For those of us who live in the United States it’s been devastating to watch the news coverage coming out of Ukraine since the war began there February 24th. I was lucky enough to connect with an IBD warrior, mom, and patient advocate named Elena Sotskova in the midst the chaos. She’s been working tirelessly for years to bridge the gap for patients and show all that’s possible in life while living with Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. We’ve been emailing back and forth. I pray each day, multiple times, for her safety and check in often to make sure her and her family are unharmed. When I see her name pop up in my email inbox it always comes with a big sigh of relief.

Today’s update is something many of us in the patient community have wondered and worried about—whether those with IBD are having access to their medications and ostomy supplies. Here’s the latest from Elena.

Dear Natalie!
Thank you for not forgetting about me, for your care and prayers. We are quiet now. The Russians have retreated from Kyiv and the region and are gathering their forces in the east. A big fight is expected there.

Kyiv and the Kyiv region are still life-threatening. A lot of mines and shells. Our people are working 24/7 to clear the area. We cannot return home to Kyiv yet. 😦 Thank God our house is not destroyed, and someday we will be able to return there. But many people are not lucky, they now have no house, no apartment. Very large destruction in Kyiv region.

A lot of people died, many tortured and raped. Even children. You must have heard or read about our Bucha. This is such a horror that it’s even scary to think about. When I think about how many people have already died because of this war, I cry. I don’t understand why the Lord punishes us, Ukraine, our people like that. What have we done wrong?

A few days ago, my friend’s husband died in the war. He wasn’t even 40 years old!
And there are thousands of such people. Most of all we want peace, and we want the Russians to leave our land. Forever and ever.

I try to work hard so as not to think about the horrors of war. I work 15 hours a day, then I just fall down and sleep. So, it’s easier for me. We received a large shipment of drugs from Dr. Falk (a German pharmaceutical company), 2 tons. Happy doctors and patients who unload them. Getting the necessary medicine is happiness for us now. Now I am engaged in distributing medicines to hospitals, and to patients, all over Ukraine.

Each patient who comes to me for medicines is a separate story and a separate pain. Someday I will write about it. During the week I heard hundreds of different stories, and they are all sad. I’m glad I can help them a little.

And I am glad that European friends are actively helping the IBD community. Yesterday Japan wrote to me and offered to help. The whole world is with us!

Stay in touch with you!
Hugging you
,
Elena from Ukraine

Now and Then: Advocating for Ukranian IBD patients through the war

Click here to read Part 1: The Humanitarian Disaster in Ukraine and What this Means for Those with IBD

Elena Sotskova is a financier who has lived with ulcerative colitis for 21 years, her friend, Artem, works in IT and has Crohn’s disease. Elena and Artem teamed up with several other IBD patients in 2018 to launch Full Life, an organization created to show those living with Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis are not alone in their struggles. They launched a website that features helpful articles for patients, they conduct “patient schools,” and connect with doctors in different regions of the country to offer additional guidance and support for patients.

“The biggest problem in Ukraine, is that we do not have treatment programs for patients with IBD. We do not have insurance to cover medicine, and all patients buy medicines at their own expense. As people across the world living with IBD know, these medications come with a hefty price tag, making it impossible for people to afford proper treatment. This forces many Ukrainian patients to refuse treatment and eventually become incapacitated. This was an issue before the war and even more so now,” explain Elena.

Therefore, one of the main tasks of Full Life is to collaborate with public authorities, such as Ministry of Health, and advocate for rights of patients while working diligently on programs for affordable and accessible treatment.

“We had made such progress for the IBD patient community prior to the war. But I’m afraid now the war has set us back and we have to start all over again.”

The inspiration behind Full Life

Elena tells me she was inspired to create Full Life because after living with ulcerative colitis for more than two decades she’s learned coping skills and how to manage her disease. She thinks about her younger self and the pediatric patients who feel isolated, panicked, and depressed in their journeys.

“My task as a mentor is to lead by example and show that you can live a full, enriched life with this disease. I love communicating with young patients and helping them see all that’s still possible for them to enjoy and achieve.”

Full Life also provides psychological and mentoring assistance to IBD patients in Ukraine.

During this pre-war protest, Artem’s sign read “No drugs = No future”

“Prior to the war and now—the main issue is continuation of treatment. We only have one way to get treatment covered and that is through participating in clinical trials. We have about 11,000 patients with IBD in Ukraine and one third of those patients participate in clinical trials so they can treat their disease. Because of the war, many clinical trials and centers for these programs came to a halt.”

Of all the biologic drugs to manage IBD utilized across the world, the only one available in Ukraine outside of a clinical trial is Entyvio.

How the war impacted Takeda (maker of Entyvio in Ukraine)

“Unfortunately, because of the war, Takeda pharmaceutical’s company was forced to close its warehouse in Kyiv, and patients who took Entyvio are left without treatment. I am in touch with Takeda representatives, and they promised to resolve the issue of access to treatment soon.”

I also reached out to Takeda here in the United States and was told by their media relations department that they are continuing to evaluate the situation closely and are making every effort to protect their colleagues in Ukraine along with continuing to supply patients in Ukraine and elsewhere in the region with their much-needed treatments. I went on to ask how that is possible with so many people fleeing their homes and becoming refugees.

“We know that many patients are displaced, and this is an extremely difficult time for patients, their loved ones, health care providers, and countless others. Access to medications can be an issue. We are working hard as a company to offer medications to those in need through the appropriate providers of care. We also want to make sure that patients have access to direct support. Since the conflict started, we have worked with stakeholders in the country to ensure the supply chain resumes. Those under the Patient Assistant Program for IBD treatment have received their medication in Ukraine. We have also set up a web page for displaced patients with relevant contact information per therapeutic area. We encourage patients and providers in Ukraine to reach us at https://takeda-help.com.ua/#/,” said Megan Ostower, Global External Communications, Takeda.

The challenge of logistics when it comes to drug access and delivery

Most patients from Ukraine rely on mesalamine (Salofalk, Pentasa, and Asacol). Elena has been on mesalamine since she was diagnosed.

Elena with her daughter early on in her patient journey

“It’s not cheap for me, but it’s the only way I can lead a normal life and keep my illness under control. Before the war, patients had access to mesalamine at local pharmacies or they could order it abroad. Now, most pharmacies in Ukraine are shut down and there’s a huge problem with logistics. It is impossible to deliver drugs from Europe. So now, it’s nearly impossible for us to even get mesalamine.”

One of the first places Elena and her team turned to for assistance was the European Federation of Crohn’s and Ulcerative Colitis Associations (EFCCA). She says they have promised humanitarian aid from Europe.

“We are constantly in touch with Poland, Estonia, Italy, and Spain. Every country wants to help support Ukrainian patients. But Full Life does not have an account in foreign currency, only in UAH (Ukrainian currency). We never anticipated our country and people would be attacked and that there would be a war.”

I reached out to Bella Haaf is Deputy Director of the EFCCA.

She said, “Please be aware that the situation is very difficult out there. We are trying to support the patients associations as much as possible, but we are unfortunately faced with a lot of red tape. As a patient association, it is not legal for us to purchase IBD medication and ship it to our colleagues, which would be a simple solution. So, in the meantime, we are talking to the ministry levels, NGOs (non governmental associations), physicians, and pharmaceutical representatives. Unfortunately, we have experienced little progress. We had hoped to do a private collection of IBD medicines, but again this is legally not possible.”

Elena’s advice for IBD patients in Ukraine and refugees

Elena hopes all Ukrainian IBD patients fleeing the country bring their medical documents (even just a photo on your phone to prove diagnosis).

“To do this, patients need to state their diagnosis when they cross the border and advise medical professionals they need continuous treatment. If you couldn’t bring your medical documents, try and remember what doctors in Ukraine diagnosed you and prescribe your medicine. If there are problems with getting treatment in EU countries, contact Full Life and we will work to solve your issue through local patient agencies.”

For now, each day of destruction and heartbreak leaves the people of Ukraine feeling helpless, especially those with a chronic illness that requires daily management and care.

“I think now neither I nor other Ukrainian patients will be able to write a happy story. We all have the worst period of our lives right now, as our country is in war. We are now very upset and depressed. But we are glad that our American friends remember us and are worried.”

The pharmacy crisis

“What will happen next, I do not know. There are no pharmacies in the village where we live and work. The logistics from Kyiv are very difficult. No delivery companies work.” Today (March 31) Elena’s husband is headed to Kyiv to try and get her medication, which of course comes with many dangers and risks. I will share an update once one is available.

Elena tells me only about 30 percent of pharmacies remain open in Kyiv right now and that there is a “catastrophic shortage of pharmacists left” since so many fled the country.

“Now in those pharmacies that work, there are huge queues, and almost no drugs, because they cannot deliver for various reasons. If I stop taking my drug, I’m afraid it will soon be exacerbated disease. You know how stress affects our disease. This war has caused terrible stress and so many patients have it worse. There are areas in Ukraine where there is no medicine, no food, no water. For example, in Mariupol, we don’t even know if people are alive there. So many have died each day from shelling hunger, and disease. Who could have imagined this in our time?”

Using plastic bags as ostomy bags

Sadly, Elena says many of the patients she’s connected with through Full Life are no longer in touch.

“I don’t know if they are alive. For ostomy patients, they are left without their necessary means for hygiene. Some of my peers have been gluing small plastic bags around their stomas. I am currently talking with patients and taking note of all their needs. There is a doctor in Lviv who treats patients with IBD and that is where we are having all IBD humanitarian aid sent. The Patients’ Association in Poland is actively helping coordinate the delivery of medicines and hygiene products from Europe to Ukraine as well.”

Elena says she is constantly in contact with European Associations, and they all promise to help.

“I try to be in touch with our patients, I try to support them somehow, but it is difficult. The prospects are unclear, it is unclear when this war will end.”

Regardless, Elena works tirelessly to be a pillar of support for others, even as she worries about her own wellbeing. I feel fortunate to have connected with Elena in recent weeks. Her updates and perspective are a reminder of how far IBD treatment still needs to be come in other parts of the world and of the extreme challenges so many people with chronic health conditions are facing in this war.

“As for our progress in receiving humanitarian aid, we are currently waiting on a small package from Greece. The first of two. The second parcel should arrive later. Dr Falk (a pharma company) also donated Budenofalk and Salofalk to us. And on Friday (4/1), a German non-governmental organization plans to send more of these medicines to Ukraine.Our Ministry of Health sent a letter to the Polish Ministry of Health with a list of drugs that Ukrainian patients with IBD need. We are waiting for a
reaction from the Polish side.”

The Full Life organization is a member of the Charitable Society “Patients of Ukraine” and they collect help for all patients and can be of support. Click here to see Facebook posts.

Follow Full Life on Facebook

Full Life’s Patient Group

Stay tuned to Lights, Camera, Crohn’s for continued updates and keep Ukraine and its incredible people close in thought and prayer. Thank you to Elena for her openness and willingness to email me back and forth as she lives through these extreme challenges. We’ve built a friendship from afar and I’m grateful she’s sharing the IBD patient experience through war so the rest of us can have this unique understanding and perspective.

The Patient Experience: Living with IBD and additional chronic illnesses

Imagine having a laundry list of medical conditions, along with your IBD. For many, it’s a stark reality. In a poll I recently conducted on Instagram, 64% of our patient community responded that they live with multiple chronic illnesses. This week—we hear from several women about what it’s like to juggle IBD and more.

As someone with Crohn’s disease I learned a lot by interviewing others and hearing about their personal struggles and triumphs as they face the unknown. Whether it’s trying to pinpoint which symptoms pertain to which illness a person is living with to coordinating a care team and living through a nearly 2-year pandemic that has shed light on how the world perceives our community—it’s heavy. It can be discouraging and it’s a lot. At the same time, finally getting answers gives some people hope and a feeling of relief.

As Brooke Abbott so eloquently puts it—it can be a domino effect. She started experiencing IBD symptoms when she was 18, she was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis in 2008 at age 24. Brooke also has IBS-D, Psoriasis, Ankylosing Spondylitis, trigeminal neuralgia, erythema nodosum, and asthma. Being a mom of color with multiple conditions in a world where patients are also “othered” has not been an easy journey. Finding a care team was a challenge for Brooke. She experienced unconscious bias, sexism, and racism when she was newly diagnosed. Not to mention irregular healthcare coverage.

“It reminds me of babysitting multiple children. The one screaming and crying got my initial attention. Once they were settled, I’d move on to the next child that needed my immediate attention. It’s a balancing act and I try to be as flexible with myself and give myself as much grace as possible. A breakthrough flare of one can ignite the flare of the another. Being diagnosed wasn’t the gut punch. It’s the days when my life is paused to cater to another illness after I just finished catering to another.”

Natasha Weinstein was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease in 2004 when she was only 11. Since then, she’s been diagnosed with IBS, Fibromyalgia, Arthritis, Migraines, Asthma, Carpal Tunnel syndrome, Tarsal Tunnel syndrome, Dermatagraphism, Vertigo, Ehlers Danlos Syndrome, Endometriosis, Pelvic Floor Dysfunction, Depression, Anxiety, OCD, and multiple vitamin deficiencies. She says juggling all these health conditions feels like a full-time job that she can never escape.

“It feels like my body is constantly falling apart. I feel like I live at the doctor, but I am grateful to be where I am today. I have an incredible job, a supportive family and understanding friends. My medically complex health has taught me resilience and strength, despite the frustrating and emotionally breaking days. Being chronically ill gives you a unique perspective on life. Add in MULTIPLE conditions and it’s a whole new ball game.”

Rocio Castrillon has been living with Crohn’s disease for 18 years. She also has Anemia, Asthma, Cataracts, Fibromyalgia, Glaucoma, Hypothyroidism, Uterine Fibroids, and Uveitis.

“Having multiple conditions is complicated particularly if one affects the other. I have learned to manage my conditions as best as possible, but my greatest fear is the flare of one of them at any given time, so I feel like I’m always waiting for something to happen. It’s extremely challenging to manage multiple providers, conditions, and medications. And they are all invisible illnesses. So, no one can “see” what I’m going through even though I may be suffering tremendously. That’s one of the hardest things for me…living a life full of chronic disease(s) in silence.”

Sarah Holleman was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease and Antiphospholipid Antibody Syndrome (APS) in 2018. It is also called Lupus Anticoagulant, but you don’t have to have Lupus to get it (although many people with Lupus get APS). Sarah went from being a healthy 28-year-old to having two chronic illnesses and seeing four specialists on a regular basis.

“It is utterly exhausting. Dealing with insurance, waiting rooms and doctors’ appointments is all-consuming. I had a healthy baby boy in May 2021, but going through a pregnancy with two chronic illnesses was challenging. My GI monitored my IBD symptoms, which fortunately stayed in remission. For APS, I had to switch from my oral medications to twice daily self-injections until the last few weeks when it went to three times a day.”

Trying to find balance

Laura Steiner was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis in 2012, she also has IBS, Asthma, hidradenitis suppurativa, IBS, and a few other inflammatory skin conditions.

“It can be confusing and frustrating balancing all of the different symptoms and having all doctors on board with everything. It also sometimes limits the available treatment options because for example, Inflectra that I am on for my UC is also used to treat HS, but since I’m already on it there is not much more the dermatologist can offer me for relief. UC is the only condition that tends to really interfere with work, so that is my #1 priority to manage, the rest I can deal with and manage.”

Meredith Ditty was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease at age 20 in 2011, she later found out she also has Primary Schlerosing Cholangitis (PSC), a liver disease that people with IBD develop. She also has Anemia, Gilbert’s Syndrome, Psoriasis, and Ovarian Cysts.

“I was so young, other people were living a normal life and I was stuck dealing with all of this. Thankfully, I had a great support system and had emotional, physical, and financial help, to get me where I am today.”

Emily Adams has Crohn’s disease and Lupus. She became symptomatic with both in 2020 at 26 years old. Her IBD has been flaring since July 2020. As you can imagine, being diagnosed during the pandemic made the process extra stressful and worrisome. Emily has been hospitalized five times in the last two years without visitors.

“Before I was diagnosed with Crohn’s and Lupus, I was very healthy. I was training to run my third half marathon and I was in my third year of teaching 5th grade science. Since getting sick I have had to stop working and I’m now on disability and I had to move in with my sister, as living alone was too difficult for me. My life went from complete independence to needing my family every day for help. Honestly, getting sick has made me more patient, empathetic, and kind. I’ve had a lot of time to think and reflect because my life is a lot slower these days. I appreciate the small things because now the small things are the big things.”

Alyssa Pinkham was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease in 2020 and was recently diagnosed with Gastroparesis and GERD. She’s dealt with anxiety issues and learning disabilities for more than a decade. She often struggles with knowing which condition is causing her abdominal pain. Alyssa credits coming to the realization that she was experiencing additional health issues to the friends she’s made through the online chronic illness community.

“It is difficult to navigate multiple chronic illnesses of the digestive system. They oftentimes have overlapping symptoms and if one condition is doing poorly, usually the others are doing poorly as well. It is also difficult having multiple gastroenterologists for the different conditions. In my case, they are on opposite sides of the state. It’s a challenge for the gastroenterologists to communicate their specific treatment plans with one another and with me so that they can provide an effective treatment plan that will put my Crohn’s and gastroparesis in remission. The lack of communication is frustrating and exacerbates my anxiety. When my anxiety isn’t being controlled it sets off my Crohn’s and gastroparesis conditions, which leads to more anxiety. It’s a vicious cycle.”

Katie Schimmelpfennig was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease in 2011, she was 21. Then, in 2015, she was diagnosed with nodular scleritis, an inflammatory condition that impacts the white outer coating of the eye. If left untreated, it can cause vision loss.

“It’s hard having two chronic health conditions and continues to be a challenge. I started therapy about a year ago. I wish I started sooner. Talking with someone has helped me. I struggle with feeling like my body is broken. I feel like I’m letting myself (and others) down because I’m sick more times than not. The book, “This Too Shall Last: Finding Grace When Suffering Lingers” by K. J. Ramsey was helpful to me. She writes about how our culture treats suffering like a problem to fix and the shame that comes with that all through a Christian point of view. It brought me comfort, understanding, and even some more acceptance for what I’m living right now. I would highly recommend checking it out.”

Feeling unsupported through the pandemic

Ableism existed long before the pandemic, but it seems that unfortunate mentality and attitude has been exacerbated since the start of these unsettling times.

Rocio explained, “While there have been many accommodations that have been made during the pandemic for the general public (i.e., curbside pickup, free delivery, etc.) I wish this had been the option for us long ago. Working from home is yet another dynamic that has allowed everyone to have the flexibility that many of us with chronic diseases need on a daily basis. It has become acceptable and more of a norm now, yet any previous requests for similar accommodations for us have always been denied or frowned upon. I’ve truly seen who supports and cares about others and who is selfish and out for themselves.”

Mo Lynn was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease in October 2019, when she was 23 years old. She also has Polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), endometriosis, and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD).

“The world, the workplace, and the US health care system are not built for people like me. Throughout the pandemic, it’s been made clear to me that a lot of people find the deaths of people like me with chronic illnesses or disabilities as inevitable and meaningless. Never mind the value I bring to my family, my friends, and society. There will always be people who think that the lives of the chronically ill /disabled are meaningless.”

Katie says, “I choose to believe that most people are good and kind, doing the best they know how to do at the time. But it’s hard, really hard–especially for the chronically ill right now. I don’t want covid. I don’t want mild covid. I don’t want severe covid. I don’t want to give covid to someone else. I don’t want long covid. I know what it’s like to be sick for days, months, and years. When I personally know people who are choosing not to get vaccinated, it hurts. It makes me feel like they don’t care about me. When I see people not wearing a mask, or their nose hanging out, it makes me feel like they don’t care about me or the health of their community. So, my perspective on the world around me: we need to do better. We need to be better.”

Brooke says looking through social media at peoples’ selfishness and carelessness has made her sad and frustrated with the evolution of humanity.

We talk a lot about community and inclusivity on our platforms, but when it’s time to perform action to ensure that all are safe and healthy, we fail to do so if it feels inconvenient for us. Watching people fail their neighbors by simply wearing a mask, stopping the spread of this highly contagious virus is just heartbreaking. It’s also frustrating to watch people waste their health by risking it for a party, or a concert or a bar night.”

Rapid Fire Chronic Illness Tips

  • Having chronic illness equates to a lot of trial and error. From finding your care team to what works best to manage your health—be patient as you find what helps you get your disease(s) under control and recognize that what works for one person won’t necessarily work for you.
  • Seek therapy and don’t look back. When you are constantly at battle with your body and worrying about the what if, it can be overwhelming and all-consuming. Give yourself permission to take time to put your mental well-being first.
  • Keep your GI as the team lead or quarterback of your care. Let them guide the decision-making and set the stage for your care plan. Build your care team around your GI.
  • Rather than focusing on remission, focus on the thing that is ailing you the most and heal that. Once that is settled, move on to the next thing.
  • Try to let go of the guilt and shift your mindset about how your caregivers are sacrificing for you. Instead, think about their genuine care and concern for you despite your illness. They show up day after day because of their unconditional love for you.
  • See all your doctors in the same network so they’re able to share reports and test results easily. Making information accessible to your care team takes the burden off your shoulders to play telephone and relay information back and forth.
  • If you’re being dismissed or feeling unheard by your care team, remember you aren’t married to them. Find a new team. The time and effort are worth it. Ask for referrals.
  • If friendships and relationships feel toxic to you, let them go. Use your medical misfortunes to your advantage. You have an innate superpower to see peoples’ true colors—if they genuinely care, if it’s a relationship of convenience or actual care, and you see who shows up and who disappears to the background.

If you’re tired of being sick and tired, please know you are not alone in feeling this way. There will be days when managing multiple health conditions are extra tough. Anger, frustration, and sadness are all normal and justified. When you live with multiple health conditions—or even *just* IBD it’s like a daily game of Jenga. One wrong move, one decision, can inadvertently cause the tower to come crashing down. It’s a fragile balancing act that comes with its fair share of setbacks and challenges but also provides a unique perspective and appreciation for life and taking on each day without taking anything for granted.

IBD Motherhood Unplugged: I have Crohn’s and COVID

Well, after dodging the son of a bitch since March 2020 and doing all I could to stay well, I have COVID. My husband and I started with symptoms New Year’s Eve. Quite the way to welcome in 2022, let me tell ya. As an IBD mom of three little ones who is immunocompromised from my medication, I, like so many others have been worried about this since the moment the pandemic began. One of my greatest fears became my reality. My husband tested positive the day he was scheduled for his booster. I’m triple vaxxed (since late July!) and that still wasn’t enough to protect me. I do believe the vaccines lightened the load of the illness and I’m grateful we had them.

Like I do with all my blog articles and reporting, I prefer to be transparent and honest about my personal experience in hopes of helping others. I’ve been keeping track of my symptoms daily and monitoring how the illness has manifested in me since it began. In this article, I’ll also share how I was guided by my gastroenterologist and pediatrician in navigating this once my family was exposed and became positive. As of now, miraculously, all three of our children (ages 4 and under), have tested negative and appear healthy.

Discovering I was exposed

So many emotions ran through my mind. Fear. Dread. Anger. Frustration. Disbelief. Shame. Worry. I cried lots of tears. My youngest is not quite 6 months old. Like any parent, I have tried my best to shield him from all types of illness since he entered this world. More than myself I’ve been concerned about how his little body would handle COVID. My family of five was directly exposed for 44 hours straight. We all had the same exposure and the damage had been done. What was supposed to be a time to celebrate with loved ones over the holidays turned into a nightmare real fast. It’s been a waiting game. I’ve felt a lot of emotions since my symptoms creeped up the night we returned home.

Here’s how my COVID has played out:

Friday, December 31st—headache, brain fog

Saturday, January 1—headache, runny nose, fatigue, no appetite

Sunday, January 2—headache, runny nose in the morning only, a dry cough, a little difficulty breathing, no appetite

Monday, January 3—headache, runny nose in the morning only, bad cough with phlegm coming up, congestion, hoarse voice, no appetite

Tuesday, January 4—TESTED POSITIVE (no surprise there) Runny nose like a faucet in the morning only, migraine with auras, no appetite, bad cough with phlegm coming up, hoarse voice.

Wednesday, January 5—Runny nose in the morning only, headache, hoarse voice, same cough. Smell and taste lessened. All three kids tested negative through pediatrician.

Thursday, January 6—Less congested, subtle headache, hoarse voice, same cough, no appetite, fatigue, taste, and smell gone.

Friday, January 7—Can finally breathe through my nose, subtle headache, no taste or smell, no appetite, congestion.

Saturday, January 8—headache, no taste or smell, congestion.

Sunday, January 9—FINALLY no headache, feels like a head cold, no taste or smell. My voice is back to normal, feeling a lot more like myself.

Managing Crohn’s Through COVID

As someone who has lived with IBD for more than 16 years, feeling unwell and juggling unpredictable symptoms doesn’t feel like anything new. But, knowing how to keep the focus on managing my Crohn’s while having “normal people sickness” is often challenging, especially since COVID is so unique in how it presents differently in people and comes in waves. When my gastroenterologist learned I had tested positive she offered up the monoclonal antibody infusion or a 5-day course of Pfizer’s new over the counter pill, Paxlovid. Since I was unable to get tested until day five of symptoms and since my case was mild, I chose not to do either. Personally, the thought of sitting around all the germs in a hospital (even though I’m positive for COVID) didn’t sound appealing to me. There is just so much sickness going around right now. I felt more comfortable taking the illness on myself since it was not severe and have been taking Vitamin D, Vitamin C, Zinc, and my prescription prenatal and folic acid.

One big question many of us in the community have is what to do about biologic therapies when we test positive. I am on Humira, and my next injection is due today (January 10). I was exposed to COVID two days after doing my injection. My gastroenterologist told me I would be fine to stay on schedule since my symptoms were mild and since I did not have a fever. She went on to say that if I am not having pulmonary issues (which I’m not), that I should proceed with my scheduled injection.

Luckily, my Crohn’s felt non-existent the entire time I’ve been sick with COVID. It was almost like my body was solely focused on the upper respiratory issues. Oddly enough, and this may be TMI…but I always tell people in our community nothing is TMI… today (Sunday) I experienced a burning sensation in my abdomen for about 30 minutes, felt some nausea, and had several bathroom trips. It was almost as though the COVID was leaving my body, because the last 10 days I haven’t felt anything like this and now I feel a lot better.

Mom Life with COVID

What’s really made this entire ordeal torturous for me is having to do my typical stay-at-home mom life with a 4.5-year-old, almost 3-year-old, and 5-month-old, while having COVID and Crohn’s disease. Unfortunately, even though my husband was symptomatic and positive he had to work from home, so it’s been me in the trenches, wearing a mask from 6 a.m. til the kids go to bed, and not getting a moment to rest or recuperate.

What anyone with a family and COVID can attest to is how challenging quarantine is when you can’t have your village of support help you with the little ones or get any type of childcare break. Typically, Reid goes to preschool three days a week and Sophia goes twice a week. Even though their school days are short, and I’m used to having everyone home, I’ve grown accustomed to a little bit of downtime with the baby. Between Christmas break and our quarantine, our entire family has been home since December 20th. Even through I’ve been sick and on the struggle bus, my day-to-day actions have not been able to change at all. To say I’m running on E is an understatement. Don’t beat yourself up over screen time and not being able to entertain your kids, it’s survival mode at its finest. As an IBD mom, the fatigue that comes with our illness is nothing new, the only saving grace with COVID is knowing there should be an endpoint. While long COVID exists of course, I’m not sure I’d be able to even tell the difference since I already live with chronic illness.

Breastfeeding with COVID

Ladies, I thought breastfeeding through colonoscopy prep and not eating for the days leading up was intense. This has been a whole different level of effort. To protect the baby, our pediatrician recommended my husband and I wear masks in our house. People complain about wearing a mask to get groceries. Try wearing it in your own home, morning-noon-and-night for 10 days, nursing a baby while your nose is running like a faucet, you feel unwell, and fear you’re going to pass along COVID to your small baby because you’re in such close proximity. At times I’ve felt on the brink of having an anxiety attack because the mask and my breathing made me feel like I was gasping for air while trying to feed him.

That being said, I’ve never felt more grateful or fortunate to be breastfeeding my son. It does my heart good to know he’s getting my antibodies in real-time as my body fights COVID. While breastmilk of infected mothers does not contain COVID-19, it contains antibodies against it.

I found promising articles and research about the benefits of COVID-positive moms continue to breastfeed their children:

Can Mother’s Milk Help Fight COVID? New Evidence Suggests ‘Yes’

Liquid Gold: How Breast Milk Could Pass Along COVID-19 Immunity

FAQ on COVID-19: Breastfeeding safety for mothers

Luckily, thus far, my baby hasn’t shown any symptoms and continues to thrive beautifully as we gear up for him turning 6 months this week. I’ve prayed hard over him daily and I’m hopeful I’m nourishing him and providing him with the best protection possible by nursing him through this pandemic.

Recommendations Moving Forward

As I write this it’s 9 pm on Sunday night. I’m much more at ease and honestly since I’ve been sick since New Year’s Eve, the entire start of 2022 has been a blur. I’m sitting on the couch, fire going, taking a deep breath, and trying to relax. Now that hindsight is 20/20 here’s what I wish I did before and what my recommendations are:

  • Order rapid tests proactively: Part of the reason we were exposed initially was because my loved ones could only get their hands on one test (which was negative). We made the trip home only to find out two days later that my dad had been positive the entire time. I ordered four tests on 12/30 and they just arrived yesterday. Prior to all this, my kids and I had never been tested. It’s much smarter to have tests ready to go at home so you aren’t scrambling and forced to make a judgment call that could put you in the line of fire.
  • Get 3-ply surgical masks for little ones: My kids have worn cloth masks up until all this, but when they return to school later this month, I plan to send them in surgical masks for added protection. I don’t expect my little ones to wear N95s. Not only are surgical masks more convenient than constantly having to wash them, if they lose their masks or misplace them in the wash, I don’t have to run around trying to find a mask that’s clean and ready to go as we are rushing out the door.
  • Connect with your care team when symptoms start: If you have a chronic illness and especially if you’re on heavy duty medications (like biologics) I can’t stress enough how important it is to stay in open communication with your care team so they are aware of the situation and can guide you through it. COVID is nothing to mess around with. It’s not *just a cold*, trust me. I spoke with my GI and my pediatrician almost daily this week through the patient portals.
  • Don’t take unnecessary risks and let your guard down: We are all exhausted from this nightmare, and I get how we all want to enjoy life and not live in fear. But one risky decision—something as simple as going out to dinner or seeing family that you miss, can end up with a great deal of sickness that you’ll quickly realize wasn’t worth it. Get vaccinated, get boosted. We’ve lost two family friends this week alone who were unvaccinated and died of COVID. It’s beyond heartbreaking.
  • If you lose your taste and smell like me, I’ve been told the sooner you start smell training the better: My friend recommended I order four essential oil scents off Amazon—Clove, Lemon, Eucalyptus, and Rose. They arrive to me on Wednesday. I have also been told by multiple people to eat Hot Tamales Candy and spicy, potent foods to get taste buds reactivated and to drink celery juice. Smelling perfume, cologne, garlic, dish detergent, and candles several times a day for 20-second increments is also a way to help bring it back.
  • Chart your symptoms each day: It’s helpful to keep track of your symptoms each day in the “Notes” section of your phone, otherwise it’s hard to remember what you’ve dealt with. It takes out the guesswork when talking with your doctors and helps you see how you’re improving or getting worse.
  • Disposable everything: We’ve been using plastic Red Solo Cups and writing our names on them, paper plates, paper towels, you name it. Get the germs out of your house and avoid using shared hand towels, toothpaste, etc. with those you live with.

Paying It Forward with IBD

When you hear the term “pay it forward” you may envision someone in a drive thru line surprising the person behind them by covering their order. Those words have held a different meaning for me as a person with IBD. When I had bowel resection surgery, I’ll always remember how my husband’s cousin and wife surprised us and showed up to the hospital with coolers of food and drink for my immediate family. It was an act of kindness and generosity that meant so much. That was six years ago, and we still talk about it.

Fast forward to present day and a friend of mine locally who has battled Crohn’s disease for decades had surgery. He’s a husband, a father of four, a successful businessperson, and leads our local Crohn’s and Colitis chapter as President of the Board. Through the years my husband and I have connected with him and his wife at Foundation events.

Staying connected through the pandemic

He recently posted on Facebook that he would be having his 8th Crohn’s-related surgery. He’s taken on Crohn’s with resilience and grit since being diagnosed more than 21 years ago. Thanks to the pandemic, the last time we had seen him, and his wife, was at the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation Gala in November 2019. Despite two years passing without seeing one another in person, there’s something special about the IBD community and the family feel it creates.

When you’re knocked down by a disease over and over again and you’ve had surgery, you’re able to relate to the struggle, while also understanding how beautifully amazing recovery can be when you get a fresh start. While surgery is not a cure, it affords many of us with the opportunity to stay ahead of our disease and take out the portion of our intestine that is diseased and causing us problems.

A call to help

After I saw the social media post giving friends and family a heads up of the surgery happening in two weeks I grabbed my day planner and marked my calendar so I could be reminded of when to reach out to my friend in the days ahead, to pray, and to start thinking of how I could help his family of six during this uncertain and challenging time.

I immediately thought about his sweet wife trying to steer the proverbial ship for the family for months on end. Four young mouths to feed. I texted them both and said I would be bringing over a homemade meal. My text may have seemed out of left field, but I wanted them to feel supported and help in a way that doesn’t seem like a big deal, but has a lasting impact. Rather than asking how you can help, if you can help, or that “you are there if they need anything,” just come right out and say what you are going to do.

We picked a day for me to stop by with a homemade dinner and when we saw one another and were able to chat for a few minutes in person it warmed my heart. I could tell the gesture was so appreciated and that it brightened their day as much as it did mine. We all know how monotonous recovery can be, so having someone stop by—even for a few minutes—helps break up the boredom.

Hanging out at the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation Gala in 2019. As my friend endures his recovery and now another surgery on the horizon, it’s friendships like this that deserve extra thought and care.

Passing along the appreciation

Fast forward to this week and while I was feeding my baby, an email popped up on my phone from a friend of mine in the patient advocacy space. She wrote:

“Dear Natalie,

Thank you for your tireless dedication to the patient community that you serve. I am deeply grateful for the opportunity to work with you, and always appreciate your willingness to jump in and help my clients transform healthcare. Patient Authentic wouldn’t run without you! Please accept this gift as a small token of my appreciation for your commitment to making the world a better place and your support throughout this past year. Wishing you a wonderful holiday season and a joyful new year!”

This was such a sweet surprise and brought me back to this notion of “paying it forward” in the patient community and going out of your way to brighten someone’s day. When you live with chronic illness, and never know what the day will bring, it’s wonderful to have moments of reprieve where you feel thought about, appreciated, and seen for all that you endure and all that you go through.

Paying it forward to someone with IBD this holiday season and beyond

It’s not about the monetary value, but rather the effort and thought.

  • Send a card expressing how you are thinking or praying for someone, rooting them on, supporting them through the ups and downs their disease creates.
  • Offer to help watch the kids so they can have an hour to take a walk, run an errand, or just relax.
  • Ask if you can join them for a doctor appointment, to get lab work, go to an infusion, be there at their home when they do an injection—anything to be there as a source of support. I recognize with COVID you may not always be allowed, but it’s worth an ask. By doing a “ride-a-long” with a friend or family member, you’ll get a small taste of what their reality is like. It’s often the drive to and from appointments and procedures that makes our minds race and can get emotional.
  • A simple “tell me about how your Crohn’s has been?” or “how has Crohn’s been impacting your day to day?”…or “what is it like to live with Crohn’s?” means a lot…don’t waste your breath only asking “how are you?”…because most people with chronic illness take this as an opportunity to downplay their struggles or sugarcoat the reality. Dig deeper and ask empathic questions that show you really care.
  • Share content of fellow advocates on social media—whether it’s a blog, a podcast, a reel, a post on Instagram—being a patient advocate takes a lot of time and effort, it’s rewarding when you see your words and your work reach more people and even better when you learn how a story you wrote or a post you shared touched another person’s life and impacted them in a positive way.

Over the weekend a fellow IBD mom friend of mine was hospitalized from a flare and faced with the need to start a biologic. When she got home with her family last night, she sent me an email with an update and ended it by saying “thank you” for being a mentor/friend/support in her corner. It’s moments like this that validate why I do, what I do.

Inaugural Autoimmune Summit just what the patient ordered

This post is sponsored by the Autoimmune Association. All thoughts and opinions shared are my own.

An educated patient is an empowered patient. Over the weekend the Autoimmune Association presented its Inaugural Autoimmune Summit that aimed to do just that. The virtual two-day event featured 23 educational sessions and more than 50 autoimmune experts including physicians, nurses, policy experts, and of course, patient advocates.

The Summit covered a wide variety of important topics that impact patients and caregivers who live with autoimmune conditions. I had the opportunity to moderate a panel discussion about fertility, family planning, and pregnancy alongside Dr. Marla Dubinsky, Chief of Pediatric Gastroenterology at Mount Sinai and Co-Director of the Susan and Leonard Feinstein Inflammatory Bowel Disease Clinical Center and Mariah Leach, a mom of three who lives with Rheumatoid Arthritis and Founder of Mamas Facing Forward. As an IBD mom of three chidren myself, I’m extremely passionate about sharing guidance and support for fellow women on this subject.

During the discussion, Dr. Dubinsky touched on many aspects of the journey to motherhood and beyond with IBD, but one comment she made resonated with me. She said the greatest gift a woman can give their child, is to stay on their medication, and allow their baby to thrive in an uninflamed environment. As someone who needed and depended on my biologic with all three of my pregnancies that comforted me greatly and really struck a chord.

Other topics of discussion during the Summit included tips and tricks for managing multiple specialists to clinical trials, health equity, advocating on Capitol Hill, and complementary medicine.

A dream come true

Lilly Stairs, Vice Chair of the Board of the Autoimmune Association and Summit Lead, lives with Crohn’s disease and arthritis. As a patient advocate, she understands the vital importance of providing those who live with chronic health conditions to share their voice and articulate their needs and struggles.

“It has been a dream of mine and the Autoimmune Association’s to plan an event that unites community members from across autoimmune conditions. Our patient odysseys share deeply rooted similarities. By coming together, we can accelerate autoimmune education, awareness, advocacy, treatment, and someday, cures.”

Goals of the Summit

The goals for the Summit were three-fold. Organizers and presenters like myself hope you walked away feeling connected to people across the patient community, while learning tangible tips for managing your autoimmune conditions. Lastly, the hope is that attendees and Summit participants feel energized and excited about what the bright future holds for those living with autoimmune diseases.

Lilly went on to say, “Events like the Autoimmune Summit are essential engagements for patients and caregivers to participate in. These events provide tools to navigate life with chronic illness and empower patients with the knowledge they need to be “CEO, secretary, and treasurer of your care” as Hetlena Johnson, Lupus Patient Advocate so eloquently stated in the Managing Multiple Autoimmune Conditions panel.”

Events like this are a reminder that we are not alone in our journeys. Even though chronic illness can be extremely isolating, events like the Autoimmune Summit offer the opportunity for connection that often feels like much needed chicken soup for the soul. The camaraderie that is possible even though Zoom has a lasting impact on helping to lift the burden and self-doubt many patients face.

From the Speakers

Tina Aswani Omprakesh participated in a panel on complementary medicine and autoimmunity. As an ostomate who juggles Crohn’s disease, Gastroparesis, and IBS, she knows firsthand how imperative it is to take on illness with multiple approaches.

“This is an important subject that’s often not discussed in the autoimmune space. The reality is that many patients are thinking about exploring it but don’t know how to navigate it in a way that can help complement their existing therapies. These conversations are essential to proliferate both credible information and sources of complementary therapies so patients can truly live their best lives possible.”

Molly Schreiber lives with Type 1 Diabetes, Rheumatoid Arthritis, and POTS. During the Summit, she spoke about what it’s like to manage multiple autoimmune conditions.

“Anytime I can share my story, my hope is that attendees feel less alone in their battle with chronic illness. We may have different health conditions, but our fight is often the same—pain management, medical providers who listen, and affordable medications we can easily obtain.”

Alisha Bridges is a patient advocate who lives with Psoriasis. She participated in a breakout session geared towards dermatology. She says having the chance to speak at the Autoimmune Summit was an honor.

“I hope my story helped viewers to better understand the unique challenges of living with psoriasis as a woman of color especially in the clinical trials sphere. These conversations are imperative to elicit change for better care of patients of all backgrounds.”

Curtain Call

It’s our hope attendees discovered tips for managing autoimmune disease from patient advocates like myself who understand your reality, while also learning about the latest research and future treatments on the horizon.

Did you miss tuning into the first-ever Autoimmune Summit? No worries! All the presentations were recorded and will be shared in the weeks ahead. I’ll be sure to share the Fertility, Family Planning, and Pregnancy discussion I was a part of on my social media channels as soon as the video becomes available.

Thank you to all who tuned in, to all who participated, to the organizers, like Lilly, and the generous sponsors who made this happen. It’s amazing to see what’s possible when patients have a proverbial seat at the table alongside medical professionals and digital health companies. Our voices matter and time and time again we’re being heard loud and clear.

Follow the Autoimmune Association on social media

Instagram: @autoimmune_diseases

Twitter: @AutoimmuneAssoc

Facebook: Autoimmune Association

Working from home is more than a job perk for those with IBD

The COVID-19 pandemic has normalized talking about chronic illness in the workplace and shed light on not only what it means to be immunocompromised and how it impacts one’s quality of life, but also the benefits and possibilities that working from home provides for everyone involved.

Prior to the pandemic, asking to work from home or setting up accommodations with your boss looked different. It could feel a bit taboo. Maybe you worried how the rest of your team would perceive you as possibly getting special treatment. Maybe you didn’t want to appear as if you couldn’t keep up or do what was expected of everyone else. But one of the positives to come out of this crazy time is that the way we work and how we work has shifted.

I’ve been a freelancer/blogger and stay at home mom since I became a mom in March 2017. That being said I worked full-time in the TV news industry, at a PR agency, and in corporate America at a natural gas utility the first 12 years I had Crohn’s disease. I am well-versed in how to navigate those difficult conversations with your boss, how to balance your health and well-being with your career, and what it means to thrive professionally while making sure your health doesn’t take a hit.

An opportunity for change

If the past 13-plus months have shown us anything, it’s how adaptable and flexible work can be. Businesses and organizations have real-life intel now that can help guide what the future of working looks like, and how employees can best be supported, engaged, and accommodated.

The chronic illness community can use this time as a springboard into the future and communicate their needs and hopes moving forward. According to the CDC, nearly 60% of adults in the U.S. live with at least one chronic illness. Even though that’s a huge percentage, many leaders still don’t know how to properly support employees who fall into this category and those of us who live with a disease such as IBD often question our own abilities and what we’re able to bring to the table compared to our healthy co-workers and counterparts. Working from home through the pandemic has evened out that playing field.

Having the flexibility to work from your couch or run to your bathroom in the comfort of your home versus in the middle of a big work meeting with your peers makes a huge difference. Knowing that you can schedule meetings and availability around blood draws, appointments with specialists, scopes, infusions, etc. offers great flexibility in managing your illness and getting the job done without feeling guilty for taking care of yourself.

How to better understand and support employees

From a chronic illness perspective, we push ourselves in all aspects of life, even when we’re running on empty because we constantly fear being viewed as less than. There are many ways business leaders can better support employees who are taking on a disease like Crohn’s or ulcerative colitis.

As people with IBD we worry about how we’re perceived by others because of the stigma that surrounds chronic illness. There’s guilt. There’s fear of being considered lazy. There’s the worry about coworkers judging you and thinking you’re a complainer or weak, when in fact they may not be aware of your whole back story.

So how can we improve the support of our managers?

Initiate communication: Ask your boss about setting up a 15-minute monthly one-on-one touch base to discuss how you are feeling and if you need additional support. Talk about what the next month looks like as far as doctor’s appointments, labs, tests, etc. I personally always felt better supported and understood by sharing my health struggles with my coworkers—whether it was my co-anchor and meteorologist or the communications team at the company I worked at. When I was hospitalized (which happened on multiple occasions) or needed surgery, I would email the entire team and give them a heads up about what was going on, so they heard it from the “horse’s mouth” and not through office hearsay or gossip. By articulating your patient experience you give others a chance to be empathetic.

Make the invisible—visible: It can be easy for us to downplay our pain or put on a smile when we’re flaring to protect ourselves, even on Zoom calls! The unpredictability of IBD makes work-life a challenge because you can start the workday feeling energized and ready to take on the world and after lunch feel like you can’t even stand up straight and need to lie down. The constant uncertainty of when symptoms are going to strike can be debilitating in and of itself. By being open and transparent in these moments of struggle you help paint a clearer picture of what you’re experiencing for those who don’t live our reality. In corporate America, I used to sit in the boardroom and start a meeting by casually saying “I just want to let you know my Crohn’s is acting up. I’m in a lot of pain. It’s hard for me to sit up straight so I’m going to slouch a bit and I even had to undo my pants!” I approached those moments with humor, but moreso to take off my “mask of wellness” and be transparent that there was much more going on in my mind and body than just the presentation I was giving or listening to. I feel being honest like this made my co-workers helped us build a stronger relationship and rapport.

-Come up with a hybrid schedule: As the world starts to open and companies discuss what the future will look like as far as working from home or in the office, consider what it may look like to work a couple days a week doing each and finding balance. Working from home hasn’t been a detriment to productivity, if anything this time has proved how flexible we can all be in the face of adversity. By creating a space of support and understanding, everyone can be successful. Talk about the options available, your comfort level with returning to work in the office (especially if you’re immunocompromised or haven’t had a chance to be vaccinated), and what the expectations are moving forward.

Improve inclusiveness: When a business or organization makes employees feel embraced, regardless of their health struggles, it speaks volumes. Even those who are completely healthy should see this as a valued characteristic of their working environment—whether in person or virtual. Nobody knows when their life could take a turn for the worse or when an unforeseen health issue could pop up. For many in the chronic illness community, we went from being healthy to waking up with a disease that will be a part of us, always. It’s on leadership and Human Resources to ensure those with chronic illness are provided with the support they need.

Stop celebrating overwork: Touting the employee who works around the clock and answers emails at 2 a.m. sends the wrong message. Instead, find ways to commend employees for different reasons. There isn’t one set of parameters that makes someone a great employee. Having work-life balance and recognizing the importance of having time to decompress, put health first, and spend quality time with family, matters and says a great deal about leadership style. The number of hours worked doesn’t equate to the quality of work or one’s competence. The onus is often on the boss or leader to speak up and set these expectations. Being able to manage your team’s energy will keep morale in check and make employees feel appreciated and more invested in doing their best, because they have the energy to do so and aren’t ready to tap out at any given moment.

Remote work is more than a job perk

COVID has forced the conversation and illuminated the challenges those of us with chronic illness are up against when trying to balance our health, providing for ourselves and our families, and being an invaluable employee. Thanks to the pandemic, employers are now looking to re-evaluate what sick leave and disability policies look like, especially as they relate to working from home. Those of us with a chronic illness may finally feel like we’re on an equal playing field when it comes to job opportunities and not having to worry as much about our bodies cooperating so that we’re able to do it all.

IBD is Not Your Fault

You did nothing to cause your diagnosis or your disease. Read that again. It’s not your fault. No matter what you may see on social media or hear from friends or family, those of us with Inflammatory Bowel Disease did not live “incorrectly” or do anything damaging that “sparked” our chronic, autoimmune issues to come to life.

I was incredibly disheartened recently by a post on Instagram that in so many words claimed that bad habits in life led to a man’s Crohn’s disease. He made blanket statements about how medication and surgery are not necessary and that it just takes a long time and reflection to reverse the damage he caused on himself after years of smoking, binge drinking, etc. The post was not only on his own feed, but also shared by a community IBD page with more than 8,000 followers. After days of endless comments from those angered by his assertions and claims, the post was taken down and the patient “advocate” made his Instagram private, but the damage was already done.

Hold up—what’s with the blame game?!

You may wonder why patient advocates like me get their feathers ruffled by claims like this. I can tell you why. I, along with so many of my counterparts in the IBD community, work tirelessly to educate and inform not only those with Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis about the patient journey, but also caregivers and friends. When misinformation is disseminated it sets the clock back, bigtime. It further stigmatizes our illness, especially when the false statements are said by someone who lives with IBD. Not only does it hurt those grieving and trying to come to terms with their lifelong diagnosis, but it’s a direct attack on those diagnosed as pediatrics and those who did everything by the book (ate well, exercised, got lots of sleep, managed stress, etc.) and STILL got IBD.

If there was a magic bullet or diet that helped “cure” or manage all of us, we would do it. If there was a way to prevent IBD, people would do it. Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis aren’t like lung cancer, which is sometimes caused by smoking or diabetes which is sometimes caused by being overweight or liver disease which can be caused by excessive drinking. IBD is complicated and mysterious. There is not a behavior or habit that is associated with possibly “getting it” one day. The two known factors—hereditary and environmental—leave much to the imagination. I personally have no family history. I was a picture of health until the two months leading up to my Crohn’s diagnosis in July 2005. It felt as though a light switch went off and my world went from being healthy and able-bodied to being chronically ill.

You did nothing wrong

If you’re reading this and wondering what you did to cause your disease, the answer is nothing. If you’re reading this as a parent and feel as though you could have fed your child less processed food or breastfed them instead of giving formula or shouldn’t have had your child vaccinated, please stop believing that. I know we all want a reason. We all want answers and some clarity as to the why—but, at the end of the day, does it really matter? Focusing on the why doesn’t help us focus on the how. HOW are we going to get through this? HOW are we going to manage our disease and live a full life? HOW are we going to cope during flares and periods of remission? HOW are we going to navigate the unknown and thrive? HOW are we going to find the right treatment plan? HOW are we going to target our triggers and learn what to avoid? Focus on what you can tangibly do to improve your patient journey and less on the coulda, shoulda, woulda’s, because just like each case of IBD is unique, so is each back story.

Here I am as a little girl. Long before being diagnosed at age 21. This little girl did nothing to deserve or cause Crohn’s disease.

Stop the finger pointing and the blame game. Stop making the medical community out to be the bad guys and the adversary. Stop acting as though those who depend on medication and need surgery failed in any way.

Start collaborating with your care team and finding physicians who listen and genuinely care about the approach you wish to take to manage and treat your disease, while also understanding that a holistic and “med-free” approach may not be feasible for your type of disease process. Start getting involved and educating yourself about how IBD manifests and the complicated nature of not only Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis, but also the extraintestinal manifestations and mental health aspect that are often not talked about. Even if you’re on medication or have had surgery you can still take whatever measures make you feel better in a complementary way. It’s not all black and white. There’s so much gray area. You can be on a biologic and still try any “elimination diet” you’d like. It’s just a matter of doing what works best for you, without pointing the finger or demeaning others in our community. Start connecting with those who live your reality and lift you up, rather than make you feel like you’re taking the easy way out.

This is 21-year-old me. There were moments where I felt very sick while on this Spring Break trip my senior year of college in March 2005. I attributed the abdominal pain to traveling and eating different food in the Bahamas. Little did I know four short months later I’d receive my Crohn’s diagnosis.

I know that if my 21-year-old self came across posts on social media claiming I caused my Crohn’s and that I could “heal my gut” on my own, I may have believed it. I can tell you nearly 16 years into this, I know without a doubt that is not the case. I am not a failure for taking medication, needing surgery, or trusting my physicians. I credit my 5.5 years of remission to being a compliant, proactive patient who believes in science, educating myself on the facts, and realizing that this disease is bigger than me and a constant learning process. I don’t need to know my why because I’ve done a damn good job of discovering my how’s and you can, too.