45 years with Ulcerative Colitis: What a former pediatric patient wants you to know

Being diagnosed with IBD as a pediatric patient looked different in the 1970’s. For 54-year-old Brett L., the start of his patient journey began when he was only nine. The year was 1976. He started experiencing fevers, bloody diarrhea, vomiting, and abdominal pain. As he puts it—the symptoms started a year-long quest to find an answer. A quest that involved frustratingly long waits at doctor offices, endless tests, and medical trials. He was ultimately diagnosed with acute ulcerative colitis at the age of 10. Now, in 2021, Brett has unique insight and perspective to share with our community.

Patient “Number 1”

As you can imagine, Brett spent many years on high dose steroid and sulfur pills. The side effects of the steroids (moon face, weight gain, bloating, mood swings, and ravenous hunger, etc.) added insult to injury. From 7th through 9th grade, Brett missed nearly 60 days of school each year due to severe flare ups and hospitalizations. By the time he was 13, Brett’s parents were desperate for a cure as his condition worsened. With no relief from traditional medicine, they sought out additional care from holistic doctors, nutritionists, even an angel healer at one point! Nothing helped to manage Brett’s IBD.

“In 1981, I was 14. I’d been battling debilitating and severe flare ups that made me so weak I had to crawl to the bathroom or walk doubled over in pain. Each hospitalization was taking its toll. Over the years, though I was growing, I had lost 30 pounds. It was at this point that my doctor proposed something that had never been performed on a pediatric IBD patient—a total colectomy and “pull through” operation that would leave me fully reconnected and waiting for the ileostomy closure…allowing me to eventually go the bathroom normally again after a recovery period of a year or so.  It was risky surgery back then. But not having it was a risk too.  I agreed, and we went ahead with the surgery.” said Brett.

Brett was deemed “patient number 1” for this pediatric procedure and his case study was published in medical journals. To this day he remembers waking up from surgery in the pediatric ICU at Westchester County Medical Center in Valhalla, NY. He recalls counting 18 tubes and lines connected to his body and thinking that he couldn’t believe he chose to do this to himself. The surgery lasted 14.5 hours and the incision ran from his pubic bone to his sternum—the entire length of his abdomen.

Living with an ileostomy as a teen

“I learned to manage the ileostomy with some upsetting and messy mishaps at the very beginning. And in class sometimes the stoma would make embarrassing sounds. I learned to feel it coming and cover it with my hand to quiet it. But without a colon, I was now a healthy 14-year-old. The doctors said that upon examining what was left of my colon, they estimated I had about two weeks left before a fatal perforation,” said Brett.

A year later his ileostomy was reversed, and he was able to go to the bathroom “normally”, again. While he’s grateful for this—it hasn’t been all sunshine and rainbows. Brett says he initially had an abscess at the closure of the stoma. Ever since, he has gone to the bathroom more than normal people. In recent years Brett developed a challenging case of chronic pouchitis that at its worst caused pain and had him going 20-30 times a night.

The good news is that “after about 4 years of this, I finally seem to have treated and solved it myself, with psyllium husk powder at breakfast and lunch times, and 3 Lomotil pills with dinner. I’ve also reduced fluid intake during meals and become more careful about not overeating. I learned some of this in my online research about immediate post-op colectomy patients. The doctors had a hard time helping me with this, but I seem to have resolved it myself.” 

From past to present

Today, Brett is a healthy 54-year-old man and his pouchitis has never been more under control. Through all the ups and downs with IBD, he’s lived a fulfilling life as a professional singer, and as an executive of multiple companies. 

“In my career I’ve been an investigator, a head of marketing and sales, I’ve grown startup companies, and have traveled the world for business and pleasure. I’ve earned an advanced degree from an ivy league school, and I have an amazing 16-year-old daughter who is a gifted, performing singer-songwriter in her own right.”

Brett believes his ulcerative colitis has made him more appreciative of life and the little things.

“I have always been that person who lingers over sunsets, gazes at the moon, and stops and notices the teeny flowers poking through the cracks in the sidewalk, or street art, and the coincidental things one comes across as noteworthy or remarkable. I notice and really drink in the happy, good moments because I know what it’s like to not be able to be out and experience these things. I know I am fortunate to be here to tell my story.” 

Here are some helpful nuggets of knowledge Brett would like both those with IBD and their caregivers to know:

  • Don’t let fear of IBD stop you from living your life and having fun, or asking that person out, or going out with friends, when you are feeling well. As soon as I was feeling well enough to get back out there after a flare up, I lived life to the fullest and played like every other kid. You deserve to be there just as much as every other kid, teen, or adult does. When you are feeling well, try to make the most of that wellness, and not let the fear of what might happen stop you from living.
  • You are not “less than”, because you have an illness. In fact, you may even have an added level of maturity because of your illness that others do not, because of your need to contend with it, and interact more with adults and medical professionals and present your situation to them in a coherent and meaningful way. Look for the silver linings in everything. Notice the small pleasures, they help you get through the down times.
  • To parents—your child is a survivor. It takes a lot to keep them down. They will have ups and downs with their IBD. But 2021 is the best time ever to have to live with this diagnosis. Current treatments and even surgeries have changed the game and the patient experience, for the better and the future is even more promising. IBD can be traumatic. Children and adults can benefit from seeing a therapist to help cope with the lifelong nature and complications of the disease.

Nori Health helps IBD patients re-gain control: How you can get free early access

This article is sponsored by Nori Health. All thoughts and opinions shared are my own.

When Roeland Pater was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease nearly 20 years ago at age 19 there was a lot he didn’t realize and a lot he tried to ignore. He felt like he was on cruise control the first few years after surgery led him to remission. A few years later, his IBD took a turn and so did his perspective on his health.

“I started to realize that everything I did in life was impacting my disease. Suddenly, I couldn’t do whatever I wanted when I wanted. I became cautious of my actions and decisions. I tried to get a better grasp of how my IBD was impacting my life by receiving personalized care, but I was struggling trying to find a way to do that,” explained Roeland, Founder of Nori Health.

He noticed that during his medical treatment, he experienced a lack of support and education between hospital appointments, with little to no focus on quality of life or emphasis on how he was living day-to-day. Like many with IBD, this left Roeland feeling frustrated, misunderstood, and like there was no hope in controlling his condition.

The inspiration behind Nori Health

As a professional in the tech industry, this caused a proverbial light bulb to go off in Roeland’s head. He identified this massive gap in IBD care and decided to dedicate his life to solving the problem, with the goal of helping others. He recognized the need for a digital solution to help people like himself better manage and control their disease through daily behaviors. This is how the concept and mission for Nori Health was created. The company received an investment two years ago, which drove the concept into a real product and an app.

“Research shows that people living with a chronic inflammatory disease typically experience a 30% lower quality of life when compared to healthy individuals. Closing this gap is our mission. We believe this can be done by improving the understanding of the disease and its triggers through education and disease management. We aim to give patients in our program a sense of control over their disease management,” said Roeland.

How the Nori Health app works

The Nori Health app offers an 8-week program for IBD patients, guided by Nori, a digital coach. Through regular conversations (text-based—like WhatsApp) with Nori you receive personalized insights on factors that are proven to impact quality of life, and symptoms like pain and fatigue. These tips can be saved to your personal dashboard, and you can implement them into your daily routine, helping to keep your IBD under control.

“Most apps on the market are focused on a tracking model. This puts a lot of responsibility in the hands of the patient to monitor their daily activities and to discover patterns that might trigger symptoms. We changed this model around to best support the patients. Nori guides the patients through their health journey, with personalized, evidence-based factors. Nori provides the user with actionable tips that can be saved in the app, which can then be easily implemented into daily routines and lead to significant change,” said Roeland.

You can think of Nori as an artificial intelligence chat coach. You will work together to discover the lifestyle factors that impact how you feel and learn about simple changes you can make to gain more control of your disease. The end goal? To have less pain, more energy, and less strain on your mental health. Changes include everything from forming a new hydration routine, to talking to others about your condition, to reaching a point of acceptance of living with a chronic disease.

Main areas of focus include:

  • Stress
  • Hydration
  • Exercise
  • Diet
  • Mental Health
  • Pain
  • Low Energy
  • Sleep

“We would like to emphasize the importance of finishing the 8-week program. Just like taking a full course of antibiotics, the true benefit from the app comes from completing the entire course of the program,” said Roeland.

The app is not currently open to the public, but I’m excited to offer 100 of my Lights, Camera, Crohn’s readers direct early access!

Getting started:

  • Download the Nori Health app for iPhone here and Android access here.
  • During registration use access code TEST212 for free access to the full program. 
  • As you are given free access to the app, you will be asked to provide feedback on your progress (this is in-app, and anonymous). The Nori Health team will reach out to you by email to collect feedback about your experience as well.

Hopes for the future 

Nori Health is deeply rooted in recognizing the power of community. The program was not only developed by an IBD patient but created thanks to the input of more than 600 patients in England, Netherlands, Belgium, France, and beyond. By participating in this initial launch, you can continue to provide valued feedback and guidance so that the team at Nori Health can make the appropriate tweaks and further understand unmet needs. So far, the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive and has shown that patients can be supported throughout their patient journey—whether they are newly diagnosed or a veteran patient.

“We’ve seen an average of 34% improvement in daily management (diet, stress, and exercising on a daily basis) with people who completed the 8-week program,” said Roeland. “Half of the participants whose social lives were compromised due to symptoms, started to reconnect with friends and loved ones. These are the types of improvements and shifts we had aspired to see happen when we created the app.”

By working with patients like himself, Roeland says these valuable insights have changed Nori Health’s focus and influenced them to go much deeper into the factors that improve quality of life.

Building Body Composition and Maintaining Weight While Battling IBD

For many of us, when we’re initially diagnosed with IBD or when we flare, we experience weight fluctuations. The number on the scale may plummet during times when eating anything hurts or seems to make symptoms worse. The number on the scale may skyrocket when we’re on prednisone and not only retaining fluid, but also wanting to eat everything in sight.

Andrew Jagim, PhD, CSCS*D, CISSN was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis in 2014 after being infected with an intestinal parasite (Giardia). He managed to remain in remission for a few years until things went downhill quickly at the end of 2016. He dropped 50 pounds over the course of 3-4 months, was going to the bathroom 15-plus times a day, was running constant fevers, severely fatigued, anemic, and had little appetite. In the spring of 2017, after two weeks on TPN and several days in the hospital, he decided that a sub-total colectomy was his best option at the time. Since then, Andrew’s battle has been a rollercoaster of ups and downs, resulting in 12 colorectal surgeries.

Sports and fitness have always been a huge part of Andrew’s life—so much so, that he made a career out of it. He has a doctorate in exercise physiology, is a certified strength & conditioning specialist and a certified sports nutritionist, so he has an extensive background when it comes to understanding the important roles of exercise and nutrition for health and performance.

“Throughout my life, a large part of my identity has always been tied to my physical appearance. I’ve always been known as someone who is athletic, big, and strong with a high state of fitness. I struggled immensely during my flares and surgery recoveries when I couldn’t work out, when I looked sick or couldn’t stop losing weight. It was like I was losing a sense of who I was and who I identified with. When I looked it the mirror, it pained me to see my hard-earned muscle just “falling off” when I was too sick or weak to workout. However, I have always been determined to rebuild my body and regain what I lost.”

This week on Lights, Camera, Crohn’s—a look at the impact disease flares and surgeries can have on body composition, and how you can try and counteract the changes through diet and exercise.

A cornerstone of the disease itself is a high state of inflammation – most of which is centralized to the gut; however, this can also have systemic effects thereby resulting in widespread joint pain, fatigue and even a state of anabolic resistance within muscle tissue. Essentially, this makes it challenging to maintain or increase muscle mass during a period of high disease activity. This can be coupled with a reduction in appetite which can exacerbate body weight loss and muscle loss.

Surgeries can range from minimally invasive procedures to treat a fistula to much larger and complex operations such as removal of sections of the bowel and placement of a stoma for an ostomy. Depending on the magnitude of the surgery, patients often must modify diet and physical activity based on the recommendations of the surgeon.

These modifications will likely lead to decrements in body weight, muscle, strength, and endurance in the short-term; especially individuals who may have been highly active prior to the surgery. However, in patients who may be extremely ill at the time of surgery, the procedure may help them regain lost weight and strength as their body may finally be able to heal and recover from the inflammatory cascade brought on by IBD.

The Case Study Andrew Conducted

A year and a half after Andrew’s colectomy, he decided to schedule the second step for the J-pouch procedure. However, prior to, he decided to take advantage of this unique opportunity and conduct a case study on himself to document the changes in body composition and performance throughout the recovery process. He was curious how a surgery like that would impact someone with his fitness state as most of the literature focused on smaller or more sedentary individuals. Leading up to surgery, he had been able to resume his regular fitness routine and got his weight close to where it had been for most of his adult life.

“As seen in the figure below from my published case study, there were significant declines in body weight (-10.5%), lean body mass (-9.9%) and endurance (-40.3%) 4-weeks post-surgery. At 16 weeks postoperatively, most parameters were near their baseline levels (within 1–7%), with the exception of my peak endurance, which was still 20.4% below baseline. Thankfully, I was able to leverage my educational background and expertise in exercise physiology and nutrition to use targeted exercise and nutritional strategies to retrain my body and build my physique back up,” explained Andrew.

The balancing act of trial and error

As many IBD patients know, there are a lot of nuances, misconceptions, and unknowns regarding how diet impacts disease. For Andrew, it has been a lot trial and error to find foods that worked for him and helped him achieve his goals.

“Early in the recovery stage, just getting my appetite back and trying to eat more while not interfering with any post-operative dietary recommendations was always my goal. For me, this meant trying to eat about 2,500 – 2,750 calories and 150-170 grams of protein per day. In my opinion, these are the two most important dietary goals when it comes to regaining any weight (especially muscle mass) following surgery or during a flare. It will also help support the tissue and incision recovery following surgery”

Regarding exercise, strength training, is the most effective form of exercise to regain lean body mass following surgery. However, most colorectal surgeons (for good reasons) impose a lifting restriction of no more than ~10-15 lbs. for about 6 weeks following surgery to allow the incisions to heal and avoid the risk of hernia.

“For my larger surgeries, this was easy to abide by as I was in so much pain and was so fatigued that it was a struggle to just get dressed and ready for the day, so there was no temptation to get back in the weight room any time soon. But for the smaller surgeries, as I got closer to the 6-week mark, I was anxious to get back to my old routine. I took a very conservative approach and used a lot of alternative training techniques (i.e. blood flow restriction training, isometrics, resistance bands, etc.) to elicit an adequate training stimulus while not having to lift heavy weights and to avoid injury,” said Andrew.

Andrew’s main piece of advice about life with IBD? “Be prepared for a rollercoaster of changes to both your body composition and physical abilities throughout battles with IBD – especially during a flare or following surgery. Unfortunately this also will likely take a toll on your mental health as well, or at least it certainly did for me. However, just know that you can always get it back in time and more often than not, come back even stronger. Be patient and give your body rest when needed but otherwise keep grinding.”

Everyone has their own battles they are fighting

“I think my experience with IBD has taught me that everyone has their own battles they are fighting – even if they don’t show it. Additionally, it is also a reminder that not all disabilities are visible as a lot of people are probably unaware that I live with a permanent ostomy. I have chosen to keep a lot of my health struggles private and I think a lot of people will be surprised when they hear what I’ve endured over the past five years as I have still managed to have a successful career and not miss much work – despite all the surgeries and time spent feeling very ill.”

Andrew’s IBD journey also shifted his research focus a bit and challenged him to apply my knowledge of how to increase performance, strength and muscle mass in athletes towards a more clinical application.

“A lot of the strategies that work well with athletes can be modified and used in clinical settings as several of the benefits (i.e. increased muscle, strength, endurance, energy, etc.) may also help improve quality of life in patients will a chronic illness, those who are critically ill, or those recovering from surgery. It’s just a matter of making the appropriate modifications and fitting them to the current need,” said Andrew.

Here’s how you can connect with Andrew:

  • Facebook: Andrew Jagim
  • Twitter: @Ajagim
  • Instagram: Sports Science/Performance Nutrition Focused: @andrewjagim
  • Instagram: IBD/Ostomy Focused: @the_chronic_comeback

The future of biologics and the changes coming down the pipe

This article was sponsored by SmartTab. All opinions and thoughts are my own.

The future of IBD care and treatment is constantly evolving and there’s a lot of hope on the horizon for the patient community. Think back to the moment your physician discussed starting a biologic for the first time and how daunting it was to imagine giving yourself an injection or getting an infusion for the rest of your life. It’s a heavy burden to bear for many reasons.

This is where SmartTab comes in. SmartTab is a digital medicine company focused on drug delivery and improving patient care, comfort, and compliance. Their main application, the InjectTab, would give people the option of using the current syringe or autoinjector used to give biologic medication or instead have a person swallow a capsule that would deliver the active ingredients to either the stomach or the small intestine. This initiative is making waves in a big way in both the patient, pharmaceutical, and technology industries. SmartTab was recently named a Tech Crunch Disrupt 2020 Top Pick.

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As someone who has been giving myself injections for over 12 years, this is music to my ears. My next question was what this means for those on infusions.

Robert Niichel, Founder and CEO of SmartTab, says, “We will start with the biologics deployed through a syringe and needle and then move to biologic infusions. Imagine if you take that infusion dose and instead take a smaller dose of the same medication as an ingestible capsule once a day. You now have reduced the amount of drug to a daily amount, side effects would go down because you’re not having to process this entire bolus and keep in mind that some of these drugs, no matter what it is, when you have an infusion, whether it’s to treat Crohn’s or receive chemotherapy, your body has to process that out through the liver or the kidneys. It’s stressful on the metabolism and the organs. Our goal, is that one day, regardless of whether it’s an infusion or an injectable, that you’ll take those drugs via an InjectTab capsule.”

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Keeping patients in mind every step of the way

SmartTab is determined to limit the anxiety associated with managing diseases like Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis. The diagnosis and living with a chronic illness can be challenging to cope with, no matter how many years you’ve had it. It’s exciting to think what the future will hold for the IBD family.

“If physicians could go to people and say, we are going to start you on a biologic, you will take one capsule, every week, that’s a lot less of a burden than finding out you need to give yourself injections or spend hours with an IV getting an infusion. Your compliance goes up, patient outcomes, go up. At the end of the day, we’re trying to figure things out so people can lead better and more comfortable lives,” said Robert.

Getting InjectTab FDA-approved

SmartTab has the technology of the capsule finalized and they are starting a pre-clinical animal study next month. The InjectTab will inject an active ingredient into the side of the stomach.

“We will then do blood draws to collect the different levels of the active ingredients. Once that is complete, we will move on to human clinical trials and then onto FDA clearance, meaning approval of a device. Once we have that clearance, then we can combine our InjectTab with other active ingredients. Then we would seek out strategic partners to combine a prescription drug with our InjectTab. We would then do human studies.”

A lot of the heavy lifting for the actual technology has been completed, now it’s all about the clinical studies. Robert says the good news is that they’re not working on getting a new drug approved, since existing biologics will be used with the InjectTab technology.

“We believe that five years from now, if you take a biologic, you will no longer need to be doing a self-injection, there will be more options than syringes or needles to get your medication. You could just take a capsule. Whether it’s once a day or once a week, it will be as easy as taking your vitamins and moving on with your day.”

The cost benefits of a capsule vs. an injector

Right now, autoinjectors are typically hundreds of dollars. The InjectTab will range from $10-$50 a capsule, so right away there’s a significant cost reduction per use.

Robert says SmartTab is really counting on the insurance companies to look at this and say they’ll reimburse for the technology to deploy the drug because now patients are compliant and have reduced office visits and disease progression that can lead to hospital stays and surgeries.

SmartTab is currently in talks with several pharmaceutical companies, because that is the path to commercialization and making InjectTab a game changing reality for patients. Initially, the capsule technology will be available in the United States and then Europe. InjectTab will be geared towards the adult population first.

Life with IBD can be a tough pill to swallow, but the future possibilities surrounding InjectTab may prove otherwise. As someone who has given myself injections for more than a dozen years, this type of technology blows my mind in the best way. When my GI walked into my hospital room in July 2008 while I was battling an abscess the size of a tennis ball in my small intestine and he told me I had two options—Humira or Remicade, I was devastated. I didn’t want to give myself injections and I didn’t want to sit with an IV in my arm and feel sickly. It was a lot to process then and is still not always easy now. Hats off to companies like SmartTab innovating and changing the landscape for the future of IBD and beyond. As a patient, it means the world to me to see the tireless work going on behind the scenes that will change the future for those living with Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, and other conditions.

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Interested in learning more about IBD innovations? Check out the virtual IBD Innovate: Product Development for Crohn’s and Colitis conference November 17-18. Register here.

Click here to learn more about Tech Crunch’s Top Picks for 2020.

Check out my podcast interview about living life powerfully with Crohn’s disease and the future of IBD treatment.

Four Things People with IBD Wish Healthy People Knew

If you live with chronic illness, you may often find you sugarcoat your struggles. For 26-year-old Marissa Spratley of Maryland, this is nothing new. She battles Crohn’s disease, psoriatic arthritis, ankylosing spondylitis, and interstitial cystitis. She manages her conditions with Stelara and sulfasalazine. This week she openly shares what she wishes healthy people knew about life with IBD. I’ll let her take it away.

In the chronic illness community we all know how incredibly difficult it is to have Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD), or any other chronic illness. We know what it feels like to get hit with a wave of fatigue so hard you have to lay down immediately. We know what it feels like when our gut is on fire from something we ate. We know what it feels like to have nausea so badly all we can do is curl up in a ball on the bathroom floor and cry. We know these things, yet when we communicate with a healthy able-bodied person, we downplay our struggles and pain. 

Why are we afraid to be honest about how much pain we’re in on a daily basis? Is it because we don’t want to make others feel bad for us? Is it because we don’t want to show weakness? Or maybe it’s because we feel like by explaining how much we suffer on a regular basis, people might know the truth about us. That even though we are incredibly resilient, we live a hard life. We struggle and we cry and we ache and there are days where we wish IBD didn’t exist at all.

The truth is, hell yeah we are strong. But we are also weak, and we are tired. We are exhausted from always having to be strong in the face of pain. We are sick of having to downplay our symptoms and our suffering to make the healthy, able-bodied people around us feel less uncomfortable. We are tired of saying, “I’m good,” when someone asks how we’re doing and we really want to say “I feel like death.” 

So, in the spirit of honesty and opening up to the very ableist world around us about what it’s like to live with IBD, here are four things people with IBD wish healthy people knew.

  1. There are days when it hurts just to breathe. 

No, I am not being overdramatic. Yes, IBD affects more than just your gut. There are days when we wake up and everything about us aches. The way I describe it, is that I feel like I just got hit by a bus. My whole body aches deep in my bones, and it can take me an hour just to get out of bed and stand up straight. Those days are some of the hardest because on the outside we look perfectly normal. Please remember that not all illnesses are visible to the eye.

  1. Good intent doesn’t always mean good impact.

We know you’re just trying to help when you make suggestions about things we could do to try to feel better. But the truth is, we know our bodies better than anyone else, and trust us when we say — if there was something we could do to make us feel better, we’d do it. When you comment about things we should try (like juicing or yoga or going paleo), it makes us feel like you think we aren’t doing enough to feel better. Our healing and health are our business, and while we know you care, if we want your help or advice, we’ll ask for it. We appreciate you understanding this.

  1. Having a chronic illness is really hard on our mental health.

IBD is hard, period. Folks with chronic illnesses not only have to struggle with our physical health, but IBD also has a huge impact on our mental health. Being chronically ill makes you question a lot about yourself — Am I a burden to those around me? Am I worthy if I can’t work? Does my chronic illness make me hard to love? It also makes you question a lot about your worth — Am I lesser than because I can’t work as long as healthy people? Will employers not want to hire me? Do I bring enough to a relationship? These are all real questions I’ve asked myself at one time or another, and I can guarantee they are things other chronically ill folks have thought about as well. The way that IBD can affect your mental health is one of the most challenging parts of being chronically ill, because it is not talked about. So, what can you do to help us with our mental health? You can remind us we are inherently worthy, no matter how “productive” we are. You can remind us that you love us for who we are in our hearts, and not what we can do with our bodies. That means more to us than we can even put into words.

  1. Ableism affects the chronically ill, too.

Many people with IBD and chronic illnesses struggle to claim themselves as disabled, and this is something I could go on a tangent about. But here’s what you need to know: IBD affects our bodies in ways that make us less able, or disabled. The truth is, in the able-bodied centric society we live in, we believe it is offensive to call someone disabled because it means they can’t do something. However, to the actual disabled folks in our community, it is not offensive at all. We own the fact that we can’t use non-handicapped restroom stalls or walk up stairs. We are not afraid to say that there are tasks we cannot do as chronically ill, disabled individuals. It is our ableist society who thinks the term disabled is offensive. It is the ableist mindset that believes by saying someone can’t do something, we are being hurtful. Because to the chronically ill and disabled community, we know that our disabilities do not affect our worth. We know that our health does not affect our worth. But now we need you to know that, too.

To all my IBD and chronic illness folks: I see you, and I hear you. I hope that the next time you have a conversation with someone and you want to be real about how much it truly sucks sometimes, you can send them this article.

To the healthy, able-bodied folks reading this article, thank you for showing up and reading to the end. I hope you learned something new about how to better support your loved ones with IBD or chronic illness.

Connect with Marissa on Instagram: @mindbodycrohns

Putting the debate to rest: IBD fatigue isn’t your “normal” type of tired

I was putting away the dishes after dinner when I paused, exhaled, and said to my husband, “Whew. I just got a major wave of fatigue.” He said, “Yeah, I feel tired right now, too.” This isn’t the first time a healthy, able-bodied person has responded this way—and I know everyone with a chronic illness can relate. I kind of laughed and tried to explain why chronic illness fatigue wasn’t the same as feeling tired, but I was coming up short for words and having difficulty explaining the difference. My husband, Bobby, genuinely wanted to know why I thought my fatigue was different than his and how I knew it was. I said I used to be healthy. I used to not have a chronic illness. I know what tired felt like then and what fatigue feels like now.

Articulating pain with IBD and fatigue can be so challenging—even though it’s something that is so much a part of our day-to-day experience. Unless you live it and it’s your reality, it’s difficult to put the experience into words.

I called upon the IBD family on Twitter and Instagram to see how they describe their own personal fatigue. Here are some of the responses:

“Imagine your car being on empty and you put $5 worth of gas in the tank until you’re running on fumes. Then you put $5 worth of gas again, and you continue this process for months at a time…while sometimes running out of gas completely multiple times along the way.”

“Having to run a consistent marathon without stopping while carrying a toddler in the front and a backpack with a week’s worth of supplies on your back…in flats.”

“Mentally feeling like you have the energy to do simple tasks, but your body physically won’t let you. Knowing I need to walk 100 feet to get in my work building and having to give myself a pep talk to do it because I’m not sure I’ll make it without having to sit down.”

“You’re tired from being tired. You are just over everything and the day drags on and on. A nap doesn’t help because you “waste” your day, but the truth is you can’t even take a shower because the thought is way too much energy.”

“Like you’re walking with ankle and wrist weights on 24/7. There are days I feel like I’m walking through a fog so dense in my head I can touch it.”

“When I think of chronic fatigue for me it means faking being well. When getting out of bed or getting a shower is an accomplishment or needing to rest after taking a shower. No matter how much sleep you get you still wake up tired. Chronic illness fatigue is physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion.”

“Trying to motivate yourself when you’re fatigued and having brain fog is how I imagine swimming in syrup or molasses would be.”

“It’s the feeling of exhaustion, hopelessness, and loss. You’re beaten down from managing your condition and the various negative side effects that come with it on top of trying to function in whatever role you’re trying to play on a daily basis (for me: wife, mother, employee, and friend). It’s trying to make the most out of life but knowing you’re limited. It’s mourning the person you once were and want to be at that time. It’s physically, mentally, and emotionally draining.”

“I explained the fatigue to my students that just thinking about lifting my legs to walk or the mechanics of moving my limbs is exhausting…let alone the act of doing it. Everything feels heavy.”

 “Down to the bone, exhaustion in my core, something that is impossible to push through.”

“I like it’s like first trimester fatigue! But, with no end in sight and nothing hopeful to show for the symptoms like a baby!”

“Like your body is made of bricks. Your mind knows you need to get up and do something—change over the laundry, send an email, but your mind cannot make your body move.”

“Living in a constant state of exhaustion. No amount of sleep or rest seems to shake it.”

“For me…I would describe chronic illness fatigue as KNOWING your car has no more fuel and having to get out and push it home yourself.”

“Heaviness in my body. Just surviving, not thriving. Frustrating because I want to do more things but can’t always.”

“Being tired as soon as you wake up, until you go to bed. Never fully feeling rested. Planning naps throughout a day. Heavy eyes. Mood swing when beyond exhausted.”

“Like constantly living under 10x gravity.”

“Like someone pulled the plug out.”

“Like moving through the mud. It can also creep up on you when you least expect it, sort of like this year’s global pandemic—all encompassing and has no sympathy.”

“Like I’m wearing 100 pounds worth of sandbags that don’t go away even when I get lots of sleep.”

“Waking up and still being tired. No amount of coffee can fix this tired.”

Stop the comparison game

After reading these descriptions, my hope is that the next time you try and compare your fatigue or tiredness to someone with a chronic illness you pause and be selective of your words. Of course, everyone is entitled to be and feel tired, but it’s not an even playing field energy-wise when you’re a healthy, able-bodied person. Coffee, naps, and sleeping in help most of the population feel energized and re-charged, but fatigue with chronic illness is often untouchable. A full night’s rest can still leave you feeling exhausted. A coffee may have no impact. A nap may cause the fatigue to be even more pronounced. As an IBD mom, it can be frustrating to hear someone without a chronic illness try and diminish my personal struggles by equating them to theirs when there is truly no comparison.

“So, You Have an Ostomy”: The Complexity of Coping —Part 1

When you think of ostomy, what comes to mind? As someone whose had Crohn’s for more than 15 years, but never been an ostomate, it’s something that has loomed over my head since diagnosis. I’ve always wondered if I would ultimately end up with a bag and what that would mean for my life. I know I’m not alone in those worries and curiosities. Which is why I’m kicking off a 4-part series on Lights, Camera, Crohn’s— “So, You Have An Ostomy.” Over the course of these articles you will hear from more than 20 ostomates from around the world.

Today—we’ll focus on what it’s like to find out you need an ostomy, the complexity of coping, and adjusting to your new normal.

What it’s like to wake up from ostomy surgery

Blake Halpern, 39, of Texas, was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis in November 2004. By April 2005 he had a temporary ileostomy. After four weeks of being hospitalized on full bowel rest, it was determined he would need his colon removed. Blake says he was so worn out and emotionally drained, he felt like a shell of his former self. He was anxious to have the surgery and get his life back on track.

 “The ostomy is so shocking. It seems like something out of a Sci-Fi movie.  My small intestine poking through my abdomen emptying my waste into a bag?? That’s crazy. But it gave me some semblance of my life back. I was able to get out of the hospital, slowly start eating again and reclaiming my life.”

Alison Rothbaum, 41, of Ohio, was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease in 1994 at age 15. She says prior to her ostomy surgery, she went into a very dark mind space that she wasn’t prepared for.

“I woke without a pivotal organ. I woke with a new prosthetic device attached to me. I ached in my belly and in my heart. I needed to mourn the loss of the organ. It’s hard to describe unless you’ve experienced it. I refused to look at myself from the top to bottom in the bathroom mirror for a week. I didn’t want to see what the new body looked like, even though I had already begun to learn how to change my ostomy while lying in my bed.”

For Tina Aswani Omprakash, 36, of New York, needing an ostomy struck a major chord for not only her, but her family. She recalls how her dad hated his ostomy while he was alive and used to rip it off when he was in a coma in the hospital. Because of that, her mom had a significant amount of PTSD from his experiences and was against Tina receiving one. Her cultural society also told her that no one would marry her or accept her if she was an ostomate.

“I held off for as long as I could, but I started thinking that an ostomy wouldn’t be as bad as everyone was saying. I knew I needed to listen to my heart and to my doctors. My gut feeling (as flawed as my gut may be) was right. My ostomy had become my baby so to speak and I grieved for months if not years for the life it had given be back. Don’t let society sway your thinking. Seek counseling and ask all the questions you can to your surgeon and Wound, Ostomy, and Continence Nurse (WOCN) before the operation so you can feel a bit more at ease.”

Tina recommends connecting with fellow ostomate online over social media and through blogs. She says an ostomy doesn’t have to be a life sentence, but rather a life-saving force.

Adjusting to the new normal

Renee Welch, 34, of Toronto, Ontario was diagnosed with Crohn’s when she was nine years old. Getting an ostomy was a life or death decision for her. She knew the life she was currently living wasn’t what she was destined for and ultimately the choice was out of her hands.

“The hardest part of having an ostomy was recovery. It’s a long process that is not progressive. Mine took three months until I was able to feel like myself and even after that my energy was not the same until six months down the road. Recovery is something you can try to mentally prepare for, but you never know.”

Natasha Weinstein, 28, of Connecticut was diagnosed with Crohn’s at age 11. She can still remember feeling that tug on her skin and not knowing if the bag was going to randomly fall off. Eight years later, she’s still impressed with how strong the adhesive is! One of her main struggles was adjusting to her new self-image.

“No longer would I have a “flat” right side when I looked in the mirror, in fact I was always going to have this device protruding and as a college student and a young adult that’s a lot to adjust to.”

Payge Duerre, 21, of Iowa, was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis in 2003 at age 5. Her advice—not to think of your entire life as the first couple months after surgery.

“The first couple months can be shitty. More pain, more recovery, less muscle, new foods, new clothes. The entirety of ostomate life is not like that. My first three months post op were spent relearning life. But now I’m two years post op. I’ve already re-taught my body, but I’m always constantly learning new tips or tricks from other ostomates to make life easy.”

Advice for those who need an ostomy

Ashley Clark, 27, of British Columbia, was diagnosed with Crohn’s when she was 19. Her main piece of advice, “If you’re at a point where you are contemplating ostomy surgery, get it sooner rather than later. Waiting until getting my ostomy was a matter of life or death is one of my biggest regrets. It took me so much longer to recover because I let myself get so sick before I would agree to it. Looking back, I think, wow my life is so much better now, if only I had known it would be and agreed sooner.”

Tionna Forchion, 32, of New Jersey, was diagnosed with Crohn’s when she was 13 years old. She ended up getting an emergency colostomy after a bowel obstruction, so she wasn’t able to mentally prepare for the everything that came her way. Tionna says she was angry at first and cried for days, but as time passed so did her acceptance for how having a bag saved her life.

“My advice for anyone on the verge of getting a bag or needing one is that there is life after getting an ostomy. So many times, people say they don’t want a bag because they assume there will be so many things they can no longer do and that is so false. You can still travel, swim, go to college, have kids, get married and do everything a person without a bag can do.”

Gaylyn Henderson, 36, of Atlanta, Georgia, was diagnosed with Crohn’s at age 14 and has a permanent ileostomy. She says at times with chronic illness you can’t help but wonder if there is anyone out there who really understands what you’re going through, but that there is.

“You need to meet them, and you need to seek them out to know that what you are feeling is not unusual. The feelings you have are very real and it’s not out of the ordinary to be feeling that way. You are not crazy, your life is. There is an importance to building a fellowship of those that can relate to what you are going through. It is imperative to know you are not alone. You may not go through the exact same circumstances, you may not have the same diagnosis, but chances are you have similar experiences and can relate more than you realize. You need to know that what you are going through you will get through.”

Stay tuned for Part 2 of “So, You Have An Ostomy…”, Wednesday (September 23rd) we’ll cover diet recommendations, how to pack when you’re traveling, and how best to change your bag.

Thrive with IBD: My latest podcast interview

Her name is Natalie. She was diagnosed with IBD at age 21. She has a blog. It may sound like I’m talking about myself, but I’m talking about a friend I’ve connected with online! Natalie Kelley (@plentyandwellwithnat) and I started following one another on Instagram several months back and came to realize how similar our patient journeys have been. Screen Shot 2019-12-28 at 1.36.32 PMShe has ulcerative colitis and I have Crohn’s. She is 24 and I’m 36. But, our lookout on life and our interest in bringing comfort and serving as a positive voice for the community is the same.

Being diagnosed at age 21 is a difficult time in life. You’re at a crossroads from being a kid to a young adult. You’re navigating the next chapter of life and looking to start your career. We relate on how IBD stopped us both in our tracks in that pivotal moment and how far we’ve both come since.

Natalie launched her podcast, Thrive with IBD, in 2017. Her hope is to end the stigma around chronic illness and show that you’re never alone in your struggles or experiences. As a wellness blogger and a holistic health coach, Natalie works tirelessly to educate others about navigating life, love, and everything in between, while living with IBD. Today (December 30th) you can check out her latest episode. She interviewed yours truly. When she asked me to be on her show, I was so honored, as I’ve admired her work from afar for a while.

We talked about what dating, marriage and being a mom is like with IBD. I am the first IBD mom she had on the show! Interestingly, Natalie’s mom was diagnosed with Crohn’s at age 16. DSC03601So not only does she have her own personal patient experience, but she’s been a part of a family unit who’s dealt with the ups and downs her whole life. It was emotional for me as an IBD mom, to hear firsthand from a 20-something about what it was like to not only grow up with a mom who has Crohn’s, but later be diagnosed with IBD herself.

Click here to check out the episode.

With nearly 40,000 Instagram followers, Natalie has quite the following. What always amazes me is how present and genuine she is. She responds to comments both publicly and privately, her content is well thought out and impactful.

“Each day I get to wake up and get to use my story to help other women with IBD. I get to connect with chronic illness warriors around the world. I get to use the pain and grief I’ve endured to help heal others’ pain and grief, even if just a little bit.”

Screen Shot 2019-12-28 at 1.37.22 PMIf you’re looking to follow someone who is sure to lift your spirits and make you feel empowered, she’s your girl. When I chatted with her on the phone, I told her how much I look up to her for her advocacy work, despite being 12 years older!

As we gear up for 2020, the start of a new decade, and a new year, it’s our hope that you focus on self-love and embrace who you are, despite your IBD. As Natalie says, “There are ebbs and flows in this journey of mine and I’ve learned to take them as they come. I’ve learned to soak up every second of the good moments and give myself grace during the hard ones. I’ve learned to stand up for myself, be my biggest advocate and put myself first.”

Natalie and I both say that if we were given the option to get rid of our IBD diagnosis that we wouldn’t. We both feel we were put on this path for a reason and that our diseases have shaped us into who we are today. I hope that if you’re reading this, and you’re newly diagnosed, knowing that brings you comfort and peace of mind. IBD is not your identity, it’s a part of you, but it’s not all of you. Natalie and I can assure you of that.

 

Why Crohn’s is the gift that keeps on giving

When you think about your IBD, chances are many thoughts race through your mind. This holiday season, I started thinking about how Crohn’s is the immaterial gift that keeps on giving. I know, it sounds crazy. But hear me out.

The unpredictability and uncertainty of IBD has forced me to live in the moment and stop worrying about tomorrow and the future. IMG_0597

The pain, setbacks, and flare ups have provided me with perspective and empathy for others that’s only possible when you live with chronic illness.

The fatigue reminds me of the importance of slowing down, not pushing myself too hard, and practicing self-care.

The ups and downs and in between have given me an innate truth serum about other people’s intentions and character and allowed me to know who I can truly count on.

The side effects of steroids and the scars left behind from my bowel resection and c-sections have humbled me.

The dark moments that tried to break me have instead showed me that God truly does give his toughest lessons to his greatest teachers.

The hatred I felt for my body through the years (especially my abdomen) disappeared the moment I became pregnant and watched my body transform to bring two healthy babies into this world. santa with the kids

The hospitalizations that have tried to break me have forced me to bounce back and be stronger physically and mentally than I was before.

The initial years of isolation when I kept my patient journey under wraps led me to go out on a limb, share my story, and feel the support both near and far from a community that’s like family.

It’s taken me nearly 15 years to think this way about my disease, about my reality. I’m not trying to sugar coat or diminish the seriousness of IBD, but instead share my mindset and how I choose to take on Crohn’s disease. Yes, some days are terrible. IMG_6855Yes, there have been times when everything felt heavy and bleak. Yes, there are still times I feel sorry for myself. But those days are far outnumbered by the joy-filled, happy days I choose to focus on.

My hope for you this holiday season is that you’re able to pause and embrace the hand of cards you’ve been dealt and think about all you’re capable of, all you’ve accomplished, and all that lies ahead. Give yourself credit for all you do today and tomorrow, all you’ve endured in the past, and all you’ll overcome in the future.

 

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.