The mental health burden of IBD and coping through community and therapy

When you live with chronic illness, you experience a wide range of emotions and personal experiences that shape you. Life can feel like an uncertain rollercoaster ride, you never know when the next twist or turn is going to happen. This week on Lights, Camera, Crohn’s, 21-year-old Parsa Iranmahboub, candidly shares the mental health burden that IBD brings upon a patient. Diagnosed with Crohn’s when he was only eight years old, Parsa shares the perspective of what it’s like to be a pediatric patient who has grown into adulthood. He’s currently a student at UCLA and the Education Chair for the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation’s National Council of College Students.

Parsa explains the psychosocial component of life with Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis by breaking it down to anxiety, embarrassment, guilt, and loneliness. He recently spoke about this at the Crohn’s and Colitis Congress as well as on IBD Patient Insider and his powerful words resonated with me and I know they will with you, too. Here’s Parsa’s breakdown of the IBD patient experience:

Anxiety: Being a bathroom disease, there is often the anxiety of whether a patient has easy accessibility to a restroom when they are out. But there can also be anxiety related to a patient’s diet. When I was younger, I was placed on a low sodium diet due to one of my medications. If I wanted to eat out with family or friends, there would be this anxiety of whether I could even eat anything from the restaurant. There’s also the anxiety that stems from extra-intestinal manifestations. I have a history of developing fistulas. And during my sophomore year of college, my labs were not looking too good, I was flaring a little bit, and I began to worry if this meant I would develop another fistula. I began to wonder how I would deal with a fistula as a college student. How would another flare up affect my grades and my ability to get my work done? I lived in a communal style dorm, so how would a sitz bath even work? Essentially, with anxiety there can be this fear of the disease taking over my life and how can I constantly accommodate it.

Embarrassment: Embarrassment can arise in numerous forms. For one, there’s the poo taboo. But there can also be embarrassment from when you are flaring. From when you are losing weight, when you no longer look healthy, when you now look “sick.” There are the side effects from medications. From when you begin to gain weight, develop acne, and now have that dreaded moon face. Let’s not forget the impact of extra-intestinal manifestations. In 6th grade, I had surgery for a perianal fistula. After the surgery, I had to wear tighty whities with a maxi pad to help absorb the pus. It would be an understatement to describe how much I began to despise physical education. Not because I had to exercise and run around. No, I was always too active of a kid to hate PE. But because we had to change into our uniforms during the beginning of class. And I was embarrassed to be in the locker room. I was embarrassed that everyone else would look cool with their boxers, but here I was with my tighty whities and a maxi pad. And it might sound ridiculous, almost like a scene taken from the “Diary of the Wimpy Kid”, but to my sixth-grade self, looking cool and being like everyone else mattered.

Guilt: There is often the guilt of feeling like a burden for others. That others have to not only be flexible with you but that they need to make accommodations because of you. “Oh, you all want to go hiking, well I can’t because there’s no accessible bathroom.” “Oh, you all want to eat at this place, actually can we go somewhere else where I can better tolerate the food?” There can even be instances where you feel guilt for believing that you no longer are a good friend. That since you have to refuse to hang out with friends because of fatigue or pain, your friends probably think you simply don’t enjoy hanging out with them. But there can also be guilt from a non-compliant label. When I was younger, I would receive weekly injections. Soon, I began to throw up after every injection. My doctor switched me to the pill version, but it would still make me feel incredibly nauseous. So much so, that I would refuse to touch the pills. Instead, I would take the pill container, open the lid, slowly pour the pills into the lid, pour too many, attempt to pour the extra pills from the lid back to the container, and once again pour too many pills back. It was a whole process. But I simply refused to touch the pills.

Well, it shouldn’t be a surprise that eventually I became non-compliant. Consequently, I switched medications and soon developed acute pancreatitis. At the onset of my symptoms, I was out of the house and had to call my dad to pick me up because I was continuing to throw up blood. And in the car, I told him “Dad, I think I’m going to die.” Thankfully, it was an over exaggeration. But at that moment, it wasn’t.

Parsa with his parents.

Now that I reflect on the moment, not only do I feel guilty for putting myself through that situation, but for also putting my family through that. I can’t imagine being a father and hearing your son tell you those words. And all of this happened because I couldn’t get myself to take those stupid pills. So, not only was I labeled as a non-compliant patient, a patient who was too immature to take his medications, but I was now also a patient who had “hurt” his family.

Loneliness: IBD is an invisible disease. You might look at a person and not realize they are living with a chronic illness. The invisibility is both the disease’s blessing and curse. There have been so many instances where I’ve been happy to have the ability to put on a mask and pretend that everything is okay. That my friends and peers do not have to associate me with a “disease,” a connotation that I despise so much that I often introduce my chronic illness as Crohn’s and not Crohn’s disease. However, because of the invisibility, the disease can feel extremely isolating. You might not know anyone else who can relate to your experiences/feelings. In fact, despite being diagnosed at a young age, for almost a decade I refused to share my story with friends and those close to me. It wasn’t until I met an IBD patient for the first time who was my age that I began to realize the importance of a shared community.

Dr. Tiffany Taft , PsyD, MIS, a Research Assistant Professor at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, spoke alongside Parsa during that Crohn’s and Colitis panel about Mental Health as it relates to IBD. As a Crohn’s patient of 19 years herself, she offers a unique perspective for her patients. I asked her when an IBD patient expresses these feelings of anxiety, embarrassment, guilt, and loneliness how she helps people deal with the struggles.

“The first thing I do is simply listen and reflect to the person my understanding without advice or judgement. It’s important to let someone tell their story before interjecting with any sort of interpretation or the like. Then, I start with some education about how our thoughts affect how we feel and how we behave. And that these thoughts are often on autopilot or may feel like they’re on an infinite loop and impossible to turn off,” explained Dr. Taft. “My goal is to help the patient understand their thinking and learn to slow it down and take a step back from their thoughts to be able to evaluate them, and maybe either change them or not let them have as much power.”

She went on to say that from there her and her patients tie their thoughts into other symptoms like anxiety, shame, or guilt, to see patterns and opportunities for change.

“It’s not an easy process, but most people can succeed. Loneliness has been harder during the pandemic. Social distancing has created a lot of isolation without an easy solution. I encourage staying connected via video chat, texting, and social media (so long as it’s not stressful!) People say that online interactions aren’t as fulfilling, and that’s probably true. But if I shift my thoughts from this negative lens to a more positive perspective, then it can help offset some of that loneliness until we can all be together again.”

The Decision to Open Up

It takes time and patience for many of us to come to terms with our diagnosis and decide how we want to present our experience to the world. For both Parsa and me, it took us a decade to take off our proverbial masks and share our reality with those around us. Parsa says he decided to share his patient journey at the end of freshman year of college after he joined a research lab at the UCLA Center for Inflammatory Bowel Diseases. He met someone for the first time who was his age and had IBD.

“When I was talking with her, this sort of light bulb just sparked. I realized I could connect with this person in a way I couldn’t have connected with anyone else before. She truly understood the challenges I was facing or had faced. Not from a scientific or “oh, I see” perspective, but from a “oh, I know cause you’re not alone” perspective. This connection was essentially my first exposure to the IBD community, and slowly, I began to become more involved in the community.”

The Power of Connecting with the IBD Community

Parsa went from forming his first spin4 team to joining the National Council of College Leaders to becoming more involved with his local chapter in California. He then started a local support network for college students on the UCLA campus. His advice for patients and caregivers—find a support network within the IBD community.

Foundation of National Council of College Leaders (NCCL)—this group of college students from across the United States volunteers with the Foundation to provide a distinct voice for young adults with IBD. Members also connect on how IBD affects them as students, athletes, and partners in a relationship, the intersectionality that stems from a patient’s identity, and tips for having an ostomy bag, reducing stress through coping mechanisms, and applying for accommodations at school.

Parsa also co-founded IBDetermined at UCLA, a student organization geared towards providing a support network and advocacy-centered space for UCLA students with IBD.

“Even though there are some amazing national and local support groups, we noticed that there was a gap for local resources that focused specifically on the intersection between being a college student and an IBD patient. Hence, we wanted to create that more local space, where individuals could address their specific questions/concerns/thoughts relating to being an IBD college student at UCLA. It’s a space where our members can learn about accommodations that are available through our university’s Center for Accessible Education, can exchange tips and advice for navigating schoolwork and college life with IBD, can express their frustrations about the disease or the lack of university resources, and can share where the best and cleanest bathrooms are located on campus.”

Parsa says growing up with Crohn’s made him responsible at a young age. He learned about resilience. He learned to embrace the obstacles he has hurdled and to keep on pushing through even when he couldn’t immediately see the light at the end of the tunnel. Parsa says he learned to appreciate the time he felt healthy enough to live life not controlled by a chronic illness. Through the years he’s realized you can still be fortunate through a misfortune. This belief has given him a strong appreciation to make the most of the opportunities that come his way and refuse to take the easy way out.

Halloween Happenings and IBD: Advice from GI’s and parents of pediatrics

Halloween is extra scary this year for all the wrong reasons. It’s especially challenging for children with IBD who are immunocompromised. This week on Lights, Camera, Crohn’s I share input and advice from several gastroenterologists about everything from trick-or-treating to flu season, along with the game plan four IBD families have in place for the holiday. Much like anything with this pandemic, we’re trying to do the best we can to live, while also staying safe.

As an IBD mom myself, I’m still conflicted about how best to celebrate Halloween with my kids this year. We have their costumes, and the house is decorated festively, but I’m extremely hesitant to allow my 3.5-year-old son to get candy from strangers in the middle of a pandemic. Our game plan is to hang out with my sister-in-law’s family as we do every year. I’ve been inspired by how fellow IBD families are creatively adapting and making adjustments to celebrate. I think you will be, too.

Nicole’s daughter Addy is 15 and has Crohn’s disease. She’s on Humira. Nicole said her family already had a little “pow wow” to discuss Halloween and how it was going to be this year. They’ve decided to celebrate over the span of two days by doing the following:

  • Making Halloween Gingerbread houses
  • Decorating Halloween Cookies
  • Having a glow in the dark scavenger hunt (The lights in the house will be out, the kids will have glow sticks/flashlights and they will have to use clues to find their bags of Halloween décor. With the bags of décor, each child will create a mini haunted house in their bedroom and go “trick or treating” to the different bedrooms and experience their siblings’ haunted house.
  • On Halloween night Nicole is going to make a Halloween-themed dinner
  • The family will watch Blair Witch Project

Nicole says being immunocompromised through COVID has been incredibly challenging for her daughter. She says they are trying to balance everything so that Addy doesn’t fully resent her disease.

“She sees that her friends are hanging out together, not social distancing, and not getting sick. We have had many moments filled with tears and frustration and we are doing the best we can to try and offer social interactions in the safest ways. But, she is a teen…and the efforts are hardly enough. Halloween this year is something my kids are all excited about, but it’s the day-to-day stuff that is most challenging through the pandemic.”

Ebony’s 14-year-old son, Jamar, is on Remicade infusions to manage his Crohn’s disease. Jamar was diagnosed with IBD when he was nine. He’s now a freshman in high school and attending school daily in-person for half a day with the hopes of making the basketball team.

“Even though Jamar is attending school, we decided as a family that we are not going to do anything for Halloween this year. We also plan to celebrate the holidays at home, to keep on the safe side. Since he was diagnosed with IBD and expressed sadness that he didn’t understand why he had to have this illness, I’ve explained to him that we’ll get through this together and that I’ll always support him—and that hasn’t changed through this pandemic,” said Ebony.

Paulina’s nine-year-old son, Grayson, also has Crohn’s. He’s on Pentasa, Entocort, and Omeprazole to manage it. She says her family plans to dress up in costumes as usual. Grayson is going to be Bowser from Super Mario Brothers. They have tickets for a drive through Halloween event at the community center by their home in California. Paulina says even though they have to stay in the car this year, Grayson and his sister are still excited to see all the decorations and participate in the scavenger hunt.

“We also plan on faux trick or treating, where we still go out and walk around our neighborhood and enjoy spotting cool decorations, BUT I will bring a bag of goodies and little prizes. For every few houses we walk by, they’ll get a surprise goodie put into their bag. Grayson will be able to go through his “loot” once we’re back home. I’m sure we’ll watch Nightmare Before Christmas (it’s a family favorite). Halloween falls on a Saturday and on a full moon…how could we possibly miss the nightly walk?”

Paulina says Grayson often feels frustrated when the topic of “being immunocompromised” comes up, but that he understands they are being overly cautious for his own health and that of others.

Cindy’s 10-year-old daughter, Jean, has Crohn’s disease and is on weekly Humira injections. She says Jean is in that interesting phase of childhood where she still kind of wants to go trick-or-treating, but also feels like she’s outgrowing it or too cool for that. This year, Jean is going to attend a small outdoor get-together on Halloween night with four classmates. It’s important to note—Jean has been attending 5th grade—in-person, five days a week since August.

“The kids will make s’mores and pizza and watch a spooky kid movie on an outdoor screen. Because she and her friends are in the same classroom “pod” and she spends more waking hours with these classmates than she does in our own home, we are accepting of her celebrating with them.”

Cindy says Jean’s friends and their families have been extremely accommodating to her immunocompromised status throughout the pandemic.

“When she has visited their homes or on limited occasions shared a carpool, these families have been careful to pursue a combination of exclusive outdoor time, mask-wearing, windows down on car rides, pre-packaged or restaurant carry-out snacks and meals, and having freshly cleaned bathrooms dedicated for guests’ use. Other parents proactively talk through risk mitigation and I couldn’t appreciate them more for their thoughtfulness. Immunocompromised or not, we all share similar concerns during COVID.”

Cindy went on to say she thinks Jean will trick-or-treat with her five-year-old brother at a few of their next door neighbors’ houses. They live in Indianapolis and trick-or-treating is “not recommended” by the county health department there, but she expects many of her neighbors will still be handing out candy.

“I also intend to hand out candy from our driveway, so long as trick or treaters or their parents are wearing face masks. This follows our family’s general approach on life during COVID: we are more concerned about “shared air” than we are about surfaces. We believe (and science indicates) surface infection can be largely addressed through handwashing. Because trick or treating can occur in outdoor spaces, we feel somewhat comfortable with that – balanced with the fact that while we are extremely concerned about COVID and have taken all precautions since March – we strive for an ounce of normalcy. There are enough parts of Jean’s life that are not typical due to living with Crohn’s Disease – whenever we can control any part of her life feeling “normal” we make every effort to do so. This was the case before COVID and will remain so afterward.”

Cindy says she reminds her daughter they are doing everything they can to protect her health, while also doing their best to ensure Jean can pursue all the parts of her life that bring her joy. It’s not an easy tightrope to walk, and as an adult with IBD, my hat truly goes off to parents trying to navigate these unforeseen times for their children.

What Gastroenterologists are recommending for Halloween and beyond

Dr Miguel Regueiro, M.D., Chair, Department of Gastroenterology, Hepatology, and Nutrition, at the Cleveland Clinic says he thinks it’s important for people to “live” and be with family and friends. He has a few tips and tricks (or treats!). (His joke, I can’t take credit!)

“For outside events or walking the neighborhood, this is probably the safest as we are learning that open air events are the least likely for transmission of COVID. At the same time, I would still practice wearing masks, social distancing, and practicing good handwashing. Avoid personal contact, shaking hands, hugging, etc.”

For those distributing candy, Dr. Regueiro says it would be prudent to wear gloves (nitrile gloves or similar) to avoid directly touching the candy. Out of abundance of caution, he said it would be reasonable to also wear gloves to unwrap the candy.

“Regarding trick or treating in malls or confined spaces, this would be less optimal than open air. Masks, social distancing, and hand hygiene is a must. Parties or gatherings in houses should follow the guidance of local health advice. Some parts of the country may have a much lower rate of COVID. Overall, though, I would avoid close gatherings in enclosed spaces, which means avoiding these parties, especially if immunocompromised.”

Dr. Regueiro wants to mention that the IBD Secure Registry is finding that IBD patients on immunosuppressive agents/biologics are NOT at increased risk of contracting COVID. He says while this news can be comforting, it may also be that those with IBD on these types of medications have been extra cautious.

“Everyone should get the flu shot. Getting influenza may mimic symptoms of COVID, and influenza is also a very serious virus. We think getting influenza and COVID could be even more dangerous. Getting plenty of sleep, staying well hydrated, eating healthy, and exercising are also important for the immune system and health. Don’t let yourself get run down.”

Dr. Anil Balani, M.D., Director, Inflammatory Bowel Disease Program for Capital Health Center for Digestive Health in New Jersey does not recommend indoor Halloween parties either, even if kids and parents are wearing masks (whether it’s part of the costume or a regular mask).

“With indoor settings it is hard to control the ventilation settings which could potentially increase the risk of airborne transmission, and furthermore many kids may find it difficult to breath indoors with a mask on.”

Dr. Balani says trick or treating, if it’s limited to outside, is probably ok. Although kids should wear masks when doing so.

“Children can trick or treat with their parents or siblings instead of a group of large friends, unless they are with a small group of friends that are in their “pods,” or groups of friends whose parents have been very careful with all COVID related precautions the entire time. Parents of immune compromised kids can also pick up the treats for the kids.”

Along with maintaining proper handwashing and social distancing precautions, Dr. Balani advises everyone to get the flu shot, unless there are medical contradictions. He recommends taking a healthy dose of vitamins including Vitamin C and zinc and continue to stay on top of all your IBD medical care to keep your disease managed and under control the best you can.

“The SECURE-IBD registry has shown us that people who are in the midst of an IBD flare are at high risk for complications from COVID should they contract the virus. On the other hand, if one is in remission, they are likely to have a better outcome from the virus, regardless of which IBD medical therapy they are on.”

When it comes to celebrating Halloween with his own family Dr. Balani and his wife have a few tricks up their sleeves. Instead of typical door to door trick or treating, they plan to set up an outdoor movie night with Halloween-themed movies, have an outdoor candy/treat hung similar to an Easter egg hunt with family and/or a close knit group of friends, host an outdoor pumpkin carving party, and have a backyard costume/glow dance party.

And don’t feel like you need to throw out your kids’ Halloween candy! Studies suggest that the SARS-COV2 virus may not be infectious on surfaces for too long. If there are doubts or concerns, Dr. Balani recommends leaving the candy out for a few days to allow any virus particles to die. Parents can also open the wrappers for their kids.

Dr. Maria Oliva-Hemker, M.D., Director, Division of Pediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology, and Nutrition at Johns Hopkins suggests for families to look for other creative ways of celebrating Halloween this year, regardless of whether a child has IBD or not.

She recommends:

  • Virtual costume parties
  • Halloween movie or craft night
  • Making special Halloween-themed treats at home
  • Outdoor costume parades where physical distancing is possible
  • Checking to see if the local zoo or other outdoor venues in the area are sponsoring a safe, community event, following social distance guidelines.

“Those who hand out treats on Halloween will hopefully wear face coverings and model safe behaviors. If you are trick or treating, consider going to a smaller number of homes compared to past years,” said Dr. Oliva-Hemker.

Prior to making Halloween plans, Dr. Oliva-Hemker says families should be aware of the levels of COVID cases in their communities, as well as where their family members are coming from.

“For example, if they are coming in, or coming from a hot zone, they may want to consider holding a virtual event or be absolutely sure that they follow known guidelines for safety (masks, handwashing, physical distancing).”

She also says she can’t stress enough that this virus can be controlled in our society—other countries have been able to get a handle on things by people following public health guidelines.

“The virus does not know your political, religious or other affiliation—as a physician my hope is that our country pays more attention to what reputable scientists and public health experts are telling us. Taking care of this virus will also get the country back on track economically.”

Handling Halloween When You’re an Immunocompromised Parent

Mom (and dad!) guilt throughout this pandemic has reared its ugly head a few times especially if you live with a chronic illness and are immunocompromised. The last thing I want is for my kids to miss out on fun and experiences because of my health condition.

Dr. Harry Thomas, M.D., Austin Gastroenterology, says, “For parents with IBD, taking children trick-or-treating outdoors – while maintaining social distance, wearing face coverings, using hand sanitizer, and avoiding large gatherings – is, in my opinion, a reasonable option, provided they are not on steroids. However, I would recommend avoiding indoor gatherings, especially without masks, given the rising case numbers in many areas now.”

Along with receiving the flu shot, Dr. Thomas recommends IBD parents to talk with their IBD provider about the two pneumococcal (pneumonia) vaccines, Pneumovax and Prevnar 13.

Navigating the upcoming holiday season in November and December

Halloween is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the holiday season. There’s no doubt this will be an extremely hard time for us all.

“This is normally a time to celebrate with friends and family. But with the COVID pandemic, unfortunately things cannot be the same. This will be especially difficult for those of us living in the cooler climates where the tendency is to go indoors. For any potential indoor gatherings, it would be ideal to limit the number of people to allow safe social distancing. I would encourage families that are planning on staying together multiple days to consider getting tested for COVID before getting together,” said Dr. Balani. 

Growing through the grief of COVID-19: Love, A mom with daughters recently diagnosed with Crohn’s

Life was much different for Michelle Manasseh and her family of Orange County, California, one year ago. For starters, her daughters had not been diagnosed with IBD and we weren’t living in the middle of a global pandemic. This week, Michelle shares what it’s like being a parent of two kids newly diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease, while trying to navigate everything that is COVID-19.

It hasn’t even been nine months since Eve (age 11) and Ruthie (age 9), BOTH of our kids, were diagnosed with Crohn’s, and BOOM—COVID-19 happens! So yeah, let’s pile pandemic on top of chronic illness, on top of school being cancelled indefinitely, on top of no contact with any. other. human. soul. for. weeks. on. end. What do we call this? Grief. 5EEF5B29-5EB9-407F-9154-F708F04B5F38

There’s no other name for it. Our whole culture is grieving. One important lesson that the kids’ diagnosis has taught me is how to grieve. And I mean how to really grieve. Parents of kids with IBD know a thing or two about grief. We went through it when our kid was diagnosed, when the next kid was diagnosed, when the flare hit, when the medication changed, when the game plan failed. It comes in waves and it comes out of nowhere.

Our culture has taught us to numb and distract – don’t do it! Don’t miss the chance to be refined by the pandemic fire. Yeah, it’s uncomfortable, but we need to let ourselves feel emotions so we can come through this with true peace and wisdom. If we avoid the fire or pretend it isn’t there, we are doing ourselves – and our kids – a disservice. We need to teach them that grieving is normal and ok. It’s ok to cry. It’s ok to be angry. It’s ok to be sad. We need to remind them that we are all feeling the same things and we will get through it together.

We can’t fix this

Something I realized pretty quickly after my girls were diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease is that I couldn’t fix it. There wasn’t a single special diet, mix of herbs, supplements, exercise, tincture, oil, weed, seed, handstand, or flip that could fix it. And this was a painful truth to learn. As a parent, our natural instinct is to fix things for our kids. We’re stocked with band aids, kisses, and unsolicited advice.

Crohn’s is beyond my control. This has been very humbling for me. Likewise, COVID-19 is humbling our culture. I think it’s revealing a huge blind spot. With the rise of self-proclaimed health experts and medical misinformation circulating broadly across our connected culture, people have believed that they can fix all their own medical problems. Now that blindness is obvious. Just as IBD is not a stomach ache, COVID-19 is not a common cold. We can’t fix it. People are feeling helpless and turning to doctors in desperation. I hope a silver lining is that it invigorates the medical profession and brings to our culture a profound respect for doctors, nurses, and all healthcare workers.

Uncertainty illuminates

For the first time in several decades, the whole world is living under a bleak cloud of uncertainty because of COVID-19. A similar dark cloud rolled over our home last summer when Eve and Ruthie were diagnosed with Crohn’s. I learned that with great uncertainty comes deep discomfort. It forces us down tunnels of self-examination, to take stock of our lives and our purpose. It illuminates our utter dependence on God.

Crisis also has a way of illuminating our deep-seated motivations. Who are we seeing on TV and across social media lately? People with the purest motivations. Doctors. Actors reading sonnets and bedtime stories. Public officials creating guidelines to protect us. Musicians playing across balconies. This is a great teaching moment for our kids. Become a financial advisor to help people. Be a writer to reveal truth. An artist to bring joy. A doctor to bring healing. A musician to bring beauty. An actor to tell stories that need to be told.

What can we do?

Parents – we are navigating a global pandemic with immunosuppressed kids with chronic illness. Let’s be honest, we have massive fears. I had to bring Eve in for an MRI two weeks ago. In my mind, the machine was basically a plastic tube crawling with yellow spindly germs. Never mind a mask – why didn’t someone plastic wrap my child?!? IMG_8604

We are dealing with a heck of a lot, and none of us is perfect. I’m quite certain that my kids will never again ask to be home schooled. The main skill we’ve mastered so far is how to do a Zoom conference while driving to infusions! On Friday night I sipped wine while the girls smeared Nutella on crackers after eating only half of their dinner. Two days later I inadvertently put Eve’s daily Miralax in Ruthie’s water bottle. (Oh gosh, is she flaring!?!) I, for one, would relish a shirt that says “WORK IN PROGRESS” printed in bold neon letters.

No, we aren’t perfect, but we do have something to give. We have a unique perspective and experience. We can be a voice. More importantly, we can be an ear—for our kids and for others. Call a friend and listen. Tell people the good things you’re thinking about them. Tell them you love them. And very importantly, take the time to thank your kids’ teachers, doctors, and nurses for all they have done and continue to do—they are real life heroes.

 

My five year old has Crohn’s and was tested for COVID-19: A Mother’s story

UPDATE: Since this story was shared on March 30th, Jadyn’s COVID-19 test came back. After two weeks of waiting, the test came back positive.

Imagine your 14-month-old baby being diagnosed with Crohn’s disease. That was the reality for Anna and Jon Richt of Georgia. Fast forward a few years and their daughter, Jadyn, is now five years old and thriving with IBD. This past week though, the Richt family had quite a scare. E06A1215Jadyn woke up with a fever and a slight cough. Given the craziness of the times we live in right now, they immediately called the COVID-19 hotline. Once the person on the other line heard about Jadyn’s health history and the fact she is immunocompromised, they agreed, Jadyn needed to be seen. In urgent care, Jadyn was tested for the flu, strep throat, and COVID-19. The Richt’s were told they would have a test result in five days, it’s been more than a week now, and still no result.

Prior to all the discussion on social distancing and sheltering in place, Anna and Joe had traveled domestically. Family members who had been staying in their home had recently traveled internationally. Anna says, “The strep test came back positive, which gave us a sense of relief. But it didn’t cancel the possibility of COVID-19. We have been watching her closely, ready to sound the alarm at any sign of health deterioration. Thankfully, she is feeling much better and I believe she is bouncing back to her normal self.”

What’s it like to raise a daughter with IBD from such a young age? Jadyn has a G-tube, and Anna is passionate about spreading awareness about feeding tubes to educate others. E06A1193I’ll allow Anna to take you back to the beginning, so you can have a better grasp of their ongoing journey and how it’s brought them to where they are today.

Seeing blood when my baby was six months old

I started seeing blood in Jadyn’s stool when she was around six weeks old and immediately called her pediatrician. He chalked it up to a couple of things, mostly related to breastfeeding issues and didn’t seem too concerned. When she was eight months old, my husband’s job moved us far away from family and her symptoms worsened. Her new pediatrician was concerned about her weight loss and sent us to the hospital for further testing.

A colonoscopy showed lesions all throughout her GI tract. Crohn’s disease was mentioned but the gastroenterologist was hesitant to diagnose it because of Jadyn’s young age. I did exactly what they say not to do and Googled Crohn’s Disease. The symptoms were spot on: “Bloody stools, persistent diarrhea, vomiting, loss of appetite, weight loss.” I’m not sure I’ve ever told anyone this, but deep down, I knew.

Dealing with the diagnosis

The diagnosis eventually came when Jadyn was 14 months old. fullsizeoutput_38f9The first couple years were nothing short of a dog fight. I remember sitting in my sister’s living room after an appointment when all of the sudden the doctor’s number popped up on my phone. She was calling to say that Jadyn’s lab results didn’t look good and we needed to head to the hospital right away.

My sister and I sat there in disbelief and cried. I remember her saying through her tears, “I feel like you are under attack.” We were. But we fought back. There have been countless doctors’ appointments, feeding tubes, eating therapies, procedures, you name it. She has been a trooper through it all and I am so happy to report that her current medication is working. Thankfully, she is a normal 5-year-old for the most part, which I don’t take for granted.

What has the journey been like for me as her mother?

It’s by far the hardest thing I’ve ever faced in my life. At the beginning I assumed it was something we could easily get under control and move on. I now know it is a marathon race, not a sprint. Watching my child suffer, and not being able to fix the problem despite my best effort made me feel like I was failing her. IMG_6044

It’s been lonely at times. Don’t get me wrong, we have the most amazing family and friends. They have supported us unconditionally every step of the way. But because she was diagnosed so young, we’ve never met another child her age with Crohn’s. I couldn’t call one of my mom friends and ask, “What anti-TNF drug worked for your child?” or “How are you potty training your two-year-old who is flaring?” Instead, we’ve pioneered this head-on, and I’ve completely relied on my faith to get me through. People often say how strong I am, but honestly, I believe it’s God’s strength in me that they see. When I look back on these past five years, I know without a doubt He has carried us. I can honestly say I am proud of the mother I have become due to this disease. I am brave and empathetic. I’ve developed grit and survive on grace.

What I want to say to parents of children with IBD

Take care of yourself. I always think of the airplane safety guide. Secure your oxygen mask before helping others. You cannot fully care for your child if you don’t take care of yourself first. Some days that may mean a 30-minute workout and drinking plenty of water. Other days it’s meeting with a counselor to address the emotional toll the disease has taken.

Let others help. They really want to. Use that time to step away and catch your breath.

See your child for who they are. Your child is more than their disease. They are uniquely designed for a specific purpose.

You can do this. I firmly believe that you were handpicked by God to be your child’s mother.  Continue to advocate and cheer them on. Take it one day at a time.

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Jadyn and her little sister

“And I am certain that God, who began the good work within you, will continue his work until it is finally finished on the day when Christ Jesus returns.” Philippians 1:6

You can follow Anna by checking out her blog: Grit to Grace

Anna’s Instagram: @grit.to.grace

Writing for a reason: IBD Pen Pals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bigger Than Basketball: Taking IBD support to new heights

Loyola University of Chicago Men’s basketball team had a fairytale season last year. There were countless headlines about the Ramblers being THE Cinderella team during March Madness. natalie hayden 5At the time, Nick DiNardi was a senior walk on and served as a scout to prepare players for each game. Aside from his skills on the hardwood, Nick has battled Crohn’s colitis since he was 11.

The diagnosis came at a time when he was enjoying sports and just being a kid. While playing football, he lost around 25 pounds rather abruptly. Along with weight loss, Nick started feeling extremely fatigued, had intense stomach pains, bloody stool and vomiting. About a year after these symptoms persisted and following several tests and scans, Nick received his IBD diagnosis.

“When I was told I had Crohn’s disease, I was not really sure what to think. I had never heard of it and as an 11-year-old, I really turned to my parents to tell me how to handle it. I tried to continue living my active lifestyle, although many times it was very hard. I felt lonely especially because I felt like I was the only person in the world who had this disease. nick and mom, nick sickMy grade school friends had no idea why I was crying in class, oftentimes teasing me while I was in pain,” said Nick. “My parents and siblings were always there to do everything they could to make me feel better, but I just never felt like anyone related to the pain I was in.”

In the 11 years since Nick received his IBD diagnosis, it took him nine years to encounter another person with the disease. He felt isolated and alone in his journey. These feelings inspired him to create a 501 (c)(3) nonprofit called Bigger Than Basketball (BTB) in August 2018.

“The mission of BTB is to raise awareness and funding for research to benefit individuals suffering from Crohn’s Disease and ulcerative colitis. BTB encourages, educates, and mentors individuals affected by these diseases to achieve their goals while managing their illness,” said Nick.natalie hayden 2

One of Nick’s main missions is to make those who are diagnosed with IBD have a solid support system. He hopes BTB will serve as a resource of comfort, a safe space for those in the IBD community to share their stories in order to help others directly or indirectly affected by these diseases. His goal is to create a network of support that allows those of us with IBD to take off our mask and be real about your struggles.

“IBD is a beast of a disease. You can have great days where you feel active and energetic, but you can also have days where you don’t feel like talking or even getting out of bed. With the creation of our network, we want to allow people to express what type of day they are having, so others may be able to relate with their current situation,” explained Nick.

“Bigger Than Basketball is truly an exciting new organization, as one of its key goals is to raise awareness in young persons diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease or ulcerative colitis and show they are not alone,  there are others just like them who understand and are experiencing what they are feeling, and that they can still achieve their dreams with the proper understanding and education about their condition,” said Dr. Russell Cohen, MD, FACG, AGAF.

As a member of the Board of Directors and Director of the Inflammatory Bowel Disease Center at the University of Chicago Medicine, Dr. Cohen believes BTB is truly a unique way to reach young people who need help, while expanding awareness and funding with the aim to conquer these conditions in our lifetime.

It’s Nick’s hope that BTB’s network will serve as a buddy system and provide a safety net for people to fall back on. Along with joining the BTB network, you can volunteer and attend upcoming events or donate to the cause. Nick is also looking for people to join the associate board, preferably those living with IBD. To learn more, email: info@biggerthanbasketball.org. natalie hayden 4

Nick’s IBD has also inspired him to work in the field of medicine, specifically research. He currently works at the University of Chicago with a focus on IBD and Celiac research.

Be sure to show some love to Bigger Than Basketball on social media:

Twitter: BTB_Foundation

Instagram: btb_foundation

Facebook: Bigger Than BasketballFoundation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are your hopes for the future?

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

Advice for newly diagnosed patients?

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

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

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

 

Young IBD patient aspires to become Pediatric GI

Madison Harbison. I’ll always remember the first time our paths crossed. IMG_4983I had just gotten off the stage after speaking at the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation Patient Symposium Event in October. Her and her mom, Michelle, approached me outside of the auditorium. Tears in their eyes. Smiles on their faces. I immediately felt a connection and knew this little girl was something special.

Madison was only three years old when she started experiencing symptoms. Bloody diarrhea was the first indicator. After E.coli and C-diff were ruled out by doctors, this little girl underwent a colonoscopy. Imagine that. Three years old. Drinking the prep. Dealing with everything in the bathroom. And not being able to understand why this was happening or knowing what was wrong with you. Being a little girl, naïve to what it means to have a chronic disease that would be a part of her, for her entire life.

Imagine how overwhelming it felt for her parents. Michelle said it felt like they were torturing their daughter. Madison is now 12 years old. IMG_4985She’s had a total of three colonoscopies, an endoscopy and an MRE. She’s been hospitalized due to flare ups three times. She has three siblings at home, so as she’s in the hospital or going to the doctor, her parents have to care for them as well. There’s a reason for the saying—’it takes a village’… because it really does.

Madison has indeterminate colitis. Her inflammation is centered around her colon. She also battles arthritis that is secondary to her IBD. Just like me, Madison is on Humira injections. Her parents give her the shot—and each time she gets anxious and upset before and after. As a 34-year-old grown woman, I still react the same way at times. So, I can only begin to think what it would feel like for her. Aside from Humira, Madison takes Sulfasalazine, Imuran, Vitamin D, Iron and a multivitamin.

When it comes to advice for fellow parents, Michelle says, “Try to connect with other parents who are going through the same thing. There are “support groups” on Facebook that have helped me so much. Do not give up hope. I have every reason in the world to believe that Madison is going to accomplish everything that she sets out to. This disease is only one part of the amazing person that she is. It does not define her. IMG_4986Also, as a parent of a child with a chronic illness, we are their best advocate. No one knows your child better than you do. If you think that something isn’t quite right, trust your momma instincts!”

When you talk to Madison she radiates strength and resilience. You can see it in her eyes. She’s very mature and well spoken. She says IBD has made her a stronger person. “It’s made me more responsible in the sense of taking my medication, thinking about what foods affect me and always telling my mom if anything is wrong.”

As far as her Humira injection routine (let’s be honest, we all have one!)…her parents take the pen out of the fridge and let it warm up for a few hours, to lessen the sting. Madison likes to use Pinterest on her phone as a distraction. She wipes her leg with the alcohol swab and nods at either her mom or dad so they know to start. IMG_4988Right before the shot, she relaxes her leg, takes a deep breath and pretends she’s anywhere but the living room couch.

Each summer, Madison attends Camp Oasis. It’s a unique experience where kids with IBD have the chance to be on their own, to make decisions and to take responsibility, while being in a safe and compassionate environment. All the campers have IBD. “Camp has really showed me that I am not alone battling this disease. It is the coolest thing to be surrounded by other kids who know and understand what I have experienced.”

Madison doesn’t let her disease hold her down. She’s an avid soccer, basketball and volleyball player. She’s gearing up to take the stage in “Annie” and she excels at dance. This girl does it all.

Guess what she wants to be when she grows up? A Pediatric Gastroenterologist. Madison wants to help kids who are going through what she’s gone through.

madi

Out to lunch with Madi, taking on IBD together one day at a time.

I can without a doubt say, I know she’ll achieve this goal and follow her dream. She’s a true example of an IBD hero. Someone who hasn’t allowed her disease to rule her life. Someone who looks adversity in the face and says ‘not so fast.’ Someone who I admire and look up to, even though she’s more than 20 years younger than me. If you ever need inspiration—think about Madison during that next Humira shot, think about her when you’re taking that dreadful colonoscopy prep, think of her when you’re getting rolled down to that next CT scan. I know I will.