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.