Parenthood when you live with a chronic illness like IBD can make you feel anxious, worried, and uneasy. As an IBD mom of three, I often connect with and share the stories of fellow women with Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis who have brought life into this world, despite their disease.
This week on Lights, Camera, Crohn’s we hear from a soon-to-be IBD Dad, Brad Watson-Davelaar. He was diagnosed with Crohn’s in 2001 at age 17. His name and face may look familiar, as I featured him in an article entitled: IBD Dads: What these patient heroes have to say about fatherhood. In that article, Brad was recently married and discussed his hopes for the future. Those hopes came to fruition, as he and his wife are awaiting the arrival of a baby girl in late June!
Leading up to the pregnancy, Brad was a bit scared of what fatherhood would look like while living with an unpredictable disease. Like many of us, Brad fears when his IBD will rear its ugly head again and cause him not to be as present as he wants to be, hindering his ability to be a “proper teammate” for his wife.
“Prior to my wife being pregnant, I think I was scared. I’ve wanted to be a dad for some time, but with the way my health has been over the last several years, the prospect of having kids while I was in that physical state freaked me out. Not because I didn’t want kids, but because I was worried I wasn’t going to be enough for them.”
Finding out he was going to be a dad
When Brad found out his wife was expecting he was elated. They had been trying for a few months and he was only a couple months post-op from his ileostomy and barbie butt surgery. While Brad knows life as an IBD Dad will have its ups and downs, he knows the highs will far outweigh any of the difficult days.
“I’m so thankful for Shawn, my stoma, for coming in and giving me a new lease on life. I feel ready to tackle this new chapter of our life and all that comes with it. The good, the bad, the ugly, and the beautiful.”
Since he’s lived with IBD for nearly 22 years and has been an ostomate for 6 months, Brad feels his patient journey has conditioned him to deal with the unexpected. He hopes to connect with fellow IBD dads who have paved the way before him and shown all that’s possible.
Discussing IBD with his daughter in the future
As his daughter grows up, Brad plans to be an open book about his battle with Crohn’s.
“I want to help her understand what IBD and ostomies are. Especially ostomies. It will take time, but I believe in being open and not hiding things. I want her to see that my IBD does not define me and show her how important it is to advocate for yourself.”
As Brad and his wife gear up to become a family of three, they are overjoyed and excited about the new chapter in their lives that is about to begin.
“I’ll be there to look after this wee little one, which will fill my heart with warmth. Being able to focus on her achievements will be a brilliant way to get through the rough days. In the past, it was the little things that got me through. Now, I’ll have all the little moments to continually push me.”
His wife, Sydney, feels so lucky to have Brad by her side as they experience this adventure.
“He had struggled so much over the last couple decades, especially these last couple of years and his perseverance and strength through it all makes me know that nothing is too big for him to overcome. I know he is going to be an amazing dad with so much love, nerdiness and laughter. His Crohn’s is a part of him, but his IBD does not define him. I know no matter what we can get through it together. Brad’s last surgery has definitely given him a new lease on life. With a baby on the way, his ostomy will help him be more present, active, playful, adventurous and helpful. I cannot wait to see him hold our little girl for the first time,” she said.
IBD and motherhood can be beautiful, but it can also be extremely complex and complicated. Especially for those who deal with infertility on top of their Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis. As someone who did not have any struggles getting pregnant, I feel it’s extremely important to shed light on the fact that my story, my experience is just that—there are SO many other journeys that need to be shared and heard when it comes to infertility as it relates to IBD.
This week on Lights, Camera, Crohn’s we hear from several women with IBD who juggled their chronic illness while enduring In vitro fertilization (IVF).
Ashley Miller was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease in 2013 when she was 26 years old. As part of her family planning, she discussed her desire to be a mother with her OBGYN. Her doctor told her to give it a go for 6 months and if she didn’t get pregnant, they would start additional testing. Six months passed without a positive pregnancy test. Ashley followed up with her doctor and was diagnosed with bilateral hydrosalpinx (blocked fallopian tubes), because of her Crohn’s.
“Although this diagnosis was upsetting, I was happy to hear that the doctor found a cause for my infertility and that IVF would be a good option for me. I was so lucky to have success with my egg retrieval and subsequent embryo transfers.”
Ashley says IBD prepared her for infertility.
“I’m the type of person who does not like to dwell on issues, I like to take action right away. I am grateful that my IBD was in remission during this time, otherwise, I would not have been able to pursue IVF immediately. I needed clearance from my GI, maternal fetal medicine (MFM) physician, and the reproductive endocrinologist (RE) before starting IVF.”
Ashley is on Stelara and had bowel resection surgery in August 2021. She has a 3-year-old son and a 15-month-old daughter. She intentionally had her children close together thanks to IVF to capitalize on her IBD being in remission.
Jenn Carmichael was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease in 2006 when she was 21 years old. She got married in 2016 but was forced to wait to have kids because she was flaring. She manages her IBD with Stelara and azathioprine. Since her diagnosis she’s underwent an ileocolic resection, a revision, and several incision and drainage procedures (I&D) with setons for perirectal abscesses. Fast forward a few years and she was finally in remission.
Jenn and her husband started trying to conceive. After 6 months she followed up with her GI and consulted with a MFM doctor who specialized in IBD pregnancies.
“My MFM doctor was well versed on all the medications and complications of Crohn’s. He told me that due to my past surgeries if I were to get pregnant, I would need to have it confirmed via ultrasound right away. He explained that due to all the surgeries I’ve had in the abdominal region, that I was at a higher risk of having my fallopian tubes blocked and having an ectopic pregnancy. He also recommended I have a consultation with an RE since we had been trying with no success.”
Jenn underwent a full workup to investigate her hormone levels and had an ultrasound to look at her fallopian tubes. At this point, she was 36 years old. And while her tubes weren’t blocked, she had diminished ovarian reserve. She was told by her care team this was most likely a direct result of all the Crohn’s-related inflammation she had endured.
“Our infertility doctor recommended we start IVF right away. It was a difficult ovary stimulation that lasted much longer than normal (I was on stims for about 28 days vs. the normal 12 days). I wasn’t responding to the stim medications, but I was finally able to make it to the egg retrieval. Unfortunately, when I went in for my egg retrieval, I woke up to devastating news. They were not able to retrieve any eggs. I was heartbroken to say the least. We regrouped with our IVF doctor a week or so later and came up with a new plan.”
Jenn was put on a different medication protocol for the egg stimulation and was even told she should consider donor eggs. She started her second IVF cycle shortly after.
“Just as we started the stimulation phase of the cycle, I got sick with pneumonia and had to cancel the cycle. Then COVID hit about a month later, so all IVF cycles were canceled in my state for the time being. Around July 2020, we were able to try that IVF cycle again, but had to cancel once again due to no response to the stimulation medications.”
At this point Jenn told her RE that she would start to explore the egg donor option, but she wasn’t ready to give up with her own eggs just yet. She tried one last IVF cycle with yet another protocol. One egg was retrieved. The next morning her phone rang, and her heart dropped. Her doctor called to let them know the egg did not fertilize overnight and was abnormal.
Jenn once again re-grouped with her care team. Donor eggs were discussed. A specialized ultrasound showed her fallopian tubes were blocked. She left that appointment with information about an egg donor program, but she wanted to try another cycle with yet another protocol.
“Around the same time, I started to experience pain in my lower right abdominal area. I was admitted to the hospital and was diagnosed with bilateral tubo-ovarian abscesses. The one on the right started to tunnel (create a fistula) towards my sigmoid colon. I was brought to the OR shortly after not knowing if I was going to wake up with one or both fallopian tubes, either ovary or my sigmoid colon. Luckily, I have an amazing colorectal surgeon who’s been part of my team since I was diagnosed with Crohn’s. They did have to remove both fallopian tubes and my right ovary, but my left ovary and sigmoid colon were spared.”
The surgery took a toll on Jenn. Losing both her fallopian tubes, she knew without IVF, she would never be able to get pregnant on her own. During that time, she did a lot of thinking and research about IVF, Crohn’s, and what their future looked like. She also met with a social worker who specialized in infertility to help work through everything she was feeling.
“Once I was healed from surgery and mentally ready, my husband and I decided to pursue IVF using donor eggs. We worked with an egg donor agency to find an egg donor that we liked. After going through the process with all the administrative/legal paperwork and having our donor medically worked up, our donor was able to start the IVF cycle for egg retrieval. The egg retrieval was successful, and we had our first embryo transfer in August 2021. Our first transfer was successful, and I am currently 25 weeks pregnant expecting our first child, our sweet baby boy in May 2022.”
Christina LaDue was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease in 2010 when she was 20. She had a bowel resection at age 23 to remove a fistula and her mom had the foresight to ask that an OB/GYN surgeon be present to ensure there was no damage to her reproductive organs.
“The OB/GYN noted that the inflammation in my pelvis was so great that he could not make a determination about my fertility at that time. When I shared the post-op reports with my PCP, he indicated that because of the noted inflammation I should only wait 6 months (as opposed to the one year that you’re supposed to wait) before pursuing assistance. After getting married and trying for six months I sought a referral to a RE who ran tests and concluded that my tubes were blocked due to scarring from my abdominal surgeries. She had us go right to IVF (as opposed to IUI first).”
Christina started her first round of IVF in November 2018. None of the fertilized embryos made it. She did another round in February 2019 and did a fresh transfer on Day 3, which was also unsuccessful. She did her first frozen embryo transfer (FET) in April 2019 and her son was born in December 2019. When he was 18 months old, she returned to the RE and did another FET in November 2020, which was unsuccessful. With one embryo left, they did an FET in February 2021 and recently welcomed a son to the world in October.
“The most triggering for me is during the initial routine testing via ultrasound my RE found fluid in my abdomen. This was extremely upsetting to me having undergone multiple treatments for recurrent abscesses because of a fistula. I freaked out and paged my GI who ordered a stat MRI. The MRI showed I have endometriosis and hydrosphix (fluid in my tubes) but nothing was wrong with my Crohn’s disease. That said, I was a huge emotional mess waiting for the MRI results and I thought for sure I was rocking another fistula.”
Christina recently started Inflectra (a biosimilar), she was previously on Remicade from September 2013-October 2021.
Megan Picucci was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease in April 2017 when she was 30 years old. After being cleared by her GI and MFM she started trying and got pregnant. Unfortunately, shortly after finding out the news she started bleeding and had an ectopic pregnancy.
“Once I finally got my period in February 2020, I had an hysterosalpingogram (HSG) to check if my tubes were being blocked. It was inconclusive. Luckily, because of my prior abdominal surgery with my IBD and the ectopic pregnancy, I could switch right to IVF. All the bloodwork, shots, etc. was rough but I felt like my Crohn’s journey helped prepare me. I was used to bloodwork, I was used to injections, I had a PICC line at one point, so I was used to mixing meds.”
The first round was promising for Megan and her husband. There were several embryos and her first FET stuck.
“I waited with bated breath. I was sure it was another ectopic for no reason other than I’m not lucky when it comes to health issues. Well, she (though we didn’t know that until delivery) stuck and though I had moments of panic of something bad happening, it didn’t.”
The emotional toll of IBD weighed heavily on her as she prepared to bring a life into this world. She is on Remicade and had emergency bowel resection surgery in April 2017 and the reconnection surgery in July 2017.
“I had a lot of… ‘should I being doing this?’ thoughts. Even though my IBD was under control prior to trying I also knew that could change at any moment. How could I raise a kid with a flare or surgeries and what if I pass my IBD on? But having a great support system made me confident I’d have help if those things occurre. Happy to say my daughter is now 11 months old.”
Jade Fiedler was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease in 2012 at age 22. Jade is on Humira and had an ileocolic resection in July 2015. Her and her husband tried for a baby for one year, but around 7-8 months in she felt something wasn’t right.
“We saw an OB who specialized in RE. We took an aggressive route for treatment. I had an HSG (right tube was blocked and could not flush), Hysteroscopy (which found polyps) and an ultrasound which found a heart shaped uterus. We immediately jumped into 3 back-to-back IUI cycles due to those findings and my husband’s sperm sample being mostly normal with a tiny morphology issue. After those failed, we did a laparoscopy which found more polyps in my uterus (endometriosis), and they found the tube was blocked and covered in scar tissue due to Crohn’s surgery in 2015.”
Jade then had two more failed IUIs but didn’t stop there.
“I advocated for insurance coverage at work, and they covered our first cycle of IVF three months later. We got two genetically normal embryos and one was transferred on October 4th. I am currently 19 weeks pregnant!!!”
She is happy to share what she sent to her employer for a reference if you need it.
Jade says living with IBD and going through IVF is “terrifying” since you must be in remission with your Crohn’s to even try IVF.
“I was going through an emotional toll of finding out that not only are we not able to get pregnant right now, but there’s a very good chance we never will, and most signs point to me as the problem. It’s all encompassing and overwhelming.”
Much like IBD, Infertility is a full-time job.
“Balancing appointments and results and medications and insurance coverage and time off work — all while trying to stay NOT stressed to cause a flare. It’s an added issue when you have scar tissue and scars, which creates more of a puzzle for doctors. It’s really hard to have two diagnoses that are totally out of your control and leave you hating your own body.”
Even though Jade is due with a baby boy in June she still experiences a gamut of emotions. Everything from joy and anxiety to guilt, happiness, and fear. Her and her husband are leaning into their faith and praying their son will continue to grow at a healthy rate and arrive safely.
Katie Ferriss was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease in 2012 when she was 26 years old. After six months with no luck and a series of tests, she learned her right fallopian tube was a hydrosalpinx (Dilated fallopian tube). Unfortunately, the tube needed to be removed, which put her at another disadvantage for getting pregnant.
“We moved forward with 3 medicated IUIs back-to-back-to-back since I had a dominant follicle on the left side each time. Unfortunately, all the IUIs failed. Our next step was IVF. I was so hopeful; I just knew this would work for us. My first retrieval only yielded 4 eggs, 3 of which were mature, 2 fertilized, and 1 made it to the blastocyst stage. We tried a fresh transfer, but ultimately did not end with a pregnancy.”
Katie and her husband were devastated. They had gone through IVF and had nothing to show for it—not even additional embryos to try again. Through the process, Katie learned she was a ‘poor responder’ to medication and had poor egg quality, which is common with autoimmune disease.
“After a couple of months, we moved forward with another retrieval. This time our RE changed to a much more aggressive protocol with higher doses of stims right out of the gate. I responded much better overall and produced several more mature follicles.
During our second retrieval, the RE was able to retrieve 10 eggs with 9 being mature, and at the end we were able to freeze 2 high grade embryos. We thought we would be able to move right into a frozen transfer cycle, but Crohn’s had other plans for us.”
Because of the massive amounts of infertility medication and the unbelievable stress levels, her body almost forced her to rest—she had a Crohn’s flare.
“My GI was adamant I stop fertility treatments until my Crohn’s was in remission. I would do a colonoscopy in 6 months to learn where I was at. Again, completely devastated that our plans for a baby were put on hold due to my body not cooperating. My GI doctor started me on a different medication, Cimzia, that was very pregnancy friendly as it does not cross through the placenta to the baby if I was finally able to get pregnant. Thankfully 6 months later during my follow-up colonoscopy, my Crohn’s had been put in remission, and I was able to be put back in fertility treatments.”
Katie and her husband were hopeful that the stars were finally aligning for their family. But shortly thereafter they had a failed transfer. They only had one frozen embryo left.
“My RE then tried another test called an Endometrial Receptivity Analysis (ERA) to make sure we were transferring at the optimal time. That test led to another discovery that we were transferring too soon, and I needed 24 more hours of progesterone. We started another transfer cycle using a different medication protocol and transfer timing and found out 10 days later it worked. I went on to have a very uneventful pregnancy, and our miracle baby was born 9 months later in March 2019.”
Katie now manages her Crohn’s with Stelara. She developed a stricture and had bowel resection surgery in August 2020. She credits the surgery as giving her life-changing relief. Her and her husband now have two children—their biological son is two. They are in the process of adopting their 3-year-old daughter from foster care.
COVID and IVF
On top of these challenges, going through infertility and oftentimes being immunocompromised from IBD medications through the pandemic has added extra challenges for everyone involved.
“Every procedure, appointment, surgery, getting sad news, even “getting knocked up” was alone. Alone in a cold room, where you are undressed in front of strangers and probed and in pain. I did it all alone. I found a strength in myself that I never knew existed and for that, I have changed. In some ways I am stronger; in others I am damaged. Trauma and infertility go hand in hand. This is something I will have to work through, which I will, but this chapter of my life will never be just a dull memory,” said Jade.
Advice for IBD mamas in waiting from those who have lived it
Allow yourself time to grieve your infertility diagnosis and find support with friends and family. Try to stay positive and keep your “end goal” of having a baby in mind.
Be patient, sometimes your expectations of procedures and embryo transfers may change due to situations out of your control.
Stay hopeful. It may seem like there is no end in sight at times, but always have hope.
You are strong and will get through this.
This is true for any woman struggling to get pregnant: it sucks. Just acknowledging how painful it is to want something so badly and feel like it is unobtainable. It’s OK to feel those big feelings.
Use your knowledge, expertise, and experience as an IBD patient to your advantage. You know how to navigate medical coverage and insurance, don’t hesitate to advocate for yourself. You’re in a much better place to deal with all this medical stuff than someone who does not have a chronic illness.
The IVF process is long. The first appointment for the first positive pregnancy test took 10 months. And the second time, from the time we resumed working with our RE to the positive pregnancy test took 5 months.
Trust your medical team. And if you don’t trust your medical team, it’s OK to find a different doctor or a different clinic. There are no guarantees in IVF and it’s hard for folks, especially after going through all the treatment to have a failed cycle or failed transfer.
Give yourself grace you did nothing to cause your IBD and you also did nothing to cause your infertility. However, it is also ok to be mad, have low moments, and be sad. All those emotions are valid, allow to yourself to have them.
Get the colonoscopy and upper endoscopy done before you start actively trying. Make sure you have records shared for BOTH clinics. Don’t let people pressure you into taking medication for fertility that may offset or flare up your IBD. Don’t forget to remind your providers every time – they may forget.
Find support groups. There are more women than you think going through this. My Facebook community that is an IVF/IUI due date group for women who were due winter/spring of 2021 was the best community I could ask for.
Talk about it. if you feel comfortable. Share your story, share your pain, more people go through this than we realize.
You are more capable than you think. You are stronger than you will ever know. This is going to suck and it’s going to challenge your mental health, friendships, relationship with your husband, your connection to family, you work life, etc. it’s going to change you in ways you could ever imagine and it’s going to rip your heart out of your chest because you can’t know this pain unless you’ve lived it. But I promise you will come out stronger and you will be changed in the most incredible ways. Hang in there.
I can see your fear and it’s big. But I can see your courage and it’s bigger.
Don’t give up hope. You are so much stronger than you give yourself credit for; IVF is incredibly difficult, but you CAN DO IT!!
Do your own research. Find your tribe – IBD and IVF warriors are incredible and there are plenty of us out there in both camps. Get a therapist. Get a support group. Read books. Bake. Find your coping skills and don’t give up. You’re a badass. Having IBD is hard. Going through infertility is hard. But you can do hard things.
This post is sponsored by the American Gastroenterological Association (AGA). I am a paid program Brand Influencer; this post is sponsored and includes my own personal experiences.
While bringing a child into this world is one of the greatest miracles one can witness, it also brings about a world of worry for women with Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD). From the moment family planning begins, throughout pregnancy, and during postpartum, when you live with Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis it can feel like you’re just constantly waiting and wondering when the other shoe is going to drop. The looming fear of a flare during pregnancy and once baby is here is valid, and it’s real.
The unpredictability of IBD is amplified ten-fold when you have another life to care for and another life on the line. As a mom of three kids, ages four and under, who’s lived with Crohn’s disease for more than 16 years, flaring and being forced to leave my family to be hospitalized is something that’s always in the back of my mind. I know in my heart of hearts, it’s not a matter of if, but when. So how can we thrive through the unknown and not allow this fear to rob us of the joy of motherhood? The American Gastroenterological Association’s IBD Parenthood Project aims to serve as a resource every step of the way to help you feel less alone and more in control of your wellbeing.
Reading Between the Positive Pregnancy Lines
When you receive a positive pregnancy test, your world changes forever. It’s at this point that your IBD directly impacts another life. Prior to becoming a mom, I used to wait until the last possible moment to head to the emergency room. For one of many hospitalizations in my 20’s, I waited so long that my dad had to carry me as a grown woman through the hospital doors like a groom carries his bride. Fast forward to present day, and I’ve learned that it’s in my best interest to wave the proverbial white flag when I start experiencing symptoms that are sidelining me more than they should. The moment you relinquish control of your illness and see it less as an adversary and more as an ally, is the moment you won’t constantly feel pushed up against a wall. While it’s not easy to admit you are struggling, it’s empowering to know you’re being proactive and doing all you can to thrive.
When I write my gastroenterologist (GI) on the patient portal and express concerns about how I’m feeling, she calls me back and we come up with a game plan that makes the most sense. After I had my daughter, Sophia, I started feeling abdominal pain shortly after bringing her home. My GI knew I was breastfeeding and called me with safe options so that I could continue to do so. Because we nipped that minor flare in the bud, my remission was maintained, I didn’t land in the hospital, and I was able to be home and be present for my growing family.
I delivered my third baby, Connor, in July, and since then I’ve noticed an uptick in bathroom trips and abdominal pain. Since Connor is my last baby and I know I’ll never feel as well as I did when I was pregnant, it’s a bit more emotional for me. Luckily, with all three of my pregnancies, my Crohn’s was completely silent. I felt like a “normal” person. Knowing that it’s just me and my Crohn’s from this point forward hits differently. There have been countless days where I have been forced to keep a baby carrier in the bathroom, readily available, with space for my two older children to stand or play while I sit in anguish on the toilet wondering if this is it as I look with tear-filled eyes at my three healthy children before me. I won’t be surprised if I reach out to my GI in the days ahead for guidance, just to be cautious. I have a heightened awareness right now about the extra bathroom breaks and the gnawing pain that’s coming and going after I eat. Whether you are beginning the family planning process or postpartum, ongoing communication with your GI through all stages of having children is so important.
Addressing the Fears of IBD Women
The IBD Parenthood Project aims to address misperceptions about IBD and fears many women with IBD can experience through all phases of family planning (conception, pregnancy and after delivery).
Patients can find answers to common questions like:
Can I get pregnant with IBD?
Does IBD affect my fertility?
Will I pass IBD on to my baby?
Can I stay on medicine during pregnancy?
What if I flare during pregnancy?
Is it possible to have a vaginal delivery?
Can I breastfeed while on medicine?
Does my medicine change how I vaccinate my baby?
When it comes to the postpartum period, there’s a guide for postnatal care. The toolkit is a direct response to survey findings that reported women with IBD want more and better information about managing their disease. Being proactive and advocating for yourself throughout the pregnancy journey and as an IBD mom will not only make you feel empowered, but provide you with a sense of control, despite the unpredictability of your disease.
Thriving in the Face of the Unknown
Whether you were diagnosed with IBD prior to starting your family or after you delivered, Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis force us to wake up each day without knowing what the next hour will bring — all while raising children. Trust that your IBD will serve as a foundation for strength and that your kids will be your greatest motivators to push through and see the beauty that exists in your life despite your chronic illness. The IBD Parenthood Project is an exceptional tool that’s a reminder we are not alone in our worries, our dreams, and our struggles. I’m grateful our community has a resource that removes the gray area so many of us have encountered as IBD moms and helped be a light to lead us on our way to successful pregnancies, families, and motherhood journeys.
As an IBD mom of three who stayed on my Humira (adalimumab) injections until late into my third trimester with all my pregnancies, I recognized the importance of contributing to ongoing research about the safety and efficacy of biologics. When I was approached to participate in the PIANO (Pregnancy Inflammatory bowel disease And Neonatal Outcomes) study for my pregnancy this past year I jumped at the opportunity. While I knew staying on my medication until 37 weeks pregnant would pass Humira through to my baby and that it is considered to be safe, I didn’t know much beyond that.
My son Connor is 8 weeks today. The day of my C-section blood samples were taken from him, me, and my umbilical cord. The purpose of the samples was to measure the concentration of the Humira at the time of delivery. The process in the hospital was simple. Detailed instructions were mailed to me at home ahead of time. When I walked into the hospital for my scheduled C-section my husband and I handed over a small box that included three vials, an ice pack, and proper packaging for the transfer from St. Louis to California to the nurse who was prepping me for surgery. Once all the samples were ready to go my husband made a quick stop at FedEx to hand over the package and voila the science of it all was on its way.
The past few weeks we’ve anxiously awaited the results. This week, we received them. I have an almost 4.5-year-old son, a 2.5-year-old daughter, and a newborn. With each pregnancy—Crohn’s-wise, the experience was flawless. I felt like a “normal” person. Foods that typically trigger me, didn’t cause any issues. If I wanted a cup of coffee, I didn’t pay the price. It felt glorious to have zero abdominal pain for all those months and know that my babies were thriving in utero. I credit my own health and deep remission and my children’s health to the fact that I chose to follow my care team’s recommendations and stay on Humira until the final weeks of my pregnancies.
When the results popped up in my email inbox, I was nursing Connor. I felt a few emotions, more than I had anticipated. I hesitated to open it. Even though I could see Reid and Sophia watching TV and know how healthy they are, it still made me feel a rush of mom guilt to know that I needed a heavy-duty medication to bring all three of my children into this world and that even though studies like PIANO have shown the safety profile, that as IBD moms we still worry and wish we didn’t need to do injections or get infusions while a life is growing inside of us.
I texted my husband Bobby while he was at work and expressed how I was feeling. His response, “It’s all good babe, I’m sure it’s emotional but kids are all healthy and in good shape so just thankful for that. You did good.” Having a supportive partner through your patient journey and especially through parenthood makes all the difference.
Here are my PIANO study findings. I stopped medication at 37 weeks, and my last injection was 16 days prior to C-Section and this blood test.
My blood—7.3 mcg/mL
Connor’s blood—6.8 mcg/mL
Cord blood—5.9 mcg/mL
When I saw the numbers, my eyes filled with tears. Even though just looking at the numbers didn’t mean a whole lot, it just showed me that my baby had medication in his system, and it made me feel sad. I knew this would be the case—but I want to be transparent that it did upset me, even though I know it was for the best and have seen how my other children have thrived despite their exposure.
I waited to share this so the PIANO study’s lead organizer, Dr. Uma Mahadevan could weigh in and provide further explanation for not only myself, but for our community. She told me that in the PIANO study, the concentration of Humira for baby on average is 9.4 mcg/ml (range 2.5-26) and for moms 25 mcg/ml (range 0-56.4). As stated above, I was at 7.3 mcg/ml and Connor was 6.8 mcg/ml.
“Cord blood is the blood from the baby that is left in the umbilical cord and placenta after birth. It comes from the baby, so those concentrations are similar. Beginning around week 14 of pregnancy the placenta has a receptor called FcRn. This grabs antibody by the “Fc” portion and pulls it actively from mom to baby. This is most efficient in the third trimester when 80% of antibody transfer occurs. Since Humira is an antibody, it gets pulled across the placenta as well.”
Dr. Mahadevan went on to say that baby often has more drug at birth than the mom, but that was not the case for me. The PIANO study has shown several positive outcomes for IBD moms:
There is not an association between the amount of drug present in a baby at birth with infections.
Even though there was no increased risk of infection seen based on exposure to anti-TNF or on drug level at birth, in theory these babies (like Connor) are considered immunocompromised until no drug is present. For Humira that’s about 3 months, for Remicade (infliximab) that’s about six months.
“My advice to moms is that all the risks to the baby seem to come from disease flare rather than from medication. In a large French study, the risk of infection in baby was in moms who flared in the third trimester, not based on anti-TNF exposure. Risk of pre-term birth is increased with disease activity, not with anti-TNF medication. Risk of miscarriage comes with disease activity, not anti-TNF use. There is a clear and significant risk from having a flare during pregnancy. Compared to babies of IBD moms not exposed to medications, there is no evidence of increased harm to the baby (at least out to 4 years of age) from TNF exposure,” explained Dr. Mahadevan.
Hearing this was music to my ears and was extremely comforting. Point being—there’s a much greater likelihood of pregnancy complications if your IBD is not managed and if you flare than if you stay on your medication and keep your IBD controlled.
“We have completed our breastfeeding study which showed very minimal transfer (a fraction of what transfers by placental blood) and no evidence of harm to baby for breastfeeding when a mother is on anti-TNF.”
Knowing this about breastfeeding gives me great peace of mind as I continue the journey with my son, while still managing my Crohn’s by taking my Humira.
I also want to add that Dr. Mahadevan and her research team have been a huge support to me throughout the entire study. When she read a draft of this article and saw how I felt when I received the email with the blood results, she asked for recommendations about how to better deliver the findings to women. This meant a lot—I suggested sharing the range in blood concentration similar to how lab results are delivered on a patient portal and following up with an email or phone call to explain what the numbers mean further. Those touchpoints of support can make a big difference. I also shared my results over the patient portal with my GI and she called me to discuss them as well, which was helpful.
Interested in participating in the PIANO study? There’s always a need for more women to enroll! So far, 1,700 women have done so. There’s especially a need for women on newer drugs like Stelara, Entyvio, and Xeljanz.Click here to get involved.
This post is sponsored by the American Gastroenterological Association (AGA). I am a paid program Brand Influencer; this post is sponsored and includes my own personal experiences.
Breastfeeding is a labor of love. Like many women, it doesn’t come easy for me. As an IBD mom who already fears passing my disease down to my kids, there’s added pressure and stress. In the United States, an estimated 1.6 million people have Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis. Of those, roughly half are women, and most will carry the diagnosis during childbearing years, throughout all phases of family planning: trying to conceive, pregnancy and postpartum. As an IBD mom of three going through postpartum right now, one of my biggest stresses and focuses revolves around breastfeeding.
-What if I take this pain medicine for my Crohn’s? Will I need to supplement?
-What if I have a postpartum flare, will my milk supply go away?
-What will happen if I’m hospitalized?
-Will I flare once I stop breastfeeding and my hormones regulate?
-If I stop too soon, will my child end up having an increased risk of IBD?
…the list goes on…
The journey to motherhood for women with IBD requires several complex decisions and coordination among specialty care teams from the stage of family planning until postpartum and beyond. The IBD Parenthood Project aims to address common misperceptions and fears women with IBD and their providers experience throughout all phases of family planning (conception, pregnancy and after delivery). By eliminating the gray area and serving as the gold-standard for navigating pregnancy and motherhood with IBD, our patient community can rely on this support that helps uncomplicate the journey.
This beneficial and much-needed initiative was created by gastroenterologists (GIs), maternal-fetal medicine (MFM) subspecialists, and patients and is led by the American Gastroenterological Association (AGA) with support from the Society for Maternal-Fetal Medicine, the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation, and patient support network, Girls With Guts. The IBD Parenthood Project launched in January 2019, just as I delivered my second child. To this day, I feel so grateful to have this information and confidence in my choice to become a mom even though I’ve lived with Crohn’s disease for more than 16 years. It’s empowering to know despite the unpredictability of IBD, this initiative allowed me to feel like I’m in the driver’s seat when it came to creating my family and knowing the choices I’ve made were and are supported by science and medical facts.
To the random lady in the church elevator who asked me if I was breastfeeding my son Reid when he was a month old, and I was a first-time mom.
To the lactation consultant after I delivered my daughter Sophia, who told me since I have Crohn’s, it’s imperative her gut only be lined with breastmilk.
To the nurse coaching me nonchalantly about breastfeeding my son Connor and underestimating the challenges it can present…who I later found out “only” breastfed one of her children for 2 weeks…
To anyone who is struggling with the physical, emotional, and mental stress of something that sounds “easy” and “natural” — simply feeding your baby — I get how complex and taxing it is. I’m in the thick of it now with my son who was born July 14. So far, he’s only had breastmilk…both from nursing and by a bottle. But it’s not pretty for me. The engorgement, the round the clock pumping, the soaked t-shirts, the night sweats, the discomfort to even wear a bra or sleep on my side. It weighs on me. There’s the outside pressure and the pressure I put on myself to keep going, even though I don’t enjoy it. It’s super rewarding to see Connor thriving and making gains all because of me. But there’s also a lot of stress to be a child’s only source of food, especially as an IBD mom.
Different feeding approaches with all my babies
With my firstborn in 2017, I wasn’t well-versed on the benefits of breastfeeding and feared not only further exposure to my biologic, but also flaring, so I only breastfed my son for 3 days in the hospital so he could get colostrum. By 2019, I was well-versed on the positive impact and the safety profile associated with breastfeeding while on a biologic, so I breastfed my daughter until she was 6 months old. I had hopes of making it a full year, but unfortunately my milk supply disappeared once my menstrual cycle started back up. This time around, I felt the anxiety about having to breastfeed creep up when I was only a few months pregnant. Between research showing that breastfed babies have a lower risk of IBD, coupled with antibodies from the COVID-19 vaccine, I feel the need to do all I can to protect my son from the what if, even if it feels mentally, physically, and emotionally taxing each day.
The Fourth Trimester has several challenges for women that often go undiscussed. However you choose to feed your child is your business and should be based on what is best for you and your family. This is a judgement free zone. I’ve fed my three babies differently. But the pressure mounts when you yourself have an illness with no cure and feel as though breastfeeding can help improve your odds of not passing it on to your offspring. In my mind, down the road, I don’t want to ever think I coulda, shoulda, woulda done anything differently when it comes to protecting my offspring from IBD.
The IBD Parenthood Project tackles some of the common questions related to breastfeeding as an IBD mom. There’s a downloadable toolkit that features patient-friendly information and easy-to-digest lists of key questions to ask your doctor as you’re thinking of becoming pregnant and beyond.
What I Want Fellow IBD Moms to Know
Navigating motherhood while taking on IBD is overwhelming. With proper planning, care and coordination among treating healthcare providers, women with IBD can have healthy pregnancies and healthy babies—and breastfeed if they choose to do so. For me, breastfeeding provides a sense of normalcy and gives me a renewed sense of love for what my body is capable of, despite having Crohn’s disease. Give yourself credit for going through pregnancy with IBD, delivering a baby, and continuing to nourish your little one with your body when they are in the real world. The blood, sweat, and tears are inevitable.
Just this week I experienced awful abdominal pain. The kind of pain where you can barely breathe, your hands start to tingle, and you go back and forth about whether a trip to the emergency room is imminent. As I rocked myself on the toilet and heard my newborn crying in the bassinet my mind raced. My 4-year-old stood before me. I could see the fear in his eyes. My immediate thought was—what can I take to get this pain under control—will it affect my ability to breastfeed? In that moment, the pressure to think outside of myself and manage my disease felt suffocating.
There comes a point when the mental health and wellbeing of the mother must come first so she is able to be the best version of herself for her kids. If breastfeeding is taking away from the joy you could be experiencing or the connection you are longing for with your child, don’t feel guilty. Whether your child is exclusively breastfed, or formula fed, or receives a little of both, they will thrive. I’m personally all about flexible feeding. A little nursing, some pumping, and some formula has worked best for me. When the time comes, and I need a break or feel too consumed by being the sole provider of nourishment for Connor, I’ll feel confident in supplementing with formula. There’s no shame in my game and there shouldn’t be in yours, either. Take advantage of invaluable resources like the IBD Parenthood Project and be confident in each of your personal health decisions when it comes to whether or not you want a family and how you choose to feed your baby.
After a lot of thought and consideration, I decided to hold off on getting my COVID-19 vaccines until after I delivered my son. Before we dig deeper into this topic, I want to clarify that this was solely my choice, everyone needs to do what they are most comfortable with. Since the pandemic began, unprecedented pressure and stress has been placed on pregnant and lactating women to make one decision or another. For me, as a stay-at-home mom, who continued to keep a low profile while pregnant, I felt more at ease waiting to get my vaccines until after my son was out of my body. My care team made up of a maternal fetal medicine doctor, OB, and gastroenterologist all supported my choice to wait.
My main reasoning was limiting the variables of exposure. All my kids were exposed to Humira while in utero. While there are long term studies that show the safety and efficacy of biologics in pregnancy, you never know. If down the road my son had any health complications or issues, I didn’t want to have to grapple with whether my biologic or a vaccine contributed or were to blame. As an IBD mom, we deal with enough guilt as it is.
So, I chose to wait. Anxiously. Patiently. Luckily, I delivered my third child, Connor Christopher, July 14th, and did not encounter any COVID-19 scares while pregnant. Once I was home from the hospital following my C-section, I talked with my gastroenterologist and OB about getting my first COVID vaccine and scheduled an appointment at Walgreens ASAP.
Getting the first jab
Wednesday, July 21, I finally got my first dose! A little late to the party, but I’m currently exclusively breastfeeding (and pumping), and I’m hopeful that once I’m fully vaccinated (two weeks after my second dose in August), my son will receive antibodies from the vaccine that way. It felt a bit surreal to finally be at a point where I felt comfortable with my personal choice to get the vaccine.
According to the CDC, since January 2020, there have been 34 million cases and 607,000 deaths. As of July 21st, 161.9 million people are fully vaccinated—that’s 48.8% of the total population, or 57.1% of the population older than age 12. Virus variants threaten new outbreaks among the unvaccinated.
Much like making decisions to manage IBD, it’s imperative our community looks at the benefits vs. the risks of getting the vaccine.
Words from leading medical experts in the IBD community
This past week Dr. David Rubin, MD, Professor of Medicine, University of Chicago presented, “Updates on COVID-19 for Patients with Inflammatory Bowel Disease”.
“Everyone needs to be vaccinated, this includes pregnant women and new moms. The Delta Variant is VERY contagious. The data in IBD is reassuring when it comes to immune responsiveness compared to the general population, especially with the two dose mRNA vaccines. Antibodies against many things are transmitted in colostrum, and that may be the anti-SARS-CoV-2 spike antibodies too, which may provide protection to the baby. It’s definitely NOT dangerous to breastfeed after vaccination.”
Speaking of the Delta Variant, according to Dr. Rubin’s presentation as well as guidance from the CDC, “Delta was 1% of COVID-19 cases during the week of April 10th. By the week of July 3rd, Delta is estimated to account for 57% of new COVID-19 cases. Within a matter of 12 weeks of being introduced to the US population, it became the dominant variant here.
Dr. Uma Mahadevan, MD, University of California San Francisco agrees, saying given the ongoing crisis with COVID-19, all eligible people should get vaccinated.
“Breastfeeding mothers can get vaccinated per CDC guidelines and there is data that the antibody from the vaccine crosses to the infant via breastmilk, possibly providing them with protection as well! For many infants of moms with IBD, they have detectable levels of biologic agents in their blood for the first 6 months of life. Having antibody against SARS-Co-V-2 may provide them some protection against getting ill if exposed to the virus.”
Dr. Meenakshi Bewtra, MD, MPH, PhD, Penn Medicine, has IBD herself and has been a vocal advocate for our patient community since the start of the pandemic. She implores everyone to get the vaccine, immediately.
“Don’t wait. In fact, I, every doctor I know, American College of Gastroenterology, and Maternal Fetal Medicine recommend getting the COVID-19 vaccine while you are pregnant. Why? Because we’ve seen what happens to pregnant women who get COVID. There are women who got the vaccine in trials; there were women who got vaccinated while pregnant (>10,000 at this point)—we have a lot of data. The evidence is crystal clear. The same holds for getting it while breastfeeding. COVID is real, it’s out there; you can get sick and die; you can transit it to your infant or others in your house. There is absolutely no reason why anyone should not be getting vaccinated unless you know you have an allergy to something in the vaccines themselves. Your protective antibodies can pass to the infant.”
COVID-19 in the IBD Community and Vaccine Response
Thanks to the SECURE-IBD database, we have more guidance about how those of us with Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis have responded and continue to respond to not only COVID, but the vaccine. People with IBD do not have an increased risk of getting it. Aminosalicylates, biologics, and immunomodulators show no increased risk of severe COVID- 19. Steroids are associated with worse outcomes. And biologic therapy is associated with decreased risk of severe COVID-19 outcomes.
One of the main concerns many of us in the chronic illness community on immunosuppressive drugs have wondered about is the efficacy of the vaccines in our body. Good news—a recent study of 246 patients with IBD who received both doses of the vaccine showed similar adverse events as in the general population. Sore arm, headache, and fatigue are the most common adverse effects of the vaccine. All I had after my first Pfizer vaccine was a sore arm. More importantly, the study showed no increase in IBD flares.
The Prevent-COVID study shows even more promising data with more than 1,700 participants with IBD. Click here to see results of the study—everything from rates of vaccine side effects to lab titers three months out.
As of now, there’s no recommendation or approval regarding a booster vaccine. Pfizer announced that their clinical trial data showed that a third shot may increase antibody levels, but nothing has been published yet. Without more research, it’s unclear if an increase in antibody levels will provide greater protection from the virus than two doses.
Get Involved in COVID-19 Vaccine studies
University of Chicago Inflammatory Bowel Disease Center COVID-19 Vaccine in IBD Study
This study is analyzing the durability, safety, and efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines in patients with IBD, If you are interested in participating in the study (whether you have already been vaccinated or not) please email: email@example.com.
Prevent COVID Research Study
If you are 12 to 17 and have received your first COVID-19 vaccine in the last 90 days, you may be able to take part in PREVENT COVID, a research study to learn about the vaccine experiences of people with IBD. Click here to learn more.
The purpose of this research being conducted at Cedars-Sinai is to understand the effects of vaccination against COVID-19 in people with IBD. To achieve this goal, a national and local group of adults with IBD who are eligible to receive any available vaccine against COVID-19 are being recruited. Within this group we will evaluate the antibody levels of the body’s response to the vaccine. Questions about the study? Contact the CORALE-V IBD Research Team at Cedars-Sinai at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 310-423-5643.
Washington University in St. Louis: COVID-19 Vaccine Response in Patients with Autoimmune Disease
School of Medicine researchers are leading a clinical trial to evaluate the safety and effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines in people taking immunosuppressive drugs. Such drugs are prescribed to treat autoimmune diseases, including arthritis, Crohn’s disease, and psoriasis. Researchers will enroll up to 500 adults ages 18 and older in the St. Louis region. They are recruiting health-care workers at the School of Medicine and patients seen in Washington University outpatient clinics. Eligible patients who have preregistered for the COVID-19 vaccine will be contacted to assess their interest in being recruited into the study. For information about participating in the trial, email email@example.com, or contact either Alia El-Qunni at 314-249-1151 or Lily McMorrow at 314-280-3894.
Use your smartphone to tell the CDC about any side effects after getting the COVID-19 vaccine. The tool uses text messaging and web surveys to provide personalized health check-ins after you receive a COVID-19 vaccine. Depending on your responses, someone from the CDC may call to check on you. Participation is voluntary and you can opt out at any time. Sign up at: www.vsafe.cdc.gov.
I wish when I was diagnosed with Crohn’s in July 2005 that I would have had a look into the future to know that the same body that has gone to war with me time and time again would also bring three miracles into the world.
Wednesday, July 14, 2021 my family grew to five and I became an IBD mom to three kids, four and under. Our latest addition, Connor Christopher, completes our crew.
On the day of my scheduled C-section and Connor’s birth, I felt overwhelmed with emotions. So many thoughts and feelings came to mind—from knowing I would never be pregnant again to recognizing that from this point forward I would never feel the deep remission I experience when I carry a life inside of me.
There are so many sharp contrasts in what pregnancy and deliveries have meant in comparison to life with Crohn’s.
The unpredictable nature of Crohn’s but having three scheduled C-sections all go to plan.
The way it feels to head to the hospital for a good reason.
The fact that my Crohn’s comes up as an aside when conversing with medical professionals and my pregnancies and being a mom comes first as my “identity.”
The perspective and strength IBD has given me when it comes to coping with painful pregnancy-related issues like SI Joint Dysfunction, Symphysis pubis dysfunction, acid reflux that required prescription medication, and C-section recoveries.
The incredible pride and joy I feel knowing that the girl who found out she had a debilitating lifelong disease 16 July’s ago, has carried three pregnancies to term and has a family of five to show for it.
If you’re like me and have dreamed of one day being a mom, explore all options to get there and don’t let your IBD hold you back. You are not less than because of your chronic illness, you are more capable than you think. Your body may surprise you in ways you could never imagine. To me–my children are proof of all that’s possible despite chronic illness.
When I was 21 and found out I had Crohn’s disease, one of my greatest fears was the uncertainty of what my future would look like personally and professionally. While the unknown was daunting and overwhelming, I never really allowed myself to think of not becoming a mom because of my disease. Instead, I shifted my focus to recognizing that getting there may take some detours and careful planning.
Thank you for all the well wishes for my family over the years. Your kind words, interest, and prayers, have meant the world to us and helped me to realize that even though I’m an “IBD” mom… I’m so much more.
July has been my least favorite month for the last 16 years of my life. It’s the month I was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease. The month I had an abscess the size of a tennis ball in my small intestine. The month I was put on a biologic medication. The month I had a bowel obstruction that led to bowel resection surgery. You get the picture. But now, it’s about to be the month I give birth to my third child. Baby boy is about to flip the script on a month that previously brought dread. Instead, I can focus on celebrating his new life and all his birthdays and milestones for years to come.
As a woman with IBD, motherhood has continually provided me with reminders of all my body is capable of despite my chronic illness. It’s shown me what once may have seemed unattainable, is possible. Motherhood is a constant reminder that my body hasn’t always been at odds with me. That despite the challenges and the pain all these years, it still afforded me the opportunity to carry healthy babies to term. Rather than feeling like my body is the enemy, motherhood has made me think of my body as my ally. We’ll have our ups and downs forever, but for 27-plus months it’s been a safe haven for my children. I’ve enjoyed flawless pregnancies and deep remission. It’s given me a chance to feel like a “typical healthy” woman, if only for a moment. Pregnancy has felt like a security blanket wrapped around me, and is soon to be no more. With that, comes an immense amount of gratitude, as well as anxiety, as from this point forward it’s just me and my Crohn’s…no buffer.
It feels weird going into this month of July not worrying about what could be, but rather being excited about what’s to come. When I was younger and prior to getting married, I avoided making plans in the month of July—especially life changing ones! My wedding, vacations, etc. were all coordinated around this month because I didn’t trust the way my body could blindside me.
Preparing for the shift in health
While I am ready for my son to be here and over the discomforts of pregnancy, a part of me is sad that I’ll never feel this well again. Within days of delivering Reid and Sophia, the gnawing abdominal pain associated with IBD crept back into my life before I even had a chance to bring my babies home. I expect the same will happen this time. While it was discouraging then and will make me feel the same now, I’m hopeful the shift in hormones won’t throw me into a postpartum flare and that I’ll find comfort in knowing from this point forward, every medication, every procedure, and every hospitalization will be done without a life growing inside of me.
Over these last nine months I’ve enjoyed eating popcorn with my kids for the first time, drinking a cup of coffee without a need to use the bathroom right after, and nearly 40 weeks of baby flutters and kicks instead of pain. It’s been a great run. I hope my experiences through family planning, conception, pregnancy, and motherhood provide you with an understanding that IBD doesn’t mean you can’t have a family. While many sadly struggle with infertility, complications, or not physically being well enough to carry a baby, it’s very possible that you can. Whether it’s stories like mine or the opposite, remember each of our journeys is unique. Don’t base your experience and capabilities on someone else, but when something or someone inspires or empowers you to go after what you dream of, hold on to that.
Baby boy will not only complete our family but serve as a constant reminder of all that is possible. While my Crohn’s has brought a great deal of heartache it’s also allowed me to gain a unique perspective and to never take life’s miracles and triumphs for granted.
In the spirit of Mother’s Day—today’s article celebrates mother and daughter duos with IBD. Rather than focusing on the hereditary factor of Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis, this story celebrates the camaraderie, bond, and connection created when a parent and child both share the same disease. While the chance of passing on IBD when one parent has Crohn’s and ulcerative is relatively low according to the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation (between 5% and 20% of people with IBD have a first-degree relative, such as a parent, child, or sibling who has one of the disease), it happens. My hope is that if you dream of being a mom or a dad, you don’t rob yourself of going after that dream because of the fear of passing on your disease to offspring.
As a mom of two (soon to be three!), I am the only one with IBD in my entire extended family. But, I often worry and wonder if my Crohn’s will be passed on to my children. I know this is a common fear many in the community grapple with. Check out these thought-provoking and comforting firsthand accounts from 8 mother-daughter duos that show how families unite in their diagnosis and lift one another up.
Corri Gardner and her mom both have ulcerative colitis. Her mother’s father also had UC. Corri’s mom was diagnosed with IBD while she was pregnant with her. All she knows since being diagnosed herself is having her mom and grandpa to confide in through the ups and downs of the disease.
“My mom has always been there to validate my fears and feelings on such a deep level since she knows exactly what I’m going through. When I was diagnosed, she expressed how guilty she felt over and over again. I always assure her that I would much rather be on this earth, living with UC, than to not be here at all. If someone is hesitant about having children due to their IBD, I would urge them to not make life decisions based on fear.”
Camryn Asham and her mom both have Crohn’s. She says having a parent with IBD helped her feel less lonely and more understood when she was diagnosed. Like anyone with a chronic illness she’s gone through a range of emotions on her patient journey—everything from anger to grief.
“I’ve had the “why me” feeling, but deep down I know it’s not my mom’s fault and there is no one to blame. I know my mom has felt guilty watching me go through traumatic moments and all the ups and downs. I’ve been able to witness my mom get through the highs and lows of IBD, and that reassures me I can get through any flare up or procedure, too. I know I can always count on my mom for help and support when I don’t feel heard or understood.”
Rachel Martin and her mom both have Crohn’s disease. Her mom was diagnosed at age 14, she found out she had the same disease when she was 22. While the diagnosis was devastating for both, Rachel says she finds comfort in knowing that she has someone close to her who can relate.
“I do feel as though my mom feels guilty for passing Crohn’s. I have a twin sister who does not have Crohn’s and it has been hard seeing her live her life without going through everything that I have gone through. Never in my life would I wish this upon anyone, especially my sister, however I wish that I never had to go through this. I never exactly blamed my mom, but I have spent a lot of time wishing I “lucked out” like my sister did. I know that my mom feels bad that I have had a really hard time coping and accepting that I also have a chronic disease.”
Diagnosed prior to a parent
Mary Catherine Kirchgraber was diagnosed with Crohn’s when she was 10 in 2000. Her mom was diagnosed during a routine colonoscopy when she was 50-year-old in 2013. Since her mom served as her caregiver and advocate since she was a pediatric patient, it’s made for a unique journey and perspective. They both seek medical care through the same GI practice and have been on the same medications. Mary says it’s nice to have someone to commiserate with about frustrations with insurance, feeling poorly, side effects, and more.
“My mom is the toughest person I know and never complains, so she inspires me in a million different ways. I wish she didn’t have to struggle the way I have, but it’s nice to have someone to lean on and ask questions to. My mom has always been my advocate and greatest support. She fought for accommodations at school, taken me to Mayo Clinic, dealt with insurance, and taken me to every doctor appointment and specialist I’ve ever needed. She created binders of medical records for me and often reminds me of my own health history when I don’t remember things from when I was a kid. I am so lucky to have her on my team.”
Sharan Kaur was diagnosed with Crohn’s in 2002, her mom found out she had ulcerative colitis in 2017. She says prior to her mom’s diagnosis she felt alone dealing with the day to day struggles of IBD. Sharan says because of her knowledge and experience living with IBD, when her mom began to experience symptoms, she was able to push for their general practitioner to take action immediately and reach a diagnosis. She is grateful to have another family member who can grasp the severity of the disease and who understands how easy it is to go from feeling perfectly fine one day, to barely managing to get out of bed the next.
“I think we find strength in one another. For years, my mom supported me through my worst days and although she didn’t completely understand how things were before her diagnosis, the support was always there. Finding out she had UC broke my heart because she’s always been so active, truly a supermom. I realized then that this would have to change for her as she would probably go onto face the same daily struggles that I do with fatigue. As an adult I’m sure this change in lifestyle is much harder to accept than it was for me.”
Mary McCarthy was also diagnosed with Crohn’s at age 12 in 1995, her mom didn’t discover she had Crohn’s until 2015 when she was 62 (and her dad has UC!). IBD was foreign to the McCarthy family when Mary was diagnosed though. She says her mom had a difficult time coping with having a child with a chronic illness. Even though her mom was well-versed on IBD by the time of her own diagnosis, hearing the news was still difficult for her.
“We deal with it mostly through empathy and humor. Being able to talk openly about the emotional and physical aspects of the disease helps. My parents and I joke about how we are colonoscopy experts and have seen every gastroenterologist in the city of Chicago. My mom knows exactly what I need before colonoscopies, which is often to get some alone time and get in the zone. We laugh about it now. “Mom, I love you, but I gotta get in zone. You can wait in the waiting room now.” My mom has been there for ALL important moments in my IBD journey. We sometimes reminisce about the complete chaos we went through when I was 12. We may have IBD, but we know life must go on.”
Michelle Schienle and her mom were both diagnosed with Crohn’s in 2015, she was 23 her mom was 52. Michelle’s diagnosis was the catalyst for her mom to seek additional treatment from a new gastroenterologist. As we all know it can be challenging to articulate IBD symptoms to those who haven’t experienced them. Michelle knows she can always count on her mom no matter what she’s going through. Even though she doesn’t blame her mom for passing on IBD to her, she did get frustrated that she didn’t recognize the suffering earlier as a child because that was her mom’s “normal”, too.
“Since she was living her life that way, she thought my problems were “normal”, so I had to wait until I was old enough to advocate for myself to get the answers I needed. I wish she wouldn’t feel guilty for passing it on to me, because it’s not her fault. Seeing my mom push through gives me strength. I’ve seen firsthand how she’s successfully raised a family, had a great career, and traveled the world (all things I aspire to do!) and done it with IBD. It’s a relief not to have to explain the pain and worry in detail because we just know what the other is going through. As unfortunate as it is that we both are going through this, having my mom understand what I am feeling both physically and emotionally helps to validate it. If my children are to ever get IBD, I am now confident that I am in the best position to take care of them because I know what to watch out for and how to be proactive about treatment.”
History repeating itself
Both Ellen Jenkins and her mom were diagnosed with Crohn’s when they were 18 and freshman in college at the same school! Ellen says her mom still feels responsible for her being sick, even though she has never blamed her for IBD.
“Growing up and watching my mom live a normal life despite her IBD comforted me when I was diagnosed. I am so thankful to have someone who understands firsthand what I go through. Although no parent would choose to pass Crohn’s on to their child, IBD has made us closer. I have never been upset that I got it from my mom. Instead, I’m thankful to always have her as an advocate in my corner who truly understands the struggles.”
A heartfelt thank you
As an IBD mom, hearing these experiences and perspectives really puts my mind and heart at ease. As you can see, there’s a common thread throughout. Rather than blame their parent for passing on IBD, these young adults look to their parents as a pillar of strength, a source of understanding, and as partners in taking on their illness. Through the pain and suffering there is also gratitude, clarity, and unbelievable resilience. Just how you have grown and evolved as a person after your diagnosis and throughout your patient journey, your child will do the same.
Special thanks to everyone who made this story possible. Your words, your raw emotions, and your candidness are sure to help many and shed light on the incredible dynamic that is created when a parent and a child both battle IBD…no matter what age their diagnosis comes about.
As an IBD mom I see it as a responsibility and an opportunity to participate in research studies while I am pregnant and as my children grow. I’m currently 20 weeks pregnant (tomorrow!) with my third baby and this time around I’m enrolled in the Pregnancy in Inflammatory Bowel Disease and Neonatal Outcomes (PIANO) study. The project was conceived, lead, and executed by Dr. Uma Mahadevan, Professor of Medicine at the University of California San Francisco in 2007.
Since the project launched, more than 1,800 women have participated in the registry. Of that number, over 900 stayed on biologics throughout their pregnancies. I’m thrilled to be a part of this initiative. If my pregnancies and children can provide clarity for a future generation of IBD moms, the extra effort on my part is more than worth it. Thanks to women before me who have been on a biologic and been a part of research while pregnant, I have peace of mind knowing that staying on my Humira is best for me and for baby.
Without studies that indicate how babies in utero respond to medication exposures we would be in the dark about what is best for mom and baby not only during pregnancy, but with breastfeeding.
“There is so much misinformation about pregnancy and IBD including being told not to conceive at all or to stop medication. This is incorrect and dangerous. PIANO was started to provide reliable data for women with IBD considering pregnancy so they and their providers can make an informed choice for themselves and their babies,” said Dr. Mahadevan. “Every pregnant woman with IBD has benefited from the generosity of PIANO moms who contributed their outcomes, good or bad, to the pool of knowledge we have. Every PIANO mom who contributes benefits not herself, but future mothers with IBD. It is an invaluable and precious gift.”
What PIANO measures
There are four main areas the PIANO study looks at:
Whether the level of biologic drug transferred across the placenta to the infant by the time of birth predicts the risk of infection or other adverse outcomes
Whether the achievement of developmental milestones is affected by medication exposure
Whether the rates of birth defects, adverse pregnancy outcomes and complications of labor and delivery are affected by IBD medications
Whether second trimester drug levels can be used to adjust drug and minimize transfer across the placenta to the baby
Since I am just now reaching the halfway point of my pregnancy, I have only had to fill out questionnaires. You are required to do so during each trimester, at the end of your pregnancy, and then at 4, 9, and 12 months post-delivery. Along with that, you can provide follow up until your child is 18, once a year. During this trimester I will also provide blood work and a fecal calprotectin. On delivery day, bloodwork will be taken from me, my baby, and my umbilical cord. Depending on my son’s blood work at delivery, I may be asked for more when he’s 3 and 6 months. If at any time I am not comfortable with him getting his blood drawn, I can always opt out. The cord blood is similar to the baby blood at birth so that is adequate. I can also choose to stop the annual questionnaire at any time.
If a woman receives the COVID-19 vaccine during pregnancy, the PIANO study is also measuring the antibody levels found in the cord blood (on the day of birth) to confirm that the benefit transfers to the baby. Breastmilk will also be measured for the transfer of protective antibody against COVID.
The Findings Thus Far
In a presentation this past fall, Dr. Mahadevan shared findings from PIANO.
“We looked at pregnancy, birth and developmental outcomes in the infants at one year, based on exposure to drug, and found no increase in negative outcomes and no reduction in developmental milestones. Biologic‑exposed infants did have some statistically increased improvement in developmental milestones compared to the unexposed group. Overall, what this study suggests is that women with inflammatory bowel disease should continue their biologics and thiopurines throughout pregnancy to maintain remission, given no evidence of harm, and evidence that disease activity can increase miscarriage.”
The study also found that disease activity can increase preterm labor and birth, all the more reason for women to stay on their medication and not try and go med-free while pregnant.
Looking to the Future
Currently, there is no end date for the study. As long as there is funding, the project will continue. Dr. Mahadevan says with all the new medications coming down the pipeline there is a need for safety data. She says, “The infrastructure of PIANO allows us to study new medications as they come to market, even before they are approved for IBD.”
To participate in the study women must have IBD and live in the United States. Interested in learning more or getting enrolled? Email PIANO@ucsf.edu or call 415-885-3734.