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

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

Patient “Number 1”

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

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

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

Living with an ileostomy as a teen

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

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

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

From past to present

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seeing the beauty through the struggle: IBD mom welcomes third child amidst COVID-19 pandemic

Welcoming a baby into the world brings so many emotions to the surface. For IBD mom, Suzy Burnett, of Madison, Wisconsin, it’s been a rollercoaster. She had her third baby, Guy Richard, February 29th. IMG_0146Right before COVID-19 started wreaking havoc in the States. Before Guy was born, Suzy’s biggest fear was a postpartum flare. After the birth of her second oldest daughter, Alice, she had the worst Crohn’s flare of her life and was hospitalized.

Now, as her and her family face the COVID-19 pandemic, she has a new set of concerns. Will Guy be able to stay healthy until his immune system matures a bit? How will her daughters adjust to the new addition? Will she be able to stay well despite being immunocompromised? COVID-19 added a whole new slew of uphill battles that she or anyone else for that matter hasn’t been prepared to deal with. This week Suzy shares her perspective as an IBD mom, doing all she can to protect herself and her family in the face of this viral war.

As anyone who has ever had a baby, you know those first two weeks, involve several doctor appointments. Guy still had high bilirubin levels when we brought him home, so this meant we needed to make extra trips to his pediatrician. Sounds easy, right? There was so much involved this time around. Babies don’t have that immunity built up yet, so we had to use a special entrance, and go straight to our room to avoid any contact with the public. I couldn’t help but glance at the waiting room and see all the long faces adorned with facial masks. It was swimming with sick kiddos. I felt incredibly lucky at that moment as we escaped the chesty coughs, and furniture that had been saturated in illness.IMG_0147

One week went by, and things quickly changed to Zoom and FaceTime appointments. Not only did the baby’s appointments change…but mine did as well. Those of us with Crohn’s disease can’t always get by with a virtual chat about our symptoms. But here we are.

Navigating health issues brought on by my IBD

Many people with IBD develop extra-intestinal manifestations. IMG_0144Unfortunately, when I was put on prednisone last summer, I developed extremely high eye pressures. I was diagnosed as “Glaucoma suspect” at 40 years old, meaning I have some risk of the disease, but no proven damage (yet), so my eyes are monitored often.

I’m also dealing with an external hemorrhoid, thanks to excessive diarrhea, along with an anal fissure, all while caring for three children—one being a newborn.

For those of you who don’t know, an anal fissure is a small tear in the thin, moist tissue (mucosa) that lines the anus. I’m treating the fissure with topical lidocaine and a suppository three times per day. I’ve had my fair share of pain, but this ranks right up there with my non-sedated sigmoidoscopy and childbirth. It feels like broken glass, or razor blades back there. There’s a chance this has progressed to a fistula, and I may require surgery in the weeks to come.

Normally, I would be seen right away, but due to the current COVID-19 crisis, it’s been several phone calls back and forth with the nurses triaging my symptoms. I’m confident the hemorrhoid will go away, but if the fissure doesn’t, I might be facing surgery, and right now a trip to the hospital could be life threatening.

Seeing the beauty through the struggle

Amidst this horrific event that is crippling our world, there is an unexpected beauty that has surfaced. Our wonderful party of five has become closer than close. Yes, there are times when we all go a bit loony, but we’re embracing this time together. My kids are my world, my everything. I need to be the best version of myself, and a huge part of that now and forever is not letting my IBD win. Even when my disease has a strong hold on me, I never let my kids see the struggle.

If you’re reading this and you’re unsure about whether you’ll be able to handle your IBD and motherhood, I’m here to tell you it’s possible. IMG_0148As a woman and a mom of three who has battled Crohn’s since 2008, I believe if it’s your dream to have children, or a family, you should most definitely pursue that. Consult with your GI and OB doctors prior to getting pregnant, and make sure you’re in remission. Pregnancy can be challenging, but if you’re also flaring, it’s that much harder.

As we all experience the change in our day-to-day lives during the COVID-19 pandemic, whether you have IBD or not, there has been a return to simplicity. A back to basics mentality that is exponentially refreshing. Take a walk outside and breathe in and out. Right now, we’re forced to take our time, dig deep, and focus on our inner beings. Much like the experience of dealing with the diagnosis of IBD, it’s a time to peel back those layers and re-discover YOU.

Follow Suzy’s journey by checking out her blog: Crohnie Mommy 

 

 

When life hands you lemons: Brittany’s story of resilience while battling Crohn’s

Imagine being hospitalized with a Crohn’s disease flare. Now, close your eyes and picture yourself in Germany, surrounded by doctors and nurses who don’t speak English. Brittany7You have your husband and children, but other than that…all your family and friends are thousands of miles overseas. That was the case for my college friend, Brittany Cable. Brittany was diagnosed with Crohn’s in 2007, about a year after she had her oldest son.

It’s one thing to take on IBD and be surrounded by family and friends who you can lean on for support, it’s an entirely different situation when you have to take on your disease in a foreign place, with nowhere to turn. Luckily, Brittany is now back in the States, with a strong support system nearby.

As an IBD mom, Brittany flared after all three of her pregnancies. While she was pregnant, her disease was well-controlled. She was able to bring three, beautiful, healthy babies into this world—despite her own health issues. brittany

Throughout her patient journey these past 11 years, Brittany has been on Asacol, Lialda, Uceris, Humira and Entyvio. The prednisone bursts and tapers have been difficult—to say the least. At one point, she was on 80 mg a day! To anyone who has been on prednisone, you know that’s a monster amount. After my initial diagnosis, I was on 60 mg for three months, so I can attest firsthand about how much of a struggle that presents due to all the side effects.

Brittany is a super-mom in every sense of the word. She’s now a single mom, raising three children, as she takes on Crohn’s. She works full time and has full custody of her children. She does this all alone. I’ve known Brittany for 16 years. She’s always been a super strong person with a great sense of humor. Brittany3Despite the hardships and heartbreak through her life, she’s never allowed the difficult moments to dull her spirit. She tells it like it is and isn’t ever shy when it comes to sharing her story. I’ve always admired that about her.

As Brittany says, the constant fatigue, body and joint aches are what she struggles with the most now. Every day after work, she is tired and wants to crawl in bed, but she knows her kids depend on her and need her. She knows dinner needs to be made and soccer, swimming and other activities have to be attended. It’s one thing to be a single mom and have your health—I can’t imagine living her reality and doing it all on her own. But she does. And her kids have thrived because of her herculean efforts to be there and be present, every single hour, of every single day.

So how does she do it? Brittany says, “When I think about my journey so far, I figure if I made it through having three kids, living in a foreign country and my husband leaving… all while managing Crohn’s disease, there isn’t any thing I can’t do. Every time I get a stomachache, I still fear that something horrible is about to happen, but I think that’s normal for all of us on this journey. So I take everything that comes my way one day at a time. My children will not suffer if I don’t make a home cooked meal every night. Sandwiches or pizza are okay!”brittany2

When Brittany’s husband left her and their children, she was sure the stress and drama of it all was going to throw her disease in a tailspin. But it didn’t! Instead, the hardship has empowered her to trust in her faith and seek counseling. She chooses to tell herself everyday that she is stronger than her disease and even if it attacks again, she knows she will get through it. And I know she will, too. Because that’s Brittany.

To the person who doesn’t want to see me smile as I battle Crohn’s

Today marks my 13th anniversary with Crohn’s disease. Lights, Camera, Crohn’s: An Unobstructed View, is two years old today! It’s a big day. Lots of reflection and bittersweet emotions. It’s always difficult to know how to handle an anniversary of a chronic illness diagnosis—is it a celebration? Is it a remembrance of what was? Is it all the above? For me, I like to think about how far I’ve come since July 23, 2005. How my perception of life, people and my own personal strength has grown, changed and evolved, thanks to my disease.

Since I started sharing my story in 2014 as a patient advocate, I’ve really put myself out there. I’ve been vulnerable, honest and haven’t minced my words. I’ve been fortunate to have speaking opportunities, videos, conferences and feature stories. While that is all wonderful—it also puts you in a space and a place where complete strangers—who have no idea what you’ve endured, can pass judgement and make claims about how you choose to take on your illness.

This past week—I was surprised by a comment on Facebook, written on an article by Health Central that highlighted my patient story. Like many people on social media, rather than read the article—they reply to the title or the pulled quote in the caption. Reader CommentThe featured image from the story is one of me smiling outside my home. The comment on the article: “Crohn’s sucks. Why don’t you show what a real sick person looks like, instead of a happy smiling one???? Just saying—nothing happy about this crap.”

This really took me aback. This felt like a slap in the face. This comment hurt me. Obviously, she didn’t read the article or she would have known about all my hospitalizations, surgery, and rollercoaster of a journey. But to flat-out judge a fellow patient who lives with this debilitating disease and demean me for having a positive attitude…and smiling (God forbid!). If it weren’t for my attitude and the way I approach my Crohn’s disease, I never would have accomplished my dreams of being a television news anchor. I never would have trusted a man with my heart and gotten married. I never would have become a mother and gotten pregnant again.

If there’s anything I’ve wanted you to take away from my blog and my journey, it’s about finding the power of positivity in your experiences and seeking the good that still exists in your life, despite your disease. If you want to think woe is me and suffer all day long on the couch…that will be your life. image1 (13)If you choose to smile and show Crohn’s who’s boss, than no matter what obstacles and setbacks come your way you’ll tackle them and fight through flares with a knowingness that better days are ahead.

As a patient advocate—I know I can’t please everyone. I know not everything I say will resonate with you. And that’s completely fine. All I ask is that you have an open mind and understand that each person chooses to take on this terrible disease how they want to and shouldn’t be called out for it. My life is not all about hospitals, IVs, pain and suffering. Yes, this past week my injection hurt so badly I was sobbing hysterically and yes my stomach was killing me while out to dinner. But you know what, those moments passed. Rather than allow my pain to rob me of a wonderful conversation with a friend—I stayed at the restaurant. Instead of wallowing in the pain of my injection and the bruise that remains days later, I had a bowl of ice cream and gave my 16-month-old a few extra high fives. _F6B3268

So, to whoever decided to try and belittle me on the article about my patient journey and look down on me for smiling, please know I am a real person…and I am sick. But sick doesn’t come first when I think of who I am. It’s a part of me. It’s not all of me. That’s how it will always be, no matter what. And one thing I can promise you—now and in the future, it will never stop me from smiling.