How it feels to be hospitalized as a mom with Crohn’s

It’s my greatest fear, having to be hospitalized with a Crohn’s flare as a mom of two little ones. It’s something I think about all too often. The thought alone scares me. It’s difficult to imagine the reality of the experience. Since becoming a mom, I’ve been fortunate enough to stay out of the hospital. Unfortunately, for a friend of mine in the IBD community—she’s had to face this reality all too often.

Her son, Beckham is two months older than Reid. Our little guys could pass for brothers. This week—a guest post from Brooke Retherford, a fellow IBD mama from Wisconsin. She shares the raw emotions she’s experienced since her diagnosis at age 13.

IMG_2014I’ve had my fair share of surprises and obstacles with Crohn’s disease. My patient journey includes numerous surgeries, multiple doctor appointments a week, sitting in hospitals getting Remicade infusions, switching up medications to tame a flare and my all-time favorite, hospitalizations for days at a time. Please note the sarcasm in that last sentence.

These instances are not by any means convenient or something I or anyone else with Crohn’s looks forward to. Hospitalizations are such an emotional time for someone fighting this disease. The uncertainty, the physical pain, being absent from work and home and causing those around you the inconvenience of throwing off schedules for a week at a time. But, the absolute worst part is adding an infant to the mix.

When my son was just 4 weeks old my Crohn’s reared its ugly head and sent me and my disease packing to the hospital for a week. IMG_2015When the pain presented, I tried everything I could to avoid the trip. I just wanted to stay home and live my life with a newborn, enjoy the snuggles and oddly enough the 3 am feedings. Then, the time came when I couldn’t even get through a feeding without needing to set him down so I could run to the bathroom. I knew it was time.

It was no walk in the park having to be away from a little one. I cried. I was upset and mad at my situation. I felt like a terrible mom for letting the disease consume my life and take me away from my child. Luckily, I have a great support system that understands the emotions behind a hospitalization. My husband always brings our son Beckham to the hospital. I get to FaceTime my family to say goodnight and get pictures of my son throughout the day. Family (1)

Unfortunately, that wasn’t my last stint in the hospital for Crohn’s. Now that our son is two, I have officially lost count of my time spent away from him. Hospitalizations never get easier. Especially now when he knows I am physically absent from his life and he asks, ‘where did Mommy go?’ It’s heartbreaking and frustrating.

There are always tears involved, mostly mine, but I’ve come to terms with the fact that I am a better mom for realizing that I need to make myself healthy and not let this disease define what type of parent I am.

How motherhood has helped me discover I’m so much more than my IBD

We walked out of the automatic rotating doors of the hospital and the cold air hit my face. I looked up to the sky in thanks, to show my gratitude and to take in the moment. We had our baby girl in tow, our Sophia Shea. img_5915It was a brisk January morning. Tears filled my eyes as I was overcome with emotion. Our rainbow baby is here, safe and sound. Another pregnancy behind me, a pregnancy that silenced my Crohn’s disease and provided sweet reprieve from my chronic illness. It was time to take Sophia home and start our life as a family of four.

When your health is taken from you and when you receive a diagnosis of inflammatory bowel disease, life prior to illness often feels like a distant memory. There’s something so sacred and so special about bringing a healthy life into this world, despite your own shortcomings.

My Sophia, much like my sweet son Reid, are my inspiration and motivation to push through the difficult days and find strength and perspective within myself. The creation of their lives has renewed my faith in my own body. img_5886Each time I have a procedure or deal with painful symptoms, I see their faces, I say their names in my head, and it brings me a sense of calm. My goal when Reid was born, was to stay out of the hospital until he could walk, luckily that’s been the case. He’ll be two in March. Now, I have that same goal following the arrival of my daughter.

Pregnancy and child birth bring about such an amazing, miraculous transformation. You see life created right before your eyes. You experience a shift in your own identity. There’s nothing like it. There are no words to capture the emotions and the overwhelming love you feel for your children.

Finding the balance: Motherhood and IBD

17-untitled-9166Motherhood and IBD can be a difficult and challenging balance. Some days the fatigue and symptoms are so debilitating you feel like you’re falling short. At the same time, the days where you’re feeling well, remind you that you are so much more than your disease. Just because you have a chronic illness, doesn’t mean you are robbed of experiencing the beauty of life and what it feels like to have your very own family.

Women often reach out to me with questions regarding fertility, conceiving, pregnancy and what it’s like to take on parenting while battling IBD. There are so many unknowns. I know it can be daunting. img_5751It all starts with recognizing where you are in your patient journey and then determining when your symptoms and body are in the best shape to get pregnant. While everyone’s disease experience is different—the worries, concerns and fears associated with parenting and chronic illness are often the same. Always know you are never alone. Communicating these feelings with those around you, makes all the difference. Lean on our patient community and all those who’ve lived your reality.

I treated my pregnancies the same. I had colonoscopies prior to trying, to ensure I did not have active disease. Once I received that green light, I discussed my game plan with my OB, high risk OB and my GI and had monthly and sometimes weekly appointments. Each time—I stayed on my medication and vitamins from start to finish, which includes the biologic drug, Humira. I had scheduled c-sections for both. It’s all about finding what works for you, what brings you comfort as you embark on this journey and being confident in your decisions. It’s your body. It’s your baby.

29-untitled-9292When Sophia Shea entered the world January 14, 2019, our family received a wonderful gift. Between our son Reid and our baby girl, we could not be more blessed. My chronic illness has given me such an appreciation for health and for life in general. With the pregnancies behind me, I often reflect on where I started back at age 21 in 2005. At that time, in my eyes, I was Natalie and I had Crohn’s disease. There was no telling what my future would hold. Now, nearly 14 years later, at age 35, I’m so much more. I’m a mom to two under two. I’m a wife. I’m a daughter. I’m a sister. I’m an aunt. I’m a friend. And I also have Crohn’s.

 

Airport reflections: When you spot IBD support from a mile away

I’m sitting at O’hare International Airport in Chicago. Fresh off taking the stage in Des Moines for a patient symposium. And an image of a young couple in the crowd keeps popping into my head. As I spoke, I noticed. I noticed how he squeezed her hand when I talked about love and inflammatory bowel disease. I recognized how he touched her shoulders when I reminisced about how it feels when friends turn their back on you, as you grapple with a chronic illness. As I stood on that stage, witnessing their not-so-subtle interactions, I knew that girl had found someone special.

Each time I speak, and in many of my articles, I refer to my husband, Bobby. natbobbySince the moment we met in 2013, and through all the ups and downs my Crohn’s disease has caused in our lives, he’s been my safe place and my protector. During my speech, I talked about how everybody needs “a Bobby.” A person who sees you for more than your disease. A person who doesn’t shudder at the thought of seeing you at your lowest for days on end in a hospital bed. A person who gets the day to day management and emotional toll chronic illness takes on not only the patient, but the couple and the family.

After my speech, this same couple who stood out to me in the crowd approached me. I immediately told them they had grabbed my attention. I said let me guess—I pointed to the young girl and said, “you have IBD.” IMG_9348Then I turned to her boyfriend and said, “and you are her rock and her caretaker.” They laughed and told me I guessed right. Isn’t it amazing how easy it is to spot this type of support? I was a complete stranger, once in her shoes. Young. Dating. Wondering about my future. Their names are Emily and Kellen.

Ironically, Emily and I both underwent bowel resection surgery days apart in the summer of 2015. Her boyfriend at the time, decided it was too much—and left her. Then she met Kellen. As we joked, “her Bobby.” IBD throws us curve balls, it challenges us in unimaginable ways, but it teaches us, too. One may think of surgery and setbacks as the lowest of the low during the patient journey, but often those moments bring about the greatest highs and crystal-clear clarity. Both about ourselves—what we’re capable of…and about others.

As I was talking to Emily and Kellen it brought tears to my eyes, because I felt so happy for her. IMG_9347Only 22 years old, so much of her life ahead of her. And she’s found the person who looks at her, despite her illness, and loves her for it. The Bobbys and the Kellens of the world are the real deal. If you haven’t found yours yet, trust me…they exist and they are out there.

It was my husband Bobby’s birthday yesterday. The special milestone days always bring out the mushy side in me. I can’t help it. So, as I sit in this airport, and think about how lucky Emily is, I’m also reflecting on how lucky I am to have found my ride or die, who will be with me all the days of my life, just like my illness.

 

The difference between sympathy and empathy with chronic illness

Sympathy and empathy. Two different words with very different meanings. Especially to those of us in the chronic illness community. The first nine years I battled Crohn’s disease, I kept my diagnosis as private as possible. Only close friends, family and co-workers knew what I was going through behind closed doors. I did this because I didn’t want sympathy.

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Back on the news desk following a bowel obstruction hospitalization, would you ever guess this was my first show back?

I didn’t want people to look at me differently. I didn’t want to be judged or looked down upon. I didn’t want to be viewed as “less than” by my peers. When you choose to suffer in silence you close yourself off to support, you close yourself off to empathy.

Since sharing my patient journey in November 2014 with the public, I’ve realized the power of empathy. How it feels when those close to you and complete strangers reach out to offer support, words of advice and choose to show compassion. By definition, empathy means, “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” The definition of sympathy is “feelings of pity and sorrow for someone’s misfortune.”

When we choose to share our story, we open ourselves up to not only support, but criticism. People who believe we are advocates as a way of seeking attention. People who try and dumb down our personal experiences because they feel we share to get pity. People who believe we want others to feel sorry for us. This could not be further from the truth.

I share my experiences with Crohn’s disease as a way to inspire and educate.

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I’ll always remember how my cousins and brother rallied around me at the Take Steps Walk in Chicago.

The last thing I want is for someone else to feel sorry for me. There is no reason to act like I have it worse than you or that you feel bad I’m not “healthy.” I am healthy, I just have a chronic disease that makes my life a little more challenging than yours. The challenges Crohn’s has brought into my life have been difficult, emotional and trying—but with each setback, comes a much stronger comeback. I am stronger and better for the trials I have been faced with.

I don’t want your sympathy. I want your empathy. I want you to reach out and see how I’m doing, because you genuinely care. I want you to show interest when I bring up my disease, rather than change the subject…or walk away. The lack of empathy and disinterest hurts more than anything. It shows you who’s a surface friend…and who is a real one.

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I was hospitalized six months into my relationship with my husband. His support was amazing from the start.

Think about how you’d like to be treated and talked to, if you dealt with an invisible, chronic illness that wreaked havoc on your body without warning. A disease that you do all you can to control with lifestyle and medication. A disease of constant unknowns.

When you conversate with those in the chronic illness community—think before you speak and please choose to be empathetic, rather than sympathetic. Your efforts may seem minimal to you, but they mean more than you know.

Canceled Plans: Dealing with the unexpected with IBD

Making plans. It’s almost an oxymoron when you battle Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis. For the past month or so, I’ve been corresponding with a girl named Amanda. We were brought together through a patient advocacy group known as “The Breakthrough Crew.” One of the organizers told us we should connect. I’m so glad we have. image1 (7)

You know that feeling when you talk to a complete stranger and feel like they’ve been a part of your life and your patient journey since the start? That’s how it is with Amanda. We went from emailing, to texting, to talking on the phone. Our phone conversation felt so comfortable and effortless. She lives in Chicago, I’m from there. We grew up 20 minutes from one another, little did we know our paths would cross in our 30s. This past week, my virtual IBD bestie and I made plans to meet up for lunch halfway in the suburbs.

Unfortunately, days before our lunch plans, Amanda was hospitalized with a flare up. We texted and decided it would be best to change our plans and for me to take a train into the city so she wouldn’t need to drive. We were both so excited. IMG_6057Three days later, at 10 pm the night before we were going to hang out, Amanda was admitted back into the hospital.

This is life with IBD. Making plans and then your disease intervening and saying “not so fast.” This is life when you don’t know what the next hour or day will bring. IBD can rob us of so much of what so many people take for granted. In these moments, this is when friendships within the IBD community mean so much.

While Amanda sits in her hospital bed, we’re able to correspond and be there for one another. I don’t think twice about having my plans change in a matter of moments, it’s almost an expectation. When I heard she was hospitalized, we shifted our plans and rather than lunch and girl talk, I was going to take the train and an Uber to the hospital to meet this girl who I’ve never met, but feel so close to. Unfortunately, her and I both knew rest was what she needed more than anything. And hospital visits, while uplifting, can be exhausting.

When she voices frustrations I too can feel her pain and offer meaningful words of encouragement.

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Amanda and her amazing husband, Rick

When she talks about her incredible husband Rick and how the poor guy wasn’t even given a chair to sit in as she struggled in pain for hours in the ER, it immediately brings me back to moments where my husband had to lay in my hospital bed with me because he too wasn’t given a place to rest.

Since I started sharing my story in 2014…nearly a decade after my diagnosis, I’ve realized how empowering it is to be open, to find comfort in friends—both virtually and in real life—and to know there are so many people out there who can be your lifeline in health and in flare ups. Find your Amanda. Find your friend who gets it. Even if you have yet to meet in person, they can bring you comfort you never realized you needed until it was available.

Amanda and I made plans. They didn’t happen. But, hey…that’s the nature of the beast we call IBD. If it weren’t for IBD, our paths never would have crossed. We’ll try again next month, and the month after, and one of these times the stars and our health journeys will align.