I was at the top of my game having just graduated college with a Wall Street career all lined up and BAM, just like that, the colitis hit.
At the tender age of 22, when my life was just supposed to be beginning, my life became a perpetual case of where’s the nearest bathroom and having to bolt to avoid accidents. Between wearing diapers and trying to date while popping pills and using enemas, I began to realize how tenuous life is. It was a scary proposition because my dad passed away at 39 years old from a wicked case of Crohn’s that turned into colorectal cancer, and his sister quickly followed suit. And here I was, barely awake from my first of 100+ colonoscopies, hearing the words ulcerations and inflammation thrown around. It was unnerving and terrifying all at once.
Today, 12 years, 20+ surgeries and hundreds of procedures later. I’m happy to say that I’m still alive and kicking. I continued working in investment banking, taking time off to mend from surgeries until the stress, the fatigue and constant flare-ups did me in enough times. A decade ago, after returning from my 24th birthday in Cancun, I developed a horrible case of food poisoning and I was never the same again. I took antibiotics, which gave me c.dificile, a debilitating infection caused by antibiotic overuse. It resulted in 15-20 bowel movements a day, watery diarrhea, nausea and dehydration.
And that c.diff subsequently brought about a never-ending colitis flare that lasted 8 years. I cried in my former gastroenterologist’s office as I had an accident in his hallway and as I continued to lose weight and along with it, my sense of self and personality. At the end of 2007, I was 135 lbs. By mid-2008, I had tried every medication and alternative treatment under the sun, lost 50 lbs., and was being fed by an intravenous PICC line in my arm. I was dying.
I was rushed to the hospital where my surgeon removed my colon on the 4th of July. As I found out later, he and his boss, the chair of colorectal surgery,
…were unsure I would survive the operation. Heck, I was certain I wouldn’t.
But I had no choice. I was told death was certain if I didn’t have surgery. As Independence Day came and went, I woke up alive and very thankful to no longer be dependent on a disease-ravaged colon. And overnight, I found myself a new bff, my stoma Snuffleupagus, as named by my ever-devoted husband.
It took about 2 months of receiving IV nutrition and antibiotics before I began to eat more than a morsel of food. And how can I forget spending my 25th birthday in the hospital with yet another bout of c. dificile? I recovered nearly 6 months later and went on to have some more surgeries so that my surgeon could fashion a j-shaped pouch from my small intestine, which would allow me to defecate like a normal person again. Before long, I developed pouchitis, a new brand of inflammation that hits in the j-pouch and causes IBD symptoms of bloody diarrhea 20 times a day.
After several months of on-again, off-again pouchitis, I was left on a rotation of antibiotics for a few years. That was until the pouch began to fistulize, or burrow holes into other organs. My diagnosis was changed from UC to Crohn’s. I developed a total of 5 rectovaginal abscesses that became full-fledged fistulae, which resulted in UTIs galore along with immense pain and bleeding, in addition to multiple surgeries. Along with it, I developed a whole host of extraintestinal joint and dermatologic manifestations of the Crohn’s.
To allow the fistulae to heal, I was yet again rushed to the operating table and was given a stoma. I was again fed by IV lines as I began to retry biologics; when none of them worked, I was told to have the pouch excised. I had exhausted all my options and fought so hard for 6 years to keep that pouch. I felt like I had failed.
My pouch was removed, and I was left with a large wound and a permanent ostomy. Except the wound never closed like it was supposed to. I bled for months and went for a second opinion at the Cleveland Clinic where I was told that the Crohn’s had continued, and pieces of j-pouch and rectum were still inside. There was a massive honeycomb-like abscess in my pelvis where the j-pouch once was. According to MRI reports, a pelvic fistula had formed and was headed for my spine. I was told it could paralyze me. Major corrective surgery was my only option. I was given a PICC line yet again to deliver IV antibiotics and restarted Adalimumab.
I went for a third opinion at Mayo Clinic where the surgeon wanted to try a new technique. He re-excised the pouch 3 more times so that no pieces of bowel would be left behind to cause the Crohn’s to spread. He left a wound the size of a small football and I was left with a wound VAC attached for 4 weeks thereafter. Every alternate day I had a procedure under sedation in my room to debride the wound. The VAC was pulled after a month and I was left with a 3-inch deep wound for my mom and husband to pack.
After such excruciating pain, I thought I was out of the woods, but another RV fistula was found, which was perplexing because I had no rectum left. It was just a hole, something I was told had only been seen twice before. My doctor prescribed antibiotics, 6-mp and a double dose of Ustekinumab, which was still in trials for Crohn’s. It took several months of misery, but the wound finally closed, and the fistula was untraceable.
Come 2016, the word “remission” was being thrown around for the first time in my life. And I didn’t know what to do with myself. When a disease snatches one’s womanhood, how does one begin to resurrect oneself?
Nevertheless, after 3 near-death experiences, I am thankful to be alive and for every single surgery and every single breath. Every time I have fallen, I have picked myself up higher than before. And that is my very own personal miracle and my greatest achievement to date. My medical staff, my friends and family and the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation are my rocks, my backbones and a source of constant support. Every time I lose hope, they help me stay afloat.
A year and a half later, yes, I have 8 new chronic diagnoses to manage, but I refuse to go down without a fight. My battle with Crohn’s has given me a newfound appreciation for life, a joie de vivre, like no other. Not a single day goes by without me remembering how far I’ve come and how much life I have yet to live. I may not be able to work but I am able to volunteer in between health crises. Co-facilitating the Foundation’s Women’s Support Group has given me a voice, a platform to raise awareness for these awful diseases and help women like myself advocate for treatment and maintenance of care.
IBD may be a beast, but it is worth putting up a fight for your loved ones and most of all, for yourself.
IBD may derail our careers, educations and relationships but it cannot take away who we are at our core. We must keep on fighting the good fight and never lose hope.
Here I am today, continuing to fight in the memory of my late father, for my dear mother and husband as well as all the friends who have stood by me along the way. I fight for new treatments to be developed and for a cure someday. I fight for you and me, for all of us at the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation.