ImproveCareNow Jennie_david


Gutsy Friends + Geeking Out + Taylor Swift = A Great Weekend

I was standing in a dimly lit ballroom, full of researchers in their weekend clothes, eating celery when I saw her coming towards me. Her being my friend and fellow PACer Sami, a backpack on and a big bag over one shoulder, a wide grin breaking on her face. We ran at each like you see in those slow-motion movie scenes, met each other in a big hug, then, smiling at one another, introduced ourselves in person for the first time. This is the funny thing about gutsy people meeting - we know each other in a way that others don’t, even though we’d never met face to face. And just like that, it was a gutsy friendship at first sight.

 

We were abuzz with excitement in the nerdiest way - surrounded by researchers and GIs - we couldn’t keep from smiling at the scene. The ImproveCareNow Learning Session was completely novel to me in how Sami and I, as the two C3N Project patient scholars, were included in a conference designed for researchers. It was sort of like looking over the fence into someone else’s backyard, and all of the researchers were more than welcoming and excited to have us there. In case it is not abundantly clear by the end of this post, I am a huge researcher groupie - like huge, I was geeking out the whole time - and was so thrilled to be a part of the Learning Session.

 

Sami and I begrudgingly discovered that we had been given individual rooms - a thought which would likely please someone else but not us - so we decided to remedy the situation and move her things into my room (because it would have been a tragedy to have lost bonding time!). The first night we stayed up way past our bedtimes sharing stories and showing off the things we had brought to put on our storyboards. Finally by 1:30 AM, we conceded that it was probably time to go to sleep since we had to rouse ourselves at 6 AM, so we climbed under the covers and said good-night.

 

Saturday was filled with so many incredible things that it’s hard to recount them all, for any words I pick cannot accurately describe my enthusiasm or the entire experience. Having been given access to the Twitter account so we could send real-time updates, I became (even more of a) Twitter addict, tweeting everything from that first breakfast (Chicago was so ready for me with all of the bananas!) to quotes during the opening remarks. As someone who has IBD, it was really humbling and phenomenal to see all of these dedicated researchers and doctors working to improve care in pediatric IBD. I have found myself over the years struggling to establish medical legitimacy for my disease, and yet amongst this group, everyone understood, encouraged, and believed in youth with IBD - it was unbelievable.

 

We got to attend a session with parents and it is something I will never forget. Their faces were bright with enthusiasm, their children so young and hopeful, but their futures unsure. There was relief in their faces when they saw me and the other patients - knowing that their own kids with IBD would be okay and happy and smiling and at school and living life. I had never thought of my parents in that way before - the uncertainty, the fear, the love for their children - and I was incredibly touched by their compassion and insight into what it is like when your child has IBD.

 

The patients and parents had set up storyboards on the periphery of the conference room, and I would peruse them with Sami at my side, the two of us falling in love with all of the children. There is something odd and unnameable about looking at a child and knowing some of the IBD challenges in his or her future - those nights when there’s nothing to do but cry, days in the hospital falling asleep to daytime television, and times when the very thought of leaving the house seems impossible. But I know too that there will be moments - bigger and greater than the moments of pain - where the world will open right up for these kids and they’ll be unstoppable. I wish I had met them in person - but that can be my next trip to meet my little IBD crushes.

 

For the last day of the conference, Sami and I had been asked to choose our ‘IBD theme song’. On Saturday night, Sami and I laid on our bed, exchanging song options until we had found the perfect ones. The big reveal of our IBD-theme-song-extravaganza had been saved for the very last part of the conference, and we handed over the songs on a USB stick.  But when it came time to announce the songs, instead they called Sami and I to the podium. We got up and began to laugh nervously as we threaded our way through the sea of chairs and tables. Sami went first and played ‘The Fighter’ by Gym Class Heroes and we began to dance at the front of the room. Upon introducing my song, I explained that it was an ode to my colon - and ‘We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together’ by Taylor Swift began to play. The researchers laughed and clapped as Sami and I began to dance again and we were laughing with them.

 

ImproveCareNow Patient Advisory CouncilIt was the conference I’d be looking forward to for so long, enjoyed so much, and was over way too soon. Before I could blink, I was sitting on a plane bound for Boston. All of my roommates were out when I came home.  I unpacked and called my parents, telling them all about the trip and the countless amazing things that had happened. The next day, I went to the gym and just before I put my headphones in, a certain song came over the loudspeaker and I couldn’t help but grin. ‘We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together’ was on and I briefly considered taking out my ostomy and dancing, but felt that the joke would be lost on my college peers. I put my headphones in, the smile stuck on my face, thinking of my weekend and the great things to come for all pediatric IBDers.

 

Jennie


Superman Syndrome

When the moment comes to explain to someone what IBD is, there is a second where I'm mentally debating between the 'real' answer and the 'nice' answer. The 'real' answer outlines, well, reality and what was happened to me, being gutted and all. The 'nice' answer is the 'Oh, it's not really a big deal, my bowels can be fussy sometimes'. Oh lies.

 

But how do you explain to someone the troublesome storm beating around in your abdomen when you look fine without causing them to tailspin into a reaction of pity?

 

And so when I was thinking about this the other day, it hit me - I'm like Superman. (Clarification: I wish I were, wouldn't that be nice!) We're all like the super-hero who is an ordinary kid, typically on a smaller side (think Tobey Maguire in Spiderman), and it's only in the darkness or night when we become our true selves. Not the become-the-massive-green-hulk, but the idea is that we look normal, we are (mostly) normal, but there is something different about us. What I love about my metaphor is that unlike other things I've heard, this is a positive way to describe us. We have super-hero courage and strength and passion about awareness and advocacy, so how are we not super-heroes?

 

In high school, I was the girl who was sick. The girl with the NG who was once asked if I snorted an iPod shuffle (which, to this day, I am not sure how that's anatomically plausible anyway), the girl who would vanish for long periods of time (aka in the hospital) and suddenly reappear (see, super-hero!), the girl who made it a habit to take ambulance rides from school to the local ER. When I came to college, I tried very hard to just be me - the person who is in love with Patrick Dempsey, likes to run, works in a preschool, and wants to get a PhD in Psychology. I am all of those things and the 'super-hero' part is my Crohn's and my ostomy, things underneath my clothes and inside of me that don't make me who I am but contribute to what my body is. You should never feel like you owe someone a confession of your diagnosis - because you're not your IBD, you're Sarah or Kate or Joey or Marcus.

 

And you're a super-hero.

 

Jennie


Here We Go

As I was driving from Nova Scotia to Boston for school, I tried to think of the first day of classes my junior year. I was struggling trying to remember, and then it came to me: I didn’t go to the first day of classes because my body decided the ER was a better place to be. Nothing like starting off the year on the wrong foot.

 

I can summarize the fall semester of my junior year in one word: awful. I had the classes I wanted to take, everything moved in and meticulously set up in my room, a growing contingent of friends to explore the city with. But luckily for me (irony never gets old), I was entrenched in constant mechanical ileum bowel obstructions and ended up spending 2/3rds of the semester slightly (or okay mostly) drugged and trying desperately to figure out how to get better. And as I write this and think back to that time, it makes my stomach sore and also makes me want to have someone playing a violin in the corner as I recount my sob story. But instead I’ll just say this - that was a semester to survive, not one to enjoy.

 

For a long time I thought that every new school year had an obligation to set loose a varying kind of havoc on my body. Every year was something a little different, a little more challenging, a little more tiring. And before this post turns into a sappy, soap-opera worthy story-line, let me say this: this year is going to be different.

 

I’m (mostly) fixed, having discovered the etiology of my mechanical bowel obstructions (who knew yoga could be so dangerous!) and am absolutely elated to say that I haven’t had an obstruction since December (minus my obstruction in April, but hey I ate about 7 apples so that was my fault). It makes a world of difference having my body back and being able to do what I want. As my boss this summer said, ‘planning is important, plans are useless’ - aka nothing goes according to plan, but learning to swing with the punches and expect issues is the trick. I’m not naive enough to think I’ll be completely honky-dorey the entire semester, or that things won’t be bumpy, but I’m ready for what’s to come.

 

Here’s to the new school year. Here’s to new challenges. Here’s to resiliency, perseverance, and courage. Here’s to making new friends. Here’s to learning. Here’s to hoping the most stressful event of the semester will be an exam. Here’s to my senior year. Here’s to getting back up when you fall. Here’s to scars that remind me where I’ve been. Here’s to health and happiness and hope.

 

Here we go.

 

Jennie


You're Making Me Crazy

 

 

 

 

 

 

Unfortunately, I can remember it like it was yesterday.

 

I was at the hospital - again. Missing school - again. In pain - again. And had just been told I was fine - again. And somewhere in between beginning to cry and trying to re-explain what was going on, the thought occurred to me, am I crazy?

 

They call it the ‘med student syndrome’, but let me tell you, this is particularly contagious in the world of Psychology as well. In fact, a good friend of mine is convinced she has every disorder the professor lectures about until I talk her down from her multiple psychopathologic diagnoses. But I was beginning to feel the same way - I knew I was sick, I knew something was terribly wrong, but the doctors didn’t and they were content with sending me home. So again, I asked myself, am I totally off-the-wall-in-need-of-serious-medication crazy?

 

If living with IBD were a job, that might be one thing. If I could spend all of my time and energy and resources on feeling well and resting and recovering, hey, it might just work. But then there’s that thing called life - with classes and homework and friends and responsibilities and jobs and you name it. Most of my friends living with IBD have their plates piled insanely high with activities, and their reason is that there isn’t a moment to lose. But there’s something to be said for deep breathing and going to bed early and sleeping in. Because when you’re running neck and neck with the road runner and your bowels are misbehaving, it can take of all your energy to get through a minute without thinking about your dysfunctional immune system.

 

How does one ‘keep on keeping on’? Short answer: I have no sweet clue. But this is what I do know about the exhaustive mental fatigue that belabors any IBD patient: sometimes, you need to check out and put your head down and call it a day. Don’t throw in the towel, just turn out the lights and try again tomorrow. At the end of the day, you’re the only person living in your body and you do know what’s going on, medical degree or not. Call a friend, laugh at a joke, eat a really good piece of cake. Do whatever it is that makes you feel like yourself and gives you the strength and courage to get back up.

 

And remember, you’re not crazy. You’re gutsy.

 

Jennie


 

 

 


Adulthood

On the day before my 21st birthday, my Mom informed me that I was now an adult and that I didn’t have to listen to my parents anymore (folks, you heard it here first!). I laughed at this, and inside I thought, can I really be turning 21? How is that even humanly possible?

 

As part of my summer research job, I was headed out of town on my birthday for a project. Everyone at work was apologetic about the untimely trip, my parents disappointed that they wouldn’t get to spend the day with me. I was unperturbed - completely happy and willing to travel for work on my birthday. And here is why:

 

I spent my 16th, 17th, and 19th birthdays in the hospital. I couldn’t eat the birthday cake, and all I wanted to do was stay wrapped in my covers and continue to watch McDreamy save lives on Grey’s Anatomy. My 19th birthday was particularly memorable. I was just under two weeks away from my ileostomy surgery, which I was so excited for I probably qualified for some diagnosable mental condition. The GI finally convinced me to try some pain medication, after I had refused it for some time (note: not because I was stoic, because I’d never had it for IBD before and thought it would be as effective as Tylenol for a massive head injury). And once I had the pain medication, life was awesome (pain control, where had you been all my life???). I was still in pain, but all of a sudden I didn’t care so much and my eyes just went a little blurry and I was instantly more comfortable. Everyone I had possibly ever known (and maybe even some people I didn’t know) came to say happy birthday and give gifts. I promise (sarcasm implied) if you want gifts for 6 months, have your birthday in the hospital and then get an organ removed. An appendix will do, no need to go for the colon. So if you can imagine me, sitting on my bed, happy as a clam and slightly (or okay, mostly) out of it, with gifts piled around me and people everywhere - then in walk people with guitars and they start singing happy birthday. I asked my parents about this, I swear I didn’t hallucinate it. As crazy and silly as that memory seems in hindsight, the very idea that two years later I could be pain-free and working on my birthday flabbergasts me. I was too sick to work, too sick to travel, too sick to enjoy my birthday.

 

So cue my 21st birthday: I was serenaded with happy birthday at work (being sung to by the chief cardiac surgeon was hilarious), piled in a car with my co-workers, had dinner, went for a run, watched the Olympics, and went to bed. A normal day. An ordinary day. But those of us with IBD know that normal is extraordinary, and days like that don’t come as easily or frequently as we’d like. As I was running, I took this photo and couldn’t help but smile at where I’ve been, and more importantly, where I’m going.

 

I know my future with IBD still exists, there are still uphill battles to lose and conquer, scars to earn and strength to be lent to me by those I love. But today, I am 21 and things are bright and shiny.

 

Fingers crossed, eyes wide open - adulthood, here I come.

 

Jennie


On Top of the World

[slideshow]Two and a half months ago, I was in a hospital bed weeping. Surgery hadn’t gone as planned and suddenly the horrific semester I had just overcome seemed to loom before me. My heart felt like it had been split open, my dream from the summer of going to Peru seemed torn apart. Life was unfair and overwhelming and painful.

But if there’s anything I’ve learned, if you wait a few minutes, take in a big breath, and remember who you are, things become a little more possible.

So now, as I sit here writing this, I will try my very best to relay the amazement, wonder, joy, and peace of my recent trip to Peru. Warning: there truly are no words, so whichever I find will not do it justice.

First of all, the people were wonderful. There were ten of us including myself and the group was comfortable and hilarious, comforting and encouraging. We sang songs and joked and had serious times when we related stories of pain and discouragement. It was a group of people who had every reason to be bitter and angry and discontent with the world, but somehow there was so much joy.

We were broken in easily to the challenge that was steeped in front of us. After a couple of days of touring around Cusco, wrinkling noses at the cooked guinea pig, and grinning over adorable Peruvian children, we donned our backpacks (which seemed to get heavier everyday!) and took out our trekking poles. I’ve never been to South America before, but the sheer vastness of mountains and the glaciers standing triumphantly in the background, the laziness of the cows grazing in the fields, the rumbling of the river as it fell over itself - all of these sights and sounds I tried to commit to memory so I would never forget. It was, in a word, beautiful.

There are too many details to try to write down, too many things I will not be able to aptly describe. On the third - and hardest - day, we climbed to the peak (4200 m) to ‘Dead Woman’s Pass’. After climbing the ultimate StairMaster (thank you Incans), I climbed to the top of a big rock with a fellow young trekker. We looked down at the stairs, winding in the distance, saw the Incan irrigation chevrons carved into the landscape, and cheered for the trekkers behind us to make it to the top. There aren’t words - it was gorgeous and glorious and empowering and exciting. We sat there and breathed, inhaling and exhaling, unable to find words to articulate how our hearts were singing.

Even with the chilly nights wrapped in sleeping bags and the midnight journey to the bathroom tent with only a headlight, the trek came to an end way, way, way too fast. We reached the Sun Gate and took countless pictures, so proud of one another and the journey we had completed. I looked down at Machu Picchu, the postcard picture I had seen online so many times, and couldn’t mesh the real and surreal elements of the moment. I had made it. I was on the top of the world. And as happy and proud as I was, my heart ached that the trip was nearing an end and I would be leaving the people I had come to care about so dearly.

Besides crying as I left Peru, the most vivid memory I have at the end of the trip was the bus ride from the train back to Cusco. It was dark and everyone was tired and plugged into their iPods or falling asleep. The bus drove along, the lights of the surrounding towns twinkling. I was listening to my music, grinning at the joy of the occasional person who would break out into song or the laughter that would warm the bus. I closed my eyes so tight and promised to remember what it felt like to be there and wished the bus ride would last forever. If I close my eyes now and listen to my heartbeat I can still feel the sway of the bus and the hum of laughter and the peace that blanketed us all.

It was the best experience of my life, though I wish I could say that more eloquently. I am so happy to have been healthy enough to go, but now sad that it is over. But I know that there will be new challenges, new mountains, and new friends.

And when I get nostalgic and wish I was back on the trail, hiking steps and laughing, I’ll look at my pictures and smile, and close my eyes and be back in the bus, happy and whole and healthy.

Jennie


Jennie | Story of Self

jendavid91Years ago, a doctor asked me to draw a pie-chart and shade in how much Crohn’s affected my life. I remember hesitating and then looked up and said it was impossible. There was no way to decide where my life and my Crohn’s didn’t walk hand-in-hand, they were as intertwined as written words on paper. Alone it might just be blank pages and a pen, but together they make a story.

 

I had just turned 12 when I was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease. This is what I remember most about that time: being scared, confused, alone, angry, lost, lonely, and feeling robbed. I didn’t know what Crohn’s was before my diagnosis and thought that it meant taking a pill and not eating broccoli. I did not want to be sick, in fact I refused it, and wished that I could rewind the past few months and never be diagnosed.

 

But a lot can happen in 9 years, and indeed a lot has happened. I tried every medication to little avail, spent copious amounts of time in the hospital away from school and friends, dealt with people’s ignorance about bowel disease, and acquired a medical vocabulary. I’ve lost count of the PICC scars on my arms and the medications I took. I have boxes of medical ID bracelets and needle caps and finger puppets (the reward for a blood-draw at my pediatric hospital). And even though it’s an enviable collection, what I am most proud of is being involved in awareness and advocacy through Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of Canada (CCFC) and our Youth Advisory Council (YAC) here.

 

When I was applying to college, people who didn’t know me well would timidly warn me, “Oh you should stay at home for school. You’re sick”. I absolutely hate being told what I cannot do, because no one else can tell me what I’m incapable of. I left Nova Scotia for Boston University, where I’ll be a senior in the fall. I’m studying Psychology and plan to apply for a clinical PhD in pediatric health psychology in the winter. It’s a mouthful, but I want to be a pediatric psychologist for chronically ill children.

 

After my freshman year at BU, I became extremely sick during the summer. I had spent so long feeling unwell that it seemed ordinary to me. My GI scoped me and saw the inflammation in my colon was severe and the bowel had begun to die. I was so relieved to hear the news because it meant that something drastic would finally be done. I chose to have a proctocolectomy (aka everything after the small intestine is gone) and a permanent ileostomy. I love my bag so very much, it was the right choice for me and my disease, and wouldn’t trade it for the world’s best working colon.

 

I think that one of the hardest parts about living with IBD is understanding that it’s chronic. I don’t think we ever have a solid understanding of the word since there is virtually nothing in our lives that is stays the same forever. We grow, we move away, we meet new friends, we watch new television shows. Even though it’s been almost a decade of being an IBDer, there are still mornings when I remember my ostomy and can’t believe what’s happened to my body.

 

I was recently in Peru to hike Machu Picchu to raise awareness about IBD and ostomies. People asked me if it were possible go back and take away my Crohn’s if I would. I said no, because I wouldn’t trade the clarity that living with IBD has given me on my life and what I want to do for anything. I am not my IBD, I’m just a girl who likes to run, loves Patrick Dempsey, and could probably win a banana-eating contest. And everyday I do my best to live by the words I wrote to myself after being diagnosed, “You hope to rise above your disease and excel”.

 

Jennie


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