ImproveCareNow Talking_about_ibd


To Little Jennie

To my 12-year-old, newly diagnosed self:

Jennie David on the 4th of July just a couple months before being diagnosed with Crohn's disease

For a long time, you will regret your decision to tell your parents that you were hurting. You will wish you had kept the pain and the blood and the fear a secret so that you wouldn’t be different and sick.  You will wish it very much, using up your wishes on birthday cakes and fallen eyelashes. But first, let me tell you, you did the right thing and that not telling your parents would not have kept you from getting sick.

 


because these things will change.

Sami_scope

 

Hey.

 

Breathe. I know you want to scream right now, because it hurts so bad. I'm sorry.

 

I know you struggled to sit through that presentation. I know you didn't leave because you were afraid you'd get in trouble. You didn't want to be embarrassed. You wouldn't know what to say. You have diarrhea and it's really bloody, and I know that scares you. I know there's no way to say that easily, so you keep quiet. Some days, it's just blood. I know you wish you could talk about it. One day, you will.

 

I know you're scared. Scared that next time, you won't make it. Scared that the line outside the stall will start to get impatient. Scared that everyone will notice it's you giving off that smell. I know you wish you had more hands, so you could plug your nose, grip the rail, and hold your aching belly at the same time. I know you worry that one day, the pain won't pass, and you won't be able to wipe and stand up and just leave. You don't know what you'll do then. You're scared to look down, afraid of what you'll see. It's getting worse. The doctor said it would get better. I know it doesn't make a lot of sense to you now. You're eating only the most basic foods. It's a bagel every day for lunch, maybe white rice and a banana for dinner. You're staying hydrated before you run. That was supposed to make it all better. No matter what you eat, the pain makes you moan and cry and scream, but you know you get through it every time. You're going to get a break soon. It will be okay.

 

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You're going to face something even worse than that pain, too. Bad doubt, worse than the worst of your pain. It will hurt you more than anything. Trust yourself. Your pain is real, and you are not weak. You are loud and smart and spunky. Be that girl, even through the pain. I know you think letting people do nice things for you will make you not-a-grown-up, but let them. It's not baby-ish to need a hug or do a silly craft. Keep that in mind...say, two weeks from now. That was a hint. Hey. Really. You're being more of a grown-up than you know right now, even right within that stall.

 

I'm sorry. I'm sorry that the field trip you've been anticipating for months had to go this way. I'm sorry that you couldn't eat at lunch. I'm sorry that when you get on that school bus to go home, you're going to sit alone and lay your head against the window, clutching your stomach, wincing with every bump in the road, hoping you see the school before it's too late. I'm sorry that when you go to track practice, you're going to be the last runner to cross that finish line again. I'm sorry that you're going to have to keep running all the way inside to the field house bathroom. I'm sorry that you're going to have to get back in a car to go home. And come back tomorrow to go through the pain and confusion and loneliness again. I'm sorry that you haven't had the normal freshman year you so badly wanted.

 

14

 

I know you're not wondering why you, but you are wondering why, and I am sorry that even I can't tell you that. No one can. But, one day, you are going to dream of finding the answers to questions you don't even know to ask yet. You are going to read books and hear stories about cells and pathways in your body that sound too incredible to be real. But, they are. And you will love those stories so much that you will want to learn every detail of those stories and write your own, too. You will have dreams you cannot even fathom yet. Dreams bigger than the stories and bigger than the pain.

 

I know it bothers you that I'm apologizing. I know if you were feeling better, you'd probably even be angry that I'm being so unclear about everything. This is our story, and you have to live it out to become me. Believe me, you'll like who you become. I'm sorry that you have to feel this pain, and that it's worthy of a letter, but know this: one day, you will speak about this pain, and the crowd will stand up and applaud, and it will be one of the happiest moments of your young life.

 

Hey. Don't look down. Just this one time. You know what's there. Look up. You don't know what's ahead yet or even what your problem is, but one day, you're going to be part of the solution. I know.


Defining and Defying

As of today, I joined ‘the real world’ - aka started my first real-world-full-time-look-I’m-an-adult-honest-to-goodness-getting-paid job. Today went as follows: 1) I ran into the PI of the study (who’s the head of the division, and who I’ve worked for the past couple of summers) and he gave me a hug (the day was off to a good start) 2) Got my ID badge which officially says “Jennie David, Cardiac Surgery, Research” - AWESOME 3) Found out that my ID badge gave me access to the OR (unnecessary, but totally cool nonetheless) 4) Geeked out with a co-worker over the research studies 5) Nearly drooled on my computer at an abstract that’s being presented at an international conference in a couple of weeks where I’m listed as a co-author.

 

Graduating from college is more or less synonymous with the phrase, “Here comes the real world!” To paraphrase a speaker at graduation, if this is the real world, where was I living for the past 21 years? The dictionary defines real as, “actually existing as a thing or occurring in fact; not imagined or supposed.” I would therefore like to argue that my entire life has actually existed and occurred in fact and has neither been imagined or supposed - so I would like to believe it’s all been quite real. The question becomes - what does joining ‘the real world’ mean?

 

For those of us living with chronic illnesses, we joined ‘the real world’ a long time ago, often years before our contemporaries. I would gander to think that ‘the real world’ refers to a certain consciousness, when you are acutely aware that your actions have consequences, that things matter, that responsibilities have weight, that bills need to be paid on time, and that if you put dark jeans in with white laundry you will dye all of your underwear blue. To quote Joan Didion in ‘Goodbye to All That’, a favorite essay of mine (that I highly suggest you read if you find yourself entering ‘the real world’), “That was the year... when I was discovering that not all of the promises would be kept, that some things are in fact irrevocable and that it had counted after all, every evasion and every procrastination, every mistake, every word, all of it.”

 

Definitions are, in virtually every way, relative and changing. Entering adulthood is different for everyone, just as living with an illness is or even a person’s preferences for candy. ‘The real world’ - or the awareness that you have a choice in making things the way you want them - isn’t something that’s prescribed only to the cohort of recent college graduates, it’s something that can happen at any time to any of us. For me, I was 12 and newly diagnosed and began to realize that I had the ability to define what Crohn’s meant for me and to defy what others thought it meant.

 

There is a difference between being chronically ill (a physical reality) and living with a chronic illness (the emotional experience). Today, in the midst of loving my new ID and reading over papers, I was temporarily bothered by the psorasis sprouting along my arms and legs and the ache in my abdomen compliments of my inflamed guts grumbling. Does it mean I didn’t enjoy my first day? Does it mean I can’t be successful at my job? Of course not. I’m just a girl who has a lot of goals and dreams and will work my butt off to get there - step one, doing my best at my research job, step two, getting where I want to go. I’m someone in my own right, and my Crohn’s fits in, but it does not define me in and of itself.

 

I remember the first time I ever heard the term ‘glass ceiling’ and thinking it was a funny way of talking about limitations. After all, even if it’s a glass ceiling, you can see the sky, so is it really that bad? But I think that’s the point - you can see what’s out there, but you’re boxed in and can’t get out. We all have preconceived notions about what it means to live with a chronic illness - we might think it means we can’t have a job, or a significant other, or move away from home, and so on. But at the end of the day, we are free to choose our own definitions - and they can change - and we are free to defy the expectation that a life of illness is a life of suffering.

 

So go ahead - defy expectations, define yourself according to yourself, shatter those glass ceilings. You’re already living in the real world, so go out there and do a downright gutsy job of it.

 

Jennie


Body Image & IBD

Having your body at the center of ongoing medical scrutiny is not the ideal situation in which to develop an individual and autonomous body image. We make room for scars and side effects, sometimes feeling as though who we are (and who we want to be) shrinks more and more. Developing a positive sense of self and body image is something every kid must face, but especially when it comes to IBD there is a role for everyone to play.


First and Last

There are evenings like tonight that I am sure I will remember in thirty years. There’s nothing remarkable about tonight, just a quiet evening at home, only it entails being forced to watch the school’s football field undergo a Cinderella transformation into my way-too-soon college graduation. And as such, I am overcome with a simultaneous sense of relief and panic – causing me to nearly freak out at the sight of the stage being built with a near “WAIT, I AM NOT READY TO LEAVE”. But alas, no one would hear me, so I will spare my neighbors the screaming.


Kicking Up Confidence

My lucky parents were blessed with a child who not only won the IBD lottery, but long before that diagnosis, had a severe reaction from eating a nut at age two. Growing up with a life-threatening nut allergy, I became accustomed to standing out from my friends long before my IBD diagnosis - but that is a story for another time. The point here is, I mastered the game of careful avoidance from a young age. Although I was not sensitive to the smell of nuts, I would take care not to even hang out in the same room as any. I was taught well that they were the enemy, and the farther away I stayed, the safer I felt.

 

So, you can imagine my surprise (read: horror) when, on my very first college campus tour, our guide announced that one of the distinguishing features of the campus was a large courtyard brimming with pecan shells. I stuck to the sidewalk when the group walked through the (admittedly beautiful) pit of possible death, trying hard not to let this unexpected development spoil a day that had been wonderful up until that moment.

 

I came home disappointed but determined. I returned for a second campus visit prepared. After two rounds of allergen testing (including literally walking into my allergist's office with a bag of pecans and asking that we rub them all over my feet), we confirmed that although I had not outgrown my oral allergy to pecans, I did not have a skin allergy. So, one year later, I returned to that pecan court - and despite the March cold - donned flip flops and stomped all around that thing. My heart was racing, but I had to prove to myself that I could do it.

 

Pecan Court as described by Sami I was literally walking, kicking, and dancing through a Pit of Things that Could Kill Me.

 

But I did it. And nothing happened.

 

Three years later, I walk through that pecan court at least once a day. And sometimes, I feel a little surge of victory. I can do what I once thought I couldn't do. Other times, though, I feel a pecan shell slip beneath the sole of my shoe and rub up against my foot - and despite the overwhelming evidence that I won't react - I still look for a hive to pop up. I am safe - but I can never erase that twinge of fear and doubt.

 

IBD is similar in some ways.

 

I have been in remission for over two years. But in that moment I see a red-tinge on the toilet paper, my mind inevitably begins to race off in directions I know it shouldn't go. I'll think, 'This is it. This is the first drop, and tomorrow there will be two drops, and then in a week there will be red all over the bowl, and then I will be on Prednisone, and I should go freak out now.' I always manage to regain my common sense by the time I finally flush that terrible industrial grade skin-irritating toilet paper away, but the panic never fails to set in for just a moment there. Even now.

 

I know remission is not a cure, and thus I am always ready to lose it. When I feel an abdominal cramp come on, I know I should go straight to the conclusion that it's just my menstrual cycle. That's the most likely conclusion, and for three years, that has been what it always turns out to be - but my mind never goes there first, even now. Perhaps it's a coping mechanism for when the day does come that I slip out of my remission - as if I think I'll find comfort in saying, 'Well, at least I knew this was coming.'

 

Living with a chronic illness, I am always walking through a pit of danger. Right now, I'm protected, my treatment is doing its job, but I know my armor is unlikely to last me forever. My 6mp probably won't hold off my immune system until I'm old and gray, but in the absence of a cure, my disease isn't going anywhere. Even my medications could hurt me one day.

 

But, just like with my nut allergy, there are things I can do to protect myself. I can take my meds on schedule. I can check in with my doctor every three months. I can be alert to my body and bowel movements so that I catch bumps in the road before they progress to flares. I can avoid behaviors and foods that might trigger problems, and do my best to keep my body healthy and rested.

 

It's important to know what I can't do, but it's equally important to know what I can do. I can walk through that pecan court. And, with a touch of luck and a lot of cooperation as an engaged patient, I can be an IBDer who hangs on to that remission for what I hope will be a good long time. It's important to know where I stand, but even more important to walk with confidence through wherever I am - whether it's the sidewalk or a courtyard of pecans, remission or a flare.

 

IBD was certainly unexpected and (if I let myself become preoccupied with all the what-if's of my disease) can be unnerving, but I am walking, kicking, and dancing through it.


Making the Team

Patient Scholar Sami KennedyIn October 2012, I arrived wide-eyed and a little afraid at my first ImproveCareNow Learning Session. I remember walking into the big room with my luggage and taking in the scene - so many brilliant clinicians and researchers I admired and greatly respected all in one hotel for one weekend. And here I was, too. I am nineteen - and so to many, I'm just a kid still. I didn't know what to expect, but I did expect to listen more than I spoke. After all, in a room full of some of my personal heroes, I was "just a patient."

 

As the inaugural Patient Scholars, to say that Jennie and I have been given the opportunity to live a dream would be an understatement. For a girl who expected to listen far more than she spoke, my voice has been valued more than I could ever have hoped or imagined. Jennie and I are just two patients - but to think about how many patient voices can and will resonate at future Learning Sessions excites me more than I can express. It's so clear to me now that "Just a patient" is not a concept that exists in ImproveCareNow.

 

On April 12th I returned to Chicago for the first Learning Session of 2013. Gutsy 2 (myself) may have been without her Gutsy 1 (Jennie) - but together through the art of virtual communication and the help of some friends, we didn't let a sudden strike of illness take away our weekend of hard work and joyous celebration. We shared in a presentation on self-management support and treatment adherence. We opened up about our stories and the accomplishments of the PAC (Patient Advisory Council) over the past year. We were inspired by stories of progress and achievement coming from all around the network. I even learned a new dance - the PDSA - aptly named after a fundamental quality improvement measure - because QI is really at the heart of making care better and thus rightfully deserved a spot at the heart of the celebration! (I expect PDSA to go viral on YouTube any day now.)

 

For a moment, when I landed in Chicago, I felt that familiar sudden shock of fear. For just a moment, I felt little again, like I was "just a patient" with a lot of ideas on the fringes of a great big community. But, this time, when I entered the conference room, I knew I belonged in this community. In one year's time, it's my hope that more patients will have felt the joy of this kind of welcome.

 

Five years ago today, I was waking up early - colon all cleaned out - and driving to the hospital with my mom, neither of us knowing I wouldn't be going home that day or that a whole new world was about to welcome us. Six months ago, when I arrived in Chicago for my very first Learning Session, I couldn't have even imagined myself standing in front of such a brilliant crowd and sharing my story - a story that only just begins with a diagnosis and hardship - on the level I did last weekend. Today, I can't imagine what comes next - but I know I'm humbled to have a voice that can share in the learning. I am eager to pass on the torch of leadership to the next Patient Scholars - because we all have stories, and many of the stories I heard last weekend touched me deeply and reminded me of why I do this.

 

I do this because, right now, another young girl and her mom are driving to the hospital - and they don't know what comes next - but I do.

 

That young girl will get better. And maybe, if we all reach our hands out together to say that everyone can make a difference and is valued on our team, she'll be able to help change care for the better for the next girl with IBD.

 

Like any good team, we are more than the names on the backs of our jerseys when we unite.  In this Network we are more than the names we go by: patient, parent, researcher, clinician. I am so proud to have a jersey on the ImproveCareNow team.

 

Together, we have quite the winning streak. And one day, I really do believe that we will achieve that cure, together.


All or Nothing

This semester alone, I have heard the phase “all or nothing” easily a gazillion times. Okay, I might be exaggerating here, but what I’m trying to say is that my psychology classes have discussed – repeatedly, at length each time – the ‘danger’ in “all or nothing” thinking. And it’s very true, because things are never black or white, things are not all or nothing. It’s not as easy as saying that someone is sick or healthy, there are grey areas in the middle, that slick slide you find yourself on traveling from one side to the other.

 

I hear my professors say this – I have proof of this scrawled in my doctor-worthy handwriting – and yet, I watch them crash through the glass walls they just built. Today in a class, a guest lecturer was talking about chronic pain. I know the guest lecturer meant well and he was in truth ultimately very determined to make a difference for those living with chronic pain.

 

But – some rules of thumb for doctors/parents/anyone reading this: not everyone who will deal with chronic pain/illness is anxious or depressed. Everyone (illness or otherwise) will deal with anxious and depressed moments, absolutely, but that does not mean they present with clinical psychopathology or that it is the heart of the problem.

 

One of the points this lecturer made was to help encourage positive thinking, active lifestyles, and a sense of control. So here’s an important note – if you want patients to have positive thinking, the doctor has to be positive with them, if you want patients to have a sense of control (and better yet, not just a sense but actual control), then a doctor has to be willing to share. It’s not all or nothing, it’s not you versus me, it’s us, here together – the ‘chronic’ should be a hint that there’s a plethora of time together. So use it wisely.

 

With each passing lecture, the urge to stand on my chair and shout (no, not ‘Captain my captain’, though that would be pretty awesome) “Hey you, listen, I’m a patient and I disagree. You can’t judge me or make blanket statements about me and all patients because you don’t know me.” This might cause massive disruption to the class and/or result in a stern conversation about being adults and not interrupting others when they’re speaking. But, like every kid knows, if you don’t have anything nice to say, you shouldn’t say it at all.

 

Sometimes I think people forget that patients are not lab rats. We’re not a separate population, smushed somewhere between children and adults. It’s like wearing one of those really itchy and constricting outfits for a family function and all you want to do is rip it off, but that would be impolite and people might stare so you smile tightly and keep your mouth closed. It is so polarizing to say people can only be a patient or a doctor, no in-between space, or shared community or feelings or beliefs. One or the other. All or nothing.

 

So I will stand up metaphorically on my chair (though, in reality, this involves me typing passionately at my computer) and declare that I am not just a patient, it is not black or white, not every person with a medical issue experiences anxiety or depression or is incapacitated crying ‘why me’ in a corner with a sappy violin playing in the background. Most of us are strong and capable and fighting – we’re advocates and whole, real, amazing people. We are every color imaginable, because black and white is boring, we are everything because to be all or nothing is belittling and untrue. We are loud, and we will never be quiet.

 

Jennie


Nobody Puts Baby in the Corner (or a Space-Saving Bag)

Today in class, a guest lecturer talked about patients with chronic illness “having to get used to” their new roles as patients. Those words were not the main point of the sentence; they were the words you say trying to pad the time, but nevertheless they were there, sandwiched in between other ideas. It made me think of space-saving storage bags. My grandparents bought them years ago, in an effort to control the umpteen crocheted afghans that had begun to overtake their Florida condo.

There’s a sense of disbelief – or at least at 13 I possessed such a notion – that overtakes you when watching someone demonstrate a space-saving bag. They show you the pile of items to be stored and the nonsensically small bag that the items will supposedly all fit into. No, your reasonable brain informs you, this is impossible; it is foolish, for it seems like trying to fit the entire American population into the state of Rhode Island. But the miracle is performed; disregarding your doubt, the vacuum is hooked up to a special port in the bag, sucking air out and shrinking down the large pile until it is neatly, possibly even comfortably, squished in the teeny space-saving bag. And this is what I thought of, as the speaker lectured, about fitting into bags that can't possibly contain the whole of you - until you shrink.

There is something about being a patient that is belittling, and for the chronically ill, something that is voluntarily so. We comply and save our feelings for favorite books, comfort food, the song that always makes us smile, the memory of our first car, our first kiss, our first failure, plans to travel the world, and whatever else makes us up.  Instead we don the Johnny shirt, shrinking into our own space-saving bag. We become reduced down to our disease; a list of symptoms, a medicine cabinet of pills, a medical record number.

If there is a manual on how to deal with a chronic illness, I missed it. As far as I'm concerned there are no rules, all you can do is live (and trip) gracefully. Yes, it is important for people with chronic illnesses to learn about their illness and to adjust to what it means (read: adjust emotionally not adjust your expectations about your life's possibilities).  But it is also important to be true to yourself.  When I wake up in the morning and get ready for class, or sing along to some favorite lyrics, or tell my parents about my day, or make cupcakes for my roommates; I am not my disease. I am Jennie. I am a girl graduating from college who wishes Patrick Dempsey would marry her - and so many other things. I politely, but fervently, refuse to be put in a space-saving bag, because it’s impossible to shrink me down and after years of being reduced to a diagnosis, I will no longer allow it.

The noun ‘doctor’ comes from the Latin ‘docere’, which means ‘teach’. ‘Patient’, on the other hand, is also Latin but means ‘suffering’. Even if you can manage to overlook the double meaning of patients having to be patient, the roots of the words speak for themselves. But the best doctors are the ones who suffer alongside you, who see the pain you’re too proud to admit to, who are normal and everyday and accessible and in that way wholly incredible and wonderful. And the best patients are the ones who never pass up the opportunity to teach a doctor, a nurse, or a medical student. The relationship between a patient and a doctor is dynamic and constantly evolving, and only when we can understand and respect it as a process will we ever be able to meaningfully work together – to quote a Taylor Swift song (but of course), “two is better than one”.

So be a little rebellious (if you’re like me, you never really went through the traditional teenage rebellion phase [Mom, Dad, feel free to disagree], you’ve earned it). You don’t fit in a space-saving bag, so don’t bother trying. Be patient with yourself, but no need to be only a patient – you are a teacher, you are incredible, you are a thousand other things, and (in the words of a fellow Crohnie) you deserve a beautiful life. That, my friends, is impossible to fit in a space-saving bag.

Jennie


Better

I'm often asked if I believe ulcerative colitis has changed me for the better.

 

It's a tough question. I can't go back in time and see how my high school years would have played out otherwise. There is no me, as I am now, without ulcerative colitis.

 

Has ulcerative colitis changed me for the better? The simple answer is no. My disease has not changed me outside of my intestines. I am the same girl with a few extra pills. The more complicated answer is yes* - with the asterisk. It's based on a technicality. No, UC has not changed me for the better, but living with UC has.

 

It starts with another girl: one named Tara. She was diagnosed with Crohn's Disease during her second year of medical school. A few years later, Tara had chosen to pursue a career in pediatrics and found herself on the inpatient rotation at my children's hospital in April '08 - the month of my diagnosis and subsequent hospitalization.

 

You can guess how this plays out.

 

I was the "I'm okay" kid in the hospital. I felt so good on steroids and so relieved to have a name for my disease, my answer to most everything became standardized. Did I want a visit from the art therapist? "I'm okay, thanks." Did I want another blanket? "I'm okay, thanks." It was my standard answer, so if asked if I wanted to participate in a mentoring program, I would have probably answered predictably: "I'm okay, thanks."

 

Tara was the mentor this "I'm okay" kid never wanted. She stayed one day after rounds to share her story. A day past diagnosis, I hadn't yet started to think about what a future with IBD meant. Thanks to Tara, I never doubted my potential. From the get-go, I knew Tara's story. If she could continue to pursue her passion with IBD, my possibilities were equally endless. Until I met Tara, I didn't realize mentoring is not an emergency measure; it's a survival skill. Her confidence inspired my confidence.

 

Being a good mentor is not about knowing the "right" thing to say or the "right" moment to say it. There will be moments when you don't know what to say, and there will be moments when it's best to stay quiet and just listen. Being a good mentor is not about the story; it's about the storyteller. The best storytellers - and the best mentors - realize that every story matters - and every story can change another story for the better.

 

Until I met Tara, I never believed a single patient voice could matter. Clearly, as I'm here blogging, I do now.


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