At age 24, Washington D.C. native Blair Hudgins expected to be spending her summer preparing for grad school. Instead, she was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, a type of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). She tried various drug treatments but they left her underweight and in pain. With a lot of patience and the right help from her doctors at St. Luke’s Hospital, her disease is now under control and she’s feeling more in charge of her health than ever.
Mystery disease uncovered
“Before my diagnosis I thought that I might be suffering from stress-related IBS,” Hudgins says. “At the time, I didn’t know what ulcerative colitis was. I was in shock.” Turns out, she was in good company – most of the nearly 1 million people with IBD have never heard of the condition until a colonoscopy reveals the inflammation and ulcers inside the colon walls.
Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis are autoimmune diseases, which means that for reasons researchers still don’t understand, the body attacks itself. Most people with Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis are diagnosed in their mid-20s.
Crohn’s and colitis are lifelong diseases, and potentially life threatening if misdiagnosed or left untreated.
Typical symptoms for Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis include:
- Abdominal pain
- Frequency or urgency to use the bathroom
- Blood in the stool
- Unexplained weight loss
“It’s important to see your doctor if you think you have any issues instead of waiting or trying to self-diagnose or self-treat,” stresses Lisa Ganjhu, DO, gastroenterologist with St. Luke’s and Roosevelt Hospitals, a part of Continuum Hospitals of New York. “We help you understand what’s normal and what might be a real cause for alarm.”
Symptoms wouldn’t quit; neither would Hudgins
Hudgins knew something was wrong when her symptoms became severe and started occurring daily. After suffering from severe cramping and other symptoms, she decided to make an appointment for a colonoscopy with a gastroenterologist.
Hudgins was put on Asacol, a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug, but it wasn’t a quick fix. She spent the summer living with her parents, waiting for the drugs to work their way through her body. In the meantime, she was in pain and her symptoms weren’t improving.
Finally, at just 95 pounds (on a 5’ 8” frame), Hudgins was ready to try a stronger immunosuppressant called Remicade. The infusion drug therapy worked. Her disease went into remission for two years, and she was able to complete her master’s degree.
Taking charge of her health
“When I moved to New York after school, I was in remission and I wanted to get off of Remicade,” Hudgins explains. She didn’t want to risk building up immunity to the drug, and now without health insurance, she didn’t want to pay for the expensive treatment out-of-pocket. After making lifestyle changes, she wanted to see if she could continue managing the disease on her own terms. That’s when she sought the help of Dr. Ganjhu.
“Patients who have Crohn’s or colitis rarely get better without being on some kind of medication,” says Dr. Ganjhu. But diet changes and exercises like yoga can help manage stress, which could help reduce flare-ups.
Hudgins did live drug-free for a while, but after a flare-up she and Dr. Ganjhu decided that trying Asacol again was for the best. This time, she was able to tolerate the drug and has been in remission for several months.
Lifelong care for a lifelong disease
Transitioning off of the infusion drug therapy means she isn’t seeing Dr. Ganjhu as often as she once did. But, Hudgins knows that if she has a question her physician is just a phone call away.
“If I call Dr. Ganjhu with a quick question, I don’t have to wait all day or make an appointment to get the answer I need,” Hudgins says. “She worked with me on managing my disease, and even told me about options to help me afford my medication.”
That strong doctor-patient relationship is crucial in treating and managing chronic illnesses like Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis.
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