In 1932, Dr. Burrill B. Crohn discovered a chronic inflammatory condition of the gastrointestinal tract. This disease was named after him and is now known as Crohn’s Disease.
According to Crohn’s Colitis Foundation of America, the disease affects as many as 700,000 Americans, mostly between the ages of 15 and 35, yet most people are unaware of the disease.
The causes of Crohn’s Disease, while uncertain, seem to take place in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. A normal immune system will fight and kill off viruses and bacteria, while the harmless bacteria in the intestines are kept protected; this changes for someone who has Crohn’s Disease. The harmless intestinal bacteria in a body with the disease will be seen as harmful and are attacked. This inflames the GI tract. No one knows exactly how people get it, though most studies point to hereditary links.
The symptoms of Crohn’s are very serious. Some of them include abdominal cramping, loss of appetite and weight loss. Medications are needed to keep the body under control.
This disease affects a large number of Americans every day, yet most of us do not know it exists, let alone understand it.
It may, then, come as a surprise to find out that students at Northwestern are battling Crohn’s.
Jessica Kempema was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease her junior year of high school. She began noticing symptoms such as her weight loss freshman year of high school, and it became extreme.
“They said it was anorexia, and I was malnourished,” Kempema said.
Four months later, the doctors were proven wrong and she was back in the hospital and diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease. Kempema stayed in the hospital for three to four days.
When she returned home, Kempema faced a major change: food choices. Foods that are high in fiber, like corn and fresh fruits and vegetables make symptoms worse.
“I really had to understand my body,” Kempema said, “but it was mostly trial and error. Like strawberries. I can eat them but have to be careful and eat them in moderation.”
The Caf poses a problem for her sometimes.
“I feel like I go there and can’t eat half of it sometimes,” Kempema said.
Much of the food is high in fiber or is considered “rough food,” like lettuce and foods with seeds.
Kempema also takes a medication that makes the immune system weaker, and thus makes it harder to attack the harmless bacteria in the intestines. She takes vitamins and probiotics as well.
“When I first got diagnosed, if I hadn’t been, within three months I would have died,” Kempema said. “I see it as a second chance. They say a disease can run your life, but I have control over it. It’s as much mental as it is physical.”
John Wawro is also living with Crohn’s Disease. He was diagnosed two summers ago.
“My mom has Crohn’s, and I had similar symptoms,” Wawro said.
His eating habits didn’t have to change too much, though he does miss sunflower seeds.
“I play baseball, so that’s kind of hard,” Wawro said.
He agrees with Kempema that the Caf, while some of the food is suitable, lacks more options.
“A couple nights I’ll have to have cereal,” Wawro said. “The Hub is kind of the same, but their burgers are fine. They’re really good about not putting lettuce on it.”
There is another disease, Ulcerative Colitis, which is very similar to Crohn’s Disease, except it only affects the colon as opposed to the entire GI tract.
Kristen Schuler was diagnosed with Ulcerative Colitis in 8th grade.
“I was feeling a different kind of sick than I ever had before and had a lot of the symptoms,” Schuler said. “I was in the hospital 12 days before I was diagnosed.”
Schuler was put on medication right away, which helped her to avoid most of the pain that came with the disease.
Unlike Kempema and Wawro, getting used to taking the medication was the biggest change for her.
“I was taking seven pills a day, and I was so young that it seemed life-altering,” Schuler said. “But I learned that if I skipped my meds, I would feel a lot worse. When I’m on my meds, that puts me under control. They’ve done a very good job of keeping me healthy.”
Schuler’s family was by her side the entire time.
“Any kind of diagnosis seemed serious at the time, and I was fearful of what it meant,” Schuler said. “My parents were really good about being honest with me and letting me know I could go on with life normally.”
Despite the fact that medication has controlled Schuler’s illness during the past eight years, she is now exploring more natural methods of treatment such as an altered diet and chiropractic care.
A disease like Crohn’s and Ulcerative Colitis can be unpleasant at times and restrict food options, but Kempema, Wawro and Schuler have proven that it does not erase the chance to go on with life as normally as possible.