A Guest Post by: Natalie Sparacio
Crohn’s Disease. It’s an inflammatory bowel disease that causes inflammation of the lining of your digestive tract, which can lead to abdominal pain, severe diarrhea, fatigue, weight loss and malnutrition. Just over ten years ago, at 21 years old, it hit me like a ton of bricks when I was diagnosed. When you’re told you have a chronic disease, you immediately feel like your world is turned upside down. You quickly come to realize who your true friends are and which family members care to take the time to see how you are feeling. As the years go by, you come to terms that “it” is NOT your identity, and “it” does not need to consume your life on a daily basis.
My perspective on life, health and the gratefulness of a good day has completely changed since then. Of course, I would give anything to be disease-free—but at the same time, “it” makes me strong. “It” makes me see life in a way that many aren’t able to appreciate. Good days aren’t taken for granted and when others are hurting or going through difficult times, there is a different level of empathy possible.
For several years I worked as a news anchor and reporter at TV stations in Illinois, Minnesota and Wisconsin. The daily stress of deadlines and the emphasis on appearance were a struggle at times. Some mornings I would be anchoring and would only sit up straight in my chair and force a smile while I was on camera. There were months throughout my television career where I had to take prednisone, a strong steroid that leads to “moon face” and acne (among many other terrible side effects). Going on TV when you can barely look in the mirror and refuse to be in pictures was not easy. Viewers often don’t mince their words and question if you’re getting fat or if you’re pregnant. There were times I would hobble to the video wall and my producers would ask me in my ear if I would be “ok” to participate in the segment. But—I never let on to viewers that anything was wrong. I didn’t want sympathy or to be labeled as a “sick person”. I chose not to share my struggle until after I left the business in November 2014. I was hopeful I could make a difference whether it was through speaking engagements, the written word or motivating others.
It’s been an adventure. I’ve gone years at times without needing to go to the hospital—only dealing with a stomachache here or there and a burst of steroids to keep things in check. I sat on the couch for the last seven years and gave myself painful Humira injections. The past 18 months have involved three hospitalizations and most recently major abdominal surgery. So many people with GI diseases suffer silently. I want to help be the voice for the 1.6 million people who grapple with this beast on a daily basis. That’s 1 in 200 Americans. You truly need guts to endure Inflammatory Bowel Disease or any chronic illness for that matter.
On August 1, 2015 I received what I consider life altering surgery. I underwent an Ileectomy. It’s a resection of the intestine, 18 inches was taken out and then my small intestine was reattached to my colon. A decade of disease was removed, of course being that it’s chronic—it can come back. But, for now I’m on no medicine for the first time since July 2005. For now ,when I eat I don’t feel my body fighting back. For the first time since I can remember, I feel physically strong. The recovery was trying, but to get to this point has given me a sense of strength words don’t do justice for.
During recovery I kept telling myself that while it was difficult, at least I was getting better. So many people who battle terminal illnesses do not have that luxury. Instead of staying balled up on the couch in pain and thinking “woe is me”, reach out to folks at the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation. Get involved in community events and build your network. In doing so, you’re connected to those who get “it”.
When you have a chronic disease your support network—family and friends—are invaluable. It brings me to tears when I think about all my fiancé Bobby has done for me. When I put myself on a clear liquid diet to calm my digestive track, he surprises me with my favorite popsicles and jello flavors. When I can’t have food or water for days, he sits beside my hospital bed and rubs wet sponges on my gums. He sleeps in chairs and cots for days, showers at the hospital and gets up each hour to help me wheel my IV pole to the bathroom. He refuses to eat in front of me and always finds a way to make me smile. He is remarkable in every sense of the word and the difficult times we’ve endured together with the disease always have a way of bringing us closer. He is patient, loving and extremely compassionate. This disease isn’t for the weak—that goes for the caretakers, too. I’m beyond blessed to have family members, soon to be in laws and friends who understand and rally around me when I need it most.
In closing—remember everyone is fighting a battle, sometimes it’s visible and sometimes it’s not. Lean on others during the difficult days, but also find strength out of your struggles. The key word is PERSPECTIVE. Even in the most painful moments go to your happy place and tell yourself “this too shall pass”, because it always does and someone is always fighting a greater battle. Take the good with the bad and don’t let fear overcome you. The surgery truly was the “fresh start” I was told it would be and I know the best is yet to come.
Natalie Sparacio is a former TV anchor and current Communications Specialist who has battled Crohn’s disease for more than 10 years. She hopes that by sharing her story she’ll inspire others who deal with inflammatory bowel diseases and provide insight to caretakers.
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