Chronic Illness and Motherhood: Why I Didn't Let Crohn's Disease Rob Me of My Future
By Natalie Hayden
Ever since I was a little girl, I always knew I wanted to have a family. Being a mom someday seemed like an inevitable part of my future. When I was 21, my world turned upside down. I was blindsided with a diagnosis of an incurable chronic illness. I was told I had Crohn's disease—an autoimmune disease that attacks the gastrointestinal tract, leading to severe pain and fatigue (just to name a few of the symptoms).
In that moment, as I grappled with my new identity and came to terms with the fact that I would live with this mysterious disease my entire life, I wondered whether my dream of being a mom would ever become a reality.
Years passed. In that time, I experienced multiple hospitalizations, countless tests, ER visits, drug regimens and flare-ups. Living with Crohn's is like walking up a never-ending hill. Just when you think you have everything under control, you slip and you're back at square one. Each setback is discouraging, but each time you recover and rise above the darkness, you feel empowered.
In 2015, a month after getting engaged, I came home from a family vacation feeling on top of the world. My mind was racing with wedding plans and all the fun that goes along with your newfound relationship status. Then, the next day—out of nowhere—I started feeling excruciating pains in my abdomen.
I had just spoken at a work event and was mingling with coworkers when I was forced to make a mad dash to the bathroom. I blacked out in the stall from the pain. I knew something was very wrong. I let my boss know I was sick (he was aware I had Crohn's disease). I drove myself home. During that car ride, I immediately knew getting behind the wheel was not smart. I started losing feeling in my arms and legs because the pain was so intense I could barely breathe.
When I made it home, my soon-to-be mother-in- law rushed to my aid. I threw up in a bucket on my knees on the kitchen floor. Hours later, I was hospitalized and diagnosed with my third bowel obstruction in 16 months—once again in the hospital for days.
This time, after several tests, I was told I would need bowel resection surgery. I remember hearing those words and wondering what this meant for my future with my fiancé. I was petrified. Would I be able to have children? Would this impact my fertility?
We were 10 months from our wedding day. I clearly remember my now-husband googling frantically and trying to learn as much as he could about pregnancy with Crohn's and what all of this would mean for us as we tried to start a family.
I ended up having 18 inches of my small intestine removed on August 1, 2015. While it was one of the hardest times in my patient journey, the surgery gave me a fresh start. The surgery removed a decade of disease from my body. While not a cure, it allowed me to start from square one and feel the best I had in years.
In the months leading up to our wedding day, I started taking prenatal vitamins and folic acid and had a colonoscopy two weeks before we tied the knot.
We were methodical with our planning and knew we needed to capitalize on my surgical remission. When it comes to any autoimmune disease, timing is key. It's best to get pregnant when the disease is in a calm state. After the colonoscopy, we got the green light that my disease was in remission, and we were blessed with a pregnancy one month after our wedding day.
As I write this, my nearly 8-month-old son, Reid, is sleeping soundly in his crib. I experienced a flawless pregnancy. My Crohn's was completely silent for the first time in more than 12 years. I carried Reid full term, and he was born perfectly healthy.
During the pregnancy, I had to stay on all my medications, including a biologic injection. While it was stressful and emotional to give myself an injection of a strong drug as my baby kicked me in the belly, I knew it was imperative for me to stay free of flare-ups and out of the hospital.
Crohn's disease has robbed me of a lot of joy over the past 12-plus years, but it did not rob me of getting to be a mom. Each day I look in my little boy's eyes, I'm reminded that dreams really do come true.
Main photo credit: J Elizabeth Photography