“I’ve seen pictures of my insides and they’re not very pretty…”
Happy-go-lucky Briar Lawry laughs when she talks about her perforated bowel, which sent her into the Emergency Department in January this year. She is surprisingly cheery on her first day back at work, after taking a month to recover from major surgery to remove 15-centimetres of her large intestine.
But it’s not the first time she has had to undergo major surgery – her first operation involved a similar procedure in which she also had a colostomy to give her bowel a rest.
Only 24 years old, the Auckland-born writer says one of the biggest obstacles of getting a diagnosis was fronting up about it. “Being a seventeen [or] eighteen year old girl, I didn’t want to talk about these unsightly, unseemly things, it was like, it’s okay, it’ll go away.”
Unfortunately for Briar, the pain and bleeding subside. Initially diagnosed with ulcerative colitis – one of the two forms of IBD – her initial surgery revealed that she had the much more severe Crohn’s disease.
As far as definitions go, Briar feels that there is some misunderstanding about IBD which people often confuse with the less severe irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). For one, irritable bowel syndrome is treatable with antispasmodic medication, whereas IBD is much more serious, and in Briar’s case, means lesions and ulceration on the lining of her intestinal wall.
For those with either ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s there is no cure, but symptoms can be managed with a low residue and low fibre diet, which for Briar meant a bland diet of white bread, rice and noodles – the foods less likely to aggravate an extremely delicate lining.
Gisborne-born Stacey Stewart is a Master’s student studying international relations at Victoria University. She readily identifies with Briar’s experience. Diagnosed with ulcerative colitis during her last year of high school, she has also been through surgery in the past twelve months. After dealing with severe dehydration and malnourishment last year, she was sent her to hospital and underwent a huge operation to remove part of her large intestine and in part helps to remove the problem. “With surgery I’m able to move on with my life,” she says.
This is not to say that she no longer has symptoms, in fact, she can still experience fatigue, and six months on from the ‘open’ surgery she is also experiencing additional complications as a result of slipping off the operating table during the procedure. When she was finally able to open her eyes after being accidentally overdosed on Morphine, she awoke to find her body full of bruises. But she is matter of fact and accepts the situation. “Accidents happen, and you’re warned about these things before you have the surgery.”
When Stacey’s symptoms kicked in at seventeen, she lost around 30kgs in a short space of time and eventually found herself unable to lift her arms and do the most basic daily tasks; making a cup of tea and lifting a kettle was impossible. For those with IBD fatigue is one of the most common symptoms due in part top medication, but also blood loss.
Stacey feels much better post-op, but UC and the steroids used to treat her symptoms, have impacted on her bone capacity and later on in life, there is a chance that she could end up with osteoporosis. For now, the problem is largely affecting her teeth: “My teeth cost about $4,000 a year, because the calcium is sucked from your bones by the steroids and [your teeth] just break,” she says.
There is no known cause for IBD, and although Stacey has ulcerative colitis, she feels that there is a possibility that her condition may be genetic. “My brother has Crohn’s disease, and he’s really sick at the moment.”
Back to complete her Masters this year, Stacey has a full schedule which also includes working in recruitment at Victoria University, along with volunteer work for Crohn’s and Colitis New Zealand. She will complete her studies in the next two years and is due for her third surgery in June 2015. With her sights set on a career as a military strategist, she says that there have been some benefits to her illness.
“It has completely transformed who I am as a person, and in some ways made me work harder. I’m extremely resilient, and I think the bigger problem will be that I’m a female entering into a male- dominated workforce.”
Briar also looks forward to a bright future, determined not to let her illness get in the way of her dreams and ambitions. “I’d love to put together a collection of different voices from New Zealand women to do with chronic illness or IBD, just to put some faces to these horrible names and diseases that people don’t understand.”