19 Oct 2015

Crohn's can't slow crime-fighting cop

9:59 am on 19 October 2015

An Auckland policewoman's battle to remain on the beat with incurable bowel disease has earned her national recognition and a new role.

Detective Constable Rebecca "Becs" Parker, 25, works on the crime squad at busy Counties Manukau Police Station.

It's a demanding job at the best of times, but Ms Parker has severe Crohn's Disease, a lifelong auto-immune condition characterised by inflammation of the digestive system, or gut.

Cramps, diarrhoea, sore stomachs, weight loss, anaemia and fatigue are part and parcel for those with the inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), but few of the estimated 15,000 New Zealanders with IBD find it easy to talk publicly about it.

But Ms Parker, who has been named as the first ambassador for Crohn's and Colitis by the patron of Crohn's and Colitis New Zealand, Lady Janine Mateparae, is different.

She studied at university and became a personal trainer before deciding at age 18 that she wanted to be a police officer, and was accepted to train at the Police College in Porirua a year later.

Ms Parker said she loved the experience, but became ill five weeks before the course was due to finish.

"I just got really sick, run down, I lost a lot of weight and just back and forth to the toilet all the time. And I actually had a really sore butt cheek and I just went into the local hospital and they told me to go straight through to Wellington Hospital."

Ms Parker returned to the Police College to sit an assessment, but found herself immediately back in hospital. Crohn's Disease was later diagnosed, and she also had severe complications: a perianal fistula - a type of ulcer that tunnels through tissue to the skin and becomes infected.

She had never heard of Crohn's Disease, so the diagnosis came as a shock.

Detective Constable Rebecca Parker

Photo: RNZ/Claire Eastham-Farrelly

"In Wellington Hospital, lying in my hospital bed ... my partner decided to Google it, which wasn't the best thing because she read that you could die from it.

"Obviously when you're 19, stuck in a hospital bed wondering what's happening to your life and you hear that you might have a disease that you could die from, was really scary. I'm not going to lie, I was terrified."

After fighting to get an answer to the "butt cheek" issue, an MRI revealed the fistula. After several failed attempts to close the fistula, it was decided an ileostomy - which connects the small bowel to a bag that is worn on the outside of the body - was needed.

It enabled the fistula to heal and for Ms Parker to gain weight. She became a sworn officer, passed the Police Physical Competency (PCT) test, and worked in community policing, intelligence and criminal justice support, while having police support to take any sick leave she needed.

But the bag restricted her from gaining wider police experience, as it could not fit under the stab-resistant body armour front-line officers have to wear.

She opted to have the ileostomy reversed, and the fistula subsequently returned.

"My surgeon said to me, 'Look, your options now are pretty low. You've either got to live with it or we've got to remove your bowels and you just have a permanent bag for the rest of your life'.

"That kind of got in the back of my mind and I thought, what do I want to do with life."

She decided what she did not want was for the disease to stop her or define her choices, so she developed alternative ways of managing.

Along with fortnightly injections of the biologic medication Humira, and daily azathiaprine immuno-suppressant tablets, she adopted a gluten and dairy-free diet. She now feels the fittest and healthiest she has since the diagnosis, but said living with Crohn's was not easy. Fatigue was the biggest challenge, and she needed to relax whenever possible.

Her senior, Detective Sergeant Richard Bull, said criminal investigation work came with "extreme demands".

He said it was harder for Ms Parker, but "she's never used it [Crohn's] as a crutch. She's always shown a high level of determination to go out there and get what she wants, and basically myself as her immediate supervisor and other members of the team look to support her as often as we can."

Crohn's and Colitis New Zealand patient support group chairperson Brian Poole said Ms Parker was the ideal ambassador.

"Her understanding of the nature of the disease, the co-operation she has had from her employer, the willingness of her doctors to assist her in her role... And I think this illustrates a grand team effort of making this journey [with Crohn's] far more manageable."