From Start to Finish: Keri Ann's Fight Against Crohn's Disease

Five years ago it was 2007 and I was a freshman in college. I was ready to begin the next chapter of my life. And I was up for a challenge. Little did I know, I was already facing what would prove to be my greatest challenge thus far. Most people take on a challenge to test the abilities they already have. In my case, the roles were reversed. The challenge took me on, tested me and gave me a new sense of strength and empowerment. I was 17 when I first got sick. It began with severe abdominal pain, frequent trips to the bathroom, extreme fatigue, dramatic weight loss and agonizing mouth sores. I could barely eat and I never felt a real sense of relief. There were days I was in so much pain that I just wanted to crawl out of my skin. And it wasn’t until four months later that I finally knew why: I had Crohn’s Disease.

While I was happy to have a diagnosis, it was hard to think about how this disease might affect me physically, emotionally, academically and socially. I hated talk of blood, veins, needles and swallowing medication. I hated failing. And I hated missing out. So I pushed myself even harder than I normally would have.

Eventually a flare up landed me in the hospital for a week. At first I felt defeated and depressed, thinking that my body would never function regularly again and that the future was out of my hands. I expected using the bathroom would be associated with pain for the rest of my life, and that things could only get worse.

And then I had this moment that changed everything. I was lying there in the hospital bed watching American Idol on TV with my mom holding my hand, when one of the contestants covered John Lennon’s “Imagine,” a favorite song of mine. It’s hard to explain exactly what happened, but that vocal and that moment gave me chills. I remember feeling a tear sliding down my cheek and realizing I was crying. I decided I’d had enough of feeling sorry for myself and wondering “what if” this or that might happen. I decided to take control. I finally felt ready to put up a fight and be one of the people “living for today,” not yesterday—for what I can change instead of what I can’t.

That’s when I rediscovered CCFA and the online IBD community. I wanted to get involved and connect with other patients, not only to help myself, but also to help others. These interactions led me to captain a Take Steps walk team in 2008 and join the Camp Oasis family in 2011. Raising money, spreading awareness and counseling younger girls with IBD were all important contributions to me. But a successful surgery and course of treatment in the summer of 2010 had taken away the majority of my pain, so I felt I had to do more to give back. I had to take on another challenge. So I chose CCFA’s ultimate endurance test, Team Challenge, pledging to raise $3,000 while training to complete a half marathon.

I’m sure everyone thought I was crazy. I know I did. To say this was a challenge beyond my comfort zone would be an understatement. I hadn’t run a mile since high school and the chances of me waking up early on a Saturday to exercise were slimmer than my waistline after a colonoscopy prep. But thinking about all the people I’d met through the IBD community, especially those still struggling, made 13.1 miles and $3,000 seem a little less impossible.

After 15 weeks of training, my knees were sore as could be. I even had a scare the night before the half marathon when I noticed an amount blood in the toilet that wasn’t normal for me. I was worried that even with a combination of running and walking I wouldn’t be able to make it through to the end. But I also knew that wasn’t an option, especially not after sitting through an inspirational dinner with hundreds of Team Challenge runners and our families and friends. All of us with IBD had been asked to stand while the rest of the room applauded our efforts. So I couldn’t stop for anything. I wouldn’t stop for anything. IBD sure wasn’t giving up, and neither was I.

The wait at the start line felt long and uncertain. The beginning was a shock. The journey itself was full of twists and turns—there were moments of weakness and fatigue, and periods when I questioned whether I could make it; what looked like downhill reprieve often revealed a greater uphill battle. Surprise bursts of energy would push me to try harder. But what kept me going were the people surrounding me—my teammates in orange running and walking alongside me, my mentor and endurance manager rooting for me at the cheer stations, my coaches leading me to the next mile marker, my parents being there to support me unconditionally, and my closest friends talking in my ear (via recorded messages) through it all. And just when relief seemed so far beyond the final stretch, I turned a corner and found the encouragement I needed from all those people once again—two amazing friends who’d gone five hours out of their way to surprise me with some extra encouragement, my team cheering me on, my coach carrying our group to the end and my parents waiting with proud smiles.

I could never have known how seamless a metaphor this race would end up being for my journey with Crohn’s. Only in the aftermath of the Team Challenge experience did I come to realize the similarities between the two, and the real purpose behind the program. It was never about running or walking. It was about “getting my guts back,” so to speak, in order to weather the storm. Five years ago, if you’d have told me that I’d be taking part in a half marathon and working to raise $3,000, I probably would’ve laughed and said that was impossible. But it’s amazing what you’ll take on when you find a cause that you’re motivated to support.

When I thought about the end, I didn’t expect to get emotional—I expected to collapse from exhaustion and kiss the ground. But crossing the finish line was, without a doubt, one of the greatest moments of my life. I walked more than I ran and I finished near the end. But it didn’t matter because, even though I was in pain, I finished. I don’t know how I ran that final stretch because I couldn’t even feel my legs at that point, but there was no way I was walking across that line. I ran with my head held high and my arms outstretched, knowing I’d raised over $3,500 and once again challenged IBD. It had been two years since I’d felt real pain and it was rewarding to see that I still had the strength to rise to a challenge. Especially because this time, it was a challenge I chose.

And that’s just it—we can’t choose or control our health, but with a little help from each other, we can both choose and control our attitude toward it. My greatest comfort in this whole experience is the reminder that no patient with IBD will ever have to go through it alone. There’s an entire community of people willing to be there for support, and there are people in your life who care enough to stick by you when it matters most. And by working together to spread awareness and raise funds, we can put ourselves back in control. If you’re struggling and you don’t think you have the power to face your challenge, think again. You’re capable of a lot more than you realize. And we’re all here to cheer you on.

In a way, I thank IBD for unintentionally empowering me. Crohn’s can take from my GI tract all it wants because, now that it’s given me both the strength to fight back and an army of support, it can’t last for long. Somewhere in the future, I know there’s a cure, a finish line I can’t yet see. But until we reach that point, it’s all about the journey. So let’s make it a good one.