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Above: Raquel Feldberg and daughter, Sloane

Written by: Marcia Kaye
Photos by: John Packman

It’s tough enough to be diagnosed with a serious chronic disease shortly after you’ve had a baby. It’s even tougher to learn, several years later, that your child has the very same disease. Four months after giving birth to her second child, 33-year-old Raquel Feldberg of Toronto began experiencing debilitating stomach pain, fever and bloody diarrhea. In the Schwartz/Reisman Emergency Centre of Mount Sinai Hospital, part of Sinai Health System, a nurse hooked her up to an IV, and that’s when Raquel realized just how sick she really was. “My initial thought was that I was going to die,” she says now.

The diagnosis: ulcerative colitis, a type of inflammatory bowel disease, or IBD, that causes inflammation and ulcers in the lining of the colon and rectum. Raquel soon realized she was not, in fact, going to die. Following some trial and error to find the right medication prescribed by her gastroenterologist, her symptoms eventually eased and she was ready to resume daily life with her husband, Alan, their four-year-old son, Jonah, and their new baby girl, Sloane.

Eight years went by, during which Raquel’s disease was being managed quite well, with occasional flare-ups. But then suddenly one day, eight-year old Sloane started experiencing the same symptoms as her mom. And Raquel knew, even before the doctors confirmed it, that Sloane had ulcerative colitis too. “Seeing my little girl suffer was heartbreaking,” Raquel says. In addition, she was only too aware of IBD’s genetic links. “My initial reaction was I had passed on ulcerative colitis to her, and this made me feel a deep sense of guilt.”

Any serious illness can be emotionally wrenching and affect family dynamics, but that seems especially true with a chronic, complex, unpredictable disease like IBD, which is believed to have a genetic component. IBD is an umbrella term referring primarily to two related but distinct diseases: ulcerative colitis, which Raquel and Sloane have; and Crohn’s disease, which can affect any part of the digestive tract from mouth to anus (or, as the experts say colloquially, “from cheek to cheek”) and can spread through the colon walls. Both diseases can cause abdominal pain, frequent bouts of diarrhea (sometimes 20 or 30 times a day), fever, fatigue and unintended weight loss. It’s most commonly diagnosed in adolescents and young adults. Diagnosis can involve blood tests, stool samples, X-rays, scopes and scans.

Raquel and SloaneCanada has one of the highest rates of IBD in the world, affecting one in 150 people, or about 230,000 Canadians. The exact cause isn’t known, but it’s believed that a genetic or inherited predisposition combined with certain environmental factors — IBD is most common in developed countries, urban areas and temperate climates — cause the immune system to attack healthy tissue. Medications such as immuno-suppressants, corticosteroids and biologic agents can keep patients stable for years. But over time, patients may need surgery, as they may no longer respond to medical therapy or may develop complications of the disease. Some patients require multiple surgeries.

The guilt that Raquel felt about passing on her IBD genes to her daughter is not at all uncommon, says Dr. Robert Maunder, Staff Psychiatrist at the Zane Cohen Centre for Digestive Diseases, an internationally acclaimed clinical research centre that’s part of Sinai Health System. “It’s a normal reaction, but it’s not strictly rational because there’s nothing you can do about passing on your genes.” He cites other common emotions: worry that you can’t be as active a parent as you’d like to be; anxiety and hyper-vigilance about your ill child; and fear of IBD’s unpredictable nature.

As for children, those with an ill parent or sibling may take on caregiver duties from a young age and grow up fast. Kids and teens who are patients themselves may experience frustration, anger or depression about missing school and social events. Some may forgo opportunities such as summer camp, university, part-time jobs and travel.

Since Mount Sinai Hospital sees only IBD patients age 18 and over, eight-year-old Sloane was diagnosed and treated at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids). When she’s 18 she’ll transition to Mount Sinai, which has the largest, most comprehensive multidisciplinary team of IBD clinicians in Canada. To ensure continuity of care, a partnership program between the two hospitals involves regular transition clinics at SickKids where youth patients who will become Mount Sinai patients can meet with their future clinicians. Evidence shows that a well-planned and coordinated transition to adult care is vital in improving outcomes for young IBD patients.

“She trusted me because she knew that I was her partner in this. I could educate her and stand beside her.”

- Raquel Feldberg

Once Raquel had dealt with her early distress about Sloane’s diagnosis, she realized she could play a positive role and become her daughter’s ally. “I knew what she was going through when it came to regular appointments and could offer insight when she needed blood work, tests and colonoscopies,” Raquel says. “So I would say to her, ‘This is what’s going to happen, try to relax and don’t worry.’ She trusted me because she knew that I was her partner in this. I could educate her and stand beside her.”

But things changed again one year later, when Raquel suddenly went from being caregiver to patient. Her IBD symptoms worsened dramatically, and she was bleeding profusely. With her colon beyond repair, removal was the only way to save her life. Over the next two and a half years she was in and out of hospital, under constant care and suffering from life-threatening complications such as pyoderma gangrenosum, a rare, excruciating skin infection that can be a complication of IBD.

During those two years, Raquel’s family had to become her caregivers. “My family lived through the illness with me,” she recalls. “My husband juggled the kids and was there to visit me in the hospital every day. Our parents, sisters and close friends were not only my personal cheerleaders, they made sure we had dinner on the table. We had lasagnas coming out of every freezer.”

Raquel was determined not to let her illness eclipse daily life. She continued to service her real estate clients with the help of her husband and was able to draft agreements from her hospital bed. The family celebrated every holiday and special occasion together, even if it was in the hospital. For Alan’s birthday they got permission to use an empty boardroom and brought in ribs and a cake. “I tried to make things as normal as possible,” she says.

Canada has one of the highest rates of IBD in the world, affecting one in 150 people, or about 230,000 Canadians.

With a serious illness, the lives of both caregivers and patients risk becoming small, says Tae Hart, Associate Scientific Staff at the Zane Cohen Centre, who researches adjustment to chronic illness, especially between spouses, and who has a private practice of IBD patients. “People need to figure out a way to expand it again,” she says. “They need to look at the little things they still can do, things they can look forward to and feel grateful for. All of us need this, actually.” One of her studies found that in the face of stress, both patients and partners may experience a renewed sense of closeness and a feeling that life has greater purpose.

“I had a renewed sense of appreciation for life and learned how delicate and precious life can be,” Raquel says. To channel the negative experience into positive results, she and her family formed a team to participate in Crohn’s and Colitis Canada’s annual five-kilometre Gutsy Walk. The team, with the cheeky name “This Bag Ain’t Prada,” has raised close to $120,000.

Today both Raquel and Sloane are healthy. Sloane, now 15 and controlling her illness with daily medication, has a supportive group of friends who join her in the Gutsy Walk. To anyone dealing with a chronic illness such as IBD, Sloane says, “Don’t worry, doctors will help you, and everyone around you will support you and help you feel better.”

Wise words, says Dr. Maunder. “The support that people receive from others is one of the most powerful protective factors that we have in medicine.” He cautions, “On the other side, the stress and strain of being a care provider can be extraordinary, so you have to pay attention to your own needs.”

Throughout the worst of her illness, Raquel felt deeply cared for by family, friends and her medical team. “I had never felt more grateful and blessed to have that ongoing and loving support around us,” she says. Both Raquel and Sloane intend to continue on their path of giving back. “We want to help ensure that research and funding to incredible doctors like Dr. MacRae who doesn’t give up on people and who truly saved my life may continue to save lives and restore health to people like me.”