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In College and Chronically Ill: Overcoming Ulcerative Colitis

It's a disease that hits many in college, but it's one that few people understand or are willing to talk about.
Jori LaVoy lives with ulcerative colitis, a disease that requires her to take more than a dozen pills a day. Photo by Jennifer Peterson

Every night before bed 21- year old Jori LaVoy washes her face, brushes her teeth and then proceeds to do something that few other college students do- she takes first of 13 pills to control her ulcerative colitis.

 

For many students, college is an important first step in growing up, experiencing freedom and learning how to manage one’s time. For LaVoy, however, that transition was made much harder when she was diagnosed with a severe case of ulcerative colitis during the fall of her junior year.

 

LaVoy, who is currently a senior at the University of Mississippi, said that sharp cramping, overwhelming bouts of diarrhea, fatigue and blood in the stool lead her to seek medical attention and eventually get a colonoscopy in September 2011. Her diagnosis came as a shock.

 

“I thought there was no way; I was like, ‘I’m too young, that stuff is for old people’,” she said.

 

LaVoy was wrong. Ulcerative colitis is a chronic, incurable form of Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) that typically exhibits symptoms in people ages 15-30. It is characterized by inflammation is the colon due to the formation of ulcers, which can cause pain, uncontrollable diarrhea, weight loss and other health problems.

 

Student Michala Burman had a reaction similar to LaVoy’s when she learned she had the disease following her freshman year at Ole Miss.

 

“It was hard for me to take in because no one tells you how to understand that kind of news,” she said, “I just wanted a cure, and then my doctor told us it was chronic. It’s like, ‘This is how I am now.’”

 

 

Dr. Ernest Williams, a gastroenterologist who works at the Gastroenterology Associates and Endoscopy Center of North Mississippi, said that because of the disease’s tendency to manifest in young people, it’s not unusual for him to see Ole Miss students in his practice.

 

“We have a fair number that we treat. Some because they’ve moved here with [ulcerative colitis] already from high school and others that we diagnose here,” he said.

 

LaVoy said it’s been hard to deal with health problems and medical appointments so far away from her hometown of Houston.

 

“It was a scary time because I felt so alone; I mean, I had friends that went with me most of the time, but sometimes you just need your dad there, you know?” she said.

 

The exact cause of ulcerative colitis remains unknown, so for now, it is not preventable. Many specialists, including Williams, classify it as an autoimmune disorder, potentially caused by genetics or an unidentified germ or microorganism.

 

In many patients, stress is a factor that can aggravate symptoms.

 

“Usually right after Christmas and in January there will be a little bulk of people who have little flares in their colitis where they just barely made it through exams, and some will start to flare before exams,” Williams said.

 

Both LaVoy and Burman said that the disease has affected their performance in school. LaVoy said that she ended up failing three out of her six classes during the spring semester that followed her diagnosis.

 

“I hated to fail,” she said, “but under the circumstances, my health had to come first and I just had to take a step back.”

 

Burman said that she experienced something similar, but that in the end, was able to manage the pain.

 

“My parents wanted me to take a semester off after we found out what it was, but I persisted and wouldn’t let them. You just have to learn how to adapt to it because this is how your life is going to be,” she said.

 

Each woman has had to develop strategies for managing the disease.

 

“Talking is really what gets me to relieve my stress; it’s like I’ll talk to my best friends, I’ll talk to my parents, I’ll even sometimes talk to my doctors just to be reassured that I’m going to be OK,” LaVoy said.

 

Burman has had to learn her own limits.

 

“When you wanna go out with your friends or you wanna go out to a party one night, you’ve got to think, ‘Am I going to have enough energy tomorrow to do all of the things that I have to do?” she said.

 

Many colitis patients are required to get annual or bi-annual colonoscopies and regular blood tests to monitor their symptoms and to be sure that serious complications, such as colorectal cancer or low hemoglobin levels, don’t develop. In the most severe ulcerative colitis cases, the colon may have to be surgically removed.

 

LaVoy said that, although she hates the check-up procedures, they ease her mind.

 

“When I get the results, it’s like weight has been lifted off my shoulders; there is not a better feeling than knowing that everything is finally working in my favor,” she said.

 

Sometimes, despite the careful use of medications and lifestyle adjustments, doctors have to get more aggressive. LaVoy said that after her second colonoscopy, she was put on the immune suppressing medication Remicade, due to the fact that her symptoms failed to respond to other treatment.

 

“Realistically I was getting chemotherapy. I lost a ton of hair, I was just so sick to my stomach, I didn’t do anything. I laid in bed all day long, I had headaches and I got nauseous. It was awful,” said LaVoy.

 

Williams said that the biggest challenge related to ulcerative colitis in college students is that many stop taking their medicine when they feel better.

 

“They need to recognize that this is a chronic disease and need to embrace it in a way that they can come to terms with,” he said, “by being on medication and by making a few little alterations to your life, people do much better with it and can stay in control of their lives.”

 

LaVoy says that her battle with colitis has been something that no 21-year old should have to experience, but she remains optimistic about her future.

 

“If I had to say anything about the cards that I’ve been dealt, it’s that this has really taught me how to get to know myself better and understand how strong I really am.”