It takes guts for a teen to publicly discuss her bowels. But that’s exactly what two Ahwatukee Foothills sisters are doing to raise awareness of their chronic disease.
Theresa and Brigid Maloney live with ulcerative colitis, a severe inflammation of the digestive tract. This weekend, they’re donning tie-dyed shirts and gathering a team dubbed The Sisterhood of the Traveling Colitis to participate in the third annual Take Steps for Crohn’s and Colitis walk around Tempe Town Lake.
Crohn’s disease and colitis are two related bowel problems that keep the body from absorbing nutrients, said Kathie Gadberry, executive director of the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of America’s Southwest Chapter. With crohn’s, the problem is the intestinal tract, while with colitis, it’s the colon.
Symptoms include severe cramping, fever and diarrhea. If symptoms go on for an extended period of time, dehydration and malnourishment become a danger, Gadberry said.
There are about 30,000 people in Arizona known to be living with crohn’s or colitis, and there are likely more, Gadberry said. The symptoms aren’t pleasant to discuss, so it’s likely more people are suffering silently.
“Bathroom issues are not something people are typically comfortable talking about,” Gadberry said.
Theresa, 17, and Brigid, 14, agreed with that assessment. Both girls are grateful they’ve been able to talk to each other and spend time at a camp for kids suffering with colitis.
“It’s comforting that you know other people have it, too. You can talk and compare stories and not have to bottle it up,” Theresa said.
Theresa described it as a very painful disease, one that leaves suffers doubled over in pain and unable to eat.
Theresa a junior at Xavier College Preparatory, has felt lucky to be supported by teachers and friends who understand her symptoms. Brigid, an eighth-grader at Kyrene Akimel A-al Middle School, has had a little more trouble with things like convincing people her bathroom breaks are often an emergency situation.
“One thing I wish teachers knew about, when you need to go, you need to go,” Brigid said.
Theresa started noticing bad stomachaches when she was 11. Doctors originally thought it was appendicitis, but diagnosed colitis shortly after she turned 12.
She was in and out of the hospital five times in the first year and a half.
“One day you’ll be feeling great, and you can be in the hospital in 24 to 48 hours,” Theresa said.
Brigid was also diagnosed at age 12. She started having stomachaches in January 2008, but didn’t say anything at first because she had seen what her sister had gone through.
She finally told her mom about her symptoms that spring.
“I wish I didn’t (wait). So now I want to tell kids, tell someone. You can get it under control faster. It’s not fun to suffer,” Brigid said.
Theresa and Brigid both have to watch what they eat, since certain foods like popcorn can cause problems. Theresa is in remission at the moment, so she only has to take two pills a day to help keep things under control.
For Brigid, it’s 17 pills each day. Since many of them are different kinds of steroids, some of which have weakened her bones, she’s had to stop running until she’s off all those medications.
But aside from some restrictions and occasional hospital stays, the girls lead normal lives. Both have found a retreat in music – musical theater for Theresa, Justin Bieber for Brigid.
“If Justin Bieber came to this walk, that would be amazing,” Brigid said.
And both are looking forward to this weekend’s walk. It’s a chance to raise money for research and to help send kids to the Painted Turtle Camp, which has a session for kids with the diseases.
Plus, it’s a chance to make colitis a little more known.
“A lot of people have never heard of it, so it’s really a silent disease,” Theresa said.
Tempe’s Take Steps for Crohn’s and Colitis walk starts at 5 p.m. May 22 at Tempe Beach Park, Mill Avenue, north of Rio Salado Parkway. Registration starts at 4 p.m.
For more information on the walk, visit http://online.ccfa.org/site/PageServer?pagename=TS_homepage. To donate to the Maloneys’ team, click on the “Find a Walker” button and search for “sisterhood.”