As physician assistants in the Section of Gastroenterology at Rush, Jenna Ottenheimer and Emily Harmeier often diagnose patients wtih ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease, the two forms of inflammatory bowel disease, or IBD.
But their experience with these conditions isn’t just professional: Jenna has ulcerative colitis, and Emily has Crohn’s disease. Both are lifelong, chronic inflammatory disorders of the digestive tract that are treated with medications and often with surgery.
Recently, Jenna and Emily sat down to talk about their unique positions, and how their personal lives inform their work with patients.
Jenna: I’ve been a physician assistant at Rush for almost three years now. My decision to work in this field was strongly influenced by my own diagnosis of ulcerative colitis. After spending many years as an IBD patient, I felt that I could relate to my patients as a provider, and that’s why I decided to work in gastroenterology.
Emily: I had similar reasons for joining our practice as a PA nearly two years ago. While the majority of my patients don’t know that I have Crohn’s disease, I think I bring a unique perspective on topics that can oftentimes be both embarrassing and personal. Having been a patient myself for over a decade, I have learned to be the type of provider who I would want to take care of me.
When were you first diagnosed?
Jenna: When I was 19, I was misdiagnosed as having hemorrhoids for about a year. Finally, I had a colonoscopy showing that I have ulcerative colitis.
Emily: I went through the struggle of misdiagnosis for almost a year as well. When I was 16, I caught what seemed to be a stomach virus while on vacation, but unfortunately the symptoms never resolved. I lost over 40 pounds, which was very concerning to my parents and frustrating for me as a patient to not understand what my body was putting me through. Finally, I was diagnosed with Crohn’s. After failing various medications over the next six months, my doctors decided that surgery would be the best option in order to remove the diseased portion of my small intestine.
Jenna: As a PA who works mainly in the hospital, I have had the opportunity to care for very sick patients, many of whom have undergone surgery just like you did, as well as those who are suffering from gastrointestinal cancers. This has allowed me to get to know patients and their families very well. It is gratifying to serve as a familiar face on our team, and I enjoy working with patients before, during and after their hospitalizations. Continuity of care is so important to me, and like you I strive to be the type of gastroenterology provider who I would want taking care of me.
Emily: I completely agree. I always hope to be the provider that my patients feel they can turn to with questions or concerns, or even just to talk. One of the first patients I ever saw as a provider seemed to mimic the exact symptoms I developed 10 years ago. Having been in his shoes, I knew he deserved a thorough evaluation of his symptoms, to give both him and his family some answers. My gut feelings were validated when his pathology report came back showing his IBD. Of course, I see many different types of patients, many of whom who don’t have IBD. While every patient has a different story, my personal and professional background have given me the resources to provide the best-quality care to everyone I see.
Jenna: I am thankful for the strong training I received as a student in the Rush Physician Assistant Studies program. When I graduated and got my dream job as a gastroenterology PA at Rush, everything seemed to come together. I feel that the hospital and the Section of Gastroenterology have provided me with a fantastic opportunity to be an independent provider while also collaborating with an incredible team of physicians and nurses. Rush is an amazing hospital and I am so honored to work here.
Emily: I also transitioned from the student to provider role here at Rush. I have also been an IBD patient in our practice since I moved to Chicago six years ago. The team that has kept me in remission from my Crohn’s for the past five years is the same team that encourages my personal growth and professional development as a PA. I’m thankful to have been given the opportunity to be a part of the team here at Rush, where the latest research and newer treatment options excite me as both the patient and provider.