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.
By Anil Kesavan, MD
I first met Tyler Jankiewicz and his mother, Ann, in August 2013, when he was 15 years old. Tyler had been referred to Rush’s pediatric gastroenterology program seven months earlier and was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, a chronic autoimmune disease that causes inflammation throughout the intestinal tract. People with Crohn’s experience a variety of symptoms (abdominal pain, diarrhea, vomiting, blood in the stool), as well as weight loss, inflammation in the eyes and skin, fevers and joint pain.
Tyler first started having symptoms in December 2012, and his condition had progressed dramatically. He couldn’t eat and rapidly lost 40 pounds. By the spring of 2013, his weight was down to 115, and he didn’t have the strength or stamina to play volleyball on his high school team. He was anemic, and his condition was worsening.
Tyler Jankiewicz and his mother, Ann, describe the toll of Crohn’s disease, and how doctors at Rush helped him get better.
At first, I was just having stomachaches — maybe one or two a day. They weren’t too bad, and if I went to the bathroom, they went away. This was in the fall of 2012, during basketball season my freshman year of high school. When the symptoms first started, I still felt mostly fine; I was still able to get through practices and games.
But toward the end of the season, around December, the symptoms really started affecting my physical abilities. My coach was very understanding. He said if I needed anything, like in the middle of a game if I needed to use the bathroom, to just give him a signal and he’d take me out. I couldn’t play in the last few games, though, because I would get winded quickly and felt weaker.
I had planned to play volleyball in the spring, but by then I was really sick and had lost so much weight, about 40 pounds. I’d lost all the muscle I had, so I wasn’t in good enough shape to even try out. The coach said, “If you get better, you’ll be able to play.” I sat in the bleachers and watched practice for a few weeks, but after a while I didn’t want to be there because it was too hard to not be on the court.