Unstoppable: How Alison Headrick Has Redefined Success While Navigating Society With Crohn’s…

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Unstoppable: How Alison Headrick Has Redefined Success While Navigating Society With Crohn’s Disease

An illness is a spectrum. There will always be good and bad days, and it’s important to remember that someone with a disease can experience both sides of the coin. Treat patients with respect and kindness — do not diminish them because of their disease, but instead inspire them and help them on whatever day they are facing.

As a part of our “Unstoppable” series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Alison Headrick.

Alison Headrick, 34, is a registered nurse who has worked in the gastroenterology field to help patients get to the bottom of their gastrointestinal issues. Suddenly, her life changed when she became the patient — having been diagnosed with Crohn’s disease herself. In honor of World IBD Day on May 19th, Alison is sharing her story of how to manage living with Crohn’s disease and remind others with this disease they are not alone. With the support of her healthcare team and appropriate treatment, Alison has experienced symptom relief and feels much better. She is able to keep active and continues to work as a nurse — the job she loves. In Alison’s free time, she loves to travel, play tennis, try the newest restaurants in DC, and attend book club.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! It is really an honor. Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you share your “backstory” with us?

Of course, my name is Alison Headrick, and I am a registered nurse who has worked in the gastroenterology field for the last 9 years. Originally from Oklahoma, I moved to DC to pursue my career in nursing. I have always taken an interest in the esophagus — it’s such an important part of the body and has always been near and dear to my heart. Because of that interest, I would fill in at the IBD clinic sometimes when I first started out, so I’ve been exposed to IBD patients since the start of my career. You can imagine my surprise when I ended up becoming a patient myself! My life changed completely when I was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease (CD), one of the most common diseases associated with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). Settling into a new city, I had to learn to navigate being away from home and living with a chronic illness.

Do you feel comfortable sharing with us the story surrounding your illness and ultimate diagnosis? What mental shift did you make to not let that “stop you”?

I had spent my days doing endoscopies professionally, which are one of the many tools that help people get to the bottom of their mysterious gastrointestinal issues. Because of my profession, I was very familiar with the signs and symptoms of Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. I remember talking to patients trying to imagine how they could manage their lives with the disease — it seemed like a near-impossible feat. To my surprise, though, I started experiencing the same symptoms as my patients. My first sign was unexplained weight loss — something I attributed to working out and eating healthy. I was exercising quite a bit those days — I loved to bike — so I assumed that must have been the reason. Next, there was abdominal pain and even blood in my stool, though the timing seemed to overlap with my menstrual cycle. After many tests and doctor visits, an MRI finally confirmed my Crohn’s disease diagnosis. That’s when it became real for me. But despite all of my experience on the treatment and care team side of the disease, I felt like I was learning it all over again because this disease is a battle of unknowns. On some days, symptoms can be so intense and take you out of your work and social activities completely, and on others, you can run a 5K with your friends and grab a drink afterward. I was able to harness my inner strength and, with the help of a supportive healthcare team, lean into the disease. Being told you have a diagnosis with no cure can feel grim and even isolating. But then I thought of the patients I treat, and how they are still able to live full and fulfilled lives — even with the highs and lows. I think that inspired me to find courage and hold on to hope, even if I wasn’t always feeling my best. I had to remind myself that my body is so much more capable than the doubting thoughts in my head and accept my new reality for what it was. Through my friends and family and my wonderful nurses and physicians, I’ve been able to lean on a fantastic support system and embrace my disease, and am able to live life again.

Can you tell our readers about the accomplishments you have been able to make while living with your disease?

Despite my diagnosis, I have been able to remain active and have not let it stop me from continuing to work as a nurse — the job I truly love. While there is no cure for Crohn’s disease, the symptoms can be managed with prescription medications, and/or in progressive severe cases with surgery. On my 30th birthday, I began taking medication to manage my Crohn’s disease. My doctor and I discussed trying a prescription medication called STELARA ® (ustekinumab). It’s important for others to remember that what works for some, may not for everyone, so I encourage all patients with IBD to talk with their doctors on what treatment might be right for them. For me, with the support of my healthcare team, I have experienced symptom relief and am able to continue my passion of being a nurse. Now I celebrate the ‘little wins,’ too. I’ve learned to live with the fact I’ll have to miss a few things due to my illness when I’m having a bad day — like my friend’s bachelorette on New Year’s Eve. But the flipside is that I was able to be a part of my best friend’s wedding — spending four days in the bridal party — and felt completely fine the entire way through. So, I celebrate the good days!

What advice would you give to other people who have chronic illnesses or debilitating disease?

To anybody who’s newly diagnosed, or even to anybody who’s been going through this for years — you never know what tomorrow holds. You will have good days and you will have bad days, but in either of those times, the key is knowing you are not alone. Your story, who you are and where you show up in life is what matters. World IBD Day is always a good reminder of my journey and how lucky I am to have a support system that helps me manage my disease. I really encourage others with chronic illnesses to seek help from people you trust. Get comfortable with your doctors and get checked out. It’s worth having peace of mind knowing what you are dealing with. I know that I am lucky because, as a nurse, I had more background knowledge than the average patient. But even then, I remember being nervous because I thought I had somehow made my diagnosis up in my head and found it tough to talk about my symptoms and the intimate issues associated with this disease. So, I encourage others to let go of that stigma, and to be their own advocates. It’s also a good idea to research foundations or follow social media influencers who also struggle with the same disease, or even join a Facebook group where you can talk about treatment or symptoms — there are so many resources out there and a vast community of people going through exactly what you are. I learned the importance of having a care team you feel fully confident in and comfortable with so that you can work together to address whatever symptoms you may be facing. Open and honest conversations with your care team can be the difference between effective treatment, and unmanaged symptoms that can inhibit you from living your life.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are?

As I mentioned above, I’d like to give an honorable mention to my care team, who helped shepherd me through this diagnosis and treatment journey. And to my patients — particularly the ones who are truly living their best lives with this disease.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

Navigating Crohn’s disease as a nurse, gave me an upper hand because I was able to easily reach out to a coworker or a doctor I knew for answers to my questions with ease. This also made me recognize that my reality was not the norm. I now use my experience and platform to speak out and raise awareness of IBD and Crohn’s disease. It’s difficult to speak openly about, but it needs to happen. Having been on both sides of the disease, I’m most proud of being able to raise awareness on IBD to remind other people like me they are not alone, and that there is hope in what they are going through. When a diagnosis can feel isolating, it’s important to remind others that someone out there understands.

Can you share “5 things I wish people understood or knew about people with chronic illnesses” and why.

People with chronic illnesses need support. I wouldn’t be where I am without my friends and family — whether it’s just to listen to me when I’m not feeling well, to order me sushi and cheer me up, or to be there with me on my good days — it’s important to feel like you have people in your corner, especially with a chronic illness.

Chronic illnesses are not always visible. I live with a chronic, internal illness, and while on the outside I may look fine, internally I could be struggling. It’s important to remember that we are not always aware of what others are going through and to be gracious and kind to unfamiliar faces without knowing their full story.

An illness is a spectrum. There will always be good and bad days, and it’s important to remember that someone with a disease can experience both sides of the coin. Treat patients with respect and kindness — do not diminish them because of their disease, but instead inspire them and help them on whatever day they are facing.

Chronic illnesses do not necessarily limit success. Illnesses may be a bump in the road or a road block but it does not mean defeat. I’ve read stories of professional athletes that struggled with chronic illness then found success in their sport after diagnosis. Several famous actors and entertainers are listed among those diagnosed with IBD and thriving in their profession. I’ve met women that have married then balanced a career and motherhood despite their diagnosis. I’ve seen patients with Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis graduate college and start new careers. There may not yet be a cure for IBD but there are certainly better outcomes than there were decades ago.

People with chronic illnesses are strong. We make great coworkers, friends, and supporters. We have a new perspective of gratitude for “normal or good days”. We have been through some tough days and are appreciative of the people who have been there for us, so we show up for those we care about. Our empathy and loyalty in given situations makes us strong.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”?

Take one day at a time and take care of yourself. Goals and having a vision for what is ahead is very important to me; however, I have learned that life can throw curveballs. Chronic illness or perfect health — each of us face situations and events that we simply cannot control. I continue to learn the gift of taking care of myself helps me handle whatever each day brings to the best of my ability.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this 🙂

This is a very tough question. I follow many athletes, authors, women in startups, and chefs on social media. I believe Sanna Marin, the prime minister of Finland, is someone that I admire and would love to meet. She was elected to office at age 34. I would be interested to hear her story firsthand and learn from the challenges that she has faced and overcome. I would ask her if she has goals after her time in public office.

This was very meaningful, thank you so much! We wish you continued success!

Unstoppable: How Alison Headrick Has Redefined Success While Navigating Society With Crohn’s… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.