August 28, 2008

Years of Pain Bring Gratitude

By Allison Levitsky

All through seventh grade, I had a low energy level, a sickly appearance, and a general feeling of malaise. Because inflammatory bowel disease runs in my family and can cause these symptoms, I saw a gastroenterologist to find out what was wrong. I then had a colonoscopy/endoscopy, which led to my diagnosis of Crohn's disease. It was a relief because based on prior tests and scans, my gastroenterologist had thought I had colon cancer.

Once I was diagnosed, my disease wasn't much of a problem until ninth grade. I started to have abdominal pain in addition to my prior symptoms. My attempts to keep my disease under control included medication and a low-fiber diet. That year, I had to miss at least one day of school almost every week because I didn't feel well. I struggled to keep up with my assignments.

In 10th grade, however, my disease really changed my life. It worsened and spread to more areas of my digestive system. I spent a week in the hospital at the beginning of the school year and started heavy doses of the steroid prednisone, which left me with side effects that felt worse than the disease itself.

After the hospital stay, I had to ignore my academic drive and transfer from San Ramon Valley High to Venture School, an independent study program. Despite all of the medications I was on (between 20 and 30 pills every day), I felt awful. I routinely had intestinal spasms that knocked me over; the pain was severe enough to make me moan and even scream in agony. I had excruciating stomach pain almost every moment of every day in 10th grade.

In June 2008, I went to my regular biweekly appointment with my gastroenterologist, who noticed a good-size lump on my abdomen. The next morning, I had an ultrasound, which led to a CT scan, which led to an emergency surgery. As it turned out, I had an intussusception - - the most inflamed portion of my colon had telescoped in on itself and gotten stuck. The surgeons had no choice but to remove one half of my colon. The part of my digestive tract that was removed was the one portion that I had never been able to get under control in three years of experimenting with medications. I feel fantastic now, and for the first time in three years, I can eat whatever I want.

Even when I was at my worst, I never completely wished that I hadn't had this experience. The last several years have matured me and made me more grateful. I don't worry about little things as much as I would otherwise. When I hear others complain -- or when I am about to complain -- about something trivial, my mind races back to the way it felt to lie in my hospital bed after my surgery, unable to move without help. My mantra at these times is simple: It could be worse.

Even back in the hospital bed, however, I could have been thinking, "It could be worse." Being in the hospital among young children with conditions far worse than my own reminded me how lucky I am. When I was experiencing agonizing stomach pain all the time, every sweet pain-free moment was a precious gift beyond anything in the world. No matter how bad my circumstances are, there are always hundreds of far worse potential realities.

When you are going through a rough time medically, it is far too easy to forget that you will get better. All through 10th grade, I thought I would be that sick forever. I never would have believed that in less than a year, I would almost have trouble remembering what an intestinal spasm felt like. My greatest wish is that I could go back in time and tell myself: You will get better sooner than you think.

The Life in Perspective board is made up of teens who write columns and stories for the features sections. Allison Levitsky is a junior at Venture School in San Ramon. She can be reached c/o [email protected]

Originally published by Allison Levitsky, Contra Costa Times Teen Correspondent.

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