Freshman activist creates conversation about Crohn’s
Published: Monday, March 4, 2013
Updated: Tuesday, March 19, 2013 20:03
When freshman Catherine Hartman was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease in 2005, she says it was not the end of the world—rather, it was the beginning of a journey in which she decided to take charge of the disease and become an advocate for its awareness.
“I remember taking part in a walk that my doctor told me about, and I haven’t stopped since then,” Hartman says.
Crohn’s Disease is a chronic inflammatory condition of the gastrointestinal tract near the colon, slightly similar in symptoms to the disease colitis, and although they affect different parts of the tract, the two are primary forms of inflammatory bowel disease, she says.
According to WebMd.com Crohn’s disease can be hereditary, but it could also be the result of an abnormal immune system reaction to bacteria. The website states doctors are unsure of the exact cause. The main symptoms are diarrhea, stomach pains and weight loss, although some people also experience sores and bowel blockages.
While the symptoms of Crohn’s vary from person to person, Hartman says she has suffered significant weight loss because she could not digest food and receive basic, proper nutrients. She says she weighed 50 pounds in fifth grade and had no appetite or energy because she would her body would reject any food she ate.
Once she tested positive for Crohn’s, Hartman says her doctors told her about the awareness programs and explained it would be helpful for her to interact with other people who have the disease in order to understand more about it.
“Meeting other people helped me realize that it was possible to deal with it—they gave me so many tips,” she says. “It was just comforting knowing that I wasn’t the only one going through it.”
Hartman says she and some fellow activists she has met along the way have tried to get congressmen to sign onto different bills and after speaking to senators and representatives in South Jersey, she persuaded them to create a Crohn’s and colitis awareness week. She also asked to increase the funding for disease research.
She credits these activism efforts to the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of America, an organization dedicated to finding cures for Crohn’s Disease and ulcerative colitis.
Amy Kornbluth, the director of advocacy and youth of the CCFA, says the organization is a nonprofit and mostly volunteer-driven.
“Volunteers are the backbone of this organization,” Kornbluth says. “From our medical volunteers who help shape our research agenda to our volunteers who raise funds by forming walk teams or running a half marathon, they all make a difference to the organization.”
Kornbluth says the CCFA has partnered up with the National Institutes of Health to actively support research in the field and has approximately 80 new therapies in the pipeline. Crohn’s and colitis are diseases that are not talked about much because they are considered “bathroom diseases,” due to the nature of the symptons, she says. So raising awareness will help people understand what patients deal with, she says.
Carly Presnell, a representative of CCFA in the Delaware area, says another rising group, the National Council of College Leaders, is comprised of students who promote awareness on their respective campuses about issues such as these diseases. She says they regularly use social media to connect with young adults across the nation and even go to health fairs to inform the student population about Crohn’s and colitis.
“We saw so many dedicated, mature student leaders in our organization that we decided to form a council of students who could inspire others with their amazing drive and leadership,” Presnell says.
The NCCL currently has 18 members from all over the country, one of whom is Hartman. Presnell says Hartman has contributed tremendously to the foundation by organizing events and educational programs on campus, developing fundraising events and reaching out to others with the diseases.
Hartman says starting a support group is one of her major goals for the university, as the stress of exams and finals can trigger flare-ups for many with Crohn’s and colitis. She says her plan is not just limited to helping students with the diseases.
“Even if the student just has a family member with Crohn’s and wants to learn more about it, a support group would be a great experience,” Hartman says.
With an upcoming Crohn’s awareness walk scheduled in Wilmington, Hartman says she is trying to get a team together to represent the university. In addition, she is thinking of planning fundraisers in the local community.
She says she finds it helpful to become more involved on campus because many students go far away for college and lack a sufficient support system. Hartman says she wants to pursue a career in which she can help people with ailments feel less alone.
“I don’t want anyone to feel like they don’t have a shoulder to lean on so I definitely want to do something in the medical field,” she says. “I’m striving toward becoming a physician’s assistant. Helping people with illnesses makes me feel like I’ve done something substantial.”
Hartman says she has made friendships that will last a lifetime as a result of her experiences working with student leaders and patients.
“We’ve all created a unique bond with each other—it’s hard to explain,” she says. “I just met all of them in January for the first time, and we have been keeping in touch. We all get along so well, because we’re able to talk about our similar issues, making the whole experience a pretty worthwhile one.”