On the first day of my year of thankfulness, I am most thankful for: my health.
Starting in high school, my stomach would hurt if I put pressure on it. At the time, I thought it was not something to be alarmed about. I learned not to hold books against my stomach, and eventually I stopped laying and sleeping on my stomach. In college, my stomach took on a voice of its own, one that liked to speak up in class, especially after lunch. I again learned to cope, spending class time with one hand on my lap standing guard in case of any stomach noises, so as to gently put pressure on the area, quieting it down. When I told my doctor about my stomach, they recommended a probiotic. Because my sister had also experienced stomach issues which led to her being diagnosed with Celiac Disease, I requested a blood test to be done to determine whether I also had Celiac. The blood test came back negative.
After college, I began substitute teaching. In January 2012 my symptoms escalated. I noticed abnormal weight gain despite no change in my normal eating habits, fatigue (think energy completely drained by 3:00 in the afternoon), bloating (or what I liked to call my food baby look), and stomach pain. A LOT of pain. It felt as though something was trying to compress my lower abdomen into a compact ball, and that ball was trying to erupt from my stomach. I would need to sit constantly, and if I did need to stand or dared to move around, I was often hunched because the pain would prevent me from standing straight.
My primary care doctor noticed unusual stomach pain during my annual physical exam. Pretty much this is what happened: she applied the barest of pressure on my abdomen to test for sensitivity; I said yes, there is sensitivity there; she touched another spot; I shouted “Ow, ow, ow!” and cringed. This reaction made her order a lower abdominal CT scan, the results of which showed a portion of my intestines was distended.
Because that signaled “Something is really wrong,” she told me to see a gastrointestinal (GI) doctor. I made an appointment to see the same GI as my sister, and the GI doctor ordered a full workup to determine a diagnosis. Lots of blood work, a second CT scan, a colonoscopy, and an endoscopy (the endoscopy and colonoscopy taking place on the same day) later I was diagnosed with Celiac Sprue Disease. What that means is that I am unable to digest gluten, a by-product of wheat, rye, barley, and malt and their ingredients. If I do ingest gluten, even the tiniest bit accidentally, or if my food is cooked/prepared on surfaces where glutenous foods have been cooked/prepared without being stringently cleaned, then I will get very sick. Celiac Disease is an autoimmune disorder, so if I do get glutenated then my immune system will attack my intestines, blunting the villi, the parts of the intestines that are responsible for absorbing nutrients. Individuals with Celiac Disease need to follow a strict gluten-free lifestyle, including a gluten-free diet.
The damage done to my gut from years of being undiagnosed was severe, taking more than a year for my gut to heal. The healing extends beyond my gut, however, as Celiac Disease is a condition that takes time to come to terms with emotionally, psychologically, and mentally as well as physically. And it is one that once you begin to heal, you begin to realize what being healthy truly means. There are many times when I look back to high school when I began experiencing symptoms and wonder, if I had been diagnosed earlier, how would my life be different now? The truth is I don’t know. What I do know is that I prefer to focus not on what could have been, but what might be. Because that’s what being healthy means: possibilities.