Ashley Clark is using her own experience with Crohn’s disease as background for her studies.
She is currently in the midst of her master’s degree at the University of Victoria in the social dimensions of health program.
To help her with this, she received word this summer that she is one of 10 recipients across Canada of a AbbVie IBD Scholarship by Crohn’s and Colitis Canada. The scholarship supports students, recognizing them for academic excellence as well as overcoming the difficulties caused by inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).
“I’m actually studying the quality of life of IBD patients,” she says.
Clark has volunteered with Crohn’s and Colitis Canada, the BC Children’s Hospital and Social Health Lab. For the scholarship, she had to write a short essay of 500 words about her experiences and her involvement to help others, as well as submit two references. She submitted in June and found out in July that she was among the 10 winners out of 370 that applied for the scholarship.
She says her mom recalls taking her to the doctor when she was a baby, but the diagnosis came later. Now 25, she was first diagnosed when she was 19 after starting to meet with a gastroenterologist. She opted for surgery after a series of medications failed to manage symptoms.
There are many misconceptions, she says, around Crohn’s disease.
“Stomach issues, they can be overlooked easily and also they’re symptoms of so many things,” she says.
Some think it is associated with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Others assume it must have something to do with diet, like Celiac disease. However, it is an auto-immune disease that attacks the intestines. The treatment she gets reverses these attacks but, in turn, can negatively affect a person’s immune system.
“Your immune systems is actually mistaking your digestive tract … it starts attacking it,” she says.
She takes a biological therapy, having started with intravenous infusion but switched to self-injection. Again, there are misconceptions around to treat the disease.
“You can’t really, really control IBD with diet,” she says, though you can manage symptoms. “You have to eat things that are easy to digest.”
This last year, Clark had to put work and studies on hold as she went to St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver for surgery. She came back to Campbell River to stay with her mother to recuperate but developed some complications and spent close to two months in the local hospital. She is quick to compliment the local doctors and nurses.
“I had an amazing experience there,” she says. “They’re so caring and they’re so personable. My doctor and my surgeon and my nurses all made me feel like I was the only patient that they had every day…. When I left, I actually missed them.”
The one side effect of the recent treatment on her outside life was, of course, that she still has to do another couple of semesters at school to finish her master’s – meaning the scholarship will provide her with some extra support to finish off her degree. The recent health issues set her back a year, but Clark hopes to be finished in April and she is also planning to do another master’s of counselling, so she can help chronic disease patients.