At 7:30 p.m. every Tuesday, sophomore Kevin Walker can be found in Ithaca College’s Muller Chapel meditating during the Buddhist community’s weekly service.
This is the only time and place where he can try to clear his mind of the debilitating disease that he is reminded of every day.
Walker has Crohn’s disease, an inflammatory bowel condition that causes severe abdominal pain and affects the intestines. Usually the body’s immune system can tell the difference between normal tissue and foreign substances, but with Crohn’s it can’t, which causes an overactive immune response. The disease is usually found in people aged 13 to 35 and affects around 500,000 Americans.
Walker’s struggle with the disease began when he experienced a pain in his left abdomen two years ago that eventually spread to his right side. The pain was so unbearable he was unable to fall asleep.
“I got taken to the hospital and they did a CAT scan,” he said. “They found a lot of inflammation and they also found scar tissue, infections and cysts.”
Neil Weinberg, a licensed acupuncturist and herbalist at the
Integrative Medicine Center in Ithaca, has seen about six cases of Crohn’s disease while treating patients at the center. He said the disease’s nature makes it hard for patients to deal with.
“Crohn’s is a major disease that has an impact on people’s lifestyles,” he said. “Its etiology is not very well known, but it’s expected to be an autoimmune disease because no specific microorganism has been established for the cause.”
In his own life, Walker said, the disease took a serious toll on his diet.
“The only real challenge is when I go to the dining hall — my options are actually pretty limited in that respect,” he said. “But that takes place almost everywhere that I go to eat.”
Dietary restrictions vary for people with Crohn’s, but in Walker’s case, he must avoid snacks like nuts, popcorn and spicy foods.
“I can have spicy food maybe once a week, tops, but if I go over that, I am going to have irritation,” he said.
In addition to all of these restrictions, Walker is also lactose intolerant and must steer clear of dairy products, a deficiency that he developed before his Crohn’s diagnosis.
When exercising, Walker said he must be careful of exerting too much pressure on his body.
“I love to exercise,” he said. “But I have to limit myself because of all the damaged cells and the scar tissue. If I work out too hard in a short period of time, I’ll feel awful.”
In order to manage his disease, Walker has to take daily medications including an immuno-modulator, which helps to decrease inflammation of the tissue, vitamin B-12, multivitamins and probiotics. Every two months, Walker must travel 30 miles back home for his Remicade treatment, a medicine that is administered intravenously by his gastroenterologist.
In July 2010, Walker received intestinal resection surgery where doctors removed the most diseased part of his small intestine. Though the surgery helped to put the disease in remission for six months, he said he feels the disease is still fighting back.
“The surgery temporarily put the disease on ice and then it started to act up again,” he said. “That’s when they started doing more advanced medications on me.”
Walker said his family has always been supportive of him, especially after his initial diagnosis. Kenneth Walker, Kevin’s father, said he was unfamiliar with Crohn’s disease before his son’s diagnosis, and was
disheartened to learn that there is no cure after conducting research.
“I wish there was a cure for him,” Walker said. “You’ve got to live with it forever, and I hate that.”
In light of his diagnosis, Walker said he found a connection between coping with his disease and Buddhism, though it was not easy at first.
“I doubted the beliefs of Buddhism when things got bad when I probably shouldn’t have,” Walker said. “[But] no matter what I tried, I would always go back to Buddhism anyway because it provides the best answers for what I believe.”
As a result of his experiences with Crohn’s, Walker said he was interested in starting his own support group at the college to provide coping strategies for people with Crohn’s and other related diseases.
“I’m one of the rare cases where I’m doing pretty well, so when people see me they’re like, ‘Well you don’t look sick,’” he said. “The education and the awareness would be, ‘It’s not how I look on the outside, it’s how I’m feeling on the inside that determines how bad the disease is.’”
Freshman James Graham, Walker’s roommate, said he was surprised to learn of Walker’s disease because he puts on a strong front.
“To me, it is an example that normal, everyday people sometimes have something going on in their lives that people can’t see and when they do share that, we need to be respectful of that fact,” he said.