Don’t go it alone: Peter’s lessons on life with Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD)

Our story

Meet Peter Dobranowski, who lives with ulcerative colitis. He is a past recipient of the AbbVie IBD Scholarship, and currently is a PhD candidate at the University of Ottawa, studying a potential new therapeutic strategy for kids with IBD. 

Diagnosis and the early days

I was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease when I was 15. Then I was re-diagnosed with ulcerative colitis when I transitioned to adult care. I had a rough go transitioning to adulthood, particularly during my first year of university.

My memories of the time around my diagnosis are clouded. After six months of symptoms, I got an answer. I remember waking up in the hospital bed and my parents telling me I had Crohn’s. For the most part, I was able to manage things well, and the rest of high school went okay.

Flare ups during university

But early in my freshman year of university, I had a major flare up. It was the hardest period of my life. I couldn’t concentrate during exams because I had to get up close to 30 times to go to the washroom. It was humbling, and not in a good way.

I ended up having to drop one of my classes to survive the semester. The following semester, I took a reduced course load. But only two weeks into the second semester of my freshman year, I had to drop out. I realized it was the stress that was triggering my flares. So, I didn’t know how I’d be able to pursue my dreams, as stress is always a part of the academic journey.

Finding the right treatment

It got to the point that I was considering surgery to remove my colon. That was a lot of weight on my mind. I worked with my gastroenterologist, and while he felt surgery was on the table, he suggested other treatments first. I started on a new treatment and a month later, I was back in remission. This gave me my life back.

At this point, I had a choice to make. Did I want to go back to university and risk the stress ruining my health? What career would I be able to pursue?

Going back to school

I started an apprenticeship in the trades, and during my placements, I met a man who had UC. We talked and shared stories, particularly about how to manage stress. His advice was there is stress in every job. Don’t let that be a limitation. My heart was still with science and medicine, so I decided to re-apply to university and was thrilled to be accepted.

I started off with a reduced courseload – one course. During my first exam, I had to use the washroom repeatedly, which was difficult, because the professor had to keep escorting me out of the room to ensure I wasn’t cheating on the exam.

My professor then suggested I speak with the disability centre, and this really helped me a lot. With their advice, I knew I could survive university – I could take all my exams in their centre and have unlimited access to the washroom. This really reinvigorated my confidence.

Volunteering with Crohn’s and Colitis Canada

About halfway through my undergraduate degree, I started volunteering with Crohn’s and Colitis Canada. I had a handle on my health and so I had the capacity to volunteer.

My first-time volunteering, I was an extra pair of hands at the Gutsy Walk, Crohn’s and Colitis Canada’s annual fundraising walk event. The following year, I was elected president of my local association chapter, and I was president for four years. My focus during this time was on patient education and engaging dialogue. Sometimes people just need to talk about things, and we built a community of people who got to know each other well. Some even called it a family.

I was also recently involved with a research program through Crohn’s and Colitis Canada called PaCER – patient and community engagement research. We interviewed and held focus groups with young people living with IBD, to explore how they seek non-medical help. I’m proud of my work on this project. We recently submitted a manuscript for publication.

The IBD community in Canada is amazing. There are many “lifer” volunteers with Crohn’s and Colitis Canada, and it’s lovely to see people so committed and giving their all. I can’t imagine where I’d be if I hadn’t gotten involved.

Pursuing post-secondary education

After my undergrad, I was accepted into a Master’s program, as a researcher in IBD. I began studying the microbiome, which is all the micro-organisms, like bacteria, that live inside the body. I was exploring the bacterial composition in mice with IBD and looking for clues as to what happens in humans.

From there, I was accepted into a PhD program, researching precision microbiome therapies for pediatric IBD.

Receiving the AbbVie IBD Scholarship

While I was applying to the PhD program, I also applied for the AbbVie IBD Scholarship. Receiving this scholarship was more than validating; I felt like I was doing the right thing, and receiving this award was another major turning point in my life. It has opened so many doors for me and it’s put me in a great position.

Overall, I’d say that my awards and achievements have been because of other people: my family, my professors, fellow volunteers. I’ve been extremely fortunate to have such support.

Peter’s advice to others living with IBD

For anyone in university, I would recommend you explore the centre for students with disabilities. It’s important to be aware of all the resources and extra help available to you, which will help you better cope with and manage the stress that comes with attending university.

I would also say that taking control of your diet can help. My undergraduate degree was in nutritional science, mainly because I wanted better knowledge to help myself. Often physicians can downplay the link between diet and IBD, but for me personally, it is a critical component of living well.

If I could give advice to my 15-year-old self, I would have said that you should meet more people living with IBD because it’s awful going at it alone. People without IBD don’t know what it’s like, and it’s hard for them to truly empathize with what we’re going through.

But that said, through my work with the PaCER project, I learned that people need to take time and learn for themselves what it’s like to live with a chronic illness. You can’t force people to do things they’re not ready for. There are rewards to struggling and learning what’s best for you. But overall, I would have wanted to tell myself that the IBD community is out there, and they’re an important resource to tap into.

** Peter’s story may not be representative of the general population.

For more information about Crohn’s and Colitis Canada, please visit: www.crohnsandcolitis.ca or to apply for the AbbVie IBD Scholarship, please visit: www.ibdscholarship.ca.