Close this search box.

Battling Ulcerative Colitis

By Nathan Burke
THP_7740 copy
I grew up in a fitness lifestyle with my mom and dad teaching me the ropes. My mom would always make sure my brother, sister and I ate healthy foods and my dad always had us involved in sports and fitness throughout our younger years. This led us to continue that lifestyle as adults. A 2001 graduate of Manchester high School, I went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in Exercise Science and Education from the University of Akron. I began competing in bodybuilding in 2005 and have participated in a total of ten shows.

In 2008, I was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, an autoimmune disease where your colon begins attacking itself. Ulcers and sores begin to form on the large intestine causing pain, bleeding, weight loss, anemia, and a host of other serious side effects that can affect everyday life. After I was diagnosed, I learned mine was a mild case and was prescribed medication to keep it under control and prevent flare-ups. Although I had never taken any long-term medication in the past, I was advised I would require medication for the rest of my life to keep the disease under control.

For four years I was able to keep the disease at bay for the most part; there were a few flare-ups, but nothing that required hospitalization. I was even able to compete in four bodybuilding shows in April and May of 2009 and 2011. In December 2011, I knew something was wrong. My dad had passed away in August as a result of colon cancer. Still going through the grieving process of that loss, I felt maybe that was why I was feeling down. Dizzy and fatigued a lot, I kept thinking it was the weather, or overthinking the situation and stressing myself out. I even saw a physician and was treated for a cold. Planning to compete again in 2012, I began training in January.

During February I stopped training because I was not feeling well and was not getting better. Around that time I began to experience the actual symptoms of a colitis flare-up. At the end of February I saw my gastroenterologist indicating that the colitis symptoms had returned despite being on a medication that had worked for four years. Another medication was prescribed. After a week or so on the new medication, I was no better and, in fact, I began feeling worse and was losing weight. It got so bad that I was unable to eat anything; my body was rejecting everything and I was becoming malnourished and dehydrated. I kept telling myself I did not want to go the hospital since I have never been hospitalized before and was trying to avoid it. At that point my body was in very bad shape as a severe colitis flare-up can cause pain and significant gastric bleeding. Looking back, I am not sure how I was able to function at that point losing so much blood and dealing with severe pain. Barely able to put fluid in my mouth, I knew it was time to call my doctor again. I indicated there had been no improvement and was advised to go to the hospital emergency room.

At the hospital I was treated with intravenous steroids to reduce the inflammation. After a week, there was some improvement and I was sent home with more medication. Only three days back home and I was worse again, and the hospital advised me to return for more treatment. I received additional steroids, but continued to get worse, losing more weight being unable to eat. Eventually I developed C-diff, which is an infection of the colon. At that point I was battling a severe colitis flare-up and an infection at the same time. They moved me to an isolation room where visitors had to wear a protective covering over their clothes. Extremely weak and dehydrated, emergency personnel forced fluids immediately or I would have not have survived. After receiving fluids, I began to normalize and my vital signs began to improve. It was apparent there was nothing more that hospital could do, so I requested transfer to Akron City Hospital where they had a specialist in the disease.

When I arrived at Akron City they were very proactive in their approach to treatment and scheduled testing to determine what could be done. After a sigmoidoscopy, which is an examination of the colon, the doctor told me he never before seen a patient in this stage of the disease. He advised having my entire large intestne removed was the cure after which I would get my life back and be better than ever. Not hesitating, I agreed to the surgery. I soon learned in order to withstand surgery, my nutrition would have to improve since I had not been able to eat for a month. I was placed on total parenteral nutrition (TPN), which is basically nutrition through an IV. A tube was attached to the vein leading to my heart where the nutrition would be delivered. While there is always a risk for infection with intravenous nutrition, I was fortunate that I didn’t have any complications from the IV nutrition. Responding well to the TPN, I was ready for surgery.

When I was admitted to the hospital at the beginning of March, I weighed 200 pounds. A month later, I weighed 150 pounds. That was a loss of 50 pounds in one month due to not being able to eat and being in a hospital bed. On April 1, 2012 I began the first of three surgeries with removal of my entire large intestine. The surgery went well and afterward I wore an ostomy bag attached to my abdomen for a full year. The ostomy bag was my new way of going to the bathroom for a full year. I ended up being in the hospital two weeks after the first surgery. My body had to adjust to eating again. At that point, I was just happy to be alive. My doctor advised me to go slow at first when it came to eating and he was right. My first bite of food was a scoop of mashed potatoes. I took two bites was full. As time went on, my stomach began to adjust and I was able to eat normally.

During the second surgery in December of 2012 a “J” pouch was created using the small intestine and this pouch functioned as a new colon. The ostomy bag was left on until my final surgery in March of 2013. This was the takedown surgery where they connected the “J” pouch together to make it function and removed the ostomy bag. After the bag was removed, it was sort of bitter sweet. I was happy that I didn’t have to have it anymore but at the same time I had gotten used to it, realizing it played a huge part in saving me and making my digestive system being able to function. There were several complications throughout these multiple surgeries, but I got through them and became a stronger person during this difficult process. Each day I became stronger, slowing building my body back up. The doctor told me I could work out again six weeks after my surgery. When I started, I took it slow, but I was determined to build my body back up again. Within four months I gained 35 pounds and felt great! All the while doing this with an ostomy bag connected to me. I bought a support band that attached around my waist and kept the bag secure. People could not even tell I was wearing a bag. I was able to do anything I wanted and it was a great feeling.

After the last surgery I was on a mission to get completely back to myself in hopes to be on the bodybuilding stage once again. I decided in the summer of 2013 that I would make a comeback and compete again in the spring of 2014. With no restrictions on eating or anything, I began feeling really healthy again. Eating good quality foods, I was building my body back to how it used to be prior to my illness. The night before my first surgery, I asked my doctor if I would be able to compete in bodybuilding again. He said, “Absolutely, Nate. I have a feeling in two years from now you’ll be back on stage.” I never forgot what he told me and took those words to heart. Exactly two years later, I did exactly what he said I was going to do. I competed in April of 2014 and am now a competitive bodybuilder once again. I plan to continue my bodybuilding journey and compete again in the future.

As for now, I deal with some small lifestyle changes. I still need to make frequent bathroom trips but it’s not a big deal and I just consider it my new normal. I have a few food restrictions, eat a good amount of fiber and take a daily probiotic. I have had a few bouts of inflammation but it is easily controlled with a round of antibiotics. Feeling great, I strive to help as many people as I can to stay positive and never give up on anything they are dealing with. I would like to thank my family–especially my mom who was always at my side through this ordeal—and my friends for their continuing support. My main strength, however, was my faith. Without my faith in God and receiving strength from Him, I would not be here today. It is the most important part of my life. With a positive attitude and courage, you can get through any struggle in your life. I am living proof of that and will continue to live my life to the fullest.

Battling Ulcerative Colitis

Share this:

Sponsored By

What to Read Next