Physician Assistant Finds Freedom from Pan Ulcerative Colitis
“I have complete freedom now. I no longer have to map out where every bathroom is within a one-mile radius, I can enjoy spending time with my kids, and actually went camping with my son’s Cub Scout pack in the middle of the woods!”
– Danielle Camastra
When Danielle Camastra worked as a physician assistant at two of the top research hospitals in the country, she and her colleagues would joke about natural health.
“I was the quintessential Western medical practitioner who would snark at my patients who came in with an ‘integrative/functional medicine approach,’ thinking they were crazy,” she says. “Didn’t they know that stuff doesn’t work?” (Functional medicine seeks to find and address the root causes of disease, rather than just treating symptoms.)
She’d spent her career in the epitome of Western Medicine – the surgical services of Columbia University Medical Center and Duke University Hospital – and had seen it help others.
Yet…not even the best-educated clinicians in the world could help her find relief.
Every day, Danielle struggled with intensely painful symptoms of pan ulcerative colitis, a form of UC that affects the entire large intestine. The relentless flares robbed her of her freedom, and her dignity. Mortifyingly embarrassing incontinence incidents had become a daily part of life.
Trying Medications for Ulcerative Colitis
In an attempt to calm the flares and symptoms, she tried a dozen medications: injectable biologic immunosuppressants, high-dose steroids and immunomodulators, and over-the-counter Imodium and Pepto Bismol daily – which wreaked further havoc on her gut and immune system.
Still, she suffered from intense pain, missed work frequently, and knew the location of every bathroom on her route to work or her son’s school. At times, the anxiety and subsequent depression were too much to bear.
“My son was all too familiar with gas station bathrooms and knew not to fasten his seat belt too quickly after getting back in the car,” she says.
“After 10 years of hiding and struggling, I started to fill out disability paperwork as a recommendation from my manager because I missed too many days of work,” she adds. “I couldn’t eat any solid foods, had lost 19 lbs., couldn’t sleep more than two hours consecutively due to pain, urgency and bloody diarrhea, and many chronic little ailments. My gastroenterologist kept threatening to line me up for total colectomy since all four immunosuppressant medications were not working.”
Something had to change – not just for her, but for her kids.
“If it’s you, you can put up with a lot,” she says. “But if it’s your kids, there’s a line where you’re like, ‘No, it doesn’t matter. I need to figure this out.’ I knew innately that there had to be more I could do.”
Over about a year and a half, Danielle did, in fact, find the answers she sought – and relief from pan ulcerative colitis symptoms. For her, it took dedicated focus on changing her mind, body and spirit.
Stress and Pan Ulcerative Colitis
With nothing to lose, Danielle began going to Reiki sessions, which in hindsight, offered the first glimmer of hope she had seen in close to a decade. A Japanese technique for stress reduction and relaxation, Reiki promotes healing by treating the body, mind and spirit.
Soon after starting Reiki, Danielle felt a shift in her health. In fact, each time she went, she felt a little better. From there, she pushed a little deeper into a world she never expected, trying Archangelic light through her Reiki practitioner.
Yet still, she suffered. She had already been admitted to the hospital three times within two years for severe UC flares and her doctor wanted to admit her again for surgery. Instead, she attended a Life Renewal Qigong retreat.
At the start of the retreat, she could only eat a teaspoon of food without pain. By the end, she could eat a full plate.
“That was a life-changing event,” she says. “For the first time in years, I felt relief. It was like I had full immersion with QiGong, or I just had rest and relaxation, which I so needed.”
Where a dozen medications had not helped her, these bodywork techniques did.
“I just started trying other things and believing that there was another way, and more importantly, tuning into my body,” she says. “I had been ignoring it and pushing through because that’s the way I was trained professionally and personally ─ to push through. Go, go, go! There is no pain. Just go!”
Mind-Body Work and Gut Health
Over her years in clinical medicine, Danielle had seen firsthand the power of the mind in healing. “Despite what meds were given or procedures tried, the person’s belief system was the guaranteed prognostic indicator,” she says.
Thus, she set out to change her mindset regarding her health and herself. She had to believe she could get better.
She started reading and listening to empowering books and podcasts from inspirational people such as Louise Hay, Tony Robbins, Abraham Hicks and Jini Patel Thompson, a woman who treated herself for Crohn’s.
For close to a year, she listened to Louise Hay religiously every morning before work. Her quote, “You can change your life by changing your thoughts,” resonated with her powerfully.
“My introspective work played a huge part in my healing journey,” she stresses. “I had to remind myself of the things I could do if I felt better. And my self-talk was a huge part of it! I told myself repeatedly that I would be healthy and vibrant, and every chance I had I would look in the mirror and say, ‘Danielle, I love and accept you exactly as you are.’ I retrained my brain and thus my body followed.”
She tried visualization techniques – not easy with constant pain distracting her. Danielle began to believe she could do this. Pan ulcerative colitis didn’t have to be her reality forever.
Soon, colleagues started noticing changes in her, and would ask what she’d been doing. They didn’t expect the answer she gave.
“They would tune you out as soon as you start talking about anything other than Western medicine because they’re like, ‘It must be the medicine; maybe the medicines are just working.’ And I’d say, ‘No. I took myself off of the medicine.’”
Diet for Pan Ulcerative Colitis
Food had always been Danielle’s enemy, triggering her pain and almost instantaneous symptoms.
“I asked my GI once, ‘Does food have anything to do with it?’ She said, ‘No, sorry, it doesn’t.’ And it just hit me. So you’re telling me that food can cause a myocardial infarction and cardiovascular disease and it has nothing to do with the gut? I’m calling BS on that. It’s not that they’re malicious; they just didn’t know.”
Her first diet change came in the form of elemental, pre-digested shakes developed by Thompson, which allowed her to get the nutrients she needed. Then, starting a program at the Functional Medicine Coaching Academy (FMCA) unlocked more of the nutrition puzzle for her. Danielle, a lifelong conventional PA, enrolled at the FMCA to learn more about a functional medicine approach.
She started “eating clean,” eliminating processed foods and paying attention to how her body responds to certain foods. As recommended by the FMCA, she tried an elimination diet – cutting out top allergens, inflammatory foods and grains – and then began adding foods back in, seeing how her body reacted.
Once, she and her colleagues had laughed about patients who took lots of supplements. Now, Danielle can’t go a day without hers. Among the most essential for her are turmeric, probiotics, Ashwagandha, L-glutamine, buffered vitamin C, flaxseed, apple cider vinegar, vitamin B, calcium, N-acetyl cysteine, N-acetyl glutamine, Vitamin D and omega 3 vitamins.
Camping with Pan Ulcerative Colitis
At the lowest point with pan ulcerative colitis, Danielle was on 12 medications at once. Now, diet, supplements and lifestyle changes have replaced all but one prescription medication, mesalamine.
She works hard to keep her stress down, works out and meditates daily, and eats cleanly as much as possible. Her maintenance diet looks very paleo, with organic whole foods that are mostly veggies and protein with some fruit. She also eats lots of healthy fats, oils and nuts. These days, grain-free Siete chips are her “guilty” pleasure.
And after so many years of daily struggle, she’s regained her quality of life.
“I have complete freedom,” she says. “I no longer have to map out where every bathroom is within a one-mile radius, can enjoy spending time with my kids, and actually went camping with my son’s Cub Scout pack in the middle of the woods!”
Danielle also quit her job at Duke and moved her family back to New Jersey, where she began working at a small functional medicine clinic. And with her FMCA graduation coming up next month, she also consults with clients privately through her coaching practice, CoachMindBodySoul.com. Soon, she expects to become an IFM certified practitioner.
Danielle’s grateful not only for her own newfound quality of life, but the gift that she can pass on to her kids.
“Both my kids are, thankfully, healthy, happy and growing up to see Mommy create her own destiny and refuse to be a victim of disease,” she says. “At such a young age, I want to teach them, ‘You can create your own reality. You don’t have to be a victim. And it’s just your body talking to you. It’s not anything to be scared of. You can listen to it. Just communicate with it. Your body speaks to you all the time, just not in the same language as your brain.”
If you enjoyed this story, you might also like: San Diego Mom Celebrates Remission from Crohn’s Disease, Thanks to Diet.
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