By Rasheed Clarke
Meet the 2018 Gutsy Walk National Honorary Chair
Matthew O’Halloran is cool.
You can see it when his hands glide across the keys of a piano. You can see it when he raises his blocker to stop a slapshot. You can see it when he talks about his life with Crohn’s disease.
And that coolness didn’t develop within the 14-year-old from Brockville, Ontario because he’s had an easy ride with inflammatory bowel disease, but because he’s endured hardships that have taught him to stay positive, persevere, and remain appreciative.
When he was a few days shy of his second birthday, Matthew’s parents noticed streaks of red inside his diapers. Rounds of lab testing and trialing different food combinations and eliminations revealed the red streaks were indeed blood, but nothing in particular was diagnosed.
It was only after more months of endoscopies, scans, and stool and blood tests that specialists from the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario were able to pin down a diagnosis of Crohn’s disease; shortly before Matthew’s third birthday.
“We were devastated,” says Jennifer Klatt, Matthew’s mother. “Our first born child, our ‘healthy’ baby boy, was suddenly being diagnosed with a disease which we had never heard of, and for which there was no known cure.”
The initial shock gave way to a drive to learn more, and Jennifer and John, Matthew’s father, began reading and researching the disease as much as they could. They attended local education events, read up on what foods to avoid, and researched medical treatments and their side effects.
Having that knowledge from the outset made the O’Halloran family open to talking about IBD, which in turn, created more understanding about the disease in their community.
“We always discussed his disease openly with the parents of his friends and classmates. They were always understanding and compassionate,” says Jennifer.
“When Matthew would go to birthday parties, he would receive a special loot bag because he was intolerant to lactose, sucrose, and fructose. The other kids would always ask to see what he got. Rather than feel like an outcast, he was made to feel unique.”
At the beginning of each school year, Jennifer and John made it a point to meet Matthew’s teachers in person to explain and educate them about IBD.
“His teachers have been exceptionally understanding. When Matthew had flares and bathroom visits were frequent and sometimes long, they made accommodations and respected him and his dignity,” says Jennifer.
When he’s not in school, you can find Matthew on the ice, backstopping the Brockville Bantam Rep team. Or behind a piano, where he takes jazz inspiration from Oscar Peterson. Or outdoors with his camera taking photographs.
Through effective treatment and diet, Matthew enjoyed a stretch of several years of good health. But last November his symptoms returned.
“It was the first really serious flare I’ve had since the first few years that followed my diagnosis. It reminded me of how fragile my situation is,” says Matthew. “I’ve had to be more aware of bathroom locations, what I’m eating, how often I’m drinking water, getting more sleep than I think I need, and forming my schedule around bathroom breaks.”
“It’s really opened my eyes to what my parents went through for so many years while I hopped from medication to medication, sometimes even using steroids to bring the inflammation under control.”
Well aware of the ups and downs that inflammatory bowel disease can bring, Matthew and his parents have been involved in the Gutsy Walk since 2007 to help raise funds for Crohn’s and colitis research. Last year, Matthew hosted a jazz concert
(he was on the piano, of course) to collect donations ahead of the walk. He plans to organize and perform a fundraising concert again this year.
“Every walk always has a festive, buzzing atmosphere where you’re surrounded by people who have IBD and their supportive loved ones. You realize you’re not alone and that we all share the same goal. It makes me feel very hopeful,” says Matthew.
While he’s hopeful for a cure for IBD in the future, Matthew remains grateful in the present for his family, friends, and the staff at CHEO, all of whom have been understanding, respectful, and caring. As he progresses through school, he has his sights set on a career in science as a researcher, doctor, or engineer.
“I would tell someone living with Crohn’s or colitis to say calm and hopeful, and to talk to others about how they deal with IBD. They’re not alone, and it helps a lot to know that.”