Lifelines: The story of a paramedic living with Crohn’s
By Rasheed Clarke
Ambulances fascinated Craig Bothwell ever since he was a child. In August 1989, he would need one himself when a drunk driver smashed into his parents’ car not far from their home in Forest, Ontario. Shaken but thankfully spared from serious injuries, Craig recalls the calming actions of the paramedics who arrived on scene.
“They were so reassuring both at the crash site, and en route to the hospital,” he says. “They made me feel completely safe and at ease the whole time with them. After that event, I knew becoming a paramedic was the career I wanted to pursue.”
Two years after the accident, Craig and his family were blindsided once again, this time by Crohn’s disease. In late 1991, Craig started vomiting. Then came diarrhea. Then came abdominal cramps. Then came another trip to the hospital. What he and his family thought was a bad case of the flu turned out to be inflammatory bowel disease.
“When I was first diagnosed, I was a bit shocked. I’d been healthy up to that point, and couldn’t grasp the fact that despite eating healthy, and having a very active lifestyle, that I now had a disease that could affect any part of my GI tract, and at the flip of a coin, could cause chaos with how I felt,” says Craig.
Crohn’s disease wouldn’t stop Craig from fulfilling his dream of becoming a paramedic. After competing the Paramedic Program at Niagara College, he started full-time work in the spring of 2002.
For several years, Craig managed the challenges of Crohn’s alongside the rigours of being a paramedic. He dutifully cared for those in need of emergency medical attention with the Middlesex-London Paramedic Service. But there were signs that the disease was growing harder to control with medication. Doctors would eventually have to operate on Craig, twice, to remove sections of ravaged intestine.
Then in January 2011, a third resection was needed. Surgeons removed another several feet of Craig’s small intestines, leaving him with a condition called short bowel syndrome (SBS). Sometimes called “short gut”, the condition makes it difficult for the body to absorb what passes through the digestive tract, which can lead to diarrhea, dehydration, malnutrition, and weight loss.
To combat the new Crohn’s complication, Craig had to start total parenteral nutrition (TPN), a process that sees specially formulated nutritional products fed to someone directly through a vein. Doctors outfitted Craig with a port-a-cath, a small device installed beneath the skin and connected to a vein through a catheter. Every day, over the course of ten hours, Craig infuses himself with his TPN formula through the port-a-cath.
“There were some learning curves associated with being attached to a pump for 10-12 hours at a time,” Craig says. “Having a line and pump to deal with while navigating stairs, going to the bathroom, and even getting used to sleeping while attached to a pump and line were all something that took time. But after a while, it just became second nature.”
In addition to TPN, Craig still has to take medication to help his remaining bowels absorb nutrients and fluids, another medication to treat ulcers in his digestive tract, and another one to treat his underlying Crohn’s disease. When he does eat, he tries to do so in the healthiest way possible. Through it all, he continues the career he loves.
“The best part about being a paramedic is working alongside such dedicated professionals, and knowing that people put their trust in you during an often stressful time. I feel privileged to be able to provide treatment and reassure people during these times, before handing care off to the nurses and doctors in the ER,” Craig says.
“But there are hard days too. We sometimes have to deal with tragedies in other people’s lives. We’re all human, and while we have a job to do, it’s sometimes hard to switch off at the end of a shift. But I still love my job, and wouldn’t change a thing!”
Support from his employer and coworkers has helped Craig carry on his duties, in spite of the challenges Crohn’s has offered.
“I’ve had four surgeries since I started working as a paramedic, and my employer has always been very supportive. They always made sure I knew there was no rush to return to work before I was ready, and to take the time I needed to heal and focus on getting back to my best. My co-workers are also great in supporting me over the years, and helping me through shifts when I’m feeling run down.
But the most supportive people in Craig’s life right now are his wife, Miranda, and his two daughters.
“All three of them have seen everything I’ve had to deal with because of my disease, and they’ve been right there beside me the whole way. Their never ending love and support has been amazing, and I’m so thankful for them.”
As he embarks on his 17th year as a paramedic, Craig has a few words of encouragement for anyone living with Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis:
“Don’t let anyone tell you that there is something you can’t do because of this disease. IBD doesn’t define you, but your attitude in dealing with the disease will. Be positive, and realize that there are so many resources in the community and online to help you navigate your way through any hurdles you may encounter. And don’t be afraid to ask questions, we’ve all been there at one point!”