Crohn’s, corticosteroids, and Kilimanjaro

Étienne Poulin in Tanzania
By Rasheed Clarke

Four years ago, Étienne Poulin lay in hospital, overwhelmed with pain as inflammation coursed through his body. Weakened to the point where standing was an ordeal, narcotics and corticosteroids were his only source of relief. For nearly two months, he remained rooted to his hospital bed.

A skilled cabinetmaker and entrepreneur, Étienne wondered what would become of his burgeoning woodworking career, and what sort of future lay ahead. It was yet another ordeal for the then 21-year-old from Quebec City, who had already faced several since he was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease at the age of 16.

“At first it was only cramping and bloating after eating, but it quickly became more present daily with more frequent visits to the toilet and a constant feeling of discomfort with the whole of my body,” Étienne recalls. “Before I was diagnosed I had lost more than 20 pounds, I had no energy, and I couldn’t eat anything without my body rejecting it.”

After the diagnosis, Étienne tried a number of treatments, all of which lost their efficacy at some point. 

“The only medication that allowed me to reduce the pain was high doses of prednisone, but every time we reduced the dosage, I would flare again,” he says.

While the steroids sparked some improvement on the outside, inside Étienne’s body, they were thinning his bones. So much so that the head of his femur succumbed to necrosis, and Étienne was admitted to hospital again, this time for a partial hip replacement.

Multiple hospital stays, combined with hip surgery, withered Étienne’s muscles to the point where he needed the help of a walker to venture a few steps. While working with his physiotherapist, Étienne joked that his goal was not just to get back to routine movement, but to climb Mount Kilimanjaro.

“I like any activity that involves being outdoors, and I’m someone who likes to get out of his comfort zone. Whether in my hobbies or at work, I constantly try to challenge myself or put myself in a situation where I have to perform,” Étienne says.

Physiotherapy led to walks, which led to trips to the gym, which led to hikes in the mountains. As Étienne strengthened his muscles, his gastrointestinal tract received a boost as well, in the form of a new biologic medication which kept his symptoms at bay.

The joke about climbing Kilimanjaro became a realistic possibility, so Étienne upped his gym sessions to four times per week, routinely hiked mountains on weekends, and turned his expedition into a fundraiser.

“I decided to get involved with Crohn's and Colitis Canada because I’m living proof that research is helping to restore quality of life for people with inflammatory bowel disease,” he says.

Finding donors turned out to be easy enough, and Étienne surpassed his fundraising goal of $2,500, but he knew actually ascending Africa’s tallest mountain would prove more challenging.

On February 8, Étienne arrived in Tanzania. In his dusty beige and black hiking boots and equipped with clothing and supplies to last the week-long ascent and descent, he began the slow climb up Mount Kilimanjaro. Through the uphill hike, he would have to adjust to depleting oxygen levels and falling temperatures, power through hours of hiking each day, and do it all while managing the residual pain from his hip replacement surgery.

Nearly a decade after his diagnosis, and after a four-year stretch of trials and tribulations and therapy, it took Étienne six days to scale 5,895 metres and reach Kilimanjaro’s summit.

“When I was told I had Crohn’s disease, I began to think about everything I could never do because of my condition. When I was in hospital, I was talking to a nurse who made me understand that it is much easier to target things that you can still do, and forget the rest,” Étienne says.

“There is good in spite of the disease.”

  • Canada has among the highest incidence rates of Crohn's and colitis in the world.
  • 1 in 140 Canadians lives with Crohn’s or colitis.
  • Families new to Canada are developing these diseases for the first time.
  • Incidence of Crohn’s in Canadian kids under 10 has doubled since 1995.
  • People are most commonly diagnosed before age 30.

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