Simon Pan: This Disease Doesn’t Define You.

Med student having their picture taken
Simon’s journey to 2023 IBD Scholarship recipient was not an easy one. But his determination and inspiration to help others like him is noble. He used his disease to shape his path forward.
If you had asked me as a child what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would’ve told you a million different things. Astrophysicist, computer scientist, author. The older I grew, the less sure of myself I became. Heading into high school, a constant thought haunted me: what was I going to do with my life? I didn’t know. What I did know was that I loved stories, and I loved science, but how could I combine the two in a way that seemed meaningful and fulfilling to me?

Then I ended up in the emergency room.

I was midway through ninth grade. I’d been experiencing stomach cramps and other GI problems for some time, but was suddenly forced to go to the hospital to drain a large perianal abscess. The pain was intense, but it was only a temporary thing. Or so I told myself.

Months later, the abscess returned. ER, lancing, antibiotics. When the abscess came back for the third time, I knew what to expect, but I began to wonder if I would ever feel normal again. In the summer of my ninth grade, I was hospitalized for a colonoscopy and treatment for the recurring abscesses. In the subsequent weeks, I was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease and learned that I had a perianal fistula.

It was a wild, whirlwind of a time in my life, but through all the change there’s one thing I’ll never forget— the kindness and compassion of the physicians and healthcare team supporting me through my stay in the hospital. It’s that experience that lit up a spark inside me.

And so it became my goal: work hard, gain acceptance to medical school, grow up to make an impact on patients the same way physicians before me had helped to shape my life. Simple, right?
The thing with Crohn’s disease that most people don’t realize is just how many different things can trigger a flare-up. For me, stress has always been one of the worst culprits. I remember sitting wide awake before the very first exam of my undergraduate medical sciences degree, unable to fall asleep, and feeling the effects in the washroom the very next morning.

It was a similar story with my MCAT exam— the stabbing pain in my stomach as I lay awake in anticipation of what the morning would bring.

Living with Crohn’s has also forced me to make several lifestyle adaptations. I live on a strict personal diet, excluding many different foods and cooking all my meals. At first, it was hard for me to explain to my friends why I couldn’t go out with them for dinner, or why I couldn’t eat foods they’d prepared when we spent time together. Over time, it’s become second nature for my close friends to check in with me on my dietary restrictions.

And then there’s the issue of sitting.

“Why the heck are you studying standing up?”

It’s what my brother asked me one day when he walked in to find me standing with my laptop perched over my dresser. The answer was that, yet again, I had an abscess in that area. Sitting meant pain, and pain meant that it would be impossible to focus on the lecture recordings I was reviewing to study for my upcoming midterm.

Thankfully, this abscess didn’t require surgical drainage, but it was a scare and a persistent reminder that living with Crohn’s is a lifelong contract that I didn’t intend on signing up for.

Today, I am beyond proud and thankful to say that I am now a medical student at the Michael G. DeGroote School of Medicine at McMaster University. It’s a strange, empowering thought that I might not be here if I hadn’t been diagnosed with Crohn’s all those years ago.

And while I am not defined by my diagnosis, Crohn’s disease has shaped my life in many ways. Resilience, determination, empathy.

Beyond that, Crohn’s has helped me choose my path in life, a problem that I had struggled with since I was a child.

Thank you for sharing your story with us Simon!
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  • 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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