How mountain biker Ruth faced Crohn’s disease and conquered her fears
Ruth’s can-do attitude is remarkable given how debilitating Crohn’s disease can be
A diagnosis of Crohn’s disease changed her life completely - but Ruth Nugent refused to allow the condition define who she is and embraced the hobbies she feared she’d never get to do.
After enduring a challenging number of years when she was first diagnosed with the inflammatory bowel disease, Ruth accessed the treatments and supports that worked for her - and have transformed her life.
She now takes part in the motorsports and mountain-biking that have become her passions, and seemed impossible in the early years. In fact, it was her determination to take them up despite her disease which helped her through dark times.
“I was involved in motor sport before I decided to actually start competing in it myself,” says Ruth.
“It was definitely Crohn’s that gave me the will to want to go and do it. In the first four years, I was very down in the dumps and wrapped myself in cotton wool and wanted to just look after myself.
“Then I was like: ‘No, I really want to start living my life. I'm gonna go race cars’. I just had this rapid change in perspective. I don't know if it was a mid-20s life crisis or what!’ she laughs.
“Then I found biking - I’ve been biking now for three or four years. That requires a lot more physical, energy and fitness. So I've certainly tested my body the most in the last few years. But luckily, I'm at a place at the moment so far, fingers crossed, where the treatment is helping that massively.”
Ahead of World IBD day on May 19th, the 29 year old is backing a new symptom checker and ‘Poo Taboo’ campaign to create awareness of the disease and its symptoms.
Ruth’s can-do attitude is remarkable given how debilitating Crohn’s disease can be. Inflammatory Bowel Disease covers a number of conditions in which the digestive tract becomes inflamed, swollen and ulcerated – the two most common conditions being Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. At least 40,000 people are living with IBD in Ireland - however, Crohn’s and Colitis Ireland believes that many more people remain undiagnosed. Common symptoms include diarrhoea or loose stools, bleeding from the bottom, fever, fatigue, anaemia, weight loss, cramps and abdominal pain.
For Ruth, from Gormanston in Co Meath, the turnaround came following a number of years struggling to manage the chronic illness, which she was diagnosed with eight years ago.
“The first thing that I actually noticed was like I had a B12 deficiency that was very bad in my teenage years. I was very fatigued and really rundown, catching everything all the time,” she recalls. “The actual stomach stuff didn't really start to kick in until I was close to 19 years old. It took two years to get diagnosed because my symptoms didn't exactly match up to the typical.”
Both Ruth and her family were distressed at hearing she had developed the chronic disease, which can cause flare ups in symptom severity from a number of causes - including in her case, stress.
“I was in my final year of college, which was obviously a very stressful time as well. I was really just bewildered. I'd never heard of it before. My granddad was a GP, so he was able to tell us a lot more about it.
“My main problem was malabsorption of vitamins, which was causing a lot of fatigue and different kinds of problems. And that was hard, because I wanted to live an active lifestyle. I just never had the energy and just really struggled with that.”
After a good deal of setbacks and frustration, Ruth and her medical team found a form of biologic therapy that is successful for her. It’s working really well, she says, and getting the infusions every seven weeks has made a huge difference in her life.
One of the most difficult symptoms of Crohn’s is bowel control - diarrhoea - can be difficult to manage, especially during flare ups. “It can be, depending on what I've eaten or what's going on in my life stress wise, which will kind of trigger the stomach symptoms. Toilet access is a massive thing. At the beginning I was hyper aware of myself and my body. I'm eight years diagnosed, and after eight years, you learn your body and you learn to know, okay, is it smart to go up the mountain on a bike today? Or am I able to race a car today?”
Though this tends to be the best-known symptom, it’s not the only one, Ruth stresses. “There's so much more that happens with IBD. It can affect your kidney, your liver, your eyes, your skin, your hair, there's so much that it actually impacts and also it's an autoimmune disease. So your immune system is at a low all of the time and then especially if you're on immunosuppressant therapy, or treatment, you're even more at risk of catching other things.”
But as her treatment continues to be effective, she is able to partake in her sporting passions. As well as her own motor-racing, a huge highlight was joining her dad on a trip to Canada to marshal at the Montreal Grand Prix.
“Dad and I have been in marshaling motorsports in Mondello Park for years and dad got the opportunity a few years ago to marshal at a couple of Formula One events. It was a once in a lifetime trip. It's hard work but it's the pinnacle of motorsport, and to be involved in it and work in it was such an honour. It was a really cool experience.”
Ahead of World IBD Day on May 19, Crohn’s and Colitis Ireland has launched a new Symptom Checker (www.crohnscolitis.ie/symptomchecker). The tool forms part of its “Poo Taboo” campaign which aims to highlight some of the stigma around IBD symptoms and the importance of not being too shy to get checked out.
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