Out of Balance | Alyssa’s life with Crohn’s disease

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Out of Balance | Alyssa’s life with Crohn’s disease

Medical student Alyssa Clements bounced from doctor to doctor for her mysterious pain before she was finally diagnosed. One doctor even told her she’d never be a physician.

Ever since Alyssa Clements can remember, she’s wanted to be a doctor. Her father is a chiropractor in south New Jersey, and his business partner was Clements’ own doctor when she was younger.

“I grew up hanging out in their office,” Clements said. “My father’s patients always felt like part of our family. I always imagined myself being able to treat the patients I grew up with.”

Clements never considered any other career. Everything she did was a step toward medical school. She worked hard in high school and college and got straight As. But when the now 28-year-old finally started at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine in 2013, she was surprised to find herself struggling. She was exhausted all the time and her whole body hurt.

The first doctor she saw suggested it was anxiety due to the rigors of medical school. Clements duly tried the antidepressants he prescribed. They did nothing to help her symptoms.

Clements places a lot of trust in the medical system. But it would be several months before a doctor took her mystery pain seriously enough to run the right tests. Clements has Crohn’s disease, it turned out, an autoimmune condition that causes chronic inflammation of the digestive tract. By the time she found out, she was walking around with a bowel obstruction severe enough that it could have killed her, she said.

Before she got to that point, she visited three different emergency rooms as her pain worsened, seeing numerous doctors, many of whom told her that her symptoms were in her head. When she was finally diagnosed, having taken a leave of absence from medical school, the doctor told her to give up on her dream of ever practicing medicine herself.

A disease with mysterious origins

Approximately 780,000 Americans suffer from Crohn’s disease, which is part of a group of conditions known as inflammatory bowel diseases, or IBD. Crohn’s is incurable, and usually requires a lifetime of immune-suppressing drugs. For some patients, even with medication, their intestines become so damaged from inflammation that they need surgery to repair or remove parts of their digestive tract.

Researchers still don’t fully understand what triggers the disorder — let alone how to best treat or even cure it. In the last decade, new, more targeted therapies have come on the market, but even the latest treatments often don’t halt all the symptoms of the disease, or they stop working after a while.

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