Most people rarely talk about what goes on in the bathroom. Decades after she was first diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, Kriger has written a book about what goes on there.
For obvious reasons, the vast majority of people rarely talk about what goes on in the bathroom. For most of her life, Linda Kriger was one of those people.
Today, decades after she was first diagnosed with ulcerative colitis at 16, Kriger not only talks about what goes on behind that closed door — she has written a book about it.
Kriger, a former medical writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer, recently decided to put her journalistic background to use to research her condition and the result is her first book, Gut Feelings: Social and Emotional Struggles with Crohn’s and Colitis, which came out in August. She interviewed more than 100 patients and their families about how they deal with these autoimmune diseases. Her status as a fellow sufferer helped Kriger, who will appear at Big Blue Marble Bookstore in Philadelphia to discuss her book on Oct. 25, to get her subjects to open up about their own experiences with Crohn’s and colitis.
According to the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of America, ulcerative colitis is a chronic disease of the large intestine in which the lining of the colon becomes inflamed and develops tiny open sores, or ulcers, that produce pus and mucus.
In the March 8, 2012 issue of the online journal Public Library of Science, researchers reported that genetic mutations make Ashkenazi Jews four times more likely than other populations to develop Crohn’s.
Faten Aberra, a gastrointestinal doctor at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, said although Crohn’s was most proportionally prevalent in Ashkenazi Jews in the 1970s and 1980s, its incidence has increased in other populations in the last 20 years. She said while doctors do not know what causes the disease, anyone with a close relative who has it, has a 5 to 8 percent chance of getting it.
“You don’t need to have those genes to have the disease,” Aberra said. “The key actually is if you have a first-degree relative, everyone is at risk, whether they are Jewish or not.”
In her book, Kriger examines the emotional and social impact of Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis and looks at the issues around each disease. Among the subjects the book addresses are: how patients handle the disease when they are in school, at work, with friends and when dating; how they handle urgency, depression and attempts at non-traditional healing; and the side effects of medication and decisions around surgery.
Kriger began her research in 2011 by speaking to people on Facebook and in chatrooms throughout the world about the diseases. Only first names were used for the interviewees and for some, just pseudonyms.
She treated each chapter as if it was an article, which made the process much easier, she related.
“What really helped was the people I spoke with,” she said. “People told me amazing stories.”
Kriger interviewed an Ashkenazi Jew from Bucks County who began having serious stomach issues at the age of 12. The doctor told him it was food poisoning, but he went for a second opinion at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and found out he had Crohn’s.
“That’s the way it often goes; usually it’s a less serious issue that’s diagnosed” at first, she said.
Another person that stood out to her was a young man from Lafayette, La. In the late 1990s, he often had severe abdominal pain, but since he had no insurance, doctors would tell him to take Mylanta. Finally, he was in so much pain that he got down on his hands and knees and begged to be cut open.
The doctors performed surgery and found an obstruction in his intestines. If they hadn’t, he could have died. Afterwards, he recalled in the book, he heard a doctor say, “Maybe he has Crohn’s,” to which another doctor replied, “No he doesn’t — that’s for Jewish women.”
Kriger, who grew up in Connecticut, has lived in Philadelphia since 1976. She began experiencing symptoms as a teenager and often saw blood in her stool. The doctors believed she had irritable bowel syndrome, then proctitis, before it was finally confirmed that she suffered from colitis.
The disease got really bad in her 20s when she worked at the Inquirer. She would often feel uncomfortable at work and had no one to talk to about it.
“It was an unseemly thing to talk about,” she said. “It is a perfect recipe for depression.”
In 1980, she joined the Center City Chavurah, where she felt at home and was able to share what she was going through with a few people.
“I didn’t have a community and I wanted a community around the time I was sick,” she said. “I don’t know why I didn’t talk about it — it just seemed so horrible and so disgusting. It was very hard spiritually and emotionally.”
In 2000, she and her husband, Jake, joined Germantown Jewish Centre. However, in June of that year, doctors found pre-cancerous cells in Kriger and had to perform a colectomy, which is a surgical procedure to remove all or part of the colon. While Kriger was under the knife, the current Rabbi Emeritus of GJC, Leonard Gordon, joined her husband in the waiting room. Although the rabbi did not know them well, he felt it was important to be there.
“Jake was very touched,” she said.
Kriger, 64, is at a much better place in her life spiritually and physically and hopes the book makes a difference in lives of people that are too afraid to talk about Crohn’s or colitis.
“I feel very satisfied and proud that I finished it [the book],” Kriger said. “The impulse to stay quiet about it, in my mind, is the most destructive aspect of the disease.”
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