In August 2017, Kaitlyn Johnson went to her primary doctor with complaints of both bowel urgency and rectal bleeding. She left the office with an antibiotic and the diagnosis of an intestinal parasite. Rather than help alleviate her symptoms, however, this antibiotic only exacerbated them. Still, Kaitlyn didn’t let any of this keep her from her senior year of college, and even competed in a horse show and won all of her classes while battling these symptoms.
Soon after her first appointment with a gastrointestinal specialist, Kaitlyn was diagnosed with Ulcerative Colitis (UC), a chronic inflammatory bowel disease that can cause both swelling and ulcers in the lining of the large intestine. It’s now been five years since Kaitlyn was diagnosed with UC, but she continues to nurture a passion for horses, along with a refusal to let UC keep her from pursuing a career in equine veterinary medicine.
“Before I had that diagnosis, I was thinking ‘I hope I don’t have to use the bathroom while I’m on a horse or in the middle of class,’” Kaitlyn said. “I hoped there was something that we could do because it looked like it was going to be really difficult. My biggest concern was making sure my UC was managed enough to where it wouldn’t rule my life.”
A New Way of Life
After Kaitlyn’s doctors put her on Mesalamine, her UC responded very well. However, the sky-high price tag on her Mesalamine prescription led Kaitlyn to request a new medication. In February 2020, Kaitlyn changed to Sulfasalazine, a similar medication that was significantly cheaper.
“I was on it for eight months, but it never fully took away my symptoms the way Mesalamine did,” Kaitlyn said. “I would come home from work to eat lunch and then have to text my boss, saying ‘I don’t know if I can come back.’ The symptoms would hit, and they would eventually subside, but I always had that feeling of ‘I don’t know if I can come back to work.’ I switched back to Mesalamine in April 2021 because the money’s not worth suffering every day.”
Throughout her journey to manage her UC, Kaitlyn has been grateful to work for understanding employers with accommodating workplace environments.
“For me, it’s been as easy as pulling my boss aside and saying, ‘I have Ulcerative Colitis, so if you see me sprint away it’s because I have to use the bathroom. Can I use the nicer house bathroom instead of the Port-a-John when I need to go?’” she said. “I want them to be aware of it so that it isn’t sprung on them in the event that it happens. I believe that bosses should be understanding of UC because it’s out of our control.”
In her current role as a veterinary technician at an equine veterinary practice, Kaitlyn’s days can vary wildly. When she’s not joining one of the clinic’s vets on an all-day road trip to see multiple patients, she’s working in the clinic itself, completing tasks like ultrasounds and joint injections. Kaitlyn believes that working in equine medicine has a positive influence on her workplace experiences as a UC patient.
“Horses can get inflammatory bowel diseases, too,” she said. “I work with vets, but they’re still doctors, so they understand. Things work the same, for the most part. Nothing is too gross, either. I can just say, ‘This is happening. I need to run to the bathroom.’”
Even with all her positive experiences, Kaitlyn understands the professional complexities that face people with chronic illnesses, especially when it comes to re-entering the workforce or changing jobs.
“I think disclosing your condition depends on how well you’re doing. I didn’t mention it when I interviewed for my current job because my UC is under control and it has been under control for a year,” she said. “But if it’s less manageable, or there’s a significant chance you’ll need time off or need to go to a lot of doctors’ appointments, I think it’s something to mention briefly so that they’re aware of it.”
Although Kaitlyn is only 26 years old and in the early stages of her career, she feels confident advocating for her health in medical, professional, and personal settings. She believes this is an important skill set for UC patients to develop.
“In my experience, people who ask about your UC wouldn’t be asking if they didn’t care. But then again, you don’t have to explain it to everyone. There’s no reason why you have to tell other people what’s going on with you, just don’t be ashamed of your UC. Everybody goes to the bathroom; you just sometimes go a little more.”