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      Machesney Park woman navigates Crohn’s disease and healthy pregnancy

      Bre and Brooklyn  Bre and RGA Team

      Bre Ulmer-Harper has spent more than a decade riding the roller coaster of Crohn's disease, overcoming health challenges that eventually allowed her to start a family.

      The 30-year-old Machesney Park resident was diagnosed with Crohn's disease in 2007 at age 17. She was struggling with pain and bleeding when she would go to the bathroom, along with severe aching in her knees. A colonoscopy at the time confirmed Crohn's disease, which is a chronic inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) that affects the intestinal tract.

      But being so young, Bre was reluctant to follow the advice of her doctor.

      "I had no clue what I was in for," she recalled. "I was so immature at that age and didn't take my medications – you don't realize how bad something like Crohn's can get."

      Finding the right balance

      Back then, information about Crohn's also wasn't as readily available online, so Bre didn't fully understand the disease until she kept getting sick. Bre eventually connected with Dr. Bob Thukral at Rockford Gastroenterology Associates (RGA) after turning 18. She had a fissure (small tear) that was causing pain and bleeding during bowel movements. The fissure was initially treated with a Botox injection, but then she developed an abscess that needed to be drained through several surgeries.

      "It was just horrible," she recalled. "I kept thinking, 'When is this going to end?'"

      She had several conversations with Dr. Thukral about lifestyle changes. She changed her diet – no raw fruits and vegetables and no seeds, for example. But managing Crohn's was still a tough journey.

      Bre was in the hospital several times with flare-ups between 2011 and 2015, and she had a major surgery that involved removing several inches of her ileum, which is the last part of the small intestine.

      After her major surgery, Bre was doing much better. She had gotten married a few years earlier to her now-husband, Andrew, and they started talking about having a baby. Bre knew that the best time to get pregnant was when her Crohn's was in good control and she was feeling healthy.

      Welcoming Brooklyn

      The couple struggled to conceive for about two years – a struggle that included a miscarriage in 2017. After consulting with Dr. Thukral again and a doctor at UW Health, she waited a few months and was thrilled to find out she was pregnant again.

      Bre gave birth to her daughter, Brooklyn, in April 2018. The pregnancy caused her to have bad anemia, but the Crohn's stayed relatively manageable. In fact, she was able to eat and drink certain things – like milk, strawberries, salads and popcorn – things she typically had to avoid before.

      She also had shingles and kidney stones during the pregnancy, which can happen with Crohn's in part because of a weakened immune system. Bre opted for a C-section delivery because of some of the complications she'd been experiencing.

      Given her prior struggles and challenges, Bre was understandably overcome with emotion when Brooklyn arrived. "I remember hearing that cry when she was born, and I just lost it. I was bawling. One of the ladies there had to wipe my face. When I finally got to see her, I cried some more."

      Even though she struggled with lack of information when she was first diagnosed, social media has proven to be a useful tool in recent years. She has met other people with Crohn's and other women trying to conceive. Hearing their stories continues to give her hope.

      Living with Crohn's

      Bre still sees Dr. Thukral every six months and talks to his triage nurse, Patty, on a regular basis. "I would be lost without Patty. She's literally been my rock. If I have questions or start to feel not OK – anything – she helps me and has always put me at ease."

      She takes comfort in knowing if something goes wrong, "Dr. Thukral will get me in, and that's always nice." She was nervous after Brooklyn was born because hormone changes can cause Crohn's to flare up, but her recovery went well.

      "A lot of women with IBD are afraid to have children because they're always sick and often in the hospital," she said. "I remember being too afraid and thinking I couldn't do it. But I didn't want to give up hope. For me, it was totally worth it.

      "I've been seeing Dr. Thukral since 2007, and we've built a relationship. He always listens to my concerns and believes what I'm saying. It's been a big help to me that he's always been there."