Sharon: 100 Percent Successful

Sharon D. knows well how to help others to work through difficult challenges. As a long-time teacher of students with emotional disabilities and learning differences, she's spent an entire career helping people achieve despite their constraints.

But that was on a professional level. On a personal one, Sharon herself was achieving, but she was struggling too.

For 14 years, Sharon fought an up and down battle with Crohn's Disease and Ulcerative Colitis, two forms of inflammatory bowel disease that can be both life changing and life limiting. Inflammatory bowel diseases can have numerous symptoms, and none of them are good: severe abdominal pain, chronic diarrhea, unexplained weight loss. It is an ailment that causes those who suffer to stay inside, literally and emotionally.

"Anyone who suffers with Ulcerative Colitis or Crohn's disease knows what a dark and lonely world it can be, right down to the apprehension and social isolation," Sharon says. "No one could ever accuse people who have this disease of not being risk takers. Just leaving the safety of our homes and venturing out the door is a gamble each and every day."

A Struggle with Failing Health

It was a gamble Sharon took. For 30 years she worked at the Norbel School, a private Maryland institute that worked with students who had "learning differences." The school, which closed in 2011 due to financial issues, was grounded in a philosophy that every student could be 100 percent successful, despite their challenges.

And so could the faculty. Despite her own physical problems, Sharon too prospered. She rose through the ranks, eventually becoming head of the school. But it was never easy, and never 100 percent. "Because of my position there," she said, "I had some flexibility. But I suffered the entire time. Sometimes I'd think I had control of the disease, but the disease would eventually come back and take control of me."

Sharon initially received treatment for her condition from her primary care physician and then a local gastroenterologist. But as her disease progressed, her doctor no longer felt comfortable treating it. So Sharon was referred to Mercy Medical Center's Institute for Digestive Health & Liver Disease, and Dr. Mary Harris, Medical Director of its Inflammatory Bowel and Colorectal Diseases program. And just like that, the teacher learned that she too could succeed.

"Dr. Harris is the kind of doctor you want at your bedside," Sharon noted. "She became my lifeline. She's honest, pragmatic, cautious with her patient's care, empathetic and available. When I called her for advice or with questions, she would personally return my call that same day. Best of all, she included me as a partner in my own care."

Dr. Harris implemented a number of treatments, including several rounds of Remicade infusions. Despite her best efforts and expertise, however, Sharon's condition continued to worsen. So, Dr. Harris introduced her to a colleague at Mercy- Dr. Debra Vachon, a leading expert in colorectal surgery (now retired). Her recommendation: ileostomy surgery, essentially a colostomy of the small intestine.

"Deep down I knew it was inevitable," Sharon said. "I thought I could handle the disease, but it eventually got the best of me."

Passing with Flying Colors

Sharon went forward with the surgery.

"I knew I was in the hands of a doctor who exuded the very same traits as Dr. Harris: empathy, honesty, caution and availability," Sharon said of Dr. Vachon. "Both Drs. Vachon and Harris conferred with one another to ensure the best possible outcome and they never missed an opportunity to check in on me, follow-up on my care, and provide support through this life-changing event."

And the life-change was a very good one. From the moment her surgery and recovery were complete, Sharon said she felt like she had achieved the goal of her former school. She was 100 percent successful.

"I went from being very sick to back in the game," she said. "It's been a little bit of an adjustment but it's such a relief. My quality of life has been returned."

Sharon now approaches each day with confidence. Her quality of life includes spending time with her family, her husband Nick, three married children and their partners, and her two grandchildren who she "adores." She says after so many years of struggling with her health, she's making up for lost time; being with old friends, spending hours in the mall, and traveling, including a recent trip to Jamaica.

Two years ago Sharon began a new job as a lead teacher in a residential treatment program for students with emotional disabilities. She's still helping others overcome their own challenges. She has good experience in it, and a healthy appreciation for those who helped her overcome hers.

"Dr. Harris was the catalyst to my new found freedom from chronic illness and long-term trepidation," Sharon concluded. "I am doing very well now and catching up on opportunities that this disease kept me from for so long. With a lot of help and support from a very special doctor, I feel like I can do anything again. I have renewed hope."

Sharon's Treatment Team