We came across an amazing story about an altruistic dog named Winston, an eight year-old Border Collie mix. Winston's owner, Sara of Eugene, Oregon, battles from ulcerative colitis, inflammatory bowel disease and chronic migraines. Diagnosed only 3 years ago in 2014, Sara explains her story of meeting Winston and takes us through her daily struggles, shinning lights and ways to cope with these dreadful illnesses.
SnapWag: We see you're battling ulcerative colitis, IBD arthralgia and chronic migraines. Can you briefly walk us through each illness? Is there one that effects you more than another? What are the side effects? What causes them? What type of treatment do your doctors recommend? Do they work?
Sara: I was diagnosed with severe ulcerative colitis (UC), a form of Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD), very similar to Crohn’s disease, in late 2014. UC is also an autoimmune disease, which means that my body’s immune system identifies food and healthy cells as foreign invaders, and goes into attack mode. An overactive immune responses leads to internal bleeding, ulcers in the large intestines, diarrhea, and extreme frequency (are ya’ll getting jealous yet?) This leads to a life of living in the bathroom, severe pain, cramps that could knock over an elephant, nausea, vomiting, weight loss…and the list continues. UC is a chronic condition with no known cure. A year after diagnosis, in 2015, I began to have significant joint pain, which is an “extra-intestinal manifestation” caused by IBD. I was diagnosed with IBD arthralgia soon after. Arthralgia is defined as arthritis without swelling. Since my UC is so severe, I was immediately thrown into a whirlwind of pharmaceutical treatments. Unfortunately with powerful medications come even more debilitating side effects. I began to experience migraines after these treatments, which led me to believe that these drugs caused my migraines.
SnapWag: How did you meet Winston and how has he helped since? How did you notice that Winston was making a difference?
Sara: My mom got married to my wonderful stepdad in 2016. My stepdad adopted Winston from a shelter in Arizona in 2008. My parents began dating in 2013, and last year they decided to bring Winston from Arizona to my home in Oregon. My parents’ travel often, and over time, Winston and I had this bond unlike any other (I’m sure every pet owner can relate to that statement). Being a sick individual, my social interactions decreased significantly. Winston filled that loneliness void that became so strong after I was diagnosed. I was not the first to notice our bond. My parents would point it out time and time again. It was as if Winston so effortlessly allowed himself into my guarded life, and man, it was just what I needed. Obviously living with UC means significant amount of time being in the bathroom, and us crohnie’s get lonely, too! Dogs are a perfect fix! Winston knows when I do not feel well, and will accompany me in the bathroom, or will lay on the ground with me while I am having bouts of pain. He is also a napping great partner for those fatiguing days when you sleep for 15+ hours! On more active days, Winston “forces” me out of the house (I say that lightly because I need to move!) and we go for walks. With my arthralgia, my joint pain gets better after movement. My physical health has improved tenfold since having Winston in my life. He gives me purpose, and to be better for myself.
SnapWag: We've seen commercials for it, but can you tell me about Humira? Does it help?
Sara: Humira is a drug that has been able to reduce inflammation in individuals with various autoimmune diseases (UC, Crohn’s, Rheumatoid Arthritis, Psoriatic Arthritis, Hidradenitis Supprativa, and Ankloysing Spondylitis). Humira is considered a “biologic drug”, which is similar to chemotherapy in many ways. Humira lowers the body immune’s system, which is cuasing the inflammation. But when you mess around with the immune system, one can become very susceptible to virtually anything in the world. For that reason, when I am in public, I wear a facemask to protect myself. Humira is that commercial you see on TV and think, “Why in the hell would anybody take that?!” Side effects include: cancer, new or worsening blood or nervous system problems, infections that can be potentially fatal, new or worsening joint pain, liver and kidney disease, etc). Well, if it gives you any indicator how bad these diseases can get, that people are willing to take the gamble to feel even the slightest bit of relief. Humira has been an effective treatment since February 2016. I do take double the amount of most patients as my symptoms have difficulty being controlled without prednisone (If you have no clue what prednisone is, then your life is a much better world, trust me).
SnapWag: We saw on your Instagram that you use medicinal marijuana. How has medicinal marijuana helped? Do you use any other types of alternative medicine besides medicinal marijuana and Winston?
Sara: Medical marijuana has personally been a godsend for me. It gives me a quality of life, helps stimulate appetite (I can go six days without eating no problem…uhh that’s normal right?!), and using marijuana significantly decreases the frequency and time spent in the bathroom. THC and CBD have been found to be antispasmodics for the colon. There is promising research out there about medical marijuana as an effective treatment for IBD. I personally use a concentrated form of marijuana, called Rick Simpson Oil (RSO). Since using RSO, I have been able to discontinue one of my chemotherapy medications used to suppress my immune system. My recent blood work shows that my inflammation has dropped three points since discontinuing chemotherapy!
SnapWag: We keep digging deeper and deeper into your Instagram and you continue to blow us away. You're such a strong individual and your sense of humor is awesome. Apart from the physical pain, how has this effected you mentally? Do you think you look at life at a different angle than most?
Sara: I appreciate your kind words. It takes a lot to be “strong.” I define my personal strength as having the courage to face whatever is placed in front of you. I guess for me, I did not have any other options. I couldn’t deny that I was sick, I had to face it head on. I evaluate my strength on a daily basis. Some days are better than others, mentally and physically. And just like every other person on this earth, I have mentally low days. In order to keep that in check, I do see a therapist regularly and attend Crohn’s support groups. Personally, I do believe having Winston has impacted my mental health to the greatest extent. Being the good looking pup that he is, many people want to come up and say hi, which “forces” me to get out and interact with others. I absolutely look at life different now. At 26 years old, I did not think I would have a chronic illness that is treated with chemotherapy and immunosuppressant’s drugs that would essentially rob my youth away from me. But in true Sara fashion, if life is going to serve me hell, I’m going to make the best of it, and hopefully be able to impact other’s lives in a positive way.
I try to bring humor into my disease as much as possible. You can’t get down on yourself when you don’t make it to the bathroom on time. Instead say, “Hey Sara better luck next time!”
SnapWag: We've noticed that you have a network on Instagram who also suffer from IBD. How has having that support group helped? Are there any #hashtags you use to connect with them? Do any others find therapeutic help in their dog?
Sara: As I touched on earlier, living with a chronic illness does come with its fair share of social isolation. I hate Facebook. It’s just not my favorite social media platform. However I did enjoy the IBD support groups that Facebook offered. I noticed on Instagram that it did not have the same level of interaction, and well the fact that most people don’t want to talk about bowel movements on the internet. I began to connect with other IBD patients using the #ulcerativecolitis or #crohnsdisease hashtags. I would say, still to this day, that it is my main form of social interaction. Although it is not an “in person” interaction, it does satisfy that need. I used to work as a therapist before I got sick, so I have a passion for helping others. My @chronicallysarauc Instagram allows me to share my story of having this unpleasant disease at a young age, what treatments work, what are the possible complications, and helping people navigate medical marijuana application requirements in their state.
My stepdad was diagnosed with cancer in 2015 and was treated at the Mayo Clinic in Phoenix, Arizona. The hospital has a therapy dog named Mollie, who is a pit bull that would visit patients recovering from radiation and chemotherapy. Maybe I am biased as my first job was working at a pit bull rescue. I love breaking stereotypes while doing something for the greater good.
I would highly encourage anyone living with a chronic illness, physical or mental, to serious consider getting an animal. I strongly believe my mental and physical health would still be poor if Winston wasn’t in my life.
Winston and Sara is yet another example of the healing power a canine can have on a human. We wanted to thank Winston for all he's done for Sara so we sent him our PlayBox for him to enjoy. Winston, and dogs in general, are so incredibly selfless they deserve to be recognized. Although we know Winston doesn't do what he does for the recognition, we couldn't help but recognizing him, Sara and this incredible story.
If Winston has you inspired and you'd like to help Sara, and those who suffer from similar illnesses, we encourage you to donate to CCFA: Crohn's and Colitis Foundation of America.