‘Running through ulcerative colitis literally saved my life’
Annabelle Winters experienced a serious hemorrhage postsurgery—but her runner’s heart helped her survive massive blood loss.
For many runners with chronic illnesses, managing their condition in order to continue doing the sport they love can be a challenge. But the benefits they gain from it—a calmer mind, a reduction in stress, for instance—help motivate them to keep pushing forward.
But for 37-year-old Annabelle Winters, running through chronic illness hasn’t just given her a mental boost: It may have literally saved her life.
Winters is a lifelong runner. She started running in third grade, as part of an after-school club in her hometown in southern New Hampshire. While the team competition side of running never quite struck a chord, she has run continuously since age 10 because, in her words, “I just love doing it.”
Just like she has run for most of her life, Winters has also dealt with ulcerative colitis, a chronic inflammatory bowel disease, for most of her life, too—although she didn’t necessarily know it.
“I had coeliac symptoms as a baby,” she says to Runner’s World. “In 1982, my parents were advised to remove gluten from my diet. They did, sort of, and my symptoms subsided.”
Winters lived fairly symptom-free for nearly 20 years before the disease really started to impinge on her life. At age 25, she started to be bothered by chronic gastrointestinal distress (i.e., the recurring, urgent need for a bathroom), along with cystic acne, and eczema.
Interestingly, it may be thanks to running that her disease stayed at bay for so long.
And that may have to do with how exercise—especially running—affects inflammation in your body, explains Brian P. Bosworth, M.D. chief of medicine at NYU Langone.
“Cells produce chemical messengers called cytokines that tell cells what to do. Certain messengers trigger the immune system to attack [causing inflammation], and others tell cells to turn off an attack,” he says. “With exercise, running in particular, it helps readjust the balance between pro-inflammation messengers and anti-inflammation messengers. So it can, in some people, help to modify or slow symptoms.”
Unfortunately, especially when she hit age 30, Winters would sometimes have symptoms—diarrhea, cramping, fatigue—so severe that she couldn’t even leave her apartment. Still, she continued to find ways to run.
And given the events of Wednesday, June 19, 2019 it’s a good thing she did.
On Tuesday, June 18, as part of her treatment for ulcerative colitis, Winters underwent an endoscopic mucosal resection (EMR), a routine procedure whereby she had a polyp (a precancerous growth) and a small section of her colon removed.
The surgery went smoothly, and she left with the happy result that her disease was in remission—something she and her three gastroenterologists had been working toward for the last five years. “Remission is an indication of how active the disease is,” she explains. “It’s basically how much your immune system is attacking your colon.” Remission is important because it decreases one of the biggest risks of having colitis: developing full-blown colon cancer.
Winters didn’t feel great the next day—sort of lightheaded and short of breath—but she also had bronchitis at the time, so she assumed all the cough and cold medicine she was taking was giving her “medicine head.” That evening, she started feeling some “gut action,” but, she wasn’t concerned: After most of her colonoscopies (she’s had six in the last seven years, including the one they did to perform the EMR), she’d experienced some diarrhea.
This time, though, she barely made it to the bathroom, and instead of diarrhea, she released a gush of blood.
“Like, imagine the worst road-trip-I’ve-been-holding-it-for-two-hours type of pee pressure,” she describes. “It was like that, but blood.”
When she called the after-hours number for her doctor’s office, the on-call doctor advised her to wait and see if the bleeding would stop on its own. While she estimated that she had passed about two cups of blood (which is a lot more than a normal post-op bleed), she was hopeful that her body would take care of it, so she agreed and went to bed.
A few hours later, she awoke with “the most urgent need for the toilet ever.” This time, when she got to the bathroom, the bleeding wouldn’t stop. She began feeling like she was going to pass out, but luckily her mother, who was sleeping in the living room of her apartment, heard her. Upon finding Winters bleeding in the bathroom, her mother woke up Winters’s husband and called 911.
Winters was taken to the ER at Advocate Illinois Masonic, where the doctors ultimately discovered that an ulcer had formed in her colon, near the site of the resectioning. Curiously, as biopsies taken during the EMR indicated, this did not happen because of any issue with the procedure, or even due to her ulcerative colitis.
“It’s basically like when you get a canker-sore on your tongue,” Winters describes. “Simply bad luck!”
Read full story by Allison Goldstein at https://www.runnersworld.com/runners-stories/a28774156/running-with-ulcerative-colitis-saved-life/