Rob McConnell’s Crohn’s disease struck about 13 years ago, when he was 20. The Elrose, Saskatchewan farm manager believes the stress of his father’s death had a lot to do with the onset of the debilitating disease — and how hard it hit him.
The six-footer’s weight dropped to 95 pounds, the result of his decreased appetite, abdominal pain and chronic diarrhea that sent him to the toilet at least a dozen times a day. He underwent more operations than he can remember to remove diseased pieces of his intestines, and when he wasn’t in hospital he “was on enough steroids and pain killers to kill a small horse.”
Crohn’s disease and a related condition called ulcerative colitis occur when the body’s immune system reacts to genetic and/or environmental triggers by attacking the digestive tract. The two conditions are commonly referred to as Inflammatory Bowel Disease or IBD. Canada has one of the highest incidences of IBD in the world, with one in about 150 — about 230,000 Canadians — affected. (For a lively and informative overview of IBD, check out this video at the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of Canada site.)
Rob tried every drug and treatment available to combat his Crohn’s. They would work for a while. Some, especially the steroids, came with severe side-effects (moon-shaped face, hair loss, sore joints and brittle bones). But the Crohn’s kept coming back.
“I was going downhill quickly,” says Rob. “I was at the hospital all the time and my girlfriend Teneille would go home and go online looking for other options, especially information about stem cell transplants. She found a blog by Billy Tytaneck.”
In 2008, Billy Tytaneck was able to avoid radical surgery to remove much of his bowel when Dr. Harry Atkinsof the Ottawa General Hospital performed a stem cell bone marrow transplant to rebuild his immune system. Dr. Atkins has been featured in this space for his success in treating patients with Multiple Sclerosis, as well as Stiff Person Syndrome and neuromyelitis optica.
Teneille wrote to Dr. Atkins, who asked her to send along Rob’s medical records. “About a week later he responded and told me: ‘You know what? I think you might be a candidate.’ It was late February 2012 when I went to Ottawa for my consultation and right away I had a great connection with Dr. Atkins, who sat me down and went through the whole procedure.”
Three months later, Rob was back in Ottawa for his “Autologous Peripheral Stem Cell Transplant” using stem cells that were extracted from his blood, then purified and fortified. After undergoing extreme chemotherapy to annihilate his diseased immune system, Rob was given back the robust stem cells to rebuild a new immune system.
He sailed through the treatment that others have found excruciating. “I took the chemo relatively well. There was some nausea and I had other things that bothered me, but I didn’t get the whole super illness.”
After staying in Ottawa for follow-up treatments and infection monitoring, Rob went back to Saskatchewan in the fall where, a year-and-a-half later, the Crohn’s is in remission and he feels fine. No more frequent trips to the bathroom. No more cramps. No more weight loss: he’s up to 161 pounds now, his heaviest ever. He no longer takes any medication.
While it is still too early to say whether Rob’s Crohn’s is cured — the condition is known to wax and wane — so far so good. “I eat very well,” says Rob. “Things that used to bother me don’t bother me anymore. There have been no attacks. I used to have a pain twice an hour or more. It has been a long while since I had one.”
And his quality of life has vastly improved. “It is just amazing. I started another business. Teneille and I got married at the end of June. I’m doing so much more and feeling so much better. I really don’t think I would be on this side of the grass if I didn’t get that treatment.”