Medicine was the last thing Adrian Bulfon ever wanted as a career. But after being diagnosed with Crohn’s disease at 16, the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry student now traverses the halls of Victoria Hospital in London on a path to becoming a gastroenterologist.
“I’ve been ‘in a flare’ ever since I was diagnosed, which means symptomatic, not remission, which is very unusual,” said the 24-year-old, who knew nothing of the inflammatory bowel disease at 16. “I don’t know how seriously I took it at that point.”
Bulfon was initially diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, only to have doctors change that to Crohn’s six years later. “Now, we’re not sure,” he shrugged.
Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) describes a group of conditions, the two main forms of which are Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. Both are diseases that inflame the lining of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract and disrupt the body’s ability to digest food, absorb nutrition and eliminate waste in a healthy manner. As a result, those diagnosed often have abdominal pain, cramping, gas, bloating, fatigue, diarrhea and loss of appetite.
With Crohn’s disease, inflammation can occur anywhere in the GI tract, but is usually present in the lower part of the small bowel and colon. Ulcerative colitis only affects portions of the large intestine, including the rectum and anus and typically only inflames the innermost lining of bowel tissue.
“Diet helps the symptoms and so many people think that’s treating the disease, but it doesn’t help the underlying inflammation. It’s something that’s forever,” Bulfon said. “It’s about how long you can get those remissions to be. In theory, taking the colon out is a cure of colitis, but Crohn’s can affect anywhere along the gastrointestinal tract.”
The frequent need to use a bathroom is a constant challenge for those affected with Crohn’s and colitis. Bulfon said a severe flare, at its worst, would require him using the bathroom 15 times a day. But the real issue he finds is not so much the frequency, but urgency.
“Sometimes you’ll have as little as 5-10 seconds to find a washroom. I’ve pretty much been a hermit for a number of years. I wasn’t even been able to play sports.”
Instead of letting it overwhelm him, he decided to focus on his scientific ambitions with the goal of becoming a gastroenterologist and IBD researcher.
“I decided medicine was what I wanted to do to try and cure it,” said Bulfon, who joined a group of medical students diagnosed with IBD. “I’m the only one who wants to do GI, which blows my mind. Maybe it comes down to how the disease impacts your life. For some, it may be mild. And then there’s people like me.
“While we’re still far away from understanding ulcerative colitis, most people think we’re in the same state for Crohn’s. But I’m working with a group of physicians who believe we know what the cause and cure of Crohn’s disease are,” added Bulfon, who is patient in a clinical trial looking at specific bacteria, mycobacterium avium subspecies paratuberculosis. “It could be so simple and right in front of our eyes.”
While research is important, so is awareness. As the Crohn’s and Colitis Canada puts it, getting the ‘scoop on poop’ is never an easy subject to bring up. Just this past month, they presented Bulfon with a $5,000 scholarship, one of 15 in Canada, to assist him in furthering his schooling.
“It’s not a disease people tend to talk about or have a discussion about. It’s as prevalent as Type 1 diabetes, but nobody wants to talk about it, which is one of the biggest hurdles,” Bulfon said.
“You hear about cancer, diabetes and other more common diseases. It a matter of getting people to talk about it; being open and telling people what it is and how it can become very serious.”
FIND OUT MORE
While people are most commonly diagnosed with Crohn’s and colitis before age 30, incidents of Crohn’s in Canadian children under 10 has doubled since 1995. With Canada having among the highest incidence rates of Crohn’s and colitis in the world, learn more at crohnsandcolitis.ca.