Shalisha Stewart

TELLING HER TALE: Shalisha Stewart

AT 5’11, Shalisha Stewart is everything one would expect of a model. Besides the obvious — her tall stature — she has the high cheekbones and the gazelle-like features that make her a perfect fit for any designer and fashion photographer.
 
At the height of her modelling career, she appeared in Vogue Mexico and Vogue Italia and modelled for Parisian fashion houses Études and Hermès. Stewart would have gone even further in the fashion industry had it not been for a medical condition she’s been battling since the age of 16.

Earlier this year the model publicly revealed for the first time that she has Crohn’s disease.
What exactly is Crohn’s disease and what are its symptoms? The Express sought the answer from gastroenterologist Dr Gina Sam whose practice is based in New York.

“Crohn’s disease is an inflammatory disease that affects the gastrointestinal system causing ulcerations, strictures, fistula and many other problems. It can appear in young persons in their teens or 20s and also later on in life,” explained Sam.
 
“The symptoms include abdominal pain, diarrhoea, weight loss, bloating, fistulas in the anus and abscesses. Many people may also suffer from extra intestinal manifestations such as pain or episcleritis or inflammation in the eyes, oral ulcers, joint pains/arthritis and skin problems.”

Stewart’s symptoms appeared gradually. She went from being a lively person with a big appetite to feeling tired all the time and hardly eating. Her fatigue was so overwhelming that on some days she would either sleep through classes or be too tired to go to school. It was impossible to hide what was happening to her, even her friends at school noticed a major shift in Stewart’s entire countenance.

“They asked me what was happening and why I wasn’t as lively as before,” recalled Stewart.
Besides a lack of energy, Stewart had lost tremendous weight (she weighed as little as 90 Ibs) and was experiencing excruciating abdominal pain.

“The pain felt like something or someone was gripping my intestines, squeezing and turning it. It was like a constant stabbing pain especially whenever I put food in my mouth,” she said.

The pain only intensified as the date of her CXC exams approached. One day Stewart typed in her symptoms into the Google search bar and ‘Crohn’s disease’ came up.
 
That was the first time she had ever heard of the inflammatory bowel disease; still she doubted that what she had was as serious as Crohn’s. It was her aunt who alerted Stewart to the fact that she needed urgent medical attention. The instant her aunt laid eyes on Stewart’s thin frame, she was appalled and told Stewart’s mother to take her to the clinic immediately. Stewart was referred to gastroenterologist Dr Maria Bartholomew who ordered blood tests which confirmed what the symptoms suggested - Stewart had Crohn’s disease.

“I felt as if my life was over. I have a love for food but there were things I couldn’t eat anymore. I thought I’d never be able to live a normal life again because Crohn’s is incurable,” said Stewart.

After enduring four years of torment as a result of the abdominal pain, Stewart who was 20 years old at the time, had surgery to remove part of her intestines that were so badly damaged that no amount of medication made any difference. The surgery brought immediate relief, the pain stopped and Stewart began feeling like herself once more. But she still has to cope with flare-ups which are usually accompanied by regular trips to the toilet - the result of which is dehydration and blood in the stools. Stewart has learned that Crohn’s is most active in her small intestines which is the part of the body that is responsible for absorption. Crohn’s hasn’t only affected her physically but professionally and emotionally as well.

“Even though I push myself, I’m still limited and I fear getting into things. I never complete what I set out to do because of the flare-ups,” she said.
According to Dr Sam this medical condition can lead to multiple surgeries so the key is to avoid inflammation. Stewart knows her triggers. For instance emotional stress triggers the worst kind of flare-ups.
 
The minute her appetite starts to wane, she knows that she is on the verge of having a flare-up. One of the positives that has come out of her diagnosis is that she knows her body better now than she did in her teens.

“I understand my body, I am able to analyse the pain and describe how it feels or where it’s coming from. Because I’ve been around so many doctors, I can also check myself and tell whether I’m low on vitamins,”she said.
After her diagnosis Stewart had to follow a careful diet and eat foods that were easily digestible like jasmine rice and blended soups.
 
Meat, pepper, veggies and fruits that were high in sugar and fibre were out of the question. Although Stewart has also developed lactose intolerance, her diet is now considered ‘normal’. She has to be on medication that has strong side effects but she is feeling as if her body is healing little by little in its own way. However she is conscious that a flare-up can happen at any time.
Stewart urges people to listen carefully to their bodies and act promptly if something seems amiss.

“It’s extremely important to pay attention to your body because then you would be in a position to catch something before it gets worse. If I had continued to take the pain, then I would have gotten to the point where the doctors may not have been able to do anything for me,” she said.
The majority of us don’t give our gastrointestinal tract a second thought, however the GI tract is one of the most important systems in the body because it affects our nutrition and health and there is evidence that the GI tract contains millions of bacteria that has various functions related to our immunity, gut health and possibly to our weight and even mood, explained Sam.

“The GI tract is often called the second brain because the same neurotransmitters that line the brain also line the gut. So, if you do not eat the right foods your mood can be affected. Oftentimes, when you are stressed you crave fatty foods or high sugar foods and this feeds your bacteria in your GI tract and leads to you feeling more fatigued. It’s important to eat a well balanced diet that is low fat and high in fibre with fruits and vegetables to feel good,”advised Sam.

Being part of a community that understands what she’s going through has been very helpful, says Stewart who has received a lot of support from the National Association of Crohn’s and Colitis of Trinidad and Tobago. The years before and after her diagnosis haven’t been easy but as difficult as it is, Stewart tries to stay positive which is the message she wants to pass on to others who are living with Crohn’s disease.

“As bad as it may get, try not to focus on the negative aspects, instead look at the positives,” she says.

Those in need of additional support can go to: www.facebook.com/crohnsandcolitistt/

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