I've loved sports for as long as I can remember. My first word when I was a kid was "ball." From a very young age I was an athlete, so when I was diagnosed with Crohn's in December of my freshman year of high school, that was a shock. I'd been having stomach pain since the beginning of the previous summer, and no one could tell me what was wrong. Of course, the idea that I had a chronic disease never crossed my mind. But after a tough fall season I finally had an endoscopy and a colonoscopy at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, and they came back with a diagnosis of Crohn's.
I was 14 years old. I had no idea what Crohn's was, and it was hard to wrap my head around the idea of having this illness for the rest of my life. I was not exactly in the best state of mind at that point. I played both tennis and baseball in middle school, but fall of my freshman year I couldn't play tennis anymore because I couldn't make it through a match without crunching up into a ball on the court because of the pain. Right now, I'm playing baseball for Rice University, as a freshman. But I think I was actually better at tennis than baseball when I was younger.
Because of its symptoms, people don't like to talk about Crohn's. I get that. I was lucky, in a sense, because my primary symptom was stomach pain. I know a lot of people with the disease who suffer from severe symptoms that I really wouldn't want to deal with. I experienced pretty bad diarrhea and vomiting, but early on it was really all about the stomach pain.
My GI doctor suggested I try a biologic. She told me about the likely side effects, and I've had to deal with those, but the idea that it might do away with the pain to the point where I could still play baseball was a chance I thought I just had to take. It turns out it was one of the best decisions I could have made, I think -- even if the side effects, especially the random joint pains, are definitely strange. Right now I'm on a 12-week cycle with the drug, and around week nine or 10 the joint pain usually kicks in. I'll wake up one day with my pinky toe feeling like it's broken. The next day, I'll go to sleep with my knee feeling dislocated. It's totally bizarre -- but it allows me to play ball, and that's huge.
My freshman year, I was spending a lot of time at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and I realized there were many kids there suffering a lot more than I was. I would come in once a week and see the same kids, week after week, who hadn't been able to leave their rooms. I thought there must be some way I could help them.
At the time I was really into collecting baseball cards, and I thought collecting and giving away sports cards to kids in hospitals would be a cool idea. It turned out there was already a small organization in Chicago called Cards2Kids that was doing exactly that. I got in touch, became the group's East Coast ambassador, and by my junior year the founder asked me to be CEO and take the reins of what was becoming a national organization. By the time I left high school, we'd given out 500,000 cards to kids in need, and every single pack we give away makes these kids so happy. It's just amazing the reactions we get -- from both the kids and their parents, who are usually sports fans, too. Here at Rice, I'm still heavily involved, overseeing the ambassadors around the country. I just love being able to do it for these kids.
If you have a disease like Crohn's, you have to try and find a way to keep doing what you love. And if you have to let that go, try and discover something that's similar. I wasn't able to keep playing tennis, so I resorted to ping-pong. It doesn't take as much energy, but it's the same concept and I enjoy it so much. Accept the fact that you're going to have this condition for your whole life. It's not going to be easy. But if you have doctors you trust, and if you take advantage of all the support that's available -- and there are more support groups and camps and things out there now than there were even a few years ago, when I was diagnosed -- you'll be surprised how full a life you can still lead.