Gretchen McKay

Chronic bowel disease doesn’t deter Pittsburgh runner

Lauren Moran of Bloomfield puts on a belt that keeps her stoma bag in place before going for a run. Michael Henninger/Post-Gazette

A love of running did not come naturally to Lauren Moran.

If anything, the Baldwin native considered moving her legs forward in anything faster than a slow crawl as punishment — and she was on both the soccer and track teams in high school.

“I hated to run,” says Ms. Moran, 34, of Bloomfield. “For me, it was always the worst part of sports.”

She held firm to that belief after graduating from Edinboro University with a communications degree in 2004, and her friends started signing up for weekend 5Ks. “I just never had an interest,” she says.

Even if she had, Ms. Moran’s body might have resisted. The summer after her freshman year in college, she was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, a severe form of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).

Ten years and three major surgeries later — the last of which left her with an ileostomy bag — Ms. Moran has turned her body’s betrayal into motivation. Looking to get healthy, she decided to train with a runner friend for the 2014 Great Race. Crossing the finish was such an emotional high that she ended up running a leg of the 2015 Pittsburgh Marathon Relay. She’ll be on a relay team again this year with family members May 1, helping to raise awareness of Crohn’s.

Her friend and mentor, Emily Winn, is running the full marathon to raise money for the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation of America in her honor.

“It’s come full circle,” says Ms. Moran, associate director of alumni relations at Duquesne University. “I’m in a whole new place because of running. My body can do different things.”

Learning to cope

There’s no one test that identifies Crohn’s disease with certainty; its symptoms “fit” a number of GI disorders, including celiac disease, ulcerative colitis and irritable bowel syndrome.

While no one knows for sure what causes Crohn’s, heredity and a malfunctioning immune system are thought to play a role. Stress and diet can aggravate the symptoms, which include diarrhea, abdominal pain and fatigue.

It wasn’t until her weight plummeted 15 pounds that Ms. Moran’s mother insisted she see a doctor. A “million” tests later, she was finally diagnosed.

Named after the physician who first described the disease in 1932, Crohn’s can affect any part of the gastrointestinal tract, That means its severity and symptoms can vary from patient to patient. A chronic disease, it can develop at any age for the estimated 700,000 Americans who have it, although it’s most common between the ages of 15 and 35.

Ms. Moran didn’t think her diagnosis was a big deal; this was the era before smart phones and computers, so information was hard to come by. “I couldn’t understand why my mom was so upset,” she recalls.

Doctors advised watching her diet to see what foods triggered symptoms and started her on medication. By the end of her junior year, she was getting Remicade infusions every six weeks, but she got worse instead of better. In 2006, while a grad student at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, she had to have surgery to remove about 12 inches of her large intestine.

Recovery was tough but within a few weeks she was well enough to take a job in Florida. With maintenance drugs, she stayed healthy for the next few years. “I thought, ’This is great!’” she says.

Lauren Moran of Bloomfield goes for a run. In college, Ms. Moran was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease. Michael Henninger/Post-Gazette

One step forward, two steps back 

Only it wasn’t. By 2013, the flare-ups were bad enough that simply willing herself to get through the day didn’t cut it. Realizing another surgery was likely, she decided to move back to Pittsburgh to be close to family. Three months after starting her new job at Duquesne University, she was in so much pain she couldn’t sit. Once again she went under the knife.

When she woke up from the 11-hour surgery, she had a colostomy. In addition to the physical recovery, Ms. Moran faced the emotional burden of dealing with a colostomy bag. It was a huge hit to her self esteem.

What if it leaked? Would she smell? How often would she have to empty it, and what if her stoma (the opening on her belly) made a funny noise? How would she wear a bathing suit? And what would it mean for dating?

“There’s so much stigma around it,” she says.

Yet Ms. Moran kept her concerns to herself. As Ms. Winn, 27, of Lawrenceville, notes, ”She’s not the type of person to complain.”

Which is how she came to start running six months after the surgery. Finally feeling good and able to eat different foods again, Ms. Moran realized it was time to get some exercise if she didn’t want to pack on the weight. Ms. Winn had just run the 2014 Pittsburgh Half Marathon and was bugging her to start running with her. With some trepidation, she agreed to train for the Great Race that fall.

Exercise might seem like a bad idea for someone with major stomach issues, but according to several studies, regular workouts can lead to less fatigue and alleviate some symptoms of IBD.

At first, she couldn’t even log a mile along the North Shore and would only run solo. “But Emily kept pushing me and after about a month, I was able to meet her in the Strip District for runs.”

She slowly improved, and that September, with a running belt keeping her stoma bag in place, she ran the Great Race 10K. Tears flowed when she crossed the finish.

“It was such an emotional year, and I never thought I could run,” she says. “It was a huge accomplishment.”

One more challenge

While a stoma is insensitive to pain, the race left her with some bad bruising around the colostomy site and a sore belly. Later that fall, doctors gave her devastating news. the rest of her colon would have to come out.

“I’d come so far that year, and felt healthy,” she recalls. ”I couldn’t believe I had to go through this again.”

In January 2015, surgeons converted her colostomy to an ileostomy, an operation in which doctors make an opening in the lowest part of the small intestine and bring it outside the body. They also removed her rectum.

Recovery was extremely hard, but what kept her going was wanting to run again. “Lauren is not the type to dwell on the bad stuff. She always wants to enjoy the moment,” says David Doyle, a friend since high school.

A month out, she could walk 10 steps. By March, she was jogging again, with a new goal: Running the last leg of the 2015 Pittsburgh Marathon relay. Not only did she finish, she gave it her all.

“It was awesome,” says Ms. Winn, who ran alongside her. ”I was exhausted but she was this little ball of energy.”

A stoma bag keeps Lauren Moran’s ileostomy in place during a run. Michael Henninger/Post-Gazette

Ms. Moran had so much fun that she decided to train for a sprint-distance triathlon at North Park three months later. She’ll run the marathon relay again this year and is also gearing up for her first Olympic-distance triathlon this summer.

Her body has been through so much, but it’s also proven to be resilient, Ms. Moran says. She has to be careful about hydration. But running has played an integral role in her recovery. She hopes by going public with her disease, she’ll create hope for others.

“Other college students will go through this,” she says. “I want them to know they can still lead a healthy life.”

She’s even come to appreciate her stoma.

“How can something that keeps me alive not be beautiful?” she asks.

After family members’ suicides, woman heals her emotional wounds through running

Amy Jacobson of Penn Hills jogs along Madison Avenue on Pittsburgh’s North Shore during a training run with Steel City Road Runners. Nate Guidry/Post-Gazette

For months after her older brother Allan’s suicide in November 2002, Amy Jacobson was numb. It was as if the Maryland college student had fallen into a big black hole of nothingness where the only emotion that churned inside her body, after the initial shock wore off, was total detachment.

Allan had been the brainy kid in the family, and his death a month shy of his 25th birthday in their parents’ basement seemingly came out of nowhere. It was only in the unforgiving glare of hindsight, she says, that her family realized he’d been desperately unhappy. Adding to her family’s distress was the fact that her father, who’d become a paramedic after retiring from the Navy, had found him but couldn’t revive him.

To allow herself to feel, Ms. Jacobson now realizes, would have been to acknowledge the anger, guilt and shame so many suicide survivors struggle with after the death of a loved one. But that’s a recognition of today’s 34-year-old self; back then, the fact her brother had taken his own life simply didn’t compute.

“You get lost,” she recalls. “Our lives completely fell apart.”

But worse days were to come.

Six months later, her baby brother Sam — the life of the party who’d always seemed so confident and sure of himself — met the same tragic end. Then in July 2004, her father also died by suicide, sending her into what would eventually be diagnosed as active post-traumatic stress syndrome. “My life continued to unravel.”

This past autumn, she started the long journey of healing her emotional wounds in a way she never could have anticipated: with a random 1.6-mile run along Rodi Road in Penn Hills that would lead to her signing up for the Pittsburgh half marathon on May 1.

Running as a lifeline

Growing up, Ms. Jacobson didn’t have an athletic bone in her body. Sam was the natural athlete, a daredevil who excelled in everything from soccer and football to wrestling and cross country. She was too shy to put herself out there.

“I never had the confidence to try out for anything,” she says.

Which explains why the immense pride the Penn Hills secretary felt after that first run on Oct. 11 proved so overwhelming as to be addictive. True, she probably walked as much as she ran. And when she did pick up the pace, “I was slower than a turtle in peanut butter.” Yet it got her so fired up about running she’s now training with Steel City Road Runners to compete in her first 13.1-mile race. She’ll also run a 5K the day before as part of the Pittsburgh Marathon’s Steel Challenge.

“Running has become my lifeline,” she says. “It has given me a reason to push on.”

Climbing out of the darkness wasn’t easy. As a survivor, Ms. Jacobson says, people expected her to be strong, especially for her mother. She was anything but.

Amy Jacobson of Penn Hills with her brothers Allan, left, and Sam.

“My life was out of control,” says Ms. Jacobson, who moved to Pittsburgh from West Virginia five years ago, not knowing a single soul, and now works for an accounting firm. “I couldn’t regain my grip, and I had no idea what I was going to do, or why I got up in the morning. I wasn’t living. I sure as hell wasn’t happy.”

Ms. Jacobson’s encounter with suicide sounds exceptional. Yet it’s more common than you might think. Suicide is the 10th-leading cause of death in the U.S., says David Brent, endowed chair in suicide studies and professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh. More than 41,000 Americans take their lives each year. And many more attempt it — approximately 12 people harm themselves for every reported death by suicide, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The risk is higher for family members of people who commit suicide because suicide typically doesn’t happen in a vacuum, says Dr. Brent, who directs the Services for Teens at Risk suicide prevention program at Pitt and Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic. Most often it co-occurs with issues of drug or alcohol abuse, impulsiveness or psychiatric conditions such as depression or bipolarism, all of which often run in families. Even so, the “absolute” risk of suicide for relatives is still statistically low, he says.

“Genetics isn’t destiny,” he notes.

Learning to be sensitive to changes in mood or behavior can make one more resilient, says Dr. Brent. So can grief therapy, along with lifestyle changes that help minimize stress, such as getting some exercise.

‘Runner’s high’

Ms. Jacobson says she instantly felt better when she put foot to pavement. The first few times she ran, in fact, she cried.

“Everything that I’d kept bottled up was released,” she says. “That feeling of accomplishment, of doing something I never thought I could do, it’s indescribable.”

There might be a word for it: endorphins. Experts have long recognized that exercise eases anxiety and improves mood because it makes your body release these morphine-like chemicals, says Howard Aizenstein, a professor of psychiatry at Pitt.

The effect is two-fold. In addition to reducing one’s perception of pain, endorphins can trigger a feeling of intense well-being during and after strenuous exercise that runners sometimes refer to as a “runner’s high.”

“They’re like natural opiates in the body,” says Dr. Aizenstein, with a drug-like effect that people can get addicted to.

Studies suggest exercise can also lead to an increase in the gray matter in the hippocampus part of the brain, which correlates with improved cognitive function. Exercise also presents opportunities for socialization and can boost self-confidence when people set, and achieve, goals.

In Ms. Jacobson’s case, running also has helped her shed more than 70 pounds she’d packed on after being diagnosed at age 19 with polycystic ovary syndrome, a hormonal endocrine disorder that leads to weigh gain, infertility and other problems.

Like many new to the sport, she started small last fall, jogging just enough to make signing up for the Jingle Bell Run on Dec. 13 not seem totally crazy. She surprised and amazed herself with a 34:34 finish. It was so incredible, that when she won entry into the half marathon during a week of giveaways, she decided to go for it. She started 2016 with a Steel City group run on New Year’s Day.

The running community, Ms. Jacobson says, has been an integral part of her road to success. “They’re so supportive and welcoming. For the first time, I feel a sense of belonging.”

It’s inspired her to pay it forward. This spring she started volunteering for the Western Pennsylvania chapter of The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (www.afsp.org), a nonprofit. She’s committed to raising $5,000 for the 14th annual Out of the Darkness Walk in Pittsburgh on Aug. 27. “I want to take what I’ve learned and give back to others,” she says.

Which is considerable. Through running, she says, she’s learned you don’t have to accept what’s handed to you, that even when you feel like giving up, you can go on.

“It’s a metaphor for my life,” she says. “I have my ups and downs, good runs and bad, but no matter what, I keep putting on my running shoes and getting out there.”

So whatever her time on May 1, even if she has to walk some of her way to the finish line, she’ll feel victorious. Sam, she says, would be so proud of her.

“All of my hard work and persistence will have finally paid off, and I will be able to say that anything is possible as long as you don’t give up.”

Teacher with cystic fibrosis gears up to run Pittsburgh Marathon

Hannah Camic gets a look when she’s running that flies in the face of the chronic lung disease she was born with. She doesn’t smile so much as she glows, as if lit from within.

This is no small feat when you’re double digits into an early morning workout that could include as many as 20 miles before some Pittsburghers have had their first cup of coffee. It’s an absolutely amazing one when you consider her lungs are in constant battle with the thick, syrupy mucus that’s a hallmark of the cystic fibrosis she was born with 32 years ago.

Or that every time she’s in a group she puts herself at risk for life-threatening infections through cross-contamination.

Getting enough air can prove difficult, so she coughs. So much and so hard at times while she runs that a week before the Elizabeth Borough resident was to compete in her first Pittsburgh Marathon last May she bruised her ribs.

“I was the sickest I’d been in a year,” recalls Mrs. Camic, who teaches chemistry at Bethel Park High School. Her airway was so obstructed, she felt like she was breathing through coffee straws. “In my heart, I didn’t know if I should run.”

Her head was a different matter. She’d gotten so many encouraging messages while training with Pittsburgh’s Run to Cure CF team — during which she raised more than $19,000 for research — that to not lace up for the 26.2-mile race was, well, unimaginable. So despite her family’s reservations, and with coach Audrey Burgoon lining up support along the course, she went for it, knowing she’d labor for every breath as though the wind had been knocked out of her by a punch to the chest.

She was “beyond disappointed” with her time, but she finished, spurred on at the end by her younger brother, Levi, who ran alongside her the last four miles.

“Given how sick I was, it was somewhat miraculous, and I don’t say that about anything I do,” she says. “However, I did not feel that sense of accomplishment, joy and pride that I had experienced in other races and that I used as mental motivation throughout my training. But as you know, you just run the best you can with what you’re given, and I did do that.”

Or, you try again, as she did three weeks later at the Buffalo Marathon — and took 12 minutes off her time.  In all, she’s completed 52 races since her first 5K in 2013, all with her doctors’ blessing.  She’ll run her second Pittsburgh Marathon on May 1 with a time goal of 4:30 and fundraising goal of a little more than $12,600, bringing her three-year total to $50,000.

For someone with CF to cross the finish line, she says, is therapeutic in more ways than one. First, running is a good form of therapy in that it helps her lungs to clear out the gunk and stay strong. Perhaps more important, it allows her to deal emotionally with her disease.

“It’s a mental thing,” says Mrs. Camic, who logs upward of 30 miles a week. “When I’m out there running, I’m defeating cystic fibrosis,” a genetic condition that worsens with age. Life expectancy is about 38 years.

Mrs. Camic isn’t the first to heal the body and soul through running; there’s something about crushing miles that can make someone who feels bad, mad or sad suddenly feel better. But her resolve — many would call it grit —  is something for the record books.

It’s tough enough for any working mother to find the time for marathon training. Mrs. Camic has to work around a schedule that also includes four hours a day of treatment.

Hannah Camic reads a book while taking treatment for her cystic fibrosis in her home in Elizabeth. Nate Guidry/Post-Gazette

Every day at 4 a.m., she straps on a life jacket-like compression vest that vibrates, helping break up the mucus. It runs for 1½ hours. While it’s shaking, she uses a nebulizer to inhale a fine mist of four mucous-thinning medicines into her lungs. Afterward, the equipment has to be cleaned and disinfected.

She also takes “lots and lots of pills,” and when she’s sick, the list grows.

She repeats the process following dinner. If  her 5-year-old daughter, Noelle, is awake, they lie together or play games. If not, she watches TV, reads or grades papers. Sometimes she dozes during treatment, and her husband, Ed, takes over.

Depending on the day, her lung function can go up or down anywhere from 10 percent to 20 percent after treatment. Regardless, she never misses a run and also cross-trains with weights and yoga. Even on days when she has a line threaded into a vein in her chest to administer antibiotics, she puts shoe to pavement — She figures she’s logged at least 100 miles with the tip of a catheter taped to her arm. A few weeks after last year’s Buffalo race, for instance, she had to get a line to treat an infection.

“Why not double up and have running be my medicine, too, and get that double boost?” she asks.

As for any runner, sometimes it’s easy, and sometimes two miles feels like 20. What propels her forward, she says, is Noelle. “She’s my motivation to keep going.”

Success, she adds, is even more appealing when the odds are against her. ”The greater the challenge, the greater the feeling of victory.“

Ms. Burgoon, her coach, chalks her success up to a runner’s ability to overcome adversity. “Some people who aren’t athletes look for excuses. She looks for a reason, and performs. Her positive approach to life in ingrained in her.”

Hannah Camic runs with her training group in Pittsburgh. Nate Guidry/Post-Gazette

Exercise, says Dr. Michael Myerburg of UPMC, who specializes in pulmonary disease, is the perfect treatment for people with CF because it can slow the rate of decline in lung function. In fact it’s so important, that it’s “one of the things we review when we see CF patients at clinic,” he says.

“Breathing heavy is a really good stimulus to clear mucus and keep the lungs clear,” he says. “So we really push exercise with everybody on every visit.”

Although she played soccer in high school and cheered at Bucknell University, Mrs. Camic never thought much about running until three years ago. Like many 20-somethings, she had a lot of weddings on her calendar and wanted a way to get in shape. A friend at school suggested the treadmill; one mile later, she decided to train for a 5K. “I got addicted,” she says. And she’s competitive for her age group, logging a respectable 7:27.33 this past July at the GNC Live Well Liberty Mile.

The stats on CF, Mrs. Camic admits, can be scary. That’s why fundraising for research is so important to her and also why she went public with her story last year; until then, no one but close friends and family knew she was ill.

“I have never wanted special treatment or to be viewed as a sick person.“

Her wish in joining the CF team and  sharing her experiences is that she’ll provide hope and encouragement to those affected by the disease. “I want to show them that having a family, a job and a very happy, fulfilling life is possible.”

While researchers have made tremendous progress in the treatment of some CF patients, they’ve not yet been successful with Mrs. Camic’s particular mutation. She could be looking at a lung transplant.

But when she’s running, some of those fears and sadness about the future fade away.

”Focusing on negatives does zero good for me,“ she says, ”so I try to focus only on the positives and those things that I can control. After all, cystic fibrosis or not, no one is guaranteed tomorrow.“