Finding Peace Through Integrative Health

January 19, 2021

Typically, we photograph every patient appearing in HealthU. Because this story was planned during the surge of COVID-19, that contact would have been too risky. Instead, our team took a creative approach and replaced photo shoots with illustrated portraits of patients.

When Alex Heller, 29, first started experiencing COVID-19 symptoms last winter, it wasn’t clear if the novel coronavirus or Crohn’s disease was at fault.

Diagnosed with Crohn’s disease at age 15, Alex had been struggling with a flare-up—a reactivation of symptoms—for some time, trialing different medications under the direction of her gastrointestinal doctors in New York City, where she lives. While quarantining with her fiancé in East Brunswick, New Jersey, in March, her symptoms worsened. She knew she had to consider COVID-19 as a possibility.

“I didn’t know if it was a flare-up or COVID-19 at first because I’ve had a fever from Crohn’s plenty of times. They have very similar symptoms, like aching bones, lightheadedness, vomiting and fever,” Alex says.

Her COVID-19 test returned positive. But even when she thought she should be recovered from the virus, her symptoms persisted. “I couldn’t tell when COVID-19 ended and when it was a Crohn’s flare. It was very much intertwined,” Alex says. “I wasn’t able to retain any liquids and was still having severe fevers. I lived with it for about two months, but I eventually had to go to the hospital because I couldn’t survive that way anymore.”

She was admitted to Raritan Bay Medical Center in Old Bridge where general surgeon Andrew Boyarsky, M.D., treated her with hydrating IVs, steroids, antibiotics and other medications used for Crohn’s disease. “It was clear that she needed hospitalization. We tried to make her as comfortable as we could while we treated her chronic disease,” Dr. Boyarsky says.

After a few days, Alex was improving and was released from the hospital. But several days later, her symptoms returned and she was re-admitted for another 10 days.

Holistic Help

Alex has struggled with mild anxiety—common for people with Crohn’s—for many years, but the pandemic, hospital stay and illness escalated her anxiety while at Raritan Bay.

“I was having severe panic attacks. I was really going through it mentally and physically, and I just couldn’t handle it,” Alex says. “At the time, visitors were not allowed in the hospital, so I was dealing with this by myself day in, day out, and feeling very alone.”

That’s when the Integrative Health & Medicine team got involved. Using holistic techniques like reflexology, reiki and aromatherapy, the integrative health nurses were able to support Alex in managing her anxiety.

“It was the only time during the day where I felt like I didn’t have to feel pain and I could just focus on me and have someone guide me mentally to a different place,” Alex says. “I am so thankful that I had this other therapeutic outlet there. It was the most positive part of my day and really got me through a very stressful time.”

While Integrative Health & Medicine services are available throughout the Hackensack Meridian Health network on an outpatient level, Raritan Bay in Perth Amboy and Old Bridge uniquely offer them on an inpatient level. “Anybody can benefit from integrative medicine because we all have challenges in life and the dynamics are always changing, even in the best of situations,” says David Leopold, M.D., DABFM, DABOIM, network medical director for Hackensack Meridian Integrative Health & Medicine.

On the Road to Recovery

Despite further treatment for her Crohn’s at Raritan Bay, Alex’s flare-up continued to worsen. That’s when Dr. Boyarsky advised her to consider GI surgery.

“Crohn’s disease can be a very difficult disease to get a handle on, no matter what you do. It can become really problematic, and that’s what happened with Alex. She had been lucky, if you will, for all those years that it hadn’t gotten that bad after it stopped responding to medications. That’s a well-known problem with Crohn’s,” he says.

Alex agreed to surgical intervention and returned home to New York to the care of her doctors who have treated her since her teenage diagnosis.

Today, Alex is adjusting to her “new normal” after having her colon removed and an ostomy bag placed. She’s back to work as a speech pathologist, working with special needs students, and is happily planning her upcoming wedding.

She has continued to use some of the holistic techniques she learned at the hospital, such as aromatherapy and listening to calming music. Thankfully, she doesn’t need them as much as she once did. “I’m feeling 1,000 times better now,” Alex says. “My anxiety and depression have definitely dissipated. I get a bit of anxiety, but it’s not as severe. I’m in a much better place.”

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