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Recovering from multiple illnesses with cannabis in more ways than one

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Seven years ago, Sara Crouse had no major health issues in her life but that all changed one night before heading out to her favorite brewery.

“I was headed out and I doubled over in pain. I had never felt so much pain in my life and I had no idea what was going on,” she said.

Even though she was experiencing tremendous pain on the left side of her abdomen, Sara continued with her plans that night. At first, she said she thought it was related to gas but the pain persisted for two weeks, before she finally went to the doctor. After examining her, her doctor ordered a hiatus scan which showed that her gallbladder was no longer functioning. After this, the doctor felt that laparoscopic gallbladder removal was necessary. Sara said that she felt some relief after having her gallbladder removed but still felt like something was wrong.

“I didn’t feel that intense pain anymore but I had a lot of other dietary problems. I assumed that the issues that I was dealing with was because I didn’t have a gallbladder anymore.”

Sara added that she was experiencing some hormonal issues as well. She was scanned for polycystic ovarian syndrome and started seeing an endocrinologist, who ordered an estrogen level test. The test showed that at just 34-years-old, Sara was postmenopausal, something that she didn’t know much about at the time.

“My doctor told me that it’s not uncommon for these types of things happen after a gallbladder removal so I just put it to the wayside but I was essentially going through menopause and didn’t know about it until it was done, I had no idea what is was. Being that young and having no guidance — I had to go through it on my own and it wasn’t easy.”

In an attempt to stabilize her hormones, Sara started taking dietary supplements but now she had a new symptom, sudden weight loss. In less than a year, Sara had lost 90 pounds without changing her diet or exercise habits. She was also still experiencing abdominal pain. One day a friend suggested she get tested for Crohn’s disease. She quickly scheduled a colonoscopy which came back positive for Crohn’s. For a short time, Sara was happy to have a new diagnosis but her health issues were just beginning.

In February 2016 Sara was rushed to the emergency room in unbearable pain. Once she arrived at the hospital she was given a cocktail of painkillers including, morphine, Percocet, fentanyl and ketamine but even this mixture couldn’t take the pain away completely.

“I was still in pain but I was floating over my body,” she said. “It was the most intense experience of my life.”

Once she was sedated enough, doctors performed a nasogastric intubation which found that there was five-quarts of fluid sitting in her stomach.

“Once they got the fluid out I was immediately relived but that’s where the pain was coming from. My stomach had stretched so far that it had almost ruptured,” Sara said.

After the procedure doctors ordered an X-ray and CT scan on her abdomen which revealed that in addition to her stomach being filled with fluid, her intestines had also swollen shut due to a blockage. Sara recovered in the hospital where she was put on a steroid regimen and received her daily nutrients through an IV.

A week and a half later, Sara was cleared to go home but she wouldn’t be away from the emergency room for long.

“A few days after I returned home I woke up at 3 in the morning in severe pain and I had my mom take me to the hospital,” she said. “The same thing had happened again but this time they gave me a bunch of opioids and had to drain my stomach. I was at the hospital for a few weeks after that but once the swelling went down they sent me home but two weeks later I was in the hospital again.”

When she went back to the hospital, her doctor ordered a gastric emptying test, a procedure where the patient eats or drinks a light meal that is laced with a small amount of radiation in hopes of tracking how quickly the food moves through the digestive system. After four hours of monitoring, Sara was still in pain and doctors found that nothing had passed so they decided to perform another surgery, this time on her abdomen.

“By the time they got inside of me, I had three liters of fluid in my abdominal cavity. My intestines had ruptured and I had also fistulized, my intestines were connecting to other areas in my body in order to find a way for things to pass through because they weren’t passing through,” she said.

According to Sara, doctors had separated her upper intestine from her lower intestine during the surgery which resulted in her upper intestine coming out of her body. Because of this, when Sara woke up from surgery, she had an ileostomy bag as well as a bag that was attached to her leg, which was used to catch drainage from her abdominal cavity. She spent two more weeks in the hospital but the minute she stepped foot out of the building, something went terribly wrong.

“A gentleman was helping me into a van and I felt a pop and it was very painful but I still got in the van. My abdomen had been opened and closed and I had staples at that point so I thought it was that .... the next day I had plugs and fluid that were shooting out of my staples on the lower half of my abdomen.”

The following morning, Sara went back to the hospital for the fifth time in four months where her doctor scheduled another CT scan. What they found was worthy of emergency surgery.

“The side of my intestine that they had sewn shut had opened and dumped into my abdominal cavity. At that point I was so septic that they had to put me into a medically induced coma for three days,” she said. They weren’t able to sew me shut so that’s why they kept me in a coma, because they had to clean everything out.”

The surgery was successful but when she woke up from the coma, Sara received some bad news. In addition to a 10-month long road to recovery, the hospital that had been treating her this entire time told her that there was nothing else they could do for her.

“They told me it was the worst case of Crohn’s they had ever seen. They wanted me to be at a place where the doctors had more experience in what I was dealing with,” she said.

The hospital referred her to the University of Chicago (UOC) and when she arrived, Sara felt much more reassured that these doctors could actually help her. However, it was here that she started to rely on pain killers and sleep aides to get her through her recovery.

“They gave me Ativan so I was finally able to fall asleep and rest but it became a part of my daily regimen. Without it I would become very anxious and paranoid while trying to fall asleep. I know that Ativan isn’t the worst drug to be on but it became a drug I couldn’t function without,” she said. I was on a lot of drugs during this time. I had a fentanyl pump so I could push it every 15 minutes to control my pain so I was constantly on a narcotic the entire time.”

While this was happening, Sara was also losing more weight because she could only tolerate food and nutrients that could be given to her through an IV. She added that because she had dropped to such a low weight, she started to experience heart problems.

“I would be sleeping and my heart would be going up to 220 beats per minute so they would have to bring the crash cart in and restart my heart, it would happen twice a week if not more for at least a month.”

After two months of recovery at UOC she was considered “healthy” enough to leave but was still unable to eat solid foods. Sara was sent home with a PICC line that ran from her arm into her heart, an antibiotic pump that attached to her “food” IV and pain killer patches that included fentanyl, Vicodin, Percocet, gabapentin and oxycodone. She also had a nurse that would come to her home to check on her.

“I was taking 50 pills per day and I had liquid versions of everything and I was just home for about three months doing the healing process. I started healing my own wounds and the nurse would come in and check on me a few days a week. It was like being in the hospital at home,” Sara said.

After she healed, Sara said that she returned to UOC for her final surgery, a procedure that she calls “a complete reversal.”

“They were able to reconnect my intestines, they got rid of my ileostomy bag and got rid of all of my drainage bags,” she said.

While she was thrilled that the surgery was successful and to not have her bags anymore, the doctors told Sara that it would be too dangerous for her to be sewn shut at the time due to risk of infection, which led to another recovery period.

“This time it was much easier; only two months, but I was heavily dependent on the opioids and Ativan. After a while I started to feel lightheaded, warm, fuzzy and disconnected — I was getting high off of them and I was starting to look forward to taking them and I knew it was something I needed to avoid,” she said.

Unsure of what to do, Sara went to her father for advice. He suggested she give cannabis a try. She agreed with him and got her medical marijuana card in 2017.

“I was 100% game for it because I didn’t want to rely on these drugs for the rest of my life and I didn’t want to cause my body anymore harm and I knew that at this point that’s what would end up happening,” she said.

Sara added that she immediately felt that she didn’t need to take as many opioids once she started using cannabis.

“It was like night and day. I didn’t want to start cold turkey but it made me take less then 50 pills a day and then over time the pills were able to go away completely.”

Unlike many people who have used cannabis to wean themselves off opioids, Sara said she still believes in modern medicine and used cannabis more as a supplement then a cure-all product.

“I did it in stages and supplemented the opioids with cannabis and it was able to provide the relief I was getting from those other medicines without harmful side effects,” Sara said. "I know I wouldn’t be alive if it wasn’t for modern medicine — there’s definitely a place for it and there was a point in my healing process where I needed those opioids. There was nothing else that would have supplemented the pain I was going through because of the intensity of my wounds but it was nice to have an alternative when the time came to supplement as opposed to keep using the opioids ...... After I started using it pretty regularly, I noticed that I started feeling better than I did on the opioids.”

In addition to fighting the urge to take opioids, Sara also said that using cannabis allowed her to sleep without the Ativan as well as manage the low-grade pain she would feel at night. Today Sara is back to her normal self but says she still uses CBD products and occasionally smokes at night.

“It provides me with comfort, it helps me with joint pain and inflammation and sleeping but I’m completely functional during the day and I am a lucid and fluent member of society.”

Since finding the healing powers of cannabis, Sara has become an advocate for the cannabis industry and uses her story as an example of how cannabis can help people in so many ways.

“The main reason I want to be an advocate for this industry is because it’s really unfortunate that people still have this perception that if you use any type of cannabis product, you’re a pothead. We’ve had to stay quiet and blend into society but I know so many people who have found relief by using it or even just the CBD products. It gives people an alternative medicine that gives them their life back.”


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