Body

New Zealand police woman battling Crohn's disease

Officer Rebecca Parker won't let Crohn's hold her back from achieving her dreams.

By Julie Jacobson

Becs Parker looks like any other proud new mum as she settles her three-week-old daughter on her knee for a mid-morning bottle. But Becs’ journey to motherhood was far from ordinary.

Diagnosed at 19 with Crohn’s disease – an incurable illness in which the intestinal tract becomes inflamed – Becs has suffered from excruciating abdominal pain, diarrhoea, bleeding, weight loss and fatigue for almost a decade. She has endured numerous operations and undergone an ileostomy, where the lower part of the small intestine is redirected out of the body through an opening created in the abdomen.

Despite all this, she has put herself through police college, bought and renovated a house with her wife, Leanne Shaw, and by the end of the year hopes to be a fully fledged detective. To top it all off, she also became a mum this Easter after Leanne gave birth to their daughter Angie.

An estimated 15,000 New Zealanders suffer from inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), yet it’s a condition most people find difficult to talk about. That’s something Becs knows only too well and one of the reasons she’s speaking out.

At 27, she’s already had a lifetime’s worth of “embarrassing body” conversations. Nothing fazes her any more and she’s all for calling a spade a spade.

“You get over being self-conscious. New Zealand has one of the highest rates of Crohn’s in the world, but we downplay it. People shouldn’t be afraid to tell it like it is.”

Her story, as she tells it, started with a “sore bum” after 18 months of stomach aches and more frequent trips to the toilet. Initially prescribed cream for haemorrhoids and then told she had skin tags that would need to be removed, Becs wound up at Kenepuru hospital, unable to bear the pain.

She was transferred to Wellington Hospital, then sent home with antibiotics for a rectal abscess. Not satisfied with the diagnosis, she returned to the emergency department, then spent the next two days as an inpatient, undergoing a sigmoidoscopy – similar to a colonoscopy, where a camera is used to view the rectum and colon – and a biopsy, which revealed she had Crohn’s.

A few months later, an MRI showed the abscess had developed into a fistula, creating “a tract of pus and icky stuff that wiggles its way around my butt cheek”. So after several failed operations to close the fistula, it was decided Becs should have an ileostomy to connect her small bowel to a pouch worn outside the body.

Having the ostomy bag couldn’t stop the tenacious young cadet, who passed the Police’s tough physical competency test – which included pushing trailers and jumping walls – and became a sworn officer. But because the bag couldn’t comfortably fit under the stab-proof vest front-line staff have to wear, Becs opted to have the ileostomy reversed after a year.

Becs and Leanne with daughter Angie. The determined copper hopes to have 
a second child.
Becs and Leanne with daughter Angie. The determined copper hopes to have
a second child.

“Mentally I found it really difficult too. When I was told I needed a bag, I was given an info pack and a DVD to watch. I went home and watched it and just bawled my eyes out.”

Within two weeks of the reversal, the fistula reoccurred.

“I was at the stage where I’d either have to live with a bag for the rest of my life or have another operation where surgeons would cut from my knee to my groin and take healthy tissue to pack up the tract – but that had a 50/50 chance of working,” tells Becs.

Neither option seemed right, so she has since taken a more holistic approach to managing her disease, adopting a gluten and dairy-free diet and keeping stress to a minimum. She has fortnightly injections of a drug that relieves the pain and inflammation, and takes a daily immunosuppressant.

Becs and Leanne (29) met at a gym nine years ago and have been married for six.

Almost all of their spare time since has been spent renovating their Auckland home in Titirangi. Baby Angie was impetus to complete the job, says Becs.

“We’ve stripped it back to the studs, re-gibbed, painted, changed the windows and insulated. We didn’t want to bring a baby into the world until it was done.”

And given the tot’s less than straightforward arrival (Leanne reacted badly to the epidural and had to have an emergency Caesarean section) and the unpredictability of Becs’ illness, the pair’s determination was perhaps serendipitous.

“It was two in the morning,” explains Becs. “I had my head on the table next to Leanne’s with a sick bucket between my legs because my gut had started playing up… but I just thought, ‘No, I’m not missing the birth of my daughter.’ And I wanted to be there for Leanne.”

Currently working with the Counties Manukau family violence team, Becs – who’s an ambassador for the Crohn’s & Colitis association – has nothing but praise for her employer, saying both the Police and the Police Association have been extraordinarily supportive and understanding of her condition, allowing her to take extra sick leave and forgo shift work.

Leanne has taken a year out from her job, but Becs is due to return to work this month after two weeks of parental leave and two of sick leave following her latest operation to reinsert a seton band to help drain the fistula.

Asked what the future might hold for her and her family, she smiles and says, “I want to become a qualified detective, but then we haven’t ruled out me having a baby at some stage either.”

For more information, visit crohnsandcolitis.org.nz

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