06 May Wal bares all to help mark National Crohn’s and Colitis Awareness Month
Brett Wallace has been in more operating theatres than he cares to remember. At one point, he had 25 anaesthetic procedures in just three years.
The 46 year-old husband and father of two sons lives with Crohn’s disease. Now, for the first time in the 18 years since his diagnosis, he is enjoying life ‘almost symptom free’.
But the tough times were a massive challenge. He has only ever spoken to those close to him about the physical and emotional toll Crohn’s disease has had on him.
Now, with the horror days behind him, he agreed to share his story to raise awareness and help mark National Crohn’s and Colitis Awareness Month in May.
Self-employed builder, Brett Wallace (Wal) is well known in and around Port Campbell. He grew up in Brucknell, played local football and rowed surf boats.
Shortly after his 28th birthday, he remembers the onset of stomach pains being pretty quick.
“It just started with the pains and needing to go to the toilet to empty my bowels frequently – like 20 times a day. So, it was obvious something wasn’t right,” he said.
“I booked into the Timboon clinic with my GP Warwick Rouse and he very quickly diagnosed it as Crohn’s. I was tested for bowel cancer first, which was his first concern and I didn’t tell anyone until I got the results a week later. It wasn’t a great week.”
Once Crohn’s was confirmed, Brett was referred to Dr Barry Morphett, a gastroenterology specialist in Warrnambool where he was educated on the disease and began treatment.
“I suppose mine is a story where the plan of attack for Crohn’s back then, was different to what it is today. Huge advancements have been made over the past 20 years to get me to where I am today,” he said.
“Crohn’s is an ulcerative disease and some people suffer from their mouth, all the way to their anus. Mine is fairly localised to the join between my large and small intestines.
“I was put on a pretty heavy dose of prednisolone which is a steroid. There were other drugs as well, but that was the main one for 18 months or so.
“There were side effects though, including massive weight gain, joint aches and pains. The plan was to combat the ulcers, to fight it – that’s all changed for me now.”
Inevitably, part of Brett’s treatment plan was surgery. He jokes now about ‘baring his bum’ to countless people over the years, but it was a tough time.
“It doesn’t even bother me now – it’s one of those things where you check your dignity in at reception, down your trousers and just accept what needs to happen,” he said.
“I’ve had so many operations and scopes and procedures now that I am pretty immune to the embarrassment.”
Brett’s first major surgery was in 2008 when doctors removed 40cm of bowel that was most ulcerated with Crohn’s disease.
“It was major abdominal surgery with 60 staples right down the middle of my stomach. Unfortunately two-and-a-half months later the bowel resection split and I needed to have another surgery when they took another 15cm,” he said.
“Because I’ve lost 55cm of bowel, I digest food a lot quicker than other people and need to go to the toilet more. That section of bowel is also responsible for absorbing vitamin B12, so I now need six-monthly B12 shots.”
Brett said after the surgery, doctors helped him get on top of the pain, with the only symptom being needing to go to the toilet frequently.
“I kept a food diary for a while. Ideally, you’d find foods that make me worse, but we didn’t pinpoint too many – mainly carbonated drinks, alcohol and coffee,” he said.
But the worst was unfortunately not over yet. Brett developed abscesses in the lower part of the small intestine. The new development was untimely as Dr Morphett retired which meant Brett now needed to travel to Melbourne to see a specialist.
“We’re getting into the graphic stuff now, but these abscesses make pockets of mucus and puss and you have to cut into that and drain them,” he said.
“The first time I had this done I had a drain put in…they told me it could be three months before it was removed. It stayed there for three years. It was a tough couple of years…I don’t talk about it…it was tough and mentally very challenging.
“I played footy at 95kg and was 115kg on the steroid therapy – I was pretty sick through this period and dropped to 76kg and for anyone who doesn’t know me I’m 6 foot 4, so I was a pretty sick looking 76kg.
“From 2015 to 2018 I had about 25 procedures in Melbourne. The logistics of having these surgeries in Melbourne, coming out of anaesthetic, being crook and then spending four hours in the car… it was horrible.”
Brett said he was now three years clear of that nightmare and his current treatment had restored his quality of life and was proving “fantastic” for him.
“So rather than trying to combat the Crohn’s – now the treatment is an immunosuppressant drug which shuts down my immune system so the body doesn’t fight the Crohn’s and it lays dormant instead.
“It’s working out fantastic for me – I still go to the toilet more than other people but effectively I’m free of all the other symptoms.
“It’s not a nice thing, but I’m actually one of the lucky ones where it is pretty isolated. Life is pretty normal again and I’m grateful to my specialists, but also TDHS.
“To be able to have colonoscopy procedures here at Timboon is fantastic for me. Every three years they run a camera up there and look after me here.”