Jason Isaacs is 26 years old and studies clinical psychology at Dalhousie University. He has dedicated his work and research to something he’s dealt with for most of his life – pain killers.
“I’ve had stomach pain and abdominal pain for most of my childhood,” says Isaacs. He has always had dietary issues; dairy, wheat, sometimes even raw vegetables or too much exercise would give him pain.
“The doctors thought it was a bit more psychologically based so I was first diagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).” Then, they started to realise that many of his symptoms were unaccounted for.
According to a report by the Canadian Society of Intestinal Research, IBS is a chronic illness that causes abdominal pain, bloating and altered bowel behaviour. “It is the most common gastrointestinal condition worldwide,” but only 40 per cent of people with symptoms seek medical attention.
A press release by Crohn’s and Colitis Canada states that 270,000 Canadians suffer from IBS, one of the highest rates in the world. This number is expected to rise to 400,000 by 2030.
An unexpected diagnosis
“A symptom that is a bit less known with IBS,” Isaacs says, “is that it often affects the brain and body on a very biological level.” Isaacs had a relatively late growth spurt.
“I went into the medical procedure for diagnosis, as the gastroenterologist told me, ‘just for assurance sake, a small percentage of people who had that type of symptom tend to have something underlying, like Crohn’s.’”
Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis are two main forms of IBD (inflammatory bowel disease), according to Crohn’s and Colitis Canada. These illnesses “disrupt your body’s ability to digest food, absorb nutrition, and eliminate waste in a healthy manner.” Symptoms include severe abdominal pain, sores, fatigue and weight loss.
At 21 years old, Isaacs was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease. “It turns out I was that small percentage.”
He remembers the day he got diagnosed. He was feeling “a mix of surprise and shock and relief,” he says, “but I think the relief came a bit later.” Having an explanation after years of struggle was helpful; “it provided a way forward.”
Isaac’s disease is now the norm for him and his family. “My mother has always been my mentor and hero,” he says, “she held it together very well.” She was also diagnosed with ulcerative colitis at a young age.
Nonetheless, it hasn’t been an easy road. “My pain levels actually went up over the last few years and there have been times where I’ve had to stay home from classes,” he says. “I have to stay away from higher activity social events, anything more than watching a movie with friends.”
“I think maybe two or three times a year, it goes to the extent where the pain might last for two weeks at a time. It’s really impairing,” he says.
He says that he is lucky that people around him have been receptive to his illness and help him out whenever they can.
During his four years in clinical psychology, Isaacs had been studying gaps in healthcare, particularly gastrointestinal illnesses. His dissertation discusses prescription pain killers among youth and adults. “A huge part of IBD is pain.”
This year, Jason Isaacs was one of the 10 Canadian students awarded up to $5,000 in scholarships from Crohn’s and Colitis Canada and the AbbVie IBD Scholarship Program.
Jenn Ackerman, the Child and Youth Programs Coordinator at Crohn’s and Colitis says the scholarship is awarded to students who suffer the symptoms of IBD and exhibit academic excellence and community involvement.
This scholarship is meant to increase students’ wellness. “Many students in our community say that stress is a trigger for their IBD and one the sources for this stress are financial issues. By having extra time and not needing an extra job, they have time to take care of themselves.”
“Jason really identified that he is able to maintain a high level of wellness during his studies,” Ackerman says. “After he was diagnosed, he has been researching gaps he saw in healthcare that are linked to his illness. He stays involved with the community.”
For Isaacs, this scholarship means that he is able to have a community of people who recognize that IBD is such an important area to research. Being a researcher in grad school, most of his living comes from scholarships. Clinical psychology, he says, is a heavy workload and limits the ability to seek jobs. “This additional source of income makes a huge difference in my ability to live and pay rent.”
Isaacs has applied for the scholarship several years in a row, but this was his first time receiving it. “I’m glad that I’ve had the opportunity for this to exist, even though I haven’t gotten it in the past,” he says. “I’ve always found that gastrointestinal illnesses have been quite under researched and underfunded,” he says.
“Having a platform where money, that has been recruited through fundraising and through research, can be given back to people who are furthering their education […] I think it’s a wonderful thing.”
Isaacs is motivated to contribute to research on Crohn’s, colitis and other chronic illnesses after his studies with a focus on pain killer prescription.
Relating to his own diagnosis, he says he knows what answers can do for people. Isaacs says he hopes to be a clinical psychologist and help people with emotional and psychological adjustment to chronic illnesses. “What I really want to do is give people that glimmer of hope to carry on with their day.”