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Sarah Wins Back Her Health After Crohns Disease Diagnosis

Sarah Campbell won the Mrs. New Jersey International 2021 title just months after being diagnosed with Crohn’s disease and undergoing bowel surgery.

Updated May 04, 2022

As a first grade teacher, Sarah Campbell helps her students learn how to write short words, early math skills, and more about the world around them. After more than two years of abdominal pain and medical procedures, she has something just as important to teach—resilience.

Only months after emergency intestinal surgery and a diagnosis of Crohn’s disease, an often-debilitating type of inflammatory bowel condition, Sarah was crowned Mrs. New Jersey International 2021.

“I feel grateful to feel hungry. I remember what it was like to be terrified to eat a meal,” said Sarah. “When you are finally able to eat food without getting sick, you are so humbled and grateful to feel alive.”

“Crohn’s forces you to really plan your activities, like knowing the location of the nearest bathroom,” said Virtua gastroenterologist Brenda Velasco, MD. “Even if you stick to your treatment plan, there’s no way to predict when a flare-up will occur. You have periods with few, if any, symptoms, and then, all of a sudden experience terrible abdominal pain, diarrhea, and even depression.”

Bouts of Pain

Sarah began experiencing severe pain in her upper abdomen in the summer of 2018. The pain would occur only once a month, so she didn’t think much about it.

By that fall, however, the pain had worsened. Her primary care provider prescribed different medications, but nothing seemed to work.

“It was random. The pain would get bad, and I would start throwing up,” she said. “After 12 or 13 hours in and out of the bathroom, I’d be back to my ordinary self.”

Surgery in the summer of 2019 to remove her gallbladder relieved her abdominal pain and indigestion, and for the next few months, she started feeling better. The improvement, however, would not last.

Reaching a Diagnosis

By the summer of 2020, Sarah’s symptoms returned. She was teaching remotely due to the pandemic, but she frequently had to turn off her camera and microphone because she felt sick.

On Sept. 14, after a day of vomiting, her husband took her to the emergency room at Virtua Voorhees Hospital. A CT scan revealed a bowel obstruction. Virtua surgeon Jamaal Shaban, DO, performed the emergency procedure and diagnosed her with Crohn’s disease.

Crohn’s is caused by your immune system attacking and damaging your gastrointestinal (GI) tract. Most often, the inflammation occurs in the small intestine and part of the colon.

The chronic inflammation can cause the lining of your intestines to swell, putting you at risk for a bowel blockage like Sarah’s. Surgery is often required.

“I am so thankful for Dr. Shaban for giving me a second chance at life,” she said.

Signs of Crohn’s Disease

Nearly 800,000 Americans have Crohn’s. While it can occur at any age, most people are diagnosed before age 30. Having a family member with the disease puts you at higher risk.

“Crohn’s disease can be difficult to diagnose because it can affect different parts of your digestive system. As a result, not everyone will have the same symptoms, and those symptoms may be mistaken as being caused by another condition,” said Dr. Velasco, Sarah’s doctor. “You will likely need blood work, a colonoscopy, and an endoscopy to pin it down.”

Symptoms of Crohn’s include:

  • Abdominal pain and cramping
  • Chronic diarrhea
  • Fever
  • Fatigue
  • A feeling of fullness
  • Blood in your stool
  • Reduced appetite and weight loss

In addition to the physical symptoms of Crohn’s, the condition can be isolating, said Sarah.

“When a person has cancer, the person may look sick,” she said. “A person with a chronic disease like Crohn’s can look fine, but we’re screaming inside our own bodies.”

Going for the Title

Sarah competed in pageants for 21 years, but stepped away once she got married and had her daughter. However, she never let go of the dream of competing nationally. So in January 2021, only months after bowel resection surgery, the Palmyra resident entered and won the Mrs. Burlington County International title.

In April, using Crohn’s and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) awareness as her platform, Sarah won the Mrs. New Jersey International pageant. She finished in the top 16 in the national competition.

“I thought this would be the perfect chance for me to tell my story and help others,” she said.

Sarah also founded an online support group, IBD Heroes, to connect and empower others living with Crohn’s.

To help reduce flare-ups, Sarah has adopted a healthy lifestyle, including eating a largely dairy- and gluten-free diet, and managing stress. She’s also shifted from high-impact cardio to exercises that put less strain on her body, like yoga and weight training.

“While there’s no cure for Crohn’s, lifestyle changes and medications to lessen inflammation and calm the immune system can reduce flare-ups, allowing most people to live healthy, active lives,” said Dr. Velasco.

“Be your own advocate. You know your body—don’t downplay your symptoms,” said Sarah. “Find a doctor who will listen to you and will do whatever they need to do until your problem is solved.”

Keeping You—and Your Digestive System—on Track

The Virtua GI and Digestive Health team is devoted to keeping your gut in check through every phase of your life. Click here to make an appointment with a Virtua gastroenterologist online or call 888-847-8823.