WORTHINGTON, Oh. (WCMH) — Take Steps Columbus is an annual event focused on raising awareness and funding research to find a cure for Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis.

Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) afflicts about 1.6 million Americans, with varying degrees of severity, ranging from occasional stomach cramps to frequent diarrhea, and sometimes gastrointestinal bleeding that results in anemia. More than half of those diagnosed with IBD eventually require one or multiple surgeries due to damage and scarring of the gastrointestinal tract from prolonged inflammation.

The cause of IBD has been linked to a genetic redisposition because the autoimmune illness sometimes runs in families, possibly triggered by environmental factors or an illness.

Every year, local Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation (CCFA) chapters choose Honored Heroes who serve as community ambassadors, based on their volunteer work in the community raising awareness and promoting educational resources. This year, Katherine Rennick and Aubrey Looper were named the Adult and Youth representatives of the Southern Ohio chapter.

Rennick, a Columbus resident, was diagnosed with a more severe form of Crohn’s disease at the age of 14. Now 30 years old, she has faced a daunting path navigating what she calls a “complex medical system,” including four partial small bowel resections, endless tests and procedures, and many hospitalizations for surgeries, anemia, and bowel obstructions.

Rennick was initially diagnosed with Crohn’s disease in 2004 after suffering from periods of intense fatigue, anemia, and abdominal pain, and was eventually placed on corticosteroids to stem the inflammation. The disease is strongly linked to an overactive immune system that attacks the patient’s GI tract and other parts of the body.

Rennick recalled bouts of severe anemia exacerbated by chronic inflammation and malabsorption of food in scarred or inflamed areas of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract, and occasionally requires iron infusions.

“There are so many people just like me who want to see the future free of Crohn’s and colitis,” Rennick said in a Zoom interview. She became a counselor with Camp Oasis, which provides support for children diagnosed with IBD and their families.

Katherine Rennick with fellow Camp Oasis counselors in 2012.

Friendships she developed along the way at Camp Oasis helped her manage the “hard, difficult, challenging, scary times” with Crohn’s disease, which has an unpredictable course, with frequent flare-ups, separated by quieter periods usually controlled by medication.

The debilitating impact of IBD on the day-to-day life of patients is what drives Rennick to participate in supportive events such as Take Steps Columbus.

Dr. Matthew Laubham, a pediatrician and internist at Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, said diagnoses of IBD are occurring at an earlier age compared to past generations, often by the time a youngster with chronic symptoms is 10 years old. He attributed part of this trend to improved diagnostic testing, and a greater awareness by clinicians of symptoms in young people such as unexplained weight loss and prolonged fatigue, which cause difficulty concentrating at home and in school.

“The immune system of one’s own self is targeting the GI system, so it’s sending out T-cells and your innate immune system to attack the lining of your intestine,” Laubham said. Regarding newer treatments beyond the traditional approach of using corticosteroids in more serious flare-ups, he pointed to medications designed to slow the immune response that often goes awry in patients with IBD.

“Biologic therapies target and inhibit the cytokine system,” Laubham said, which are often delivered by infusion. Sometimes major surgery is required to open an obstructed or severely diseased bowel segment.

“If you’re going to have to do a surgical intervention, a lot of times to allow the bowel to heal correctly, you’ll need to temporarily have a colostomy bag, a way to divert stool from constantly passing over that area that was affected, allow it to heal. In many scenarios, reanastomosis, or reconnecting the intestine together to allow a functioning GI tract” is necessary, Laubham explained.

NBC4’s Audrey Hasson emceed Take Steps Columbus Saturday morning. Ten teams participated in the event that drew an estimated 150 to 200 people, according to Maria Jones, the Southern Ohio Chapter manager. In all, more than $100,000 was raised to help find a cure for IBD.

“One team raised over $11,000 from his Bar Mitzvah. In lieu of gifts, he asked his family to donate to his walk team,” Jones wrote, describing her admiration of the dedication of one of the team captains.

For more about Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, and support group information: https://www.crohnscolitisfoundation.org/