While it’s not unusual for medical trainees to make the decision to specialize in an area that has a personal connection to them, for Dr. Vivian Huang, the decision to focus on Crohn’s and colitis disease, also known as Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) was almost derailed on several occasions due to flare ups of her condition.
As a gastroenterologist at the Zane Cohen Centre for Inflammatory Bowel Disease at Mount Sinai Hospital, Dr. Huang provides care to patients facing the often debilitating and painful disease daily in one of the largest IBD clinics in the country. Dr. Huang knows first-hand the challenges, and pain that comes with the disease. While she began to have symptoms such as pain and diarrhea when she was twelve years old, embarrassment and a lack of understanding contributed to her not receiving a diagnosis until she was in University. Another factor was that at the time, physicians didn’t consider people of Chinese descent to be a high risk group. By the time she was in medical school the flare-ups were so severe, she could not hide it from the gastroenterologists with whom she was training. “They convinced me to try the first line of medications, which worked for a while,” explains Dr. Huang.
By then, Dr. Huang had decided to focus her medical specialty on IBD and the pressures of specialty training, called Fellowships, along with the complexity of the disease, resulted in more flare ups. She went on a type of medication called biologics, which are typically given intravenously or by injection to patients who have stopped responding to other types of medications. Over the next five years, Dr. Huang tried numerous biologics, while working as an IBD researcher at the University of Alberta, with mixed results. “The nature of Crohn’s disease, which is the type of IBD that I have, is very unpredictable and frustrating. There is no cure, so patients and physicians are always chasing a management solution that may or may not work,” says Dr. Huang. During that time, Dr. Huang struggled to balance her health, her passion for IBD research and her personal life. “IBD can be very disruptive and I would characterize this period of my life as being extremely stressful.”
She accepted an offer to practice at Mount Sinai Hospital in 2017, and one day, after seeing patients at Mount Sinai’s busy clinic while suffering intense pain, she had an emergency appointment with her own gastroenterologist and immediate surgery was recommended. She underwent a proctocolectomy, the surgical removal of the rectum and part of the colon, and an ileostomy, which is an opening in the abdominal wall that allows waste to be diverted to a pouch attached to the body. This was a major surgery, and considered a last resort when all other treatments have failed. “Today, I am feeling healthy, and I want patients to know that despite what can feel like a frustrating, painful and stressful experience with the illness, with medical treatments and/or surgery, you can go on to live a healthy, and balanced lifestyle,” says Dr. Huang. She continues to practice at the Zane Cohen Centre for Digestive Diseases, with a sub-specialty in helping women with IBD through pregnancy, which can be complicated by the disease. She continues her research to better understand the mechanism of the disease with the hope of better treatments for the future.