Finding her Way Back


Adolescent girls should be worrying about friends, final exams, and what to wear to the next party —not ulcerative colitis. But when Robyn Black of Athabasca, AB, was diagnosed with the disease at the end of Grade 6, she had no energy left for teenage angst.

The following year, intense stomach pains kept Robyn out of school for long stretches at a time. "One minute I'd be fine, then I'd eat something and feel awful," recalls the teen, now 16. "I had to go to the bathroom almost every time I ate and was always afraid of having an accident." 

On the days she made it to school, "I often had to spend a long time in the bathroom, and kids sometimes made fun of me." 

Robyn's gastroenterologist prescribed a barrage of medications, which yielded only modest relief — and less than modest side effects. "The steroids she was taking delayed her puberty and caused mood swings," says her father, Bill. "We had to explain to her younger sister that Robyn might not be herself at times." 

At the start of Grade 9, Robyn's doctor learned about a study of probiotics being conducted at the University of Alberta and encouraged her to join. The yearlong study required Robyn to take three packages of a powdered probiotic supplement every day. 

She makes no bones about the taste. "It's pretty nasty," she says. After experimenting with a variety of strategies to make the stuff go down more easily, she finally settled on stirring it into water or yogurt. 

To participate in the study, Robyn had to keep a diary of everything she ate, when she went to the bathroom, and what came out. Describing his daughter as sensitive and shy, Bill says "it was especially hard for her when study investigators asked her questions about bowel movements or female development." But something was definitely happening: she was gaining weight, feeling better, and spending less and less time in the bathroom. 

All told, Robyn did so well in the study that she decided to continue taking the probiotic after the study ended. "I now take just one package a day," she says, "and my bathroom habits are back to normal." 

When he looks at pictures of Robyn from two years ago, Bill says he sees "a very skinny girl with sunken eyes." He can hardly believe how far she's come since that time. "She takes the school bus and travels with her friends," he says. "She's no longer afraid to leave home. Part of that is just growing up, but a big part, I believe, is that the probiotics have helped her get better."

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