Irish man battling colitis: 'Could I be sick in a week's time? In six months' time? Maybe, but I live life as I can'
Gareth Rossi (35) was just 22 when he was diagnosed with colitis, a chronic inflammatory bowel disease. Within six months of developing the first symptoms of the illness, Gareth had his bowel removed and underwent over 20 operations in the years that followed.
“I had a pretty aggressive form of colitis. And it got pretty aggressive, pretty quickly. At the beginning, I didn’t have time to understand what was wrong. I started to lose weight and I just generally felt unwell. My GP lined up an appointment with a specialist and the next thing I knew, I was diagnosed with colitis.
Colitis is classed as an inflammatory bowel disease, along with Crohn's disease. The symptoms can vary from person to person but most suffers experience bloody stools, diarrhea and excruciating abdominal pain. It can have debilitating affects on those battling the disease, leaving them feeling weak and in constant pain.
“When I had that first colonoscopy, I didn’t think I was sick. I remember being in hospital and the specialist asking me if I felt okay. He seemed concerned but I didn’t feel too bad. I knew by the way he was speaking though that this was serious.
"After chatting with him, I stood up to go to the bathroom and the second I was out of that room, I threw up. My mind just clicked. I knew then and there that there was a problem. I felt terrible,” said Gareth.
There was no history of the illness in his family and up until 2003, Gareth had enjoyed a healthy and physically active lifestyle. The Clontarf man was passionate about sport, especially rugby which he played regularly and had never experienced any trouble with his heath.
“We don’t know what caused the illness. The doctors suggested stress and maybe it was but I’m not sure. I can’t remember feeling especially stressed to be honest.
"The best reason I can give is that I put a lot of pressure on myself with sports but nothing major. I guess what qualifies as stress differs for everyone and it affects your body in different ways.”
The causes of colitis are unknown and there is no cure. It's usually diagnosed in people between the ages of 15 and 40 but can occur at any age, even in toddlers. Symptoms can flare up from time to time but in serious cases like Gareth's, surgery is required.
“Six months after being diagnosed with the illness I made the decision to have my colon removed. Was it a tough decision to make? Yes. I was a young man and I worried about how it would impact my life, especially with women and things like that but I was tired of feeling so bad.
"I went from being a fit and active young man to someone who struggled to even walk up the stairs. I couldn't eat. I'd lost so much weight. I felt really weak and I didn't want to feel that way anymore."
Once his colon was removed, Gareth immediately felt better. His appetite returned, he gained weight and, in time, he had a J-pouch fitted.
The J-pouch stored his healthy, small intestine and was sewed into place inside Gareth's lower abdominal cavity, acting as his colon.
Life returned to normal and in 2007, Gareth decided travelled around the world, visiting Asia, Australia, Fiji, New Zealand and South America.
"I'd felt like I'd conquered my illness and I wanted to travel the world. I didn't feel like my disease was holding me back."
Gareth kept a three-month supply of J-pouches and relevant equipment with him at all times during his year-long trip, and his family would update his supplies regularly. His illness didn't cause him concern while he was away and he enjoyed the experience like any man his age.
However, upon returning home Gareth suffered a major setback.
"I developed an infection which nearly killed me. I got the infection from the J-pouch but it's extremely rare. That type of infection, it's not something that would ever really be a cause of concern for anyone who has a J-pouch. I just happened to be unlucky.
The life-threatening infection had major health implications for Gareth and he also developed Crohn's disease but while physically he suffered, mentally he remained positive.
"I played golf, I met up with friends, I kept the head down. You have to keep busy at times like that. Even when you feel sick. It's good to get the mind off it. It's good to keep busy.
"There are times when you're on your own that you can get very down. It can get to you but I just made sure to see my friends as much as possible, doing as much as I could."
During that time, Gareth managed to maintain his job as a personal trainer and massage therapist, taking time off to undergo various operations when necessary
"I was on different drugs to calm the disease for two or three years from about 2008 but it was a lot of hassle," said Gareth.
Then in 2011, Gareth made another difficult decision: to get his J-pouch removed and replaced with an ileostomy bag.
"The infections kept returning and for me, I knew I had to get the J-pouch removed for the infections to stop.
"My specialist sent me to get a second opinion when I first went to him about it. It's a big decision to make. It can cause sexual dysfunction, it can cause fertility issues. It's not something you take lightly but the specialist was confident enough that it would be fine and so was I."
Despite suffering a minor infection in 2012, Gareth hasn't looked back since and continues to enjoy a busy and active lifestyle.
"For two and a half years I've been consistently well and before that, I didn't go nine months without a problem. I'd over 20 operations during that time.
The disease impacts sufferers in different ways, not all cases are the same and Gareth is dealing with his case, in his own way.
"Would I rather be healthy and live for another 30-40 years or live for another 50 years and struggle? I know what it's like to not have a quality of life. I know what it's like to not be able to walk upstairs, to not be able to do normal things. I couldn't enjoy life but now I can."
The sports-mad Dubliner can't play contact sport but has fulfilled his passion for rugby in another way: through touch rugby - even representing Ireland on the international touch rugby team.
"That's where I get my buzz from. I can still do the things I love. I missed rugby when I couldn't play so I found another way to do it.
"I'm still working. I'm a self-employed personal trainer, I do fitness classes, I do sports massage work with international teams. I wouldn't have been able to do any of that five or six years ago.
"I'm always confident that I'll be fine tomorrow. Could I be sick in a week's time? In six months' time? Maybe but I live life as I can live it. I don't know what will happen next but right now I feel as healthy as I ever have."