On resilience: “How a person responds in the face of adversity is based on numerous factors, such as your support system (family and close friends), self-confidence, ability to communicate [feelings], and more.”
—Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation
Jon Bethell and I are sitting across from each other outside a coffee shop in downtown Nanaimo. I sip my coffee, he sips his, and we reminisce about our years growing up together. “Sports were my life,” he says. I remind him of how his family would be in the stands at each home game, his dad wearing an outrageously colorful hat and holding up a homemade sign with Bethell’s name and number on it. We laugh. I’m so thrilled to be sitting across from my healthy-looking friend, as the past few years have been a true test of his strength and courage.
I first met him when his family immigrated from England to Vancouver Island in 2002. They moved in down the street from my family home in Nanaimo, and he and I attended the same elementary and high school. He was the boy who spoke with an unfamiliar accent and could dribble a soccer ball around kids twice his age. He had the natural athletic ability that so many people envy. Growing up, I was able to see him excel in his abilities all the way to university-level basketball at VIU.
In high school, he received the Athlete of the Year Award five years in a row in soccer and basketball.
In 2013, during his first year playing basketball for VIU, his team won the Canadian Collegiate Athletic Association nationals and he was named Male Rookie of the Year at VIU and the Pacific Western Athletic Association Rookie of the Year. He was in the starting lineup as point guard.
Matt Kuzminski, VIU’s head basketball coach said, “On the basketball court, Jon was a fierce competitor who played the right way. He was a tough defender and great teammate. He had a knack for seeing the game, and I think that comes from soccer prowess.”
“It was a huge accomplishment to win nationals in Montréal, and I was 18 and playing with guys who were 20 to 25 years old—it was a crazy experience,” Bethell says.
Bethell tells me sport taught him about dedication and responsibility and kept him out of trouble growing up. “Being fit and having that determination from sport is definitely helping me to recover,” he says.
When he first started to feel major stomach pains in 2018, he had no idea he would later be diagnosed with an inflammatory bowel disorder called Crohn’s disease. Being young and active, he thought he could push through the pain, but his symptoms progressed and his health deteriorated.
The Crohn’s and Colitis Canada website says, “Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis are diseases that inflame the lining of the GI (gastrointestinal) tract and disrupt your body’s ability to digest food, absorb nutrition, and eliminate waste in a healthy manner.” It’s not yet known why someone will get this disease, but genetics, environmental factors, and the body’s immune response are all possible influences.
Bethell lives with this invisible chronic illness. It causes him a lot of physical pain and emotional stress. Unfortunately, there is no cure for Crohn’s—only methods to ease symptoms into remission.
I can remember the first time I realized he was sick. I heard he was in the hospital, and knew I had to go and see him. He was pale, thin, and no longer looked like the friend and athlete I knew.
“In 2018 I was in so much pain I went to emergency in Nanaimo. They sent me home that night with morphine, and the next morning I went back again because of the pain and bleeding. I stayed in the hospital for the next two weeks, and after a colonoscopy they found that I had Crohn’s,” he says. “When I left the hospital, I was 40 pounds lighter.”
I remember how frustrated he was with the absence of information his doctors were able to give him about Crohn’s. The lack of clarity is partly due to the fact that the disease affects each person differently. But generally, in a flare-up like Bethell’s, Crohn’s inflames the digestive tract and can cause severe abdominal pain, diarrhea, and malnutrition due to an inability to absorb nutrients from food. He was also frustrated that his doctors couldn’t tell him what he should and shouldn’t eat.
It was difficult to see my friend in such intolerable amounts of pain that could only be alleviated with potent drugs.
“It didn’t matter what I ate at that point—everything I would try would cause issues,” he says.
Bethell began steroid therapy to try and bring down the inflammation in his colon. He started to lose his identity as an athlete and a young man. He became someone who was weak and sick, and this took a toll on his mental wellbeing.
“I kept canceling plans with friends and isolated myself for about four months. I could see myself entering a dark place and knew I needed to find a way to continue living. So, I practiced meditation, went to the sweat lodge, and to yoga classes. I wanted to take a holistic approach to deal with my stress,” he says.
From 2018 until now, I have watched Bethell’s journey as he navigated his disease. Through the ups, the downs, the strict diets, and many frustrations, I was consistently impressed by his strength and his positive outlook on life and for the future. He rarely complained about his circumstances and never pitied himself. His drive to become healthy on his own terms was undeniable, and he credits a lot of this toughness to his years playing sport.
As one of his oldest friends, I have seen tremendous personal growth through his struggles. This illness has made him a more compassionate, understanding, and calm person. In overcoming these difficult years, it has helped him to mature and hone in on his creativity. I have witnessed his resilience.
He has found new passions away from university sport, like the outdoors and photography. He holds a diploma in Sport and Recreation Management from VIU. He has also completed the Canadian Outdoor Leadership Training Certificate and is an outdoor educator and adventure guide. This allows him to lead sea kayaking, canoeing, hiking, and other adventure trips safely. In the future, he wants to work with children in a sport setting.
Bethell was connected with another person living with Crohn’s through a mutual friend of ours while in the hospital, Ashley Clark. Bethell and Clark’s experiences are very different—and this is normal. I learned that most people with an inflammatory bowel disorder, like Crohn’s, have such different struggles with treatment, medication, diet, and mental health that it’s difficult to compare one to the other. Clark, a 28-year-old who has been living with the disease for eight years, was also willing to share her experience.
She said, “It was so nice to connect with him, because when sick people meet sick people you tend to view life differently and can talk about those things that not everybody will understand. We are young people who have this illness.”
“I was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease when I was 19, with mild symptoms such as bloating [and] some stomach pain, but over the years it slowly progressed and I got sicker and sicker,” she said.
Though she spent years trying numerous medications, nothing seemed to help. Clark was losing weight rapidly, and at 85 pounds she was severely malnourished. This is when the doctors insisted life-saving surgery was the only solution.
Clark posts on her public Crohn’s Instagram page @honey_and_healing, where she shares her experience with the disease. More recently on her page, she writes, “I’m feeling better than I have in as long as I can remember.”
If you or someone you know lives with Crohn’s or a similar condition, Clark recommends the YouTube channel Let’s Talk IBD.
Bethell has recently been told he is in the early stages of remission, meaning his colon is healing and the inflammation is at a normal level. He receives monthly injections of Inflectra—a biological drug proven to help with autoimmune diseases like Crohn’s. He eats a version of the paleo diet, as it removes a lot of inflammatory foods, and he continues to exercise a healthy lifestyle. He hikes, mountain bikes, and is eager to play soccer and basketball recreationally.
“It’s encouraging to know the hard work to be healthy is paying off,” he says.