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Moving forward: Snoqualmie teacher Dana Nohavec overcoming Crohn's, triathlon
Like a lot of people, Dana Nohavec struggled to stick with an exercise program. It didn't matter what type of exercise she tried, she couldn't do it regularly, but it wasn't a loss of interest that stopped her.
"I've never been athletic, ever," says the 25-year Snoqualmie resident and teacher at Snoqualmie Elementary School. "Every time I start to try to get in shape, knowing exercise is so vital, I'd just end up hurting something. My knee would swell up, or my ankle would break, or…"
Or some other symptom of her Crohn's Disease would flare up, and Nohavec, now training for her first-ever triathlon in September, would have to give up on working out.
Today, with her symptoms well under control and a habitually sunny attitude that must come from working with fourth and third graders for the last 20 years, Nohavec is nowhere near giving up. She runs, cycles and swims a few days each week, and has just renewed the commitment she made in May, to compete in her first ever triathlon this September.
This, from the woman who laughs long and loud because "I run slower than I walk!" and has managed life with an autoimmune disease for decades. She'll be part of about 20 Seattle-area athletes running the Team Challenge sprint triathlon, Sept. 9 in San Diego, as a fundraiser for the Crohn's and Colitis Foundation of America (www.ccfa.org).
"I wanted to earn money for Crohn's and Colitis and this is the only one there is…. that's not a marathon," she explained.
She no longer has the "potty problems," or inflammatory bowel condition, that would keep most Crohn's patients from attempting a 26.2 mile run, but Nohavec decided to start small.
"The distances are short, really," she said, but that's not the point. She wants to see if she can do it all, the 500-meter swim, 10-mile bike ride and 3-mile run -- or walk, she says -- and have fun doing it.
What got her to this point, from her start as a college student who quit school when her Crohn's symptoms became debilitating, was largely the work of the CCFA, an organization she's been involved with for decades.
"They offer a wide range of support groups," she said, and a mentorship program in which she has guided several newly diagnosed Crohn's patients. Most importantly, though, they've expanded the treatment options for Crohn's.
"I am grateful to the foundation for using their funds so wisely!" she says.
Nohavec developed Crohn's at 19, either from a parasite in contaminated water on a hiking trip, or from her body's reaction to the anti-parasitic drugs she took to treat it. Her symptoms then were anemia and the typical potty problems associated with the disease, and treatment was minimal.
"There were virtually two or three medications, and that's all there was," Nohavec said.
Mainly, she took prednisone, which had its own "horrific" side effects, and never completely controlled her condition. She had flare-ups three or four times a year.
"Then I had my child, and it completely changed to elbows, knees, joints, everything along my back," she continued. "I couldn't hold my baby."
Nohavec's condition was transformed, something that happens to about a third of Crohn's patients after pregnancy. It looked and felt different, but was still a result of her body's own defenses attacking her cells.
"Crohn's has so many different faces," she said. "Mine acts like rheumatoid arthritis...and it changes depending on your state of growth."
That change of face opened up a new treatment option for her, though, a drug called Remicade used to treat RA. She started receiving infusions of Remicade five years ago, one infusion every six weeks or so, and has taken her life back.
First it was just walking before or after school, and occasionally getting back on her bicycle, she said. She had more energy, and she was willing to try.
"Then one morning, I just woke up and had a hankering, to see if I could run!" she said. A friend had started a new running program that inspired her. "So I ran around my block and, honestly, I wasn't sure I could make it, but I did, though I didn't venture a second time."
Not that day, anyway.
"I was really proud of myself," she said, and soon she was "putting one foot in front of the other," and discovering that she might be an athlete, after all. "I thought maybe it was my mind that was weak, that my mind wouldn't allow me to break past it, but I just really started liking it. I found I could go farther and farther!"
She still has some obstacles to overcome, and she will always struggle with Crohn's, since there is no cure, yet, but Nohavec has managed to see the positive side in much of her life's challenges. Quitting UW's occupational therapy program as a 19 year-old, for example, is what led to her becoming a teacher -- "I landed on a special education course that just threw me back on track!" she said. And her periodic infusions "are not bad," she says, adding "I'm just thrilled I don't have to go to Portland for them!" The triathlon itself will be a challenge, as will raising the $3,300 she'll need by Aug. 20, but she feels good about her chances.
There are some things she would change, though.
Pointing to the Team Challenge logo promoting her triathlon, she says "Look how small the 'Crohn's and Colitis' is! I would beg to redesign that, because people don't know what it's for!"
Nohavec is planning a series of events to raise the $3,300 she'll need just to enter the triathlon. They include: A booth at the North Bend Block Party -- look for her wearing a "Crohn's and Colitis crown" and raffling off a Wii game system;A dinner and silent auction July 25 at Judkins Street Cafe in Seattle;A wine and hors d'ouevres party at Arts East in Issaquah, tentatively set for Aug. 2;To donate, supporters can also visit her website: www.active.com/donate/nwseattletri/triDNohave1.