Excitement and relief washed over Isabelle Mendez as she prepared for surgery at Hackensack University Medical Center in June 2014.
Just two years after being diagnosed with ulcerative colitis and six months after having her colon removed, the then-16-year-old was going for an ileostomy reversal and JPouch creation -- expected to give her the equivalent of a healthy person's colon.
For the first time in years, Mendez of Mahwah had hope that she would soon be returning to life without pain, frequent bathroom trips and the stigma of being "different."
That hope slipped away from Mendez a little more every month following the procedure as she began experiencing new symptoms, ultimately leading to her most recent and most devastating diagnosis: Crohn's Disease.
More than $1,800 had been raised as of Thursday on a GoFundMe for Mendez -- 20, a volunteer EMT with Mahwah EMS -- that she needs for the clinical trials, doctors visits and more that insurance won't cover.
"It's not easy," said Mendez, a sophomore sociology and psychology major at Fordham University.
"Remembering how sick I was in the hospital for the two weeks after, and thinking that the surgeries were for nothing certainly makes me question what I’m going through.
"Now that hope is nearly gone I'm just going through the same process that lead up to my surgery."
Saddened. Overwhelmed. Discouraged. Every day is more of a struggle than the last.
The first symptoms came in 2010 for Mendez, then just 12 years old. She was using the bathroom several times a day. There was blood in her stool and her weight was plummeting quickly.
An avid soccer player, Mendez had to stop. She had become far too malnourished to stay on the field.
It came to a head in Summer 2013 when her father said she didn't look well.
"I didn't think anything of it," Mendez recalled. "I thought it was puberty and had no idea I was truly sick."
That's when she saw a doctor and received her first diagnosis. She took her medications, followed her diet and clung to the promise of returning to normal life with a surgery that would give her a new colon.
Mendez began the process in October 2013 when she had her colon removed. She was given an ileostomy, which she wore on her body every day, hitting her self-esteem -- hard.
"It was at the age of not knowing your niche," she said. "When you're trying to figure out who you are."
She counted down the days until her second surgery in June 2014. The future looked bright. One of Mendez' lowest points, she said, was the two weeks following the procedure in the HUMC ICU.
"I was so sick," Mendez said. "I don't even remember being in there."
Slowly, symptoms returned. This time, even worse.
The medications since the surgery have gotten her through but come with their own set of complications. If taken longterm, Mendez faces fatal cancer, eye problems and osteoporosis.
What hurts Mendez most, she says, is the impact her disease has taken on her as an EMT and student.
"One of the hardest things to deal with is working roadside posts," she said. "You sit in the ambulance for eight hours waiting for a call. It's hard having to go to the bathroom several times a day, making sure you're not eating too much."
Mendez doesn't remember the last time she felt truly normal. She has big plans for 2019 and is exploring new options with clinical trials, doctors and potentially more surgeries.
The financial price has proven to be as much of a burden as the disease itself. All for one simple wish: To be healthy.
"I want to find a cure not only for myself, as I haven’t achieved true remission since I’ve been diagnosed," said Mendez, "but also for others who may be in my predicament now or in the future and for those who will soon also run out of medication options."
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