Isabella’s Tale: How TGH’s Pediatric GI Program Came to the Rescue

Isabella’s Tale: How TGH’s Pediatric GI Program Came to the Rescue

The nightmare began with a simple shopping-mall pretzel. But thankfully for a Tampa Bay middle-schooler named Isabella, a scary and painful ordeal ended with the help of the Tampa General Hospital (TGH) Children’s Hospital’s acclaimed pediatric gastrointestinal (GI) program in collaboration with the sole academic GI program in Tampa Bay, USF Health Pediatric Gastroenterology.

Tampa General Pediatric GI Program to the Rescue!

It all started just after last Thanksgiving, when the family strolled past retail shops and eateries decked out brightly for another holiday season. Isabella’s mom, Evelyn, thought nothing of getting her then-12-year-old daughter a kiosk snack.

Isabella had been experiencing mild stomach issues for several months — something her parents attributed to a possible gluten or lactose intolerance — and they were in the process of finding a pediatric GI doctor. The search was delayed since the family had recently relocated from New York City to Pasco County, where Isabella’s dad, Jamie, had begun a new plant manager job with the school system, and his family-plan insurance hadn’t yet kicked in.

They never dreamed of what would happen next.

“Everything just exploded like a volcano,” Evelyn recalls. “Isabella was soon in enormous pain. When we got home, she was doubled over and shaking on the couch. We had no idea what was going on and it was terrifying.”

They rushed her to the emergency department of another area hospital but weren’t satisfied with the answer from the doctor: They should take Isabella home, give her Advil and then take her to see a GI doctor in the morning — a challenge when they were without insurance. The next day, they found a concerned pediatrician who told them of her suspicions: Crohn’s disease — a lifelong disease characterized by inflammation in the digestive tract that can cause severe, even fatal, complications if untreated.

The news shook Evelyn and Jamie, who had heard of the disease but knew very little about it. A friend of Evelyn’s had told her about TGH’s reputation for excellence, so off they went — and the result was life changing.

“From the moment we walked in, it was a completely different experience,” Evelyn says. “We were greeted and brought back to be seen immediately. Everyone was so kind and caring. And the level of service we received … it makes me emotional simply talking about it.”

“I could not have asked for a better set of doctors,” she adds. “They re-ran her blood work and her inflammation markers were through the roof.”

Isabella underwent an endoscopy and colonoscopy expeditiously by expert pediatric gastroenterologist Dr. Jenelle Fernandez to confirm the Crohn’s diagnosis. She was admitted to the TGH Children’s Hospital, staying for 10 days and receiving personalized care. In addition, she was assigned a GI navigator, Julia Dam, who coordinated her care each step of the way even beyond her admission — a role that differentiates the TGH Children’s Hospital from other local hospitals.

“I loved all the doctors and nurses,” Isabella says. “And the care team took me on walks and made slime and crafts with me. Everyone was so nice.”

Her doctors helped her turn the corner with a combination of dietary changes, state-of-the-art biologics and supplements, sparing her from invasive treatments. Some eight months later, Isabella, a straight-A student ready for high school at 13, is symptom-free. With the guidance of Dr. Fernandez, her GI dietitian and gastroenterologist, Evelyn has maintained a complementary approach, including nutritional changes and prescription medicine to heal her daughter’s gut.

“Treatment of Crohn’s requires a multidisciplinary approach,” says pediatric gastroenterologist and medical director of Pediatric Gastroenterology at TGH, Dr. Racha Khalaf. “Not only do you need to partner with a gastroenterologist, but with a dietitian, a psychologist and other members of the care group to provide our young patients with the best care.”

For Isabella and her parents, the care was that and more. Evelyn says, “I want people to know there’s hope and the TGH Children’s Hospital helped give that to Isabella and all of us.”

*Presented by Tampa General Hospital | Originally published in August 2023 of Tampa Bay Parenting Magazine.