Starving and Scared: Mercy’s IBD Center Saves Mom with Strange Symptoms

March 13, 2023

Michelle Fick lost 65 pounds in six months, but she wasn’t trying to lose an ounce. After a third bout with COVID-19 a year ago, the 47-year-old wife and mother of two had lingering stomach issues that wouldn’t go away.

Her bloodwork was off, she couldn’t eat and she had diarrhea, bleeding and extreme fatigue. One afternoon she was so sick, she fell asleep at work in the middle of a conversation with a co-worker.

During a family trip to Washington, D.C., she couldn’t climb up the steps of the Lincoln Memorial; that was when it hit her.

“I knew in that moment I was really sick and something was really wrong,” Fick said. “I used to be a personal trainer. I loved running, hiking and riding my bike, and I couldn’t even walk up a flight of steps.”

Mercy doctor's coat Michelle Fick with her daughter at the Lincoln Memorial.

A routine colonoscopy the previous year showed no signs of concern, but Fick’s primary care physician, Mercy Clinic’s Dr. Jeanie Klabzuba and Kerri Patton, nurse practitioner, were determined to help her get answers after multiple trips to the ER. She was referred to one specialist after another.

A visit to a hematologist found no major concerns, so a gastroenterologist was consulted for treatment of anal fissures. The condition was so painful Fick couldn’t sit comfortably. During the treatment, Dr. Amitabh Saha completed a partial colonoscopy. He found four concerning spots and sent them off to pathology.

Fick went home to recover. While waiting for the test results, her health continued to decline. At 5’7”, she weighed only 106 pounds. 

“I remember a friend had to drive me to Dr. Klabzuba’s office because I was so sick, I couldn’t drive myself,” Fick said. “I was in tears and I didn’t have an appointment, but I was desperate for help. My friends and family were scared I was going to die because my body was deteriorating. I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t walk or go to work, and I didn’t know what else to do.”

While Fick was in Dr. Klabzuba’s office, the pathology results came in. The diagnosis was Crohn’s disease, a chronic inflammatory disease of the gastrointestinal tract.

Her doctor knew Mercy had recently opened a new clinic with a gastroenterologist who specialized in the treatment of inflammatory bowel diseases. She called Dr. Hussein Bitar at Mercy Gastroenterology and IBD Center, the only dedicated IBD center in Oklahoma. He looked at the report and knew Fick needed to be admitted right away.

“I was concerned because she had lost a tremendous amount of weight,” said Dr. Bitar. “Because we are a dedicated IBD center, we have the ability to avoid another trip to the ER, directly admit patients and oversee care in the hospital.”

Fick went home, grabbed some clothes and headed to Mercy Hospital Oklahoma City.

“I remember as soon as I checked into the hospital, Dr. Bitar, whom I’d never met before, was waiting there for me when I arrived,” said Fick.

Dr. Bitar ordered a series of tests and treatments including a blood transfusion, iron transfusion and IV steroids. Fick had severe nutritional deficiencies because she was unable to eat, and the inpatient treatment regimen helped kick-start the healing process.

After a few days at Mercy Hospital Oklahoma City, Fick was feeling better.

“My nurses on the fourth floor were incredible,” Fick said. “I left with all my medications in hand and my follow-up appointment with Dr. Bitar already scheduled.”

Mercy’s IBD center offers many services in one location. Patients have access to the latest outpatient biologic treatments and IV infusions in a new outpatient infusion clinic designated to serve patients with inflammatory bowel diseases. The IBD center opened in July 2022 and offers access to GI specialists, colorectal surgeons, a nurse navigator and a medication coordinator all under the same roof.

During her first visit, Dr. Bitar looked at Fick’s complete medical history. She also has psoriatic arthritis, and the doctor wanted to be sure new medications didn’t interfere with her current treatment regimens.

“Because we are a specialized center for patients with inflammatory bowel diseases, we have access to the latest research and treatments,” said Dr. Bitar.

Fick was a candidate for an off-label treatment still awaiting FDA approval, and she’s seen a remarkable improvement in her symptoms.

“Dr. Bitar spent so much time looking at my health from a holistic approach and educating me about Crohn’s disease − I got very personalized care,” Fick said.

Mercy doctor's coat Dr. Hussein Bitar

Though there is no cure for Crohn’s disease, the goal is to be in remission, meaning patients no longer experience symptoms.

Fick is now back at work at a local school district. She’s in physical therapy working to regain strength. Her goal is to take a spring break trip with her daughter, who will soon be off to college.

“I want my kids to see their old mom back,” Fick said. “Seeing your mom in a hospital, weak, not able to do what she used to do isn’t fun, and I just want to be able to do things with my family again.”