“As much pain as I was in and what I was going through, I would walk around the halls and look around me, and it made me feel so fortunate even in the worst of circumstances...”
Lauren Garan says she was "a stocky little gymnast" when she was last in Denver. That was during a brief visit in July, shortly after she received her MS in advertising management at DU and a few months before the ulcerative colitis she had dealt with for 12 years suddenly raged, necessitating two major surgeries. A third — and if she is fortunate, the last — is still to come.
"At one point I was emaciated, sick-looking, 107 pounds," says Garan, who is 5 feet 2 inches tall and weighed 152 pounds when she competed on the balance beam and vault for the Pioneers. "I've gone back to looking like a healthy girl. But people don't look at me and say, 'Oh, she must have been that high-caliber gymnast.' I kind of just blend in the crowd now."
Maybe in the Boston area, where Garan moved in August, eager to begin life after DU before getting swept up in a medical maelstrom. But not in Denver and never at DU, where she returns this weekend to host a fundraising brunch from 10:30 a.m.-1 p.m. Jan. 15 at the Crimson and Gold Tavern, 2017 S. University Blvd., for the Crohn's and Colitis Foundation of America.
"I'm really worried about giving hugs, because of what's on my stomach," Garan says, referring to an ileostomy bag, the result of an Oct. 28 surgery when 90 percent of her colon was removed. "I give awkward hugs. But I feel I'm going to spend the majority of the brunch running around and just hugging everyone and saying so many thank-yous."
Garan, who also received a BA in communications from DU in 2009, was 12 when she was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis. She says she never researched her disease or talked openly about it. At DU, Garan told gymnastics coach Melissa Kutcher-Rinehart, as well as Julie Campbell, DU's director of sports medicine, and medical adviser Girish Paranjape. Some of Garan's former teammates were aware she had ulcerative colitis; most weren't.
"Everyone just knew I had a stomach condition," Garan says. "We never really went into details. There were definitely days I walked into practice and just didn't ever think I was going to be able to do anything. I was so competitive in nature that even when I wasn't feeling well, I don't think I ever missed a practice."
Garan had every reason to think her health would not hold her back when she left DU last summer. A colonoscopy in August 2010 showed 6 percent of her colon was infected, which had been the case for 12 years.
"I never once had a discussion with my gastroenterologist that I would one day be removing my entire colon," she says.
Garan moved to the Boston area on Aug. 1. While searching for a job in marketing, she began working in retail for Lululemon Athletica, which sells yoga wear. Garan began doing yoga often and developed a "really intense pain under my left ribs." She assumed she had pulled a muscle, nothing more.
When the pain continued during a trip home to Greenwich, Conn., in September, Garan decided to visit Neda Khagan, her long-time gastroenterologist. Khagan's initial concern was that the disease had not just spread in Garan's large intestine but might now be in her small intestine, meaning Garan would be suffering not just from ulcerative colitis but also from Crohn's disease.
"My small intestine was clean and perfectly fine," Garan says. "So we were all relieved and thought everything was great. But unfortunately (Khagan) did find that in my large intestine, the disease had spread from 6 percent to at that point 89 percent of my colon."
Garan, in so much pain she was forced to go to an emergency room, soon learned her colon had become 98 percent infected. She underwent two surgeries in a 53-day period, opting for a prosthetic rectum because she went from a 6- to 98-percent infection so quickly, putting her on track to develop colorectal cancer.
"A hospital is the most humbling place you could ever spend time," Garan says. "As much pain as I was in and what I was going through, I would walk around the halls and look around me, and it made me feel so fortunate even in the worst of circumstances because I'm getting the chance to get better, I'm getting the chance to have surgeries."
This week should be joyful for Garan. She will arrive in Denver late Friday night after vacationing for five days in the Bahamas. Garan will participate in the Take Steps for Crohn's and Colitis Walk May 19 in Las Vegas. She has raised about $3,500 for the event, which aims to find cures for these digestive diseases, and she anticipates adding to that total at her brunch on Sunday.
"I'm not hooked up to IVs anymore," Garan says. "I'm going to walk there on two feet, going to be tan from my trip. So I just can't wait."