Thanks to his medication, 16-year-old Clinton Shard can eat anything he wants and do almost all of the activities he used to do before he was diagnosed with Crohn's Disease, a painful inflammatory disease of the digestive system that typically affects the gastrointestinal system.
Shard was 12 when he was first taken to the hospital with stomach pains. Soon after he was hospitalized for two months so that he could be fed intravenously. Eating solid food only caused pain and diarrhea, while the disease sapped his energy and prevented him from doing any of the outdoor things he loved to do.
He's come a long way since then, and in many ways is set to do something he might never have had a chance to do if he hadn't come down with Crohn's. Shard is now on his way to Tanzania, Africa to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro, part of a larger expedition called the 2009 Climb for Crohn's and Colitis. It's the adventure of a lifetime, but for Shard it's a chance to draw attention to a disease that affects tens of thousands of Canadians, but that is seldom talked about.
"People don't like to talk about it because it has to do with going to the washroom, and a lot of people don't know what it is," he said before leaving last weekend. "This is an opportunity to raise funds and awareness about IBDs (Inflammatory Bowel Diseases), and to show that you can still go out and do things and live your life even if you have Crohn's."
Shard has his disease under control as long as he takes his medication, but sees a doctor every six months or so to get tests. For Shard that's a sign of progress.
"That's a pretty long time in between appointments," he said. "I'm feeling pretty confident in my health and how I'm feeling."
Shard has been training hard for the last month to get in shape for the trek up Mt. Kilimanjaro, trekking up the Stawamus Chief twice a week with a weighted backpack. He's also been doing a lot of running and weight training, and is taking the ascent to the 5,900-metre peak quite seriously.
"I'm a little excited, and maybe a little nervous, but definitely way more excited," he said. "I'm an adventurous person, I guess you can say. I've always done a lot of hiking, but this is something that's new to me and is really taking what I do to a much bigger scale. I really wanted to be part of it because I live with the disease and I wanted to bring attention to it in a positive way."
Shard got involved with the six-member expedition through IDEAS, the Intestinal Disease Education and Awareness Society, and will be sending live updates on his trip through a related group called IBD Adventures. Those updates will be posted on a blog at http://ibadventures.wordpress.com, where you can also make a donation to Shard and the expedition.
Each climber has pledged to raise $1 per vertical metre climbed. The Kilimanjaro peak is 5,985 metres above sea level - more than twice the elevation of Blackcomb. To date the group has raised $21,000 with a goal of $35,400.
Shard feels confident that he will succeed in reaching the summit, especially with expedition leader Rob Hill's experience. Hill is an accomplished athlete and alpinist who was diagnosed with Crohn's in 1994. He eventually had his colon removed.
Right around the time of his colonostomy Hill started a campaign called "No Guts Know Glory" to climb the highest peaks on all seven continents. Only Mt. Everest remains, and Hill is hoping to make an attempt on that peak in 2011.
In the meantime he has been to Kilimanjaro, and knows not to underestimate the mountain.
"It should be fun, but we'll be taking it slow to avoid any altitude difficulties," he said. "It's not technical like other climbs, but it does have its difficulties, including monitoring a team and staying on top of everyone quite closely. The goal is to make the summit, and more importantly to get home safe."
Hill says not everyone with Crohn's can or should climb mountains, but he hopes he is inspiring people to get out and do the things they enjoyed doing before being diagnosed.
"I hope I'm letting people know that they can achieve their goals in life, to find things that they are passionate about and keep going," he said. "Climbing happened to be my passion, I'm just fortunate enough to be able to climb and put together my passions for working with people that are ill and young individuals like Clinton."
The expedition left for Africa on September 5, and will attempt to reach the summit on September 14 or 15. If all goes well Shard will be back in school a week later with a lot of stories to tell.
Inflammatory Bowel Disease is relatively common and affects roughly one in 200 people to varying degrees, according to IDEAS. Crohn's is one of the most severe types of IBD, but there are others including colitis.