As humans, we hold an incredible capacity to adapt, both physically and emotionally. The ability to persevere through even the most wearing of circumstances is nothing short of awe inspiring.
Jessica Bash is no exception.
Practically a California native, after a quick first eight years in Arizona, Jessica’s early life was all about movement. From age eight, and well on into adulthood, she was a dancer. Through tap, jazz, and ballet, she eventually found her soul of expression in the free flowing waves of contemporary and modern dance. “You didn’t have the same kind of pressure to have a specific body type, plus the movement was just so much more natural and free — it felt like ballet’s little blue-haired punk sister, and I was really into that.”
Eventually, her sights opened (even though being turned off the by it’s first impression), to the thrilling, high-flying stunts of cheerleading. A decade of competitive cheer was birthed. She quickly made the high school competitive team. Two years spent as captain of her JV team until she was inevitably on varsity itself. Out of school’s boundaries, into the collegiate level of All Stars for a year, and then to Palomar College’s cheer team when mid-stride, gearing up for her next move to Moorhead State University, she started getting sick.
“I was getting upset stomachs, would have to run to the bathroom moments after eating. The doctor thought it was hemorrhoids, and then I lost 20 lbs., in a week. I started seeing blood in my stool, began fainting, it was very, very rapid. Over the course of two months, I had greatly declined in health. I was eventually rushed to the hospital to be treated for dehydration when the doctors gave me an emergency colonoscopy and diagnosed me with Ulcerative Colitis.”
[Ulcerative Colitis is an auto-immune disease that affects your digestive system. It can cause intense inflammation and perpetuating ulcers on the inner lining of your colon and rectum.] Jessica was stopped dead in her tracks.
“I was devastated. I had no idea how to handle it. I’d never had to face something like this before. Once I was diagnosed, I quit cheer, which really was the more heartbreaking part of it. I was making a career out of it. I was going to college to pursue it, everything, then I had to quit. I’d never quit something like that before. It was my life. It was my dream, but I didn’t think I would be able to continue at the level I was now, being sick.”
The outlook was bleak. After her trip to the ER, she was told that her condition was incurable, handed a fistful of medication, and told that surgery to remove parts of her intestines would likely be her fate.
“The first treatment was to start corticosteroids. If any one isn’t familiar, they give you severe mood swings. You can gain weight and develop this symptom called moon face, where your face fills out completely and you grow these big chubby cheeks. It’s awful. For the first 6 months after diagnosis, I was bed ridden — by choice. I went through a really severe depression. As far as my diet was concerned, I could only eat peanut butter and Gatorade, but through all of it, I did gain some weight back.”
Although the steroids did a number to help her regain some health, later research would teach that her dosage was far more than necessary (40-60 milligrams is the usual cap, however, she was taking 90 milligrams while only weighing 95 lbs). Between mood swings that would knock anyone to the ground, anxiety to the degree of causing uncontrollable delusions, the over prescription of her medications proved grueling to adjust to. Over the next 4 years she felt lost.
“I was in denial about my disease. I quite cheer, so I didn’t see the point of going to college and soon dropped out. I started hanging out with the wrong crowd; began drinking a lot. I was of the mindset that if it wasn’t going to go away, why even try.”
She hit rock bottom in 2009. Unemployed and freshly free of an abusive relationship, with someone also suffering from a life altering condition, she managed to break free and moved back home. She felt all hope dwindling.
“I was back in this town, back under 100 lbs., going to the bathroom over 20 times a day and eating, maybe once; lot’s of debilitating pain. I was at my end with it all. My gastroenterologist at that time wasn’t very good. I would ask why we were doing things and he wouldn’t give me any information and made it clear he only wanted me to do what he said because he said it. I was only to listen. But because of my HMO I was stuck with him.”
Feeling without free will, Jessica stopped taking her medication until finally she ended up back in the hospital with a warning… change or die. “I was at the point where I felt like, if this is the rest of my life, then I’m okay with this being the end.” In her darkest hour, Jessica heard about the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation, their upcoming half marathon fundraiser, and half marathon training camp.
“I said, f— it. If I can’t even run a half marathon, THEN I’ll have my answer. I was feeling like such a victim (and ashamed of it), but stuck in a cycle of self-pity, and SO tired of it. This was the last chance I was going to give myself to prove that the rest of my life was worth living.”
During her first marathon practice, she met 10 other people suffering from her disease, wherein before then, she’d met none. Some practices she could only walk but she managed to get up to near fighting weight and complete the half marathon. The Foundation gave her a new lease on life. She had a support crew, people with knowledge and experience in her struggle, and proof that it didn’t have to change who she wanted to be. After that, she would come to finish six more half marathons with them, begin working as a motivational speaker for the foundation, all the way to managing the program.
“ I wanted to be the person I never had when I was diagnosed ”
“I wanted to be the person I never had when I was diagnosed.”
Enter scene, climbing.
Dragged to a local climbing gym by a friend to belay-slave for a day, Jessica was introduced (and wasn’t too taken by her first impression with) to climbing. After posting a photo on social media about her new experience that day, a friend from the foundation said, “Hey, why don’t you come with me and the girls and give it another go. She [the foundation friend] took me into the boulder room and the clouds parted. At this point, being in a harness, I felt very trapped. Not knowing when I’d have to run to the bathroom made me feel really self-conscious. But this… This was different. Bouldering…there were no harnesses, I could jump down if I needed to, no feelings of being trapped. It was really amazing. It was free, and I felt free.”
She was hooked from then on. Finding her flame for movement reignited, she would soon find a home with a select few climbers. “My favorite memory of Forest [current inner circle member] was the first time I saw him climbing. He was traversing along the boulder, back and forth for ages, and his movement was so precise and so fluid, it looked choreographed. I was ready to put money on him being a dancer — I ended up wrong, he was a boxer — but in that moment I saw that same beauty in climbing that I had fallen so in love with in dancing.” It wasn’t until a few months later, while in the midst of an intense flare-up with her disease (and harboring a terrible cough leaving her with muscles sprained and wrapped, up and down her rib cage), Jessica was on her very first Bishop trip. Comparing battle wounds with a couple of acquaintances, at the time, [H, and Savannah—friends of Forest] she shared her journey. Thoroughly impressed and pumped by her attitude to still be out there, H and Savannah tagged along on the rest of her trip and the three became closer friends.
“A few months later my disease took a turn, I was back to losing a pound a day. I was feeling miserable and it was then that my body stopped responding to the medications. I was at work taking another IBD patient to get their colonoscopy done and when we got there, my doctor told me I needed to stay. I told them I was fine and had things I needed to do and would come back later, but they insisted that I stay, so I obliged. The plan was just to monitor me for a couple days, get some fluids, and more effective steroids in me, but three days went by. I was still feeling awful, still losing weight and relatively alone, with occasional visits from the surgeons. They were like, ‘Hey, since we’re here and doing rounds, we thought we would stop by and tell you what your surgical options are, NOT that we think you’re there yet, but just to give you an idea.’ They explained what a total colectomy was, and what living with an ileostomy would be like, and how that could sometimes really benefit people with Ulcerative Colitis. One morning I was fighting to get through a small cup of applesauce and the surgeon popped back in. I said, ‘I’m not sure what you mean by me not being there yet, but I’m ready, let’s do this.’ Relieved to hear me get there on my own, they scheduled me for the next day. I was in surgery for eight hours. They removed my entire large intestine. Turns out, it was paper thin, only days away from rupturing and needing the surgery anyway, but because I had made the choice in time, it didn’t end up an emergency. Because I was lucky, I like to impart on people in similar situations that making the choice while you can, can be so much better than having the choice taken away from you.”
Moments awake from surgery, with her large intestine gone and the addition of an ileostomy bag, she googled ‘climbing with an ileostomy’, found people doing it, and set out to come back stronger and make having a colostomy bag “cool” in the process. Over the course of her recovery she would come to find out who her real friends were.
“I was mostly climbing with a group of girls who I’d become friends with, and after my surgery I reached out, explained what was going on, and they responded unanimously with a, ‘Feel better soon, see you when you’re back on your feet’. That was shocking to me. They were my close friends at the time. I figured I’d reach out to H too, let him and his friends know that I wouldn’t be able to be around for a bit, and his response was, ‘I’ll be at the hospital tomorrow’. At that point, we’d only climbed a handful of times together, we were definitely great acquaintances but I never expected that. He showed up the next day with a laptop full of climbing movies and told me he knew how sucky it was to be stuck in the hospital, so he hung out. And he hung out for a while. I realized then that he was the kind of people I wanted in my life. I was blown away that just some guy, happily in a relationship by the way, would be so eager to help me feel better, when all of the girls I had called close friends weren’t there for me.
But thanks to him, I felt happy to come back to climbing when I was able.”
After a long two months in bed, she was finally back on her feet. Jessica was back to running marathons and climbing. The hospital reached out to schedule Part 2 of her surgery, one that would reattach her plumbing and let her live without an ileostomy bag again. She explained that it was climbing season, that she was doing just fine with her bag, and that she would much rather wait to plan down time when she didn’t have so many things coming up. Shocked by her lack of eagerness to finish the process, the hospital postponed her surgery. With a run in Vegas, Hawaii, and Bishop season all on the horizon, Jessica didn’t have time to get out of her groove. She made it out to Hawaii with her race team, snorkeling with her bag and the sea turtles, back home to train her climbing strength and plan out her post Vegas Bishop trip, then out to run in Vegas when she happened across, yet again, complications. She was feeling very ill and in a great deal of pain, but ready to push through, when her stoma became oddly discolored from its normal healthy pink/red to a dark purple. The race was only hours away when she and her team decided she should just pop into the hospital quickly to clear out the blockage that they thought she had only to learn her lungs were collapsing.
Due to her autoimmune disease’s propensity towards illness, she had developed a spontaneous pnumathorax, a blister in her lung that had popped, causing a collapse. Being rushed into emergency surgery, her coworker called the race to have her mother (who Jessica convinced to stay and run) pulled and informed so she could join her daughter at the hospital right away. When she woke up from yet another surgery, she realized that her ileostomy had saved her life. Without her stoma showing distress, she would have never made it into the hospital when she did and it may have been too late when she realized there was a problem otherwise. A pulmonologist from the hospital came to speak with her after and told her that she would need to stop climbing immediately if she didn’t want to die. Furious with the lack of education that went into this sentencing, and much more experience now with doctors and bedside manner, she made a complaint. Another doctor came in, apologized for his colleague, saying it was out of line and she should absolutely get a second opinion, but she should stay clear of high elevation for about a year. Her upcoming Bishop plans had to be canceled. Her friends at home were, once again, happy to welcome her back and keep her company while she was recovering. A month later, once healed, surgeons performed a second surgery on her lung. Ensuring that she would be able to return to climbing, they would adhere her lung to her rib cage, taking away the potential of future collapses from these blisters. After this surgery she was finally cleared to climb again. She jetted immediately out to the Buttermilks. “I couldn’t pull hard on anything, but I was there.”
Home from the Milks, and finally able to really train for the first time in her climbing career, she was given a regimen to follow, along with The Burrow (a short hand name given to her and her climbing family—made up of friends H, Forrest, Savannah, Dan, Carlos, Kyle, and herself). In a matter of months, she was soaring past her previous accomplishments, climbing harder than she’d ever climbed before. A year later, after climbing through shingles, a hernia, and some abdominal complications, Jessica was in yet another surgery to fix the complications she had and perform Part 3 of 4 to give her a J-pouch and prepare her intestines for her final surgery. Finally, a few months later, went in for surgery #5, to reattach her plumbing finishing her intestinal surgery, and get her out of the operating room for the foreseeable future.
“After my final surgery I was still having some complications, which usually a person with Ulcerative Colitis doesn’t experience once the surgery is finished. We started trouble-shooting for everything they could think of. Climbing had to sideline for another moment. One of the antibiotics they put me on has a side effect of potentially causing tendon ruptures — not good for crimps. We poked and prodded and searched for what could be still going wrong, and a few months later I was finally re-diagnosed, but with Crohn’s Disease, not Ulcerative Colitis.
They had the disease wrong the entire time. It was horribly frustrating, but I knew even though my treatment options might have been different, there was no use looking at what could have been. We started back up with medications and steroids, knowing I would have to take a couple steps back to get myself healthy and in remission.”
After a long battle, Jessica was finally starting to feel normal and healthy again. Back on the rocks, and thankful for the support crew she found in her awesome team of climbing friends, the war between her and her long term health might never be completely over, but she has found a home, and a reason to keep coming back stronger and better each and every time she gets pushed down.
Present day, after healing a pair of post highball slip sprained ankles, Jessica is on a regimen of infusions and a weekly at-home low dose chemo, treating her Crohn’s, (that of course she’s tailored to her climbing schedule rest days) but pushing and crushing as hard as ever with a tick list for the coming season, ready to go down.
It’s easy to have fun and be good at something if the odds have always been on your side, but Jessica’s experience has been an inspiring show of perseverance, sheer willpower, and an unshakeable positive mindset in the face of innumerable forces that could stop anyone dead in their tracks.
You can follow Jessica on instagram at @jibbles713