January 2002: Rebuilding a Body and Making a Life

Rebuilding a body and making a life; Debilitating bowel disease can't stop 42-year-old athlete from giving his all
4 January 2002 – Toronto Star

By Morgan Campbell

The old man is at it again. On a black rubber track encircling the bleachers above a Mississauga ice rink, 42-year old Glenn Chipkar is getting the best of a group of teenage athletes.

First, he dusts them in a 40-metre shuttle run. Minutes later, he bests them again in a mini obstacle course.

That Chipkar wins races in training shouldn’t surprise you. He’s the reigning national champion for his age group in the 110- and 400-metre hurdles.

As you watch Chipkar blaze through a series of 30-metre sprints, the surprise is simply that he can spend two hours on the track without once running to a toilet, clutching his stomach in pain, or bleeding through the seat of his pants.

For the last 20 years, Chipkar, a real estate agent, has suffered from an inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) called ulcerative colitis. The disease, which also afflicts Toronto Maple Leafs forward Shayne Corson, causes frequent bowel movements, diarrhea and bleeding from the rectum. Inflammatory bowel diseases – including ileitis, colitis and Crohn’s disease – have no cure.

“I used to live in a 21st-floor apartment at Bloor and Dixie,” says Chipkar, his chest still heaving after yet another sprint. “I thought about taking a one-and-a-half (somersault) off the balcony. That’s how bad it got.”

Chipkar was a 22-year-old pre-med student at the University of Western Ontario when he first noticed blood in the toilet bowl after a bowel movement.

He tells a series of stories to illustrate how the quality of his life deteriorated over the next decade.

Once, while sitting in a girlfriend’s living room, he stood up and realized the blood had seeped through the seat of his pants and smeared her white leather couch.

He had to abandon another date on a downtown street when the urge to have a bowel movement grew too intense. Unable to find a public bathroom, Chipkar ducked in to an alley and relieved himself.
“I was trying to date, trying to live a normal life, but I didn’t have a life in my 20s and 30s,” Chipkar says.

Because food passed through him so quickly, and because bowel movements caused so much pain and bleeding, Chipkar began to eat less and less. He says he spent many evenings lying on the floor of his apartment because he lacked the energy to sit up or move around.

Chipkar, who stands 5 foot 9 and weighs a muscular 160 pounds, says his weight dropped below 130. He can’t tell how much weight he lost because as the colitis worsened, he grew too ashamed to step on a scale, too disgusted with his emaciated frame to look into a mirror.

According to the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of Canada, about 100,000 Canadians suffer from an inflammatory bowel disease. Because these diseases have no cure, people who have them usually try to limit the symptoms through medication. Often, they have surgery to remove the diseased sections of intestine.

Chipkar started with drugs, but they couldn’t control his bleeding. From 1981 through 1993, every doctor Chipkar saw urged him to have the surgery and to take anti-inflammatory steroids. The operation would force him to use a colostomy bag for the rest of his life, but the doctors told Chipkar it would alleviate the bleeding.

Repeatedly, Chipkar refused.

“I know this sounds vain, but I wanted to date pretty girls; I wanted to have a normal life,” Chipkar says. “I didn’t want to be put in a bag and I didn’t want the side effects of steroids.”

Chipkar was a sick man in 1994, when he first Dr. Gordon Greenberg, a gastroenterologist at Mount Sinai Hospital. “It’s tough to compare cases of IBD, but Glenn’s colitis was quite active,” Greenberg says.

Still, Greenberg didn’t reach for his scalpel the first time he met Chipkar. “We see people with IBD and sometimes we can make some suggestions that prove to be useful in helping them avoid surgery,” Greenberg says. “That seemed to be the case here.”

Greenberg added a drug called Salofalk, applied in an enema, to the oral drug, Asacol, his patient was already taking.

Shortly after Chipkar was diagnosed with colitis, he began to research ways to heal himself. “I used myself as a guinea pig,” he recalls. For 12 years, he experimented with various diets and herbal therapies. After meeting Greenberg, Chipkar settled on a diet that emphasized vegetables, fruit and fish, eaten at specific intervals to ease digestion.

The new combination of drugs and diet worked.

As the months passed, Chipkar bled less. Able to eat more and exercise more intensely, he gained 25 pounds of muscle in the year after he met Greenberg.

“With a little change in medication, Glenn took on the diet and exercise by himself,” Greenberg says. “He feels those things helped him improve and I’m sure that’s the case. He’s been well for a long time.”

By the spring of 1995, with his colitis in remission, Chipkar decided that exercise alone was boring. He needed to compete. So he called Marc Christie, who coaches the Mississauga Track and Field Club, and asked if he could work out.

“He was in great shape (but) he’d never been trained before,” Christie recalls. “We had to teach him how to use the (starting) blocks.”

Chipkar says that in his first season running track, he “lost every race and pulled every muscle.” But instead of quitting, he stuck with the track club, where most of the members are teenagers. The next year, he was keeping up with the kids and beating most people his own age.

Last spring, he won six gold medals at the Master’s National Championships in Victoria, B.C. His personal best time of 59.7 seconds in the 400-metre hurdles ranks him sixth in the world for his age group.

Occasionally, Chipkar would have to sprint from the track to the bathroom during practice, but his younger teammates never noticed. All they saw was how hard he worked.

“It was a while before we knew he had colitis,” Christie says. “He was always driven to compete (so) he didn’t let things like that bother him. He was an inspiration to the younger guys.”

Chipkar hopes his athletic success inspires other people with IBD. He runs a Web site http://www.chipkar.com where he sells a video that details the diet he has used to keep his colitis in remission.

But Chipkar says he gives away more copies of his video than he sells. The payoff, he says, is in reaching people with IBD.

“It’s hard to be happy all the time when there are other people with this disease,” he says.

Copyright ©2002 Toronto Star

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