When I was little, I had a lilac-purple colored bicycle. There were shiny streamers at the ends of the white handlebars, which would often catch the wind as I rode through a field near our house, my parents cheering and running behind me holding tight to the lip of the seat. Having gotten used to the stable comfort of riding my tricycle around our quiet suburban cul-de-sac, I remember feeling both terrified and thrilled at the expanse of the field and my ‘big girl’ two-wheeler. Learning to ride my bike – like most things in life – was a skill that required a lot of technical and emotional support from others, and a belief that I could do it.
A few months before I graduated high school at 17, I went to the hospital with my Mom for the so-called “transition appointment.” We had been sheltered and insulated in the pediatric world, full of pastel-colored murals, teddy bears, and bandages that were cut into heart shapes. The adult medical world was cryptic and distant – a new building, new doctors, new nurses, new everything. While everyone was perfectly polite, the transition appointment consisted of being told which adult doctor I was going to see and when/where I had to show up; there were no choices, no decisions, no questions. And there was no road-map for how to get from point A (pediatric care) to point B (adult care).
There are two important concepts that often get conflated: transition is the careful, premeditated, and inclusive process of educating and empowering an individual to be responsible for one’s health, while transfer is the physical change of moving to a new medical facility (e.g., pediatric to adult hospital). Transition is the meaningful process of gaining and growing skills like medical literacy, advocacy, adherence strategies, and so on. It requires a team of people (patient, parent, pediatric and adult doctors, nurses, etc.) working together to empower the patient. It’s the difference between learning to ride that little purple bike in a big field with lots of support versus just being given the bike with no guidance about how to use it.
According to Dr. Michele Maddux, a clinical psychologist at Children’s Mercy Hospital, who helped develop their transition program, Mercy’s efforts had previously involved transferring medical records and, “finding an adult provider, with significantly less focus on equipping adolescent patients with the tools and skills needed to successfully manage their health care needs.” Seeing this gap, Dr. Maddux and a dedicated transition task-force set out to create a holistic transition program that managed the clinical issues while taking lifestyle matters and family perspectives into account. They started by interviewing each of the pediatric gastroenterologists (GIs) on service to ensure physician engagement in the project and to capture their unique perspectives. They also created a GI roundtable and invited pediatric and adult GIs to have transparent conversations about transition. This resulted in a provider database and helped to dispel some of the myths that pediatric and adult GIs had about each other. The success of the roundtable and the transition task-force’s efforts culminated in the hiring of a transition coordinator and the development of a transition readiness screener for patients as well as educational materials for patients and families undergoing transition. The educational materials were vetted by Mercy’s general parent and teen advisory boards (i.e., not IBD specific) and by parents of children living with IBD.
Cue Jamie Hicks – a perfect fit into the role given her nursing background and a busy mom of three, including 10-year-old Colson who lives with Crohn’s. Prior to reviewing the transition materials, Jamie said, “[i]t simply wasn’t on my radar… I think of him growing up and how the disease will impact his future. But I never linked that to him taking over my ‘job’ as the manager of his health care.” Jamie praised the educational materials as “fantastic”, underscoring the importance of a defined direction and plan over guessing and uncertainty. Jamie’s main contributions were adjusting the material’s language, which she believes can have a large impact on how the information is received and understood by kids and families. According to Dr. Maddux, “Jamie brought a much needed patient/family voice to our materials that gave us a unique opportunity to craft our educational materials to meet the needs of families.”
Both Dr. Maddux and Jamie reiterate the vital importance of creating space for parents in research projects. Dr. Maddux pointed to the language and format changes as key edits that would have gone unaddressed without parent and patient engagement. Jamie addressed the critical role parents play as the people who most intimately understand their children beyond the clinic by helping to appropriately tailor educational materials and provide ‘behind the scenes’ information about children’s motivations and worries. Similarly, they are both passionate about transition being relationship-based and starting as early as possible so the changes in medical responsibility are empowering and fitting for each child and familial situation.
We may not have a cure for IBD, but thanks to the insight and persistence of Dr. Maddux’s team and parents like Jamie, it is possible to implement a comprehensive, team-based transition program that prepares young patients with IBD to manage their own care. We can give our patients the encouragement, support, and information they need to ‘ride their bikes’ with strength and confidence.
After dozens of tries back in that field on my purple bicycle, I finally pushed off the ground, my feet finding the pedals and my eyes trained on the horizon, newly sturdy and sure of myself, and off I went pedaling across the field as my parents clapped and whistled. It hadn’t been easy, but I did it.
And together, we can make sure all of our kids can do it too.