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World IBD Day: Russell Martin on living with Ulcerative Colitis

19 May 2020

Tuesday, May 19, 2020 is World IBD Day, a day that holds significance for former Norwich City captain Russell Martin.

Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) relates to two illnesses – Crohn’s Disease, and Ulcerative Colitis – the latter of which Martin was diagnosed with shortly after joining Norwich City in 2010.

To understand more about his experience and to help raise awareness of the subject, caught up with the now MK Dons manager over video call last week. What was it like when you were initially diagnosed with Ulcerative Colitis in 2010?

RM: It was the club doctor, Nick Wilford, who’s back at the club now which is good to see because he’s a great guy – I went to see him because I was really struggling with it. After training, I was completely wiped out and couldn’t do anything.

In the afternoons, I was either sleeping or on the toilet really. It was pretty unpleasant being on the toilet 20-30 times a day and losing loads of blood. I just felt completely fatigued.

I had just signed as well and was going through moving house, getting used to the club and the demands of it. The size of it was bigger than anywhere else I’ve played in terms of the crowd and the expectation, so it was a tough time.

"We got promoted and I was really enjoying that and the steroids were helping my stomach settle down, but I didn’t enjoy being on that many tablets."

It took quite a while to get diagnosed because we went through all the tests and it was getting worse and worse and I was really struggling, so I had to have all the scans and camera tests done.

When I eventually got diagnosed, it was quite serious and got quite bad, so I was put on a really high dose of medication and steroids, taking about 12 or 18 tablets per day at one point and I wasn’t enjoying that at all.

The manager was good at the time; he said if you can train then train, if you can’t then don’t. In the end I was training but not fully, just kind of ticking over into the last two months of the season, trying to battle through it.

We got promoted and I was really enjoying that and the steroids were helping my stomach settle down, but I didn’t enjoy being on that many tablets.

After that, I had a couple of flare-ups. In 2012, I had quite a serious one and then another one in 2014. They sort of kept coming and going. So how did you initially react to the symptoms? Did you pass it off as a minor illness like many people would do at first?

russ promotion 2010.JPG

RM: I just didn’t have a clue what it was so I researched it a little bit. I probably underestimated it a bit, thinking it was just a bit of IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) or maybe I just had an allergy to something.

The amount of blood I was losing, and I know it’s not a pleasant topic to talk about, was a worry. It was a real concern. I’d become anaemic just from losing so much so then I had to take iron supplements.

It was a pretty scary time. At first, I thought it was maybe just the stress of moving clubs and moving house, but when I actually did the research it became apparent what it was and how serious it could be.

The doctor who finally diagnosed it said it was pretty serious, that my stomach completely ulcerated the colon. I just wanted to know as much as I could about it so I looked to see if anyone I knew had it and if it ran in the family.

Once I realised the severity of it, obviously I wanted to get on top of it as soon as possible. So you had to have a colonoscopy and endoscopy?

RM: Yeah, all of the above! It wasn’t pleasant. I had that at the Spire Norwich Hospital. Doctor Phillips was a great guy and I dealt with him a lot over the years.

"I had a colonoscopy last year and thankfully everything seems okay."

He’s a Norwich fan and I used to see him at games, so that was an interesting one! But yeah, a really good guy.

I had all the tests over two to three months and kept ruling things out. The club were brilliant, really supportive. The club doctor Nick was great and really kept on top of it all.

I went to see Martin Phillips at the Spire Hospital every three months or so and had to have my blood tests done to make sure my inflammatory markers were still normal.

There were times when those would give me a warning that a flare-up was coming. I felt fine, then would have a blood test and see my inflammatory markers were quite high, and then I’d start feeling a bit tired and then all of a sudden a flare-up would come.

The club were brilliant and the guys at the hospital were superb as well. I’ve had three or four colonoscopies now, which aren’t pleasant, but with this condition they have to be done. Now, I have one every three to five years. I had one last year and thankfully everything seems okay. What’s it like to get put to sleep for those?

RM: I don’t! I have a sedative, but it would take too much time out of my day if I get put to sleep! A sedative will do me fine. We can imagine that’s quite uncomfortable!

RM: It depends if the person doing it likes football! If he does, we’ll have a chat. Otherwise, it’s just an awkward silence!

russ throw.jpg Nowadays, your focus is mainly on your diet and avoiding certain foods, right?

RM: Yeah, I’ve had three serious bouts of it and the last one scared me quite a bit, just because it was really affecting me physically.

I was playing football at times and didn’t want to come out and say ‘I’m struggling with this and that’ because it almost sounds like you’re making excuses for things.

I went to see a specialist in London just to have a chat about the options and one of them was surgical. I didn’t want that. I’d been away with the Scotland squad and spoken to Darren Fletcher [diagnosed in 2011] about it and his was really serious. He’d had surgery and ended up nearly two years out of the game. It would have been a long time out for me and a long way back.

That really shook me, so I decided to look into alternative therapies, acupuncture, Chinese medicine, Chinese herbs, all sorts of alternative stuff.

Everyone I saw basically said all of that’s great but you also need to have a look at your diet, so again, through the club I got tested for everything – my blood, my hair, my saliva – for allergies and what food would maybe ignite a flare-up.

I had different supplements to the rest of the guys that didn’t have stuff that might harm my stomach, so the club were really supportive with that.

"All the lads used to laugh at it and stuff, and I guess it was funny because I didn’t understand the severity of it."

In the end, I decided to strip it back with the diet and just cut everything out starting with dairy and meat, then got gradually better. Fortunately, it’s worked for me so far. How did your teammates at Norwich react when you told them about it?

RM: When I first got diagnosed, I’d literally be having to run in from training. We’d be playing a game and I’d just sprint in. It was like ‘what is he doing, what’s he up to?’ I just had to tell them when I needed to go I needed to go.

I remember being on the far side of Colney one day and we were doing an old school twelve minute jog around the whole of Colney just to get warmed up, and at that point there was a massive mound of grass and I remember needing to so badly I had to run behind there! I didn’t have a choice, it was terrible.

All the lads used to laugh at it and stuff, and I guess it was funny because I didn’t understand the severity of it then, but they were great and just got on with it. They’d batter me for a being a weirdo with my diet and stuff like that, but they understood the reason behind it and why I was doing it all. It’s important to be able to talk about it openly as these illnesses are perhaps more common than people think.

RM: Yeah, I think so. Since then, the amount of people who have written to me on social media or letters to the club to say that they were struggling with Crohn’s or Colitis for any tips I could offer them, it’s different for everyone and that’s the difficult thing.

russ leading.jpg

What works for me might not work for someone else and vice versa, so I’ve always tried to support the Crohn’s & Colitis UK charity as much as possible because it’s not a nice topic for a lot of people to talk about.

A lot of people are suffering with it in silence because they don’t feel comfortable talking about it. I’ve got no problem talking about it. It’s not pleasant and people probably don’t want to hear it, but I think it’s important to raise the awareness of it because it is a lot more common than people think.

A lot of people really struggle with it or just write it off as IBS or that they have an intolerance to certain foods, then they leave it too late and by the time they actually get it sorted it’s quite a way down the line.

It’s something that I’ve really tried to support, and I’ve been an ambassador for C&CUK for a number of years. I constantly get messages from people who are either playing football or want to play football, trying to get back to fitness.

Also, there are football fans who have said ‘thanks for helping raise awareness of this. I really struggle with it’. I count myself lucky really, if you look how severe it can be with some people. It’s life threatening in certain cases and it completely alters the way people have to live their lives.

They have to be conscious of where a toilet is. Some people have stomas, so it’s really serious and one of those things people don’t want to talk about or see as serious as maybe it is.

"Hopefully, people are listening to the advice, staying safe and staying healthy." It’s obviously a difficult time for everyone at the moment, but particularly those whose medication might put them at a higher risk of being affected by coronavirus. The Crohn’s & Colitis UK charity is still picking up the phone and responding to emails to offer support where people need it isn’t it?

RM: Yeah, I spoke to some of the guys there two weeks ago and they’re just trying to make sure that people are okay. It’s an auto immune disease so it does put people more at risk.

I had a couple of messages myself from people with severe cases of Crohn’s who can’t go out and have been told to isolate for 12 weeks minimum. Obviously, that makes things really difficult for a lot of people.

The charity are brilliant at what they do. It’s a really difficult time for all charities at the moment because their fundraising activities have stopped, so they’re trying to be creative to find other ways of raising money and supporting people.

They’re excellent and support a lot of people going through tough stuff. My mum is constantly telling me when I have to go shopping to put on a mask, because it does attack your immune system, so it has affected me over the years in terms of getting other illnesses.

Hopefully, people are listening to the advice, staying safe and staying healthy.

rus MK DONS Cropped.jpg Finally, being a football manager must be a very stressful job so how are you coping nowadays?

RM: I’m really enjoying it. It’s come quickly and I haven’t really had time to reflect. I’ve just sort of rolled with the punches and gone with it.

I’m really conscious to try to keep myself healthy to make sure I maintain my physical fitness, although probably not to the level it was as a player, but for my mental and physical wellbeing, it’s really important to find some time every day to do something for myself.

That might be taking an hour out to chill out and read a book a bit or getting up earlier and going for a big run, jumping on the bike or doing a weights session, it’s really important to find that balance.

For the first six or seven weeks of the job, I didn’t do that. I felt like I didn’t have time and it was so intense, but it really affected me. I found myself feeling like I hadn’t done anything for my own wellbeing at the end of the day.

After 20 years of completely torturing my body physically, it’s at a different pace now but it’s something I need to do because I enjoy it and it’s important for my wellbeing.

Russell is an ambassador for Crohn’s & Colitis UK. To find out more about the charity and the support it provides, click here.

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