Bouts and illness
Local woman overcomes ulcerative colitis and surgery to get rough with Nor Cal Roller Girls
With seconds left in the roller derby match, Chico’s Nor Cal Roller Girls were trailing the Merced Rollin Roulettes by a score of 156-154.
Nor Cal’s only player eligible to score—called a jammer—was Gretchen Lightcap. On the final play, or jam, she jostled past four Roulettes in their race around the track, thereby scoring 4 points and taking the lead for good.
Lightcap’s husband, Phil McLachlan, was ecstatic. “The game was awesome,” he said of the match. “Me and the kids were screaming off to the side.”
Not bad for Lightcap’s first roller derby bout, and, in fact, her first competitive game of any sort. But it was especially impressive considering that less than two years ago, the 34-year-old wife and mother of two boys, ages 5 and 7, had her entire colon removed due to a disease with no known cure.
In her early 20s, Lightcap began having symptoms of what was later diagnosed as ulcerative colitis, which causes ulcers and inflammation in the digestive tract. There are a wide range of symptoms, the most common of which are abdominal pain and cramping and diarrhea. Anemia also can set in, causing extreme fatigue and weakness.
“Before my surgery, I wouldn’t want to eat or exercise, because that would make me dizzy and want to go to the bathroom,” she said.
Eventually the symptoms became unbearable.
“I would sit on the toilet in pain, passing blood every time,” Lightcap said. “The urge to go would sometimes never stop.” She’d spend entire nights in the bathroom, a pillow on the floor and warm water in tub so she could rest between episodes.
Lightcap was incapacitated with the illness off and on for eight years, she said. Early on, she became depressed and entertained suicidal thoughts; she still takes antidepressant medication.
Lightcap got her official diagnosis at age 25, while she was studying botany and environmental biology at Humboldt State. But she decided to put off the most drastic treatment option—total colectomy surgery, or the complete removal of the colon.
She’d read horror stories about the operation—complications can include abdominal blood clots, injury to other organs and leakage due to improper reconnection of the intestine—and was terrified herself. So she tried to cure the problem by means short of surgery, and the results were unpleasant.
“The smoothies and raw foods made me really sick for six months,” Lightcap recalled.
She also tried the Specific Carbohydrate Diet, eating mostly lean meats and vegetables and eliminating grains and dairy. The recommended fruits and nuts were too painful for her system, she said. She subsequently became so sick that, in the first three months of her first pregnancy, she lost 30 pounds; she weighed 120 pounds to begin with.
Nearing her last resort, Lightcap took injections of Remicade, a prescription drug that suppresses the immune system. Soon after beginning that treatment, a lump appeared on her neck that grew to the size of a golf ball.
A doctor in Arcata suspected the lump might be cancerous; if so, it could kill her within six months. Lightcap’s husband, McLachlan, said he began mentally bracing for life without her. But further diagnosis revealed the tumor was benign, and it was removed without complication.
At that point Lightcap, then 32, decided to have the total colectomy surgery. “My symptoms were extremely bad and my kids were getting older,” she said, “so I felt that my colon was not worth saving.”
She was given two options. The first was to wear a colostomy bag, which is worn outside the body and collects waste. She declined because of her desire to play contact sports.
“I wanted to branch out and play roller derby, so that was out,” Lightcap said.
The second option was an ileo-anal pouch procedure, which reshapes the small intestine to serve the purpose of the large intestine removed during the colectomy.
But the procedure, performed at UC San Francisco Medical Center, was arduous, requiring two painful surgeries in late 2012. The first removed her colon and the second reformed her small intestine. Fortunately, none of the feared complications affected Lightcap.
Following her recovery, Lightcap’s friends discouraged her from joining Chico’s roller derby team, warning of the sport’s physical demands and telling her “they’re going to kill you.”
When she joined the team in January, she didn’t tell her teammates about her condition or surgery until co-captain Shannon Simmons complained of her own digestive problems.
Lightcap is glad she made the decision to play.
“These seven months of roller derby challenged me physically and mentally, and made me realize I could be more than just ‘not sick,’” she said.
That’s not to say she hasn’t had issues.
“I have to go to the bathroom a lot and must learn to have control,” she said. “But it’s like, ‘Oh my God, I don’t sit in the bathroom crying from pain anymore.’ So, how can I complain?”