Naji Balche wants to talk about inflammatory bowel disease. He was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis — inflammation of the inner lining of the colon — when he was 14. He didn't understand what it meant for his own body.
Seven years later, the fourth-year sociology student is working to help people learn about the symptoms affecting hundreds of thousands of Canadians, which can be otherwise invisible to people without the disease. His work garnered him a national scholarship for students living with colitis and Crohn's, a similar disease, which awards $5,000 to 10 Canadians. Two-hundred seventy people applied for the scholarship.
Inflammatory bowel disease is a constellation of symptoms attributable to Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis, inflammations of the digestive tract that include abdominal pain, weight loss, fatigue, internal bleeding and diarrhea. It affects 1 in 150 Canadians.
"I never get upset about diagnoses and stuff," Naji says. "For me, I still keep the same mindset before and after."
Because the symptoms can be embarrassing, people living with these conditions often don't talk about them, creating a visibility problem for the disease. It's also difficult to convey a particular case of Crohn's or colitis because they can be so unique: Naji's diet and condition are different than anyone else's who has the condition.
This variation makes the conditions hard to diagnose, but Naji says he was lucky. His specialist knew within one hour that he had ulcerative colitis. This was in 2011, when he was in Grade 9, and he started to learn what the condition meant for his own and others' lives.
Colitis forces Naji to go through school with the constant worry of keeping himself healthy. Stress is a common aggravating factor for people living with IBD, so difficult times like exams are made even worse. Naji is a full-time student at King's University College and a server at the London Club. He also coaches high school sports.
This year, he founded a Crohn's and Colitis advocacy club at Western. With Clubs Week over, he hopes to start his meetings with 30 to 40 people. He has plenty of ideas for what he wants to do: next semester, he wants to host a basketball tournament (one of the sports he coaches) to raise awareness about Crohn's and colitis. He's been in touch with the Second City, a famed comedy troupe, to inquire about inviting them for a potential appearance at a club event. He's also working with an organizer of OneRun to host a fair and a charity walk in Victoria Park next year.
Naji has always been a people person. Before his diagnosis, he volunteered for the Canadian Cancer Society, but much of his work since has been for IBD awareness.
"My diagnosis helped me shift my volunteering into an area I find more fulfilling," he says.
Naji plans on applying to Western's Faculty of Education next year. If he does, he would keep running the club while doing his post-grad. But in its first year, he's already accomplished something he's proud of.
"If I saw this in first-year, I'd be really excited," he says. "I wish I had started it earlier."
Correction (2:20 p.m., September 25): An earlier version of this story mistakenly conflated inflammatory bowel disease with irritable bowel syndrome. The Gazette regrets this error.