GISI Creates Outlet for Support and Advocacy

May 11th, 2011

Monika Johnson

"One in 200 people nationwide has a gastrointestinal (GI) syndrome, so chances are you know someone who has one," said graduating senior Alyse B.

When Alyse was a high school freshman, she was diagnosed with Crohn's disease. "I didn't know anyone else who could relate," she said. Seeking to find others with similar experiences, she and senior David F. founded the Gastrointestinal Student Initiative (GISI) in January 2010 to connect college students with GI problems. "This group was my first opportunity to be with people who had shared the experience," she added.

With the trifold mission of providing support, education, and fundriaising for research, the three semester-old group is finding creative ways to discuss and raise awareness for all sorts of GI syndromes, including Crohn's Disease, Colitis, and IBD.

Working closely with the RCPD Chronic Health Specialist, Shani Feyen, the original small team of students crafted an initiative which would take them in several directions. "Shani has taken a very active role and is always there with good advice and a helping hand," said David.

The first goal of the group at its inception was support-based, and a small group of five to eight students gathered to discuss their shared experiences and obstacles they face as students. "We talk about things like the best bathroom and cafeteria on campus," said David. "You don't know that many people, besides family, who you can confide in. We all come from the same experience, and it's like a safe space," added Alyse.

GISI students enjoy the sun as they join the Take Steps walk in May 2010.

The group's membership is diverse, as Alyse majored in Spanish and David studied Human Biology, Psychology, and Health Studies. They also invite those interested in learning about GI issues to join. "Some people come who don't have GI problems- it's a great place to ask questions, and most people are very open," said Alyse.

"Not every meeting do we sit around and talk about what's wrong with us, though!" she said, "Sometimes we just discuss what's going on in our lives." Many of Alyse's closest friends have joined the group, and she believes it was one of the most impactful experiences of her college career.

David, who works in four different research labs on campus exploring GI issues, wanted to introduce an aspect of education to the group, so he helped organize medical professionals to speak to the students. "We've explored both the physiological and psychological aspects of the disease," said David, who plans to pursue a medical degree in gastroenterology.

"I shadowed GI doctors, and saw everything most people in the group are going through from a medical perspective. It's eye-opening to see it from a personal level," said David.

GISI's third focus involves public affairs, and the group hopes to instigate change in several areas in the coming year. In 2008, legislation opening up bathroom usage policies in restaurants was passed across the country in order to aid those with GI disorders. Known in Michigan as House Bill 5046, the Restroom Access Act grants access to employee-only restrooms, in places such as restaurants and retail establishments, to those with a prescription statement indicating he or she is affected by Crohn's disease, ulcerative colitis, any other inflammatory bowel disease, irritable bowel syndrome, or any other medical condition that requires urgent access to a restroom.  GISI hopes to expand the new regulations to cafeterias on campus, a change which would significantly aid those with GI disorders.

The group is also advocating for higher nutritional standards in MSU cafeterias. "When I lived in the dorms, I was on a low-residue diet and couldn't eat things like raw fruits and vegetables in dorms, and a lot of the other staples for everyone else like the salad bar," said Alyse. She believes newly renovated cafeterias, which include many more options for students with dietary restrictions, are a step in the right direction away from the standard of fried and unhealthy food.

As the goals and accomplishments of GISI continue to expand, David and Alyse hope MSU students gain more awareness for the prevalent problem of GI disorders. "These issues aren't going away-in fact, they're increasing. There is a lot of research left to be done, and it's vital at a massive research institution like MSU that a group like this exists," said David.

In May, GISI will walk in the Taking Steps Walk for the second year to support the Crohn's and Colitis Foundation of America. To support their group at the walk on May 15, click here. To learn more, join the facebook group here.