Celiac disease: Medical student shares his story

Celiac disease: Medical student shares his story

By Kelly Roncace, South Jersey Times

When Sam Master was 15, he was told he could never eat pizza again.

Even though the teen had no symptoms, he was diagnosed with celiac disease - an autoimmune condition that causes the patient's body to recognize wheat gluten as poison.

"As any teenager, you don't want to deal with any changes, so initially there was an adjustment period," said Master, now 26 and a fourth-year medical student at Rowan School of Osteopathic Medicine. "The easiest way for me to deal with it was to learn about it."

And that's just what he did.

The summer after he was diagnosed with the genetic disease, Master began working for the doctor who discovered the boy's condition.

"I did mostly filing, shadowing him, and watching him interact with the patients," he said. "That's what got me interested in medicine to begin with."

Master recently co-wrote a blog entry on Philly.com describing his 11-year journey with celiac disease. Last year, Master was lead author on a research article about celiac. And as a medical student, Master has been able to help countless people on their journey to being gluten free due to celiac disease.

Dr. Donald McMahon, a gastroenterologist at RowanSOM, said, in a person who has celiac disease, the body sees gluten - a protein found in wheat - as a foreign substance.

"When you take it in, it's like you're attacking your own intestines," McMahon said.

McMahon explained people with celiac disease have an antibody that is designed to protect the body from foreign invaders. This causes the patient's immune system to attack the intestinal lining, causing inflammation in the intestines and damage to the villi - hair-like structures in the lining of the small intestine.

"No one knows why some people have it and some don't," McMahon said.

Master, who has purposely not eaten gluten for 11 years, said the recent spike in wide-spread understanding of the disease is a "double-edged sword."

"Now I can go out and not get as many weird looks when I ask questions, and most grocery stores have gluten-free food," he said. "The alternative is, because it's grown in popularity, not everyone takes it as seriously as they should."

Master said going out to restaurants can be tricky because a dish that may be listed as gluten free, isn't always safe.

"If fries are cooked in the same oil that just cooked onion rings, they aren't gluten free," he said. "I don't have a sensitivity to gluten, I have celiac disease."

McMahon said celiac can present itself in many different ways.

"The most common (symptom) is malabsorption and iron deficiency," he said. "And diarrhea, but three out of 10 people have iron deficiency."

The iron deficiency occurs because when the villi in the small intestine are damaged, nutrients can't be absorbed properly into the body.

Master said going through high school and college on a gluten-free diet was tough, but he has gotten into a routine and it has become his lifestyle.

"When I go out with my friends or to a restaurant, it still requires some thought and asking questions, even if it means calling the restaurant ahead of time," he said. "It's doable. You just have to be OK with the fact that it may be inconvenient."

Master will graduate with a medical degree in May, start a residency this summer, and plans to go into pediatrics.

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Date Published: Monday, January 26, 2015 - 15:00
Source URL: South Jersey Times