Playing competitive soccer for most of her 26 years, Dani Foxhoven knows something about pain. Bumps and bruises are routine; rolled ankles are hardly unique. In high school, Dani made a slide tackle to block a shot, the ball fracturing her femur just above the knee (she made a full recovery). Then there’s the pain that has nothing to do with the game, but everything to do with a chronic condition known as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). Diagnosed only a few years ago, Dani recalls having what may have been symptoms in childhood.
“In elementary school I always complained about stomach aches,” says Dani. “And I actually had ulcers, but my parents were very health conscious, and raised my brother and me to eat healthy and take care of our bodies. I think that’s why I did as well as I did as long as I did.”
After racking up local and national awards playing high school soccer, Dani won a scholarship to the University of Portland. While becoming one of the university’s all-time highest scoring players, Dani battled recurrent, debilitating gut pain. She talked to her trainers and school nutritionists, eliminated many foods and learned how to time her eating.
“My weight fluctuated like crazy, but besides pain there wasn’t any way to tell what was going on,” says Dani.
After college Dani was drafted into a professional soccer league that soon folded, which led to her decision to play women’s soccer in Russia. The rigid schedule, controlled diet and stress from being out of touch with family took a major toll on Dani’s health. She came home 20 pounds lighter and with a disturbing new symptom: blood in her stool.
As Dani began her professional U.S. soccer career with the Portland Thorns, she saw a gastroenterologist who suspected ulcerative colitis, a primary form of IBD. At first Dani’s inflammation pattern indicated proctitis, a type of colitis that affects only the rectum. Trying different treatments that should have worked, Dani’s flare-ups still felt out of control. After pushing through a championship season despite strength-sapping pain, Dani was traded to the Seattle Reign in 2013. Desperate to find another doctor, she landed in the Digestive Disease Institute at Virginia Mason (DDI).
At first, Dani’s care was all about tests to look for damage in her digestive tract, and she had it: her disease had spread to her colon. Bleeding had caused Dani’s red blood cells to dip well below normal levels. Gastroenterologist Elisa Boden, MD, knew Dani needed a new strategy.
“The way Dani’s disease spread is fairly rare, but it was important to identify because it changed the treatment plan,” says Dr. Boden. “We combined oral and topical anti-inflammatory compounds, which Dani responded to. Just as she does in her career, she has persevered and worked hard to manage her symptoms so that they don’t get in her way.”
When Dani was sidelined by attacks, Dr. Boden and the DDI team worked to recalibrate her medicines and shorten her downtime. Nutrition therapy boosted Dani’s depleted red blood cell count and iron stores to give her more energy. While Dani admits her IBD has been no easy ride, she credits the collaboration and support from Dr. Boden and the DDI team for not only helping her get better, but for giving her hope that she always could.
“Dr. Boden hit on all aspects of my illness, asking about everything, not just what I felt in my gut,” remembers Dani. “I learned what throws me off course, like being emotionally stressed. I can do things differently. If that doesn’t work I know there’s something new Dr. Boden can try, and I’ll eventually be well again.”