Kelli Morgan McHugh is an operatic soprano, an Associate Professor of Instruction in Music Theatre, and vocal coordinator for the Music Theatre Certificate Program at Northwestern University. Growing up in Acworth, Georgia, Prof. McHugh was the first person in her family to go to college, where she double majored in music education and theater. She had always been a singer, especially at church.
“My family is very musical,” says Prof. McHugh. “They’re like the Osmonds of the Southern Baptist Church… they’re crazy, but they all can sing, every single one of them. There are so many music ministers, and my dad, he toured around with his brothers and sisters to churches growing up. Singing was what we did together.”
But unlike everyone else in her family, Prof. McHugh always had GI symptoms far worse than the occasional stomach bug. “I have always had stomach aches—really bad stomach aches. I’d always had them in high school, but no one else in my family had any sort of GI problems, so I just ignored it,” says Prof. McHugh.
In 2006, when she was 26, and performing in Hello Dolly!, she shared some of her struggles with a fellow actor friend who happened to have Crohn’s disease. Her friend urged her to seek help from a gastroenterologist.
“I was like, I’m bleeding, I’m suffering, I’m losing weight, and I’m not eating. And he diagnosed me with ulcerative colitis. I took Asacol (mesalamine) and later Imuran (azathioprine) for years, and they worked for me,” explains Prof. McHugh.
After her first physician retired, Prof. McHugh had a healthy pregnancy, but following the birth of her first child, her symptoms returned, and were much worse.
“I was that person breastfeeding on the toilet. I was bleeding everywhere,” says Prof. McHugh.
Struggling with caring for a newborn and flaring ulcerative colitis, Prof. McHugh sought care at another Chicago academic medical center, and started a regimen of biologic medication. But her symptoms never fully resolved, despite months of prednisone with myriad compromising side effects.
In 2017, following her second pregnancy, her disease flared again. This time, Prof. McHugh made an appointment with Sushila Dalal, MD, Assistant Professor of Medicine at the University of Chicago Medicine Inflammatory Bowel Disease Center.
“In the end, it turned out I really needed more medicine,” explained Prof. McHugh. To bring her into lasting remission, Nurse Linda Kulig, RN and Dr. Dalal, helped Prof. McHugh begin a regimen of topical corticosteroid treatments and more frequent doses of biologic medications [adalimumab, and later, ustekimumab]. Prof. McHugh’s symptoms resolved within weeks.
“I was better in a month. After nine months of feeling terrible on prednisone, Dr. Dalal had me feeling better in one month. She’s the best.”
What advice does Prof. McHugh have for other IBD patients who may be struggling? Get expert help early, and don’t settle for ‘just okay.’
Explains Prof. McHugh, “In hindsight, I’m a person who is always going go to get up, take care of my kids, go to work… I’m going put on some lipstick and I’m going to do my best. But maybe part of the psychology of [a digestive disease], an invisible disease, is that people are accustomed to hiding it. But you have to get past that. I wish I’d gone to [Dr. Dalal], and that I had trusted my gut sooner about not getting the right care.”
Now happy and healthy, Prof. McHugh delights in raising her two boys, Jack and Miller, and her thriving career, which will include more high notes as Chicago theater reopens after Covid.
“I do feel so lucky,” says Prof. McHugh. “And I am so grateful.”