​Soldiering on with Crohn's disease

Len Hardt, Crohn's disease patient, with his wife and grandkids
Len and Colleen Hardt with their granddaughters, Genevieve, 2, and Isabel, 4.

In 1970, 13-year-old Len Hardt was looking forward to playing football in high school. But stomach problems and weight loss kept the South Side teenager on the sidelines. His parents took him to several doctors. Test after test was done. But without a correct diagnosis, treatments were ineffective.

“My neighbor in Midlothian — a retired Chicago cop who worked as a security guard on the University of Chicago medical campus — told me I should see Dr. Joseph Kirsner,’” Len said. “This was the beginning of decades of care by leading UChicago Medicine doctors.”

Kirsner, an internationally known expert in gastrointestinal disorders who passed away in 2012, diagnosed Len with Crohn’s disease, a type of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). After a six-week hospitalization, Len continued on a course of oral steroids to suppress inflammation. “The difference was remarkable,” he said.

But throughout his teen and adult years, living and coping with Crohn’s, as well as related and unrelated medical issues, presented Len with many considerable challenges — flare-ups, complications, several surgeries and long hospitalizations.

Len Hardt, lifelong Crohn's disease patient at UChicago Medicine, enjoys his toy solider hobby
Len Hardt sets up a toy soldier diorama at the Chicago Toy Soldier Show.

UChicago Medicine doctors were always ready. When Len came to the hospital with a high fever after swimming in a creek, his medical team identified and treated a life-threatening bacterial infection. In another instance, a careful physical exam revealed early signs of shingles before symptoms appeared. And Len benefited from the significant advances made in the understanding and treatment of IBD over the years.

“All along the way, Len’s care team tweaked and worked with us to help him have a normal life,” said his wife, Colleen, who met her future husband in a high school drama class.

‘Proud to be his village’

Among the experts managing his care: gastroenterologists, hepatologists (liver specialists), gastrointestinal surgeons, nutrition specialists, advanced practice nurses, ostomy specialists and social workers.

Len is the embodiment of "it takes a village" to manage Crohn’s disease. We are proud to have been his 'village.'

“Len has done exceptionally well in spite of having had severe Crohn’s disease diagnosed in an era when there were very limited treatment options,” said David Rubin, MD, co-director of the Digestive Diseases Center and an authority on IBD. “His long-standing good health is the result of teamwork involving many different groups providing detail-oriented care and access to state-of-the-art management approaches.”

Today, Rubin, who trained under Kirsner, co-manages Len’s care with gastroenterologist Carol Semrad, MD, an expert on nutrition management for patients with Crohn’s and other disorders of the digestive system.

“Len is the embodiment of “it takes a village” to manage Crohn’s disease,” Rubin said. “We are proud to have been his ‘village.’”

‘Going and going’

Now married for almost four decades, Len and Colleen have two children and two grandchildren. The 62-year-old retired schoolteacher is an associate pastor for his church, where he sometimes counsels young people with Crohn’s. He also collects and exhibits toy soldiers, a hobby he started when he was a little boy.

“I never thought I’d see 50,” Len said. “My wife and I are so grateful for the team at UChicago Medicine.”

Colleen added, “What is often remarkable is that people don’t know that Len has Crohn’s. Look what he has done in his life. He is all about going and going.”

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David T. Rubin, MD

David T. Rubin, MD

Dr. Rubin specializes in the treatment of digestive diseases. His expertise includes inflammatory bowel diseases (Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis) and high-risk cancer syndromes.

See Dr. Rubin's physician bio
Carol Semrad MD

Carol Semrad, MD

Carol Semrad, MD, is a gastroenterologist, specializing in small bowel diseases (celiac disease, diarrhea, malabsorption) and nutrition. She is an expert on nutrition management for patients with Crohn’s and other disorders of the digestive system.

See Dr. Semrad's bio