Striking a Chord for Crohn’s Disease Research

As a member of the band Pearl Jam, the guitarist Mike McCready has played a good number of memorable concerts, but a recent show in Portland, Ore., hit especially close to home. The July 20 concert, at which Pearl Jam shared the stage with the indie-rock trio Sleater-Kinney and the comedian David Cross, was a benefit for the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of America; McCready himself suffers from Crohn’s disease, a digestive disorder that afflicts an estimated 500,000 Americans.

McCready, who has struggled with the disease for more than 20 years, made his battle public in 2003. Since then, he and his wife, Ashley O’Connor, have organized events and raised money for the CCFA.

Discovered by Dr. Burrill Crohn in 1932, Crohn’s, an inflammatory bowel disease similar to ulcerative colitis, is a chronic disorder that manifests itself as inflammation throughout the digestive or gastrointestinal tract. It can be found anywhere between the mouth and the anus, although it appears most commonly in the small intestine and colon. Crohn’s is four to five times more likely to occur in Ashkenazic Jews than in the general population.

McCready’s struggle with Crohn’s began in 1986, when he was 20. He had moved to Los Angeles, hoping to make it in music, but shortly after his arrival he started exhibiting the symptoms of the disease. He was diagnosed as having it two months later.

“It’s been a roller-coaster ride of pain and misery and shamefulness,” he told the Forward. Though he says he doesn’t feel shame anymore, McCready has devoted himself to opening up dialogue about the disease for those who do.

“One time,” McCready recounted, “we were opening for the Rolling Stones in Oakland, and two minutes before we were going to go on I had a Crohn’s attack. I went to Ed [Pearl Jam front-man Eddie Vedder] and was like, ‘Can we play something else?’ I scrambled around and found a porta-potty on the stage and listened to my band open the first song from there.”

Now, when McCready talks about his struggle with Crohn’s, he laughs, tells jokes and seems completely unbothered by the embarrassment associated with the disease. In fact, he credits Crohn’s with making him “more outgoing and positive.”

McCready also believes that it has influenced his music. “I try to dig deep into my soul to figure out something positive in the pain. I think I go to certain places when I play to heal,” he said.

McCready’s first major introduction to the CCFA occurred when he visited Camp Oasis, a CCFA project designed for children diagnosed with Crohn’s or colitis. There, McCready saw children coping with a disease that he had remained silent about for years. “It touched my heart in a way I can’t even put into words,” McCready said of the experience.

Inspired, McCready publicly announced his long-standing battle with the disease at a CCFA benefit luncheon in 2003. Steve Wright, the executive director of CCFA’s northwest chapter, said that McCready’s partnership with the CCFA has been an enormous help to the organization. He attributes much of the money that the chapter raises to McCready, and praises the guitarist and his wife for the time and effort they have devoted to the cause.

“For someone of Mike’s stature to come out with disease has made it okay to talk about it,” Wright said. “This mega-rock star is talking about it. If a rocker can have it, I can have it.”

The July benefit concert was McCready’s brainchild. It wasn’t difficult, he said, to get his bandmates to sign on. “We all cover each other’s causes,” he said. “They see me suffer through it on the road.”

David Cross and Sleater-Kinney were personally invited by McCready to open for the band. Cross has been a friend of McCready’s for 10 years, ever since the Pearl Jam guitarist became a fan of the comedian’s HBO series “Mr. Show.” Sleater-Kinney’s involvement was serendipitous. They were in Portland and O’Connor suggested that McCready invite them. They were thrilled to be involved, McCready said.

Wright hopes the concert’s echoes will be heard for years. “There are kids, 13 years old, entering high school, and their friends don’t even know they have this disease. That’s wrong. This show will break down barriers. Two years from now, we’ll have taken the disease out of the closet.”

Though McCready does suffer occasional flare-ups, he keeps his disease in check with a regimen of the experimental drug Humira, an immune suppressant that has helped Crohn’s patients in trial studies, and the anti-inflammatory Asacol.

He feels positive about his condition, and the contribution he is making through CCFA. “Sometimes I think about it, but I try to get past the thinking and feel the music,” he said. “It’s gotta come from some kind of source within — my soul, my body, my mind and my spiritual condition — whether I’m healthy or not.”

This story "Striking a Chord for Crohn’s Disease Research" was written by Mordechai Shinefield.

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