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Fargo man's blog helps those with colon conditions

Dennis Frohlich was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis and had ostomy surgery. He uses the Internet to help others living with the same condition. David Samson / The Forum

Dennis Frohlich was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis and had ostomy surgery. He uses the Internet to help others living with the same condition. David Samson / The Forum

Dennis Frohlich is a minor celebrity on the Internet, where he is a fixture of practical advice drawn from his own life experiences.

He is 24 years old, lives in an apartment near downtown Fargo, and is a graduate student at North Dakota State University. He dabbles in acrylic landscape painting and has an unassuming personality.

But on the Internet, he is a trusted and unflinching voice on matters that many might find difficult expressing publicly.

He has dispensed frank advice and commentary on topics including "My Throbbing Colon," "How to Swim with an Ostomy" and "Knowing When to Go to the Bathroom."

Frohlich is one of thousands of people, those with irritable bowel disease or colon cancer, who have had an ostomy, a surgical opening in the body to release wastes.

To produce his videos, often shot in or outside his Fargo apartment, Frohlich works solo as an auteur. He sets up his digital video camera on a tripod, looks straight into the lens, and speaks extemporaneously from a few talking points.

So far, he and a partner have made approximately 200 videos and have posted hundreds of blog entries, viewed by thousands of people.

"People started e-mailing me right away and commenting on the videos or asking questions," he said. "Each question kind of spurred a new video."

For his online outreach efforts, including creation of the United Colon Vlog - shorthand for video weblog - and for fundraising he did on behalf of ostomy patients in Haiti, Frohlich recently was recognized as a recipient of the Ina Brudnick Award.

Frohlich calls it his journey. It began when he was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis at age 21, when increasing digestive problems sent him to the hospital for several days.

A few months later, he was struck by a second flare-up. His entire colon was inflamed. The doctors' life-altering recommendation: Frohlich's colon should come out.

"It was a big learning process right away," Frohlich said, adding that he hadn't even heard of ulcerative colitis before he was told that he had it in 2008.

Frohlich at first found it difficult to discuss his condition with family members and friends. But he found it easy to speak candidly on camera or in a blog post to an audience of fellow ostomy patients.

As a communications student, who worked in the control room of a local television station, Frohlich took naturally to video as a form of expression.

The electronic medium and networking power of the Internet provided a way to connect with others who are dealing with the same challenges, frustrations and fears he was experiencing.

"I know there's people here who are dealing with it, but I don't know how to get in contact with them," he said, adding that he couldn't find a local support group.

Frohlich has himself been helped by the connections he's made through his blog or the blogs of others with his condition.

"It's inspiring listening to other people's stories," he said.

In fact, Frohlich's master's thesis project is a study of online support groups for amputees - a group he can identify with, since they, too, have lost a part of their body and must adjust their lives accordingly. He plans to go on and pursue a doctorate in communications.

"Really through my website I started seeing the power these communication technologies can have with people," he said.

Online medical support groups have exploded in popularity in recent years and have been given a boost by so-called Web 2.0 capabilities, including video sharing sites such as YouTube as well as social networking sites like Facebook.

Frohlich's thesis adviser at NDSU, Nan Yu, an assistant professor of communications, has a research focus on health communications.

"Social media or online media are providing social support," she said, adding that the benefits are both emotional an informational.

In fact, a recent survey found that one in five Internet users have gone online to find people with health concerns similar to their own.

Notably, one in four people living with a chronic health condition went online to seek peer-to-peer help from others, according to the Pew Internet & American Life Project.

The privacy allowed by the Internet, where people can post comments or ask questions anonymously, is a comfort to many people in health-related online communities, Yu said.

"It provides a safe channel for people in need," she said. "There are many, many channels online that can't be found in traditional media like print and television."

Research has shown the benefits of health-related social support networks and online communities, and there is a growing body of work in the area, Yu said.

But it has limitations. Frohlich and his blogging partner, Nadia Faud Dean, who also is chronicling her experiences about living with an ostomy and offering tips, make clear that they are not medical experts.

But learning from someone else who has gone through similiar issues and connecting with someone struggling with the same ailments has proven comforting, Frohlich said.

He keeps that in mind every time he sits down to write a blog post or record a video for people he has never met.

"Keeping it more personal is one reason why people like (the posts)," he said.


Dennis Frohlich's video blog:

Ina Brudnick Awards:

Readers can reach Forum reporter Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522