You probably know actor Ken Baumann as Ben from the hit ABC Family show “The Secret Life of the American Teenager,” which for five seasons tackled the difficulties faced by today's youth with a brave honesty that viewers could relate to. But while filming its final season, earlier this year, Baumann was confronted with an off-screen drama that was a lot harder to digest — which ultimately threatened the show and even his life. Rushed to the ER with a perforation in his small intestine, he was soon diagnosed with Crohn's disease. After receiving a life-saving surgery, Baumann finished up the series and became a Crohn's advocate. Now in remission, the actor spoke to Healthline, a day after wrapping the final episode of "Secret Life," about the darkest days in the hospital, how his family and wife, Aviva supported him through it all, and how he stays healthy today.
How did you first find out that you have Crohn's disease?
I found out this year during the first hospitalization I had, which was in late March. I had been told, based on a CT scan, that it looked like I had a mild form of IBD and that I had to see a gastroenterologist to get more tests and confirm if it was true. I made an appointment that was 30 days away, so I just crossed my fingers and hoped that my symptoms wouldn’t get worse. But they got significantly worse, so I ended up at Cedars-Sinai with complications. And my diagnosis was really confirmed in the first seven days in the hospital.
How did it get so bad that you needed surgery?
I had a perforation in my small intestine and that was leaking all sorts of nasty stuff into my psoas muscle. That formed an abscess and they drained that and sent me home with a bunch of medication, and hoped that the perforation would close on its own. But it didn't, so that's why I went back and had the extraction performed, and had all the infected stuff in my colon and small intestine removed.
You've said in a previous interview that having Crohn's brought you and your family closer together. How so?
I was in the hospital and couldn't do anything for myself, so my family and my wife had to take care of me so I could get out of the hospital and on my feet again. Then beyond that, it brought us closer together by reminding me of the fragility of me as a person, of my body, and also the amazing caretaking abilities of my family that of course I've taken advantage of for the last 23 years.
But you don't really understand how deep that could become until you're in the hospital and your mom and your wife are staying up till all hours and not getting any sleep, managing health insurance and medication questions, and dealing with nurses and doctors all for the sake of you. I feel like it was a very basic survival instinct that really brought us closer together.
How did you first break the news to your wife, Aviva?
Aviva was with me the entire way, so she was basically receiving the news as I was. The first time we had a chance to talk about my diagnosis was in the hospital. Then we spoke about it when I was out of the hospital, when I was released with a bunch of meds. I don't think that at the time anyone had the energy to think too far in advance, beyond a couple of weeks. The only big, serious conversation we had was what If something went terribly wrong with surgery and I wasn't going to come out. Everything else was, “Let's manage the disease and try to get better and we'll figure out the future when we have some breathing room.”
So now that you're thankfully in remission, are there any foods that you can't eat?
I eat significantly less sugar and fried foods, and I eat less in general. I'm a glutton at heart, but my appetite has become more regular and less extreme. But luckily, so far so good as far as food goes. I'm able to eat almost anything, but I'm lucky that my remission so far is not entirely dependent on diet. So if I want to eat some cookies, I can.
Why did you decide to go public with your Crohn's disease?
It all rolls out of thinking about teenagers who would potentially be dealing with the same stuff that I was dealing with as an adult, with a job and a support system, and a family, and a wife. I had all the odds stacked in my favor. But so many people don't. They don’t have great insurance. They don't have people to stay in the hospital with them 24/7 or who understands the illness.
So I thought that the only ethical use of my time, once I started recovering, was to try and make people feel better, because I find it to be such a supreme waste of time to get anxious about something that you can't fight. You can get to the point when there are no signs or symptoms in your body, but there's always that looming disease. It's always with you. At the very least I think that people should attempt to not be ashamed of it, because it's a waste of time; and it's such a waste of energy to be fretting about something that you can't move or shake.
What are some of the things you've done to raise awareness and support those living with Crohn's disease?
I'm working with the Crohn's and Colitis Foundation of America, which I got in touch with through Steven Schirripa, who played my dad on 'Secret Life.' Also, lately I've been working a lot with Cedars-Sinai, with their pediatric IBD center, a really renowned center treating kids and teenagers with Crohn's. I've been trying to help get people to donate money, to read the message, and be aware of the program they have there and the research center. It's a great place doing great work, so I'm going to try and help them find ways to better individualize treatments for the disease — and hopefully to cure it.
How are you currently treating your Crohn's disease?
Right now I'm on a drug called 'Cimzia.' It's a once monthly drug. I shoot 400mg subcutaneously. It's a preloaded shot, and it's one shot per thigh. It's a biologic, and a tumor necrosis factor inhibitor, so it gives my immune system a few beers and tells it to relax, essentially. That's all I'm taking. I do other stuff to keep inflammation down in a simpler way; I make sure to take fish oil, take a multivitamin, and drink pineapple juice, which has shown pretty promising results for managing inflammation. That was the doctor's orders.
What is your inspiration to keep on going during the more difficult days?
I think about a friend of mine named Julia, who has a permanent ostomy and had five abdominal surgeries in the last two years, and it's tough. The reason I think about her a lot is because she knows that she's disabled, but she still manages to be happy, positive, creative, and support other people.
There's always someone out there, who's got it so much worse. So I don't want to whine or beat myself up over it. Some days I just try to remember those people and how well they're dealing with circumstances that are way worse than mine.
Talk to us about how Crohn's has interfered with your work and how your co-stars have supported you.
I missed over a month of work and there are a couple of episodes before I was hospitalized, where I was losing weight and in pain, and developed that limp from the abscess and was just feeling really bad. But I showed up for work, and thought I'll try to stick it out and the stuff will go away and maybe I'll get my gastro appointment and all will be well. It wasn't, and once I went to the ER, I didn't work for a month and a half.
Everybody — cast and crew — was great. Everyone offered support, sent cards, flowers, and gifts. I couldn't have a more supportive work environment. They just wanted me healthy and back at work.
What's your best method for coping with the constant stress of your lifestyle while dealing with Crohn's Disease?
The little mental trick I use to keep my stress levels down is I think about Aviva, and I think about being married to her and being able to come home and see her, and everything beyond that melts away. She feels like she has a super power…and it's true. You can throw whatever you want at me, but as long as I can go home and see my wife, you can't get me too rattled.
Being fatigued is a symptom of Crohn's disease. Do you have a secret for keeping your energy levels up?
I make sure that I'm getting the sleep I need, eat small meals of foods that agree with me regularly, and get outside and walk. I bought a bike. I do what I can to increase my physical capacities in ways that feel safe.
When you're working on location, do you bring your own food to the set?
I occasionally do bring my own stuff and I feel like that's easier. You get quite a bit of options on a set, but the thing about catering for TV and film sets is they try and feed 200-250 people every day, so it's difficult for them to accommodate specific diets. So you sort of have options, but if you want to play it safe because you have a specific diet that you need to tend to, you should bring your own food.
Actors work long, sometimes weird hours. How do you cope with this?
The schedule of the actor is notoriously weird. So you're working at five o'clock in the morning and you're filming until four o'clock in the morning the next day. Acting is a very irregular job. It's also the constant potential stresses of being unemployed, which is where I'm at now, where you've got to hustle and find work.
But at the same time acting can be really rewarding in unique ways that a lot of 9-5's aren't. So I don't complain and feel like it's a great job if you can get the work.
Now that you're back auditioning, do you tell producers and directors about your condition when you audition?
I actually have a meeting later today with executives from the network. If they ask about it, I'll absolutely be honest. If it comes up in conversation, it comes up; I'm not going to be ashamed about it. But at the same time, I'm in remission right now and I'm physically able. Could that change? Absolutely. It can change on a dime… but if someone wants to employ me, hopefully they can look past that.
But productions have massive amounts of insurance. When I got sick on 'Secret Life,' it probably didn't cost them a dime, or maybe a little bump in their budget. And it's not their first rodeo, so hopefully they'll be understanding. And if people are not understanding, then I don't want to work with them anyway.