Celebrating Ostomy Awareness Day on Longs Peak

Today Doug, his dad, and I summited the 14,259-foot-tall Longs Peak in Rocky Mountain National Park via the classic Keyhole Route. This was an important ascent for me. I had climbed Longs Peak once before in 2007 and had loved the route. When I was hospitalized for 16 days with my final severe UC flare last fall, I would often walk down to a common area that had huge picture windows facing west and gaze at Longs Peak in the distance. I thought back to the day I stood on its summit, and wondered if I would ever be strong enough to be up there again. Today, I answered that question as I successfully hiked 15 miles with about 5000 feet of elevation gain to reach the summit. This peak was different than the others I have done this summer, as it is graded a class 3 climb. This means that the route has some sections that involve scrambling, or using one’s hands to ascend the rock, yet the terrain wasn’t technical enough to require the use of a rope. There are also areas of exposure where a person wouldn’t want to fall. It felt wonderful to move over rock, and the experience made me look forward to the days when I can climb technical routes again. I just want to heal up a bit more first.

Everything with my ostomy went well during the hike and there is not much to report. I once again used closed-end pouches to eliminate the need to take time to dig a cathole and empty my pouch. This helped ensure that we were on the summit before the afternoon lightning storms came. This ended up being an important detail on this trip, as we dealt with one of the largest lightning storms I have ever witnessed in the mountains later in the afternoon. Fortunately, we had just descended to tree-line when the storm reached its peak intensity and avoided being caught out in the open.

The day before our trip, I discovered that our summit attempt would fall on the United Ostomy Association of America’s (UOAA) second annual Ostomy Awareness Day. I was thrilled! UOAA’s call for this special day is to have “Ostomates Unite and Help Others See Ostomies in a Positive Light!” This is a message that is very dear to me and is one of the reasons I created Ostomy Outdoors.

However, I have to admit that I have not always been as open about having ulcerative colitis or an ostomy as I wish I would have been. Truth is, when I was first in the hospital with my severe ulcerative colitis flare last fall, I hardly wanted to tell anyone about it. Sure, I shared the details with my family and closest friends, but I was less open with others. My coworkers were all curious about why I had suddenly disappeared into the hospital. I sent out vague emails to them telling them I had an auto-immune stomach condition. I was too afraid they might look up ulcerative colitis and see what the symptoms were. Once my hospital stay became lengthier, I did fess up and share the name of the condition. Surprisingly, it felt really good to not have to keep everything to myself, and I found that the people in my life were very supportive.

Yet when I was going to undergo permanent ileostomy surgery, I played these same games of obscurity. Instead of telling people I was having my colon removed and getting an ileostomy, I merely said I was “getting surgery on my colon.” Several people did ask if this meant wearing an ostomy pouch, and I was open and honest with the individuals who did want to know more. Still, in most of my interactions right before surgery, I was purposely nebulous in my descriptions of what was going on. Even though I was excited about my surgery and the health I was sure it would bring, I was afraid to talk about the operation due to the stigmas surrounding it.

As much as I now wish I would have bravely stood up from the beginning and shared the details of my illness and surgery in order to shed more light on inflammatory bowel disease and ostomies, I wasn’t ready at that time. I had to go through a metamorphosis, and just as in nature, this wasn’t going to happen overnight. I needed time to process the events of surgery myself before I was ready to communicate with others about the experience. I needed the time to overcome fears of being judged or possibly discriminated against. I needed to come to the realization of how much the surgery changed my life for the better.

Finally, I reached that point of wanting to share my journey with others. However, there is one more step I have been meaning to take, and Ostomy Awareness Day seems like a fitting time to do it. Prior to this, I have never used my full name on the site as I still wanted some anonymity. But I am finally ready to rid myself of that fear. The UOAA’s press release for today’s event calls out to the 3/4 of a million American ostomates to “take that strength and bravery, and help educate those other 330 million Americans that life with an ostomy is a great life indeed.

My ostomy has given me back my health, time with loved ones, career, and all the things I am most passionate about in life. Instead of trying to hide the fact that I have one, I should be singing its praises from the tops of the highest mountains. Today, I, Heidi Skiba, did just that.

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