It was a gorgeously sunny October day last year when I packed up my harness and backpack and headed out the door. No, I wasn’t going on a hike or climb. In fact, the place I was traveling to wasn’t even outside. As I arrived at my destination, I walked down the sidewalk and through the double sliding door of the building. I made my way to the check-in line by the front desk and felt somewhat self-conscious with my huge backpack sticking out of a bag slung over my shoulder. A few moments later, I entered the crowded elevator, where people gave me quizzical glances. Such gear would be expected at a trailhead, but it was not the norm here. However, today, having my pack and harness was as important as it would have been on any hike or climb. As the elevator door opened on the ninth floor, I nervously walked to the department down the hall to meet my wound, ostomy and continence (WOC) nurse for the first time. It was time to have the site of my stoma marked.
I had been told to wear my favorite pants to the meeting so that the location would match with my clothing. However, I also decided to bring my harness and backpack. With outdoor activities being a huge passion in my life, I wanted to make sure that my stoma location would work as well as possible with my gear.
At the meeting, the nurse shared important information about what to expect with output, eating, activities etc. Finally it was time to get the location marked. I felt a little funny explaining to her that along with making sure the spot worked with my belly and with my clothing, I also wanted to test it out with my harness and pack. Fortunately, she didn’t make me feel silly about my request at all, and soon I had a big blue dot on my abdomen about two inches to the right of my belly button and two inches below. This was a good location because it was below my belt line. This meant that gear or clothing waistbands would not rest on my stoma or prevent output from reaching the bottom of my pouch.
When I got home, I stood in front of the mirror and looked at the mark. I tried to picture what it would look like with a stoma there instead. Suddenly, my decision to have the surgery seemed very real, and I felt excited and nervous at the same time. To further discover how my new stoma spot worked with my clothing and gear, I filled up the ostomy appliance my nurse had given me with applesauce and taped it on top of the blue dot on my belly. I then went out to the garage to dig out every backpack I owned. The one I had taken to my nurse visit was my favorite overnight one, but there was also the brand new day pack I had just bought before I got sick again. I had only used it once. And then there was the large load-monster of a pack that I took on very long trips. Would that one work with the ostomy? One by one, I tried on the packs and they all seemed to rest well above my stoma. I was encouraged.
Next I went upstairs and tried on all my skirts, shorts and pants. Much to my relief, I could not see the pouch full of applesauce under any of them. I was feeling certain that the spot was going to be a good one for me.
Despite this initial confidence, over the next week I got nervous again. I noticed that when I did a really deep bend, like one would do when touching their toes, a crease formed on my belly. Would that be enough to make the appliance not stick and cause leaks? I scheduled another appointment with my stoma nurse just to have her check it out and make sure it wouldn’t be a problem. When she saw what I was referring to, she assured me that the crease was small enough that it would be flattened out by the wafer and would not be an issue. I felt very relieved!
However, it seems like when you are facing surgery, one worry quickly replaces another. I now liked my stoma location so much that I feared something might prevent me from having it placed there. I pictured waking up from surgery and having it in an entirely different spot.
To ease my fears, I asked my surgeon two things the morning of my surgery while I was in pre-op. It felt a little weird to be bringing these things up with someone who I knew was an expert in his field, but I asked anyway. One thing I wanted to make sure was that my stoma would stick out. I had heard that flush or short stomas were bad news as they could pump stool under the wafer. Though the memory is a little foggy, I think I even asked him to create one that would end up being about 3 centimeters long after the swelling went down. He assured me that he would not give me a short stoma.
Next, I told my surgeon that I really loved the proposed site of my stoma and wanted to know if it was likely that it would end up in that spot. My surgeon said not to worry and that the location looked like a good one.
With those worries attended to, I completely relaxed for the first time in about three months as an incredible sense of peace came over me. I knew I had done everything in my power to get the surgical outcome I wanted. It was time to put my full trust in my doctors and nurses to get me to the place of health I was longing for. The last thing I remembered that morning was being wheeled down the hall towards the operating room. When I woke up and peered under my hospital gown and through the clear appliance on my belly, there was my new stoma: a perfect length and in the exact spot I had been hoping for.
So, for all the outdoor-enthusiasts out there facing surgery: if you are able to provide input into your stoma location, I would highly recommend taking a harness and backpack to the meeting where your stoma site is marked. Once you have a location, test it out against your clothing and gear to make sure it works for you.
If you have already had surgery and find that your stoma isn’t in the ideal location for wearing a pack or harness, there are some products I have heard others recommend to protect your stoma from backpack and harness waist belts:
As for me, as the months progress and I get out on adventures with my pack and harness, the location of my stoma has proven to be just as good as I thought it would be from those early days of testing it out with my bag-o-applesauce.