Reversing roles

Today, I saw my colorectal surgeon, Dr. Craig Brown, for the first time in almost a year. Only this time, I wasn’t the one lying in the bed in a hospital gown. That was Doug’s role! No need to worry however… Doug was in to see Dr. Brown for a routine colonoscopy, not for something more serious.

A few months ago, Doug turned 40. Because he has risk factors for colon cancer on both sides of his family, including relatives with colon polyps and others with cancer (including a couple of relatives who had colostomies), it was recommended that he go in for a colon cancer screening beginning at age 40 instead of the standard age 50. A couple of months ago, we were really happy to discover that Dr. Brown preformed routine colonoscopies, as well as surgeries. There is no physician on the planet who we are more comfortable with or have more trust in. We knew Doug would be in good hands for his very first scope.

So we drove to the surgical center at 6:30 a.m. for Doug’s colonoscopy, which was scheduled for 8 a.m. On the drive we chatted about the upcoming procedure. We talked about how when you are scared about something, all the other little things you might normally be worried about, such as work projects or errands or little disagreements you might have had with others, no longer matter. We reminisced about driving the same road at the exact same time of day for my surgery over a year ago and how, though on a different scale, the nervousness and worry of the unknown was similar.

Once we got to the surgical center, Doug did some paperwork, and was taken back to the prep area where I soon joined him. It was bizarre seeing Doug there in a hospital gown with his very first IV ever. He was chilled and wanted my down jacket to wrap around his legs. I was instantly taken back to that well-known feeling of being cold from IV fluids. I looked around at all the medical instruments on the wall and of Doug’s clothing packed neatly into a plastic bag with his name on it. The scene was familiar but also felt a little foreign now from this new perspective of not being the patient. Doug and I joked around a bit and did a mock artist critique of the kid-friendly castle-and-unicorn mural on the wall. Then suddenly the nurse came in and told Doug it was time for me to go. It all happened so quickly, I didn’t even have a chance to give him a good luck smooch… something that made me sad as I headed to the waiting room.

Doug's first experience with hospital gowns and IVs.
A fanciful mural on the pre-op wall, complete with elves, fairies, a unicorn, knights and a castle!

Since I had always been the patient, leaving Doug in the lobby, it was weird for me to be the one left behind in the waiting room this time — and I was only there for 30 minutes during a routine procedure. I kept trying to picture what it had been like for him to be hanging out in the waiting room for four hours during a major surgery. I couldn’t imagine going through that and was reminded of the difficult times Doug had gone through during my illness.

Before I even had to time to become fully immersed in my book, I heard a nurse call my name, and I was summoned back to meet Doug. Thinking back to my own post-scope experiences, I was fully expecting Doug to be loopy and drugged when I saw him. Instead, he was amazingly coherent, had a pretty good memory of what happened and did not ask the same questions over and over. Turns out he was somewhat resistant to the conscious sedation drugs even at the high dosage that was administered. For his next scheduled scope, Dr. Brown will be calling in an anesthesiologist and putting Doug completely under to make things more comfortable. Other than that, Doug had a great scope with no polyps or signs of cancer. Due to his family history of these things, he will be getting a colonoscopy every 5 years. That way, if any polyps do develop in the future, they will be removed in a timely manner, hopefully before they get a chance to become cancerous.

After the scope, Doug was hungry (24 hours of fasting) so we went to a neat little eatery that Dr. Brown had recommended. It was amazing (they even had chocolate chip gluten-free pancakes!!!) and Doug perked up a bit after getting some food in his belly.

Enjoying a post-scope breakfast at the amazing "Snooze" restaurant in Denver.

One of the hardest things for me about Doug’s colonoscopy scheduling, prep and procedure was putting my own experiences aside and letting Doug deal with things in his own way. I have been through 7 bowel preps, 6 colonoscopies and countless IVs in my life. These things had become so routine for me, but I had to remember that they were entirely new for Doug. So often I wanted to say don’t worry, that is normal, or this is what happened to me or here is what you will likely experience.  But that isn’t always what someone who is anxious wants to hear. Sometimes they just want you to listen and not say anything at all. Just as Doug learned he needs general anesthesia for his next colonoscopy, I have learned how to be a better partner by having our patient/caregiver roles reversed for a little while.

And now for my public service announcement. I talk a lot on this blog about conquering fears and being proactive with one’s health. I was really proud of Doug for doing both of these things today. Getting a colonoscopy is something a lot of people put off due to being uncomfortable with the idea or because they are scared of the procedure or preparation. Some even avoid colonoscopies because they are afraid of what might be found. However, Doug overcame such trepidations and sifted through his family history, talked to his regular doctor and got scheduled for the procedure at the correct time based on his risk factors. I encourage anyone who still has a colon and is reading this to do the same.

Climbing progress

On Sunday I climbed a few feet above the fourth bolt on the wall at the rock climbing gym, held my breath, and jumped off. I felt a few butterflies in my stomach as I free-fell 10 feet before my rope and harness caught me and brought me to a stop. Doug lowered me to the ground where a staff member gave me a smile and a casual “nice job” nod. I had just passed the test to be able to lead climb at our local rock gym. This was my second such test. I had also taken one in Fort Collins last month at the gym we sometimes climb at with Doug’s father.

In lead climbing, a climber clips their rope into protection placed in the rock (or on the artificial gym-wall) as they go. This “pro” is either: 1) temporary equipment that a climber places in cracks outdoors, or 2) permanent, preexisting bolts drilled into the rock or artificial wall. If a climber falls above the last piece they clipped, they will travel some distance before the rope catches. For instance, if a person falls three feet above their pro, they will fall that distance plus three more feet until the rope catches. Factor in a bit of rope stretch and the total distance could be 10 feet. The climbing gym wants to make sure climbers know how to safely clip their rope into the bolts on the wall and fall properly before they will allow you to lead climb.

Top roping is a different style of protecting the climber in which the person will only fall a short distance because the rope is already anchored at the top of the cliff or wall. When I began climbing again a year after ostomy surgery, I started with top rope climbing. Though I am now leading in the gym, it will be a while before I feel confident to lead routes outdoors again where there are more hazards.

Nothing has been a bigger symbol of my climbing progress as being able to get back on the “sharp end” of the rope. I was fearful of what a big fall might feel like after surgery. Would falling several feet in my harness hurt my stoma? Would the resulting tug make my pouch pop off? As has often been the case when returning to my active pursuits, none of my fears came true, and my stoma and pouching system held up just fine through the tests at the gym.

Lead climbing has not been my only measure of progress lately. While climbing weekly, I am quickly moving up the grades and getting on some overhanging routes (steeper than 90 degrees). When I returned to the rock gym five months ago, I didn’t even try to do any marked climbs — I just grabbed any hold on the wall. Soon after, I was only using the “on route” holds, but sticking to routes in the 5.7 range. Last month I ventured into the 5.8 and 5.9 territory, and last weekend I did my first 5.10-. I am feeling powerful and strong with not the slightest pain in my core.

When I got back into climbing, I told myself that I would be happy doing 5.7 routes for the rest of my life if that was all my body could handle. All that mattered was that I could climb again. However, I now see that these restrictions won’t be necessary. By conditioning my body, progressing slowly to build the required strength, and always wearing my six-inch-wide hernia belt, I am quickly returning to my pre-surgery climbing abilities. I look forward to warmer days when I can start climbing outdoors on a regular basis and head out on some much longer routes. And, of course, I’ll share some of those through videos!

Cartwheeling, tumbling and cratering myself to confidence

Yesterday I cartwheeled, tumbled, and cratered countless times on the slopes while snowboarding. Normally, one might not be pleased with such a performance, but these mishaps were a major milestone for me. Up to this point after surgery, I have been very tentative while snowboarding. To fall so many times meant one thing: I was pushing it on the slopes and feeling absolutely wonderful.

Last year during my initial two times out boarding post-surgery, I fell a lot too. However, that was a different situation because those falls were caused by my muscles being weak. Yesterday, the tumbles happened because I was going faster, turning more aggressively, venturing onto some black diamond runs and even doing some tiny jumps (okay… I only caught a foot of air, but it was something). And most importantly, I had finally let go of some fears that had been holding me back.

During my earlier snowboarding trips this season, I was always afraid of falling. What if I twisted a weird way? Would my body be able to handle it? Though the fears were likely justified in the beginning, I was having growing suspicions that I was babying my body too much while snowboarding the last few times. So, this time I put the trepidations aside and went for it.

As I zipped down the slopes, I not only had some little tumbles, I also managed to squeeze in a few of my most dreaded fall types. One of these was an edge-catch going at a slow speed on a catwalk. My healed butt incision survived the resulting sling-shot slam on to my bum and back just fine. I also did a great snowboard nosedive into fresh powder. My body twisted as it came to a sudden stop, but weathered this graceful move as well as it did during the countless times before surgery. In the late afternoon, the sky clouded up and the light became flat, and I couldn’t see the ungroomed terrain beneath my feet well enough to gauge my speed. I soon found myself in a vertigo-induced cartwheeling fall. Yep, I came away from that one unscathed too.

Getting up from one of my many falls.

By the end of the day, my legs were so fatigued that I could barely link my turns. Doug and I had caught the first (well, about the 20th chair–we were in line) and last chairlifts, and except for a short lunch break, had snowboarded at a hard pace all day long. The conditions were phenomenal and it was just like the old days when we would do countless laps up and down the mountain, not wanting to waste a minute of time on the snow.

I sometimes think back to the time when I was sick with Ulcerative Colitis, and how it felt like my body had betrayed me by attacking itself and causing me to become ill enough to lose my colon. It has been extremely difficult to build up trust in my body after that. Even though I have recovered and regained my health, I still find myself with the unsettling feeling that something else could go wrong. Without trust in my body, it is very difficult to overcome fears that could prevent me from reaching my goals, not only in sports, but in life as a whole. I desperately need to believe in it again! As I put myself through the wringer on the slopes yesterday, I finally felt strong signs that my post-surgery body is working hard to regain my confidence.

Working towards cough-resistant abs

My body seems to finally have purged the dreaded respiratory virus, and I felt much better today.  Wilbur, my stoma, also seems to be on the mend. When I palpated the area around my stoma this morning during my appliance change, all the tenderness that I had from my recent violent coughing was gone. I am now sure all the pain was due to a muscle strain and nothing more serious. However, this recent episode has been a good reminder of the importance of strengthening my core. I want abs that are resilient enough to handle a bit of coughing.

When I joined our new gym last month, they included a free session with a personal trainer. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but was happy to discover that the the staff had taken the time to consider the fact that I have an ostomy. They paired me up with a trainer who had experience with clients who had been through abdominal surgery.

Today was my first meeting with this trainer. We sat down for about twenty minutes in the beginning of the appointment and went over my goals, medical information and fitness history. She asked me a lot of questions about my ostomy, and I was very comfortable sharing the information with her. Since my overriding goal was to develop core strength, she recommended that we focus on my abs, lower back and obliques for the first session. After our meeting, we headed out to floor of the gym and worked on static exercises such as the stability-ball hip bridge, dead bug, oblique planks on the knees and others. At the end of the hour, my muscles felt wonderfully worked, but there was never anything painful.

I was so pleased with how things went that I immediately signed up for some more training sessions. I want to finally have some clear direction on how to proceed with gaining core strength after surgery in a safe manner.

Doing an oblique plank on my knees after learning proper technique with a trainer. Soon I will progress to doing them on my toes.

A shining highlight in the midst of the flu

My abdominal muscles are the sorest they have been since surgery. No, it isn’t because I started doing crunches, ascended the overhanging roof at the climbing gym or tried some difficult new yoga pose. It is due to having one of the most horrendous respiratory viruses I have had in years. I was hoping my flu shot would have prevented this, but alas, I caught something anyway. Each night for almost a week, I have been up all night coughing violently, and it has made my core very sore– especially around my stoma. Ever paranoid about getting a parastomal hernia, I cringe every time I feel that tickle in my throat. There seems to be no way to stop the cough though, and I know this just has to run its course. In the meantime I have been taking loads of vitamin C, doing sinus rinses, drinking various teas to ease my throat, taking cough medicine and cough drops and trying to get a good night’s sleep which has been almost impossible. Mother nature did provide some relief today in the form of a huge snowstorm. A snow day was called at my work, so I was able to have some extra time to rest at home.

Due to the worries of coughing pressure and my stoma, I have even been wearing my hernia prevention belt 24/7 for the past week. That, along with bracing my stoma area with my hand when I cough, gives my abs a bit of support while I cough. I eagerly removed my appliance on my change day this morning so I could check to see if I had done any damage with all the hacking. I was relieved to find that everything looked fine around my stoma, though the area around it is still sore to the touch. I am hoping it is just strained muscles and will clear up once I get better. It would be unfortunate to be so careful climbing and backpacking, only to get a hernia from something as simple as coughing.

Though it hasn’t been the best week due to illness, there was one absolutely amazing highlight. On Tuesday afternoon, I left work early because I felt so awful. I was about ready to plop down in my bed when I decided to check my Facebook. There I saw a message from my friend congratulating me on winning the WEGO Health Health Activist Best Kept Secret Award for Ostomy Outdoors. I had been feeling so crummy I had forgotten that it was the day to announce the award recipients. I was absolutely shocked to find out I was selected, and the excitement is still sinking in a few days later! Thank you to my husband, Doug, for posting the update when I was feeling a bit too sick and exhausted to write on my blog.


Thank you to everyone at WEGO Health and those who were involved in the nomination and judging process. I am so grateful and humbled to have been selected for the award among so many other dedicated and deserving health activists. Thanks also to everyone who reads and contributes to Ostomy Outdoors. Your thoughts, comments and stories not only help keep me motivated, but provide inspiration and encouragement to others who follow the blog.  Together we can all make a difference and help spread awareness for ostomies.

Watching my award video while resting up.