Last weekend I took a course to recertify my Wilderness First Responder credential with the Wilderness Medicine Institute. The first order of business in the course was to do short introductions with the other class participants. My heart pounded as my turn to introduce myself to 25 absolute strangers fast approached. I had planned to say something about my ostomy to the group, but I was having second thoughts. Maybe I should just stick to a standard intro and move on to the next person? After all, we only had to say four basic things: our name, where we were from, what we would be doing outside at that moment had we not been in class, and what our previous pertinent medical experience was. None of these things really had to do with my ostomy, right? Why did I feel this huge need to let everyone know?
It would not be my standard practice to announce my ostomy if I was taking a class on computer programs or art techniques. However, wilderness medicine courses involve a lot of mock wilderness medicine scenarios where we role-play rescuer and patient. As course participants practice patient assessments on each other, abdomens are palpated and shirts get peeked under to see if there are any clues to injuries. It is not unusual to have fake bruises or wounds put on our bellies and other body parts with stage make-up to make things more realistic. I knew it would be impossible to hide my ostomy. I wanted to have everyone know about it right away so there were no awkward surprises. And I didn’t want to explain it individually to each team I worked with — I only wanted to have to mention it once.
As my turn to introduce myself crept closer and closer, and my palms became sweatier and sweatier, I had a decision to make. It would have been so easy to give into my fears and not say a thing about my ostomy — but that is not what I did. Instead, I took a deep breath and spoke:
Hi, I am Heidi. I am from Golden, Colorado. If I wasn’t in class today, I would choose to be rock climbing with Doug, who is my husband. (I motioned toward Doug who was sitting beside me as a classmate.) I have been a Wilderness First Responder since 1998. I have also had a lot of medical experience in dealing with one of my own health issues. Eighteen months ago I became severely ill with a disease called ulcerative colitis and had my entire colon removed. I now have an ostomy where my small intestine sticks out of my belly and I wear a pouch over it. If you see this over the next couple of days, it is not part of a scenario (I smiled and chuckled).
I looked around the room to see if anyone was looking at me in a strange way, but they weren’t. The instructor nodded and smiled at me like he did with each person, and the introductions continued without the loud sound of a record-scratch. As the heat in my flushed face dissipated, a huge sense of relief washed over me. Now I could relax and enjoy the course, knowing that everyone would know what the pouch on my belly was for, should they see it.
Sure, I probably could have worn a wrap. But it is likely that people would have been just as curious about that. Anyway, as much as I like ostomy undergarments, nothing is quite as comfy for me as my regular low-rise undies with my pouch flopped over the top. I knew I was going to be sitting in class for two days and wanted to be comfortable.
As the class unfolded over the next two days, I was happy to discover that people didn’t treat me any differently because of my ostomy. When we ran through head-to-toe exams and practiced “log rolling” to check each other’s spines in the wilderness medicine scenarios, there were times that my shirt rode up and everyone could see my pouch. Yet not one person acted awkwardly towards me and no one tip-toed around me when it came time to touch my belly or move me around. I had a great class, refreshed all my skills, passed my exams, and was successfully recertified.
Looking back, I am so glad I decided to share the information about my ostomy with the group in those initial moments of class. Being open about it not only helped me feel more relaxed about people seeing my pouch, but it allowed the other course participants to be more comfortable with it as well. More and more, I am discovering that this is true in so many aspects of my life with an ostomy.