Back to the GI doctor’s office

Monday I found myself in a place that I hadn’t been to for a very long time: my GI doctor’s office. After having permanent ileostomy surgery for my UC, I wasn’t sure if I would ever need to be seen there again. However, for the past ten months, I have had canker sore-like ulcers show up on my stoma off and on in different places. I actually noticed the very first of these ulcers while changing my appliance on a backpacking trip last June. I remember calling for Doug through the woods so he could come snap a photo of it. I think he thought I was being cornered by a bear! (joking)

That ulcer was rather deep, and after showing a photo of it to my surgeon, he thought it might be trauma-related and caused by a nick in my stoma. It healed up in a few weeks, and I thought that was that. However, in the autumn I got a couple more ulcers, and since that time, I have had more of them show up and at more frequent intervals. In fact, I have a new one today. The ulcers heal quickly (sometimes too quickly– it is hard to time an appointment with my doctor when they are actually there) and don’t seem to cause any problems. Because the ulcers are a recurring issue, I shared more photos of them with my surgeon and he suggested I have them further investigated at my GI doctor’s office.

I have an awesome GI doctor, but for much of my life with ulcerative colitis, I worked with an equally amazing IBD nurse practitioner. When you have chronic conditions and end up seeing your doctors and nurses again and again, you can really develop a strong and trusting bond with them. My nurse practitioner is a very caring individual and she has worked with me during my worst UC moments. I hadn’t seen her since I was extremely ill and lying in a hospital bed during my final severe UC flare two and a half years ago. It was great seeing her again under much better health! Of course, last week’s ulcers had conveniently healed just in time for the appointment, so I once again had to rely on photos of the ulcers to explain what was going on. Thank goodness Doug is a stoma portrait photographer extraordinaire and we have been documenting the ulcer activity pictorially for months.

After looking at the photos, my nurse felt that the ulcers could be a sign of active IBD. She didn’t call it Crohn’s disease, but said that the ulcers are likely caused by the same inflammation process involved in IBD in general. She talked about how many different genetic factors are showing up in research related to IBD. What is thought of as Crohn’s or ulcerative colitis could actually be a group of different diseases which makes things hard to pinpoint in some cases. (This is my recollection of what she said anyway… I am not the best at explaining medical stuff from memory.) Regardless of the name, the suggested treatment for me was the same: a low dose of Pentasa to see if it helped resolve the ulcers. If the drug does resolve the ulcers, it would be a sign that I am dealing with IBD. If  the ulcers would actually cooperate and show up when I am scheduled for an appointment, I could also get them biopsied to provide a more definitive diagnosis. There is also a possibility that the ulcers could be caused by a virus, but that is less likely due to the recurring nature and how long I have been experiencing them. All in all though, this is a really minor thing. The ulcers seem confined to just my stoma, no other symptoms come with them, and I feel great. My inflammatory markers were fine as well. My nurse said stoma ulcers do happen for many people without progressing up the intestines. That was great news to hear.

When I was sitting in the pharmacy waiting to have the prescription filled, I found myself reflecting on the possibility that my disease was returning– even if only mildly. The weird thing was– I was not worried about it at all. I always thought that finding out my IBD might be back would be terrible news. I would have expected to be scared, disappointed or something along those lines. However, now that I was actually facing that possibility, all I felt was a sense of calm. For someone who has been plagued by anxiety lately, this new found feeling of peace was refreshing.

I didn't expect to read "for inflammatory bowel disease" on a medication label again!
I didn’t expect to read “for inflammatory bowel disease” on a medication label again.

I really can’t put my finger on the one thing that has led to this new outlook. Be it bones or intestines, I am discovering that I am far less worried about my medical issues lately– so much so that I was able to stop taking anti-anxiety meds over a month ago. I went to see a counselor and also went to some anxiety management group sessions which have helped me look at things in a new way. My mindfulness meditation practice has been important in helping me focus on the present too. The positive thoughts and prayers sent by family and friends have also been paramount. I have also been more in touch with my spiritual side which has brought peace.

Another big source of comfort is knowing that I have been blessed with some of the most incredibly kind and skilled doctors and nurses on the planet. Not a day goes by when I don’t think about how grateful I am that everything somehow came together to have each of these individuals on my healthcare team. I know they truly care about my well-being. I can relax knowing that if things should get worse with any of my health conditions, I am in really good hands.

Overall, if I had to sum up the reason I am feeling so good about things lately in one word it would be this: trust.

I trust that I am strong enough to get through anything. I trust that my family and friends will be there to lean on. I trust that my medical team will do their absolute best to take good care of me. I trust that I will always be able to help others by sharing my experiences. And I trust that whatever path I find myself on, I will make it the best journey possible.

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Reaching out (feat. new video)

Last Tuesday evening, I left work in a gorgeous swirl of falling snow but promptly got stuck in standstill traffic due to slippery road conditions. I half-thought of exiting the freeway and heading home, but the destination was too important and I knew that getting there would soon melt away any stress that had accumulated on the drive. In fact, it was almost guaranteed that I would leave the event in a good mood. I always do. So where was I heading that had me filled with such eager anticipation?

The fourth Tuesday of every month is my Ostomy Association of Metro Denver meeting. I started going to these meetings as soon as I was healed enough after surgery to get to them and quickly discovered how valuable they were. When you have a condition that is hard to talk about with most people, there is a feeling of instant comfort that comes from being surrounded by others who immediately understand what you are going through. A place where it is okay to talk about normally taboo subjects such as gas, rectums and bowel movements. Now that I have been attending the meetings for almost two years, I cannot imagine not having this support system in my life. I absolutely love talking to those who are facing or recovering from surgery and doing what I can to offer encouragement. I head home from every gathering wishing I had more time to talk to everyone and eager for next month’s meeting to arrive.

One thing that I hear many young people on IBD and ostomy internet forums say is how they often walk into such meetings and feel that they are the only one in their age group there. Many times these people don’t come back for this reason, and I think it is really unfortunate. Regardless of age, everyone can relate to the overwhelming emotions that come with ostomy surgery. Though different for each person, we all have stories of difficult times, fears we are facing, successes we are celebrating and hopes and dreams for our lives beyond illness. Coming together to share our experiences and thoughts on these things can offer profound opportunities for healing. I love the conversations I have at the meetings and learn something from every single person there whether they are 25 or 70 years old.

And guess what? If you wish that there were more people at the meetings your age– stick around. The next time someone else your age is nervously walking down the hall towards the meeting room and peeks in, they will see you there and feel less apprehensive. If that person chooses to also come back next time, it has a ripple effect and soon the group becomes more diverse. Make the meetings be what you want them to be by participating and returning for the next one.

If you don’t have access to a local support group to meet people in person, there are many groups to join on the internet. I wrote a post a while back about the importance of reaching out to others online. One of my biggest twists of luck when I was in the hospital and facing the possibility ostomy surgery was that my room had a good internet connection. Whenever my favorite nurse would see me typing away on my computer at an intense pace, she would always remind of how fortunate I was to be in that room because many of the others on the floor had poor Wi-Fi signals. I don’t know what I would have done without my computer. It became a lifeline from my isolated hospital room and allowed me to meet others who had gone through surgery and gone on to lead active lives.

Because of my own experience in reaching out for help when I was sick, it is a huge priority of mine to try to answer every single comment and email I receive on this site. Sometimes it takes me a little while due to a busy schedule, but you will hear from me if you write. Last fall, an email appeared in my box from another local adventurous ostomate: Lewis Benedict. That initial contact led to other opportunities to meet up including a recent hike of Twin Sisters Peaks in Rocky Mountain National Park. Lewis is now working on his own ostomy awareness website, ostomatevillage.com, and was even on cover of The Phoenix magazine this quarter! I am so proud of his accomplishments and look forward to many future adventures with Lewis and his wife, Tara.

On top of Twin Sisters Peak in Rocky Mountain National Park with Lewis and Tara of Ostmate Village. Check out the video below for more on the adventure!
Our group (including Lewis and Tara of Ostomatevillage.com) poses atop one of the Twin Sisters Peaks in Rocky Mountain National Park. Check out the video below for more on the adventure!

I am thankful everyday that I have met so many amazing people through my ostomy association meetings, OstomyOutdoors.com, and other websites and social media. You all inspire me to no end and help keep me motivated when my own life presents challenges.

I am going to end this post with a video of the hike with Lewis mentioned above. I hope it provides some inspiration to get out there and meet other people with ostomies. If you are feeling alone while facing or recovering from surgery, or if you just want to meet other people who have been through similar things, know that there is a strong ostomy community out there. You just have to reach out.