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How to select ostomy pouch styles for the outdoors

Last weekend I was reminded why I love using closed-end ostomy pouches on hikes and climbs. I was up on a long ridge between between Loveland Pass and Mt. Sniktau in Colorado. Though it was a gorgeous 75-degree day down in Denver, up at 13,000′ it was blustery and frigid. We left the house at 4:15 a.m. so that we would be done with our climb and back to the car before afternoon thunderstorms came in. I emptied my appliance before leaving the house, but by the time we reached the summit of Mt. Sniktau at around 9 a.m., my pouch was reaching its 1/3 full point. This is typically when I like to empty it.

Problem was, no ideal place to empty a pouch could be found on the entire ascent. The wind was howling and shelter was non-existent. On top of this, there were many feet of snow on the ground. The few places where there was exposed earth, it was frozen solid.  There was also no way to go off of the ridge to empty away from the trail. Precarious cornices sat 50 feet to the east of the route and dangerous avalanche slopes could be found 50 feet to the west. Emptying would have meant draining my pouch in the snow close to the area where people travel. Once the snow melted, fecal matter would have been left on top of the ground in a popular area. This was one of those instances when wearing a two-piece ostomy system and using closed-end pouches was almost a necessity.

The ridge between Loveland Pass and Mount Sniktau provided few places to empty a pouch.
The ridge between Loveland Pass and Mount Sniktau provided few places to empty a pouch.

If you are just finding out that you will be having an ostomy, or are recently out of surgery you may find the sheer number of ostomy appliance choices to be overwhelming. Closed-end, drainable, one-piece, two-piece — what do all these mean and which ones are best suited for various outdoor adventures? A lot of these choices come down to a matter of personal preference.  The goal of this post is to share some information on the basic types of appliances and explain how I utilize the various options on peaks and trails. I’d also like to hear what you’re using in the outdoors.

First, ostomy appliances come in one- or two-piece options. With a one-piece appliance, the wafer (also sometimes called a skin barrier) is permanently joined to the bag and cannot be separated–you’re literally stuck with this pouch until you remove the whole thing. The benefits of this style is that it has a low profile and sits very flat against the abdomen. The disadvantage is that because the wafer and bag cannot be separated, you lose the flexibility of being able to swap out different types of pouches unless you take the whole system off your belly. I used one-piece drainable pouches for the first five months after surgery, and on one of my very first major outdoor trips as an ostomate: a three-night early spring backpacking excursion. The ground was snow-covered and frozen on this adventure and I ended up trying to drain my pouch into plastic bags so that I could pack out my waste. It didn’t go well and I got output all over my pants and all over the outside of the bag I was trying to drain into. From that point on, I recognized that a two-piece system would be a better option for my outdoor trips.

In a one-piece ostomy system, the wafer is permanently attached to the pouch. Because of this, swapping out different pouch styles on the same wafer is impossible.
In a one-piece ostomy system, the wafer is permanently attached to the pouch. Because of this, swapping out different pouch styles on the same wafer is impossible. Pictured is a Coloplast SenSura X-Pro drainable one-piece appliance.

With a two-piece appliance, the wafer and pouch are separate and attach to each other with a plastic ring that snaps together much like Tupperware. Once the wafer is on your belly, different styles of pouches can be put on or taken off this ring. These systems are a little higher profile because of the plastic ring. However, there is much flexibility in using them because you can swap out different types of pouches depending on your activities. Due to this, a two-piece appliance is my clear choice for outdoor adventures. Also, I find that even with the plastic ring, two-piece ostomy systems are undetectable under my clothing.

There are also choices for the pouch portion of an ostomy appliance; they come in drainable or closed-end versions. Drainables have a tail that unfolds so that output can be emptied out of the bottom. Once the tail of the pouch is wiped clean, it rolls up and closes with either a clip or a Velcro strip until it needs to be emptied again. A person with an ostomy may use the same drainable pouch for multiple days.

Closed-end pouches have no tail. Once they fill up, they are designed to be thrown away full. Due to their simpler design, they cost less per bag than drainable pouches. However, most ileostomates don’t use them the majority of the time. Due to output coming directly out of the small intestine having higher water content, those with ileostomies usually have to empty their pouches six times a day or more. Even though closed-end pouches have a cheaper per-pouch cost, going through so many  in 24 hours makes them impractical and not cost-effective. Generally closed-end pouches are better suited for those with colostomies who may only have to empty a few times a day. That said, there are occasions when closed-end pouches are the perfect tool for those with ileostomies too.

With a two-piece system, the pouches can be separated from the wafer. On the right is a drainable pouch and on the left a closed-end one.
With a two-piece system, the pouches can be separated from the wafer and swapped out. On the left is a drainable pouch and on the right is a closed-end one. Pictured clockwise is a Convatec Sur-fit Natura drainable pouch with an Invisiclose tail, a closed-end pouch, and a Durahesive cut-to-fit wafer.

Drainable pouches are my preference most of the time, even on wilderness adventures, as long as I can find a good place to empty. Packing out full closed-end pouches can be heavy due to the high water content of ileostomy output. In fact, I once weighed the trash bag that contained a day’s worth of full closed-end pouches after an all-day climb and it came in at 3.5 pounds! Multiply that for trips that may be several days long and you can see why I use closed-end pouches only when necessary.

However, my hike on the ridge is an example of an ideal time to use a closed-end pouch. I also like using closed-end pouches in other places where it is impossible to empty: on cliff faces when climbing, on rocky peaks where it is impossible to dig a cathole, and on crowded urban trails. Though I haven’t been on a river trip with my ostomy yet, I can also see them being very useful in these situations when one cannot get far enough from a water source to empty. Also, it takes longer to dig a hole in the ground and properly drain my pouch when in the wilderness than to swap out a pouch. There have been a few times when I have been caught in storms and have decided to swap to a closed-end pouch instead of draining in order to minimize my exposure to lightning, high winds, cold rain or other dangerous elements.  Both drainable and closed-end options also come in smaller sizes if one wants a tinier pouch for some activities such as swimming.

It is also worth mentioning that there is one other style of two-piece ostomy appliances; they are called adhesive coupling systems. Instead of having a plastic Tupperware-like ring like traditional two-pieces, the wafer has a smooth plastic area and the pouch affixes to this with a sticky adhesive ring. The benefit of these is that, without a plastic ring, they are very flat on the belly. You can still swap out pouch styles by peeling off the old bag from the wafer and sticking on a new one. However, I find that adhesive coupling appliances don’t work well on my outdoor trips . When I peel off the full pouch, a little output inevitably gets on the place where I am supposed to affix a clean one. I then have to fully clean this in order to get the fresh pouch to stick. It ends up being too messy and hard to deal with in the wilderness where there is no water to clean up with. I find it much easier to use the traditional two-piece appliances with plastic rings. Even if a small bit of output gets on the ring, it still snaps together fine and is not messy at all.

In adhesive coupling two-piece systems, the wafers and pouches stick together with an sticky ring. They are low profile, but I find them messy to swap out when on outdoor trips.
In adhesive coupling two-piece systems, the wafers and pouches adhere together with an sticky ring. They are wonderfully low profile, but I find them messy to swap out when on outdoor trips. Pictured on the left is a Convatec Esteem Synergy adhesive coupling system and on the right is a Coloplast SenSura Flex wafer and pouch.

A downside of closed-end pouches is that they are a disposable item. I try to make the best environmental choices possible in my daily activities, so I do sometimes cringe when I throw away my bag of closed-end pouches after a climb knowing I have added more to the landfill than I would have if I would have stuck to a drainable that day. I try to remind myself that I do this for a medical reason and to deal with a basic life process of bodily waste removal. In other aspects of my life, I try my best to be gentle on the earth. I take reusable bags to the store, drive a fuel-efficient vehicle, use public transit, buy organic produce to protect wildlife from pesticides, use eco-cleaners to keep toxins out of our water supply, recycle every item possible, and make wise purchases. I hope that, in the grand scheme of things, the impact of the pouches that I throw away is small. I really do only try to use them when absolutely necessary.

When I was on Mount Sniktau on Sunday and decided draining wouldn’t be possible, I even began to wonder if I could find a good place to take off my full pouch and put an empty closed-end one on. It was so windy and there were people everywhere on the ridge. Once my pouch was 1/3 full, I couldn’t find a place to make the switch. I decided I would wait until later to deal with it. The good thing about my ostomy is that, unless I eat something that irritates my stomach and gives me pure liquid output, I have plenty of time to get around to emptying. It is rarely urgent.

On the summit of Sniktau. It was really cold and windy up there with very little shelter.
On the summit of Sniktau. It was really cold and windy up there with very little shelter.

As I made my way down the ridge from the summit, more and more people were coming up and I realized I couldn’t be fussy with my site selection for swapping. My pouch was now 1/2 full and I needed to take care of it soon. I ran ahead of Doug and his dad but also saw that some people were heading towards me.  I had about 5 minutes before they reached me so I tossed my pack to the side of the trail next to a small pile of rocks and tried to create a wind break. I then dug my supplies out and tied a small doggie poo bag to my pack strap so it wouldn’t blow away (this is what I would throw the full pouch into). Next I pulled down the front of my pant waistband, took my hernia prevention belt off, and quickly swapped out the full pouch for the clean one. Just as I had gotten my clothing back into place and was bagging up my trash, the two hikers approached me. I said hello and we talked for a second about the route. They clearly had no idea I had just dealt with my ostomy. To them, from a distance it probably looked like I was futzing around with my clothing or backpack. One can very discreetly manage their ostomy on the trail with a two-piece system and closed-end pouches.

With all the options out there, it pays to experiment with all the different brands and styles. Don’t feel like you have to use only one type of appliance. Have a dressy occasion where you definitely don’t want your appliance to show? Wear a sleek one-piece that week. Hanging out at the beach all day? Go for a mini drainable pouch that won’t hang out beyond the bottom of your suit. And if, like me, you find yourself needing to empty on a wind-swept ridge with sheer drop-offs on both sides — a two-piece with a closed-end pouch may be just the ticket. Take advantage of all the products out there to make life with your ostomy the best it can be.

This is the spot where I swapped out my pouch. By the time Doug caught up and snapped this photo, I was finished managing my ostomy and was changing my camera battery. However, from a distance swapping out a pouch doesn't look much different than this. It can be done very discreetly.
This is the spot along the trail where I switched out my pouch. By the time Doug caught up and snapped this photo, I was already finished managing my ostomy and was changing my camera battery. However, from a distance, swapping out a pouch doesn’t look much different than this. It can be done very discreetly.

Wilbur the stoma gets a biopsy

On Friday I was having some major déjà vu. However, it wasn’t all in my head. I actually was in a place that I had been before: the outpatient surgery pre-op area of the hospital where I had the colonoscopy that led to me being admitted for a 16-day stay for my final severe UC flare in the autumn of 2010. Except for the fact that I wasn’t feeling sick and hadn’t just been through the worst bowel prep of my life, it felt crazily familiar. The same nurse that had checked me in for that colonoscopy over two years ago checked me in on Friday. He even recognized me! That said, that is where the similarities of the visit ended. Unlike last time, I wasn’t in the outpatient surgery area for anything serious and didn’t even need an IV. I was simply there to have Wilbur, my stoma, biopsied.

In March I wrote about some ulcers on my stoma. After an appointment where I brought some stoma photos showing what had been going on, my IBD nurse prescribed a couple of months of Pentasa to try. Since then, we have been patiently waiting for some ulcers to show up so that they could be biopsied to better determine if I was actually dealing with active IBD. It seemed like every time I would get an ulcer, I couldn’t get in for a biopsy because it was the weekend, I was out-of-town, the ulcers would heal too quickly, or my doctor was not available.

Finally, the perfect chance presented itself. Last Thursday night, I was changing my appliance and spotted a big ulcer that had appeared during the day. The next morning I emailed my IBD nurse and she put things in motion to see if my doctor could squeeze me in for a biopsy. However, my doctor wasn’t working in the GI office that day; she was working at the hospital so I would have to see her there. Within a few hours, everything was set up and I drove from work to the hospital, checked in and was soon on a stretcher in a gown reminiscing about how sick I had been last time I was in that situation.

Once things were ready, I was wheeled down to the room where they do colonoscopies and there I saw my GI doctor for the first time since my UC flare 2.5 years ago. I think my GI doctor is one of the greatest, nicest physicians ever, and I was truly happy to see her again under much better health. We caught up for a bit and talked about the biopsy. She explained the procedure and said she would be using the same tool to remove tissue that she did for intestinal biopsies during routine colonoscopies.

I didn’t even have to take off my wafer. We simply snapped off my pouch, cleaned off the stoma a bit and were set to go. My doctor pinched off a half-dozen tissue samples from my stoma with the tool, including the area of the ulcer. We chatted as she worked and she laughed saying how strange it was to be talking to someone while doing an intestinal biopsy because usually the patients are under sedation. It is pretty handy that stomas have no nerve endings. My stoma bled a little when she plucked off the samples, but the whole procedure was pretty uneventful.

My stoma was completely cooperative and the whole process was mess free until the very end. When the nurse had removed my pouch, she sat it on the table. When we were done, she handed it to me to put back on. It was a fresh pouch from that morning, and I had emptied it before heading to the hospital so it was fairly clean, but there was a bit of output in it from the drive and checking in to pre-op. I had fully intended to put on a clean pouch on after the biopsy and had brought with me.  However, when the nurse handed me the  one we had removed I thought Oh… maybe I can just re-use this since it is fairly clean. Big mistake. Trying to put on the half-full pouch while in a reclined position didn’t go so well and I ended up spilling a small amount of output on my belly. It was a little embarrassing, but the doctor and nurses helped me clean up and were so nice about it that it seemed like no big deal at all. I tossed the old pouch, put on a totally clean one and was good to go.

In the days since the biopsy, Wilbur has started to look like he was attacked by a vicious woodpecker. There are small, circular, ulcer-like depressions in every spot where tissue samples were removed. Though the sores are scary to look at, they should heal in a couple of weeks.

On Tuesday I got the results of the biopsy. It showed non-specific inflammation, but no signs of Crohn’s disease or ischemia (lack of blood flow to tissue). We will keep an eye on things for any changes, but the doctor said that such inflammation could be caused by something as basic as mild surface irritation from my pouch.

It is a relief to know that these ulcers are likely harmless and it feels great to have this and so many other concerns resolved as I head into summer. My shoulder avascular necrosis is feeling great with physical therapy, my hip pain appears to be caused by something pretty benign, and my recent Achilles tendon heel tweak hasn’t been hurting when doing my Rainier training hikes. It definitely feels like the dark cloud that has been hovering over me all winter is finally dissipating. I am really hoping that the sunshine sticks around for a while!

So honored!

It always feels good to get recognized for something, but it is extra special when an award comes from a peer. These folks know the amazing amount of work and passion that can go into a project because they  devote their time and energy to the similar things. About a month ago, fellow blogger Joyce Lameire nominated me for a Versatile Blogger Award. I am incredibly honored that she thought of me. Joyce has both ulcerative colitis and ankylosing spondylitis (AS). Joyce’s blog, ankysponwhat.com features posts about treatments, managing pain and AS news. Lately Joyce has been writing a series of posts that delve into her history with the disease. For those who don’t know, ankylosing spondylitis is often associated with UC. Though I don’t have AS, I have been learning a lot about the disease through her site and would highly recommend checking it out.

In order to accept a Versatile Blogger Award, the following rules must be followed:

  • Display the award certificate on your website.
  • Announce your win with a post and link to whoever presented you with the award.
  • Present 15 awards to deserving bloggers.
  • Drop them a comment to tip them off after you have linked them in the post.
  • Post 7 interesting things about yourself.

It should be no surprise that most of the blogs I follow are IBD-related. There are so many blogs that I absolutely love but I won’t be able to include them all (the list would go on for pages). Here are are 15 of my favorites and the reasons I find them so special.

  • Full Frontal Ostomy Charis, long before we both had blogs, was the very first person that I reached out to online when I was facing ostomy surgery. She is a positive role model and I love her blog and all she does to spread ostomy and IBD awareness.
  • Blood Poop and Tears This is one of the very first blogs I read when I had IBD and then surgery. I love Jackie’s honest account of her life with IBD.
  • Girls with Guts This website and blog is put together by Charis and Jackie (who author the two blogs above). One of the site’s many features are stories of women who have strongly faced the challenges of IBD. Girls with Guts is a huge source of inspiration for me.
  • Inflamed and Untamed Sarah so often puts the exact things I am feeling into words. She does an amazing job of describing the emotional aspects of having IBD and many times I am brought to tears by her writing because I can relate to it so well.
  • Rollin with Outta Colon Cary is an avid cyclist with an ostomy and his blog posts are an artful blend of thoughts on biking, music, photography and the realities of living with an ostomy and the pain of chronic illness. Cary’s posts are full of depth and insight and really get me thinking.
  • Living Bigger with a Colostomy Paul is a fellow outdoor adventurer and I’m inspired by reading about all the things he does with his ostomy. His life is proof that an ostomy does not have to stop a person from doing the things they love.
  • Run Stronger Everyday Even though my running plans have been sidelined due to hip woes, I love reading Abby’s blog. She has been through ostomy surgery and now has a J-pouch. I am not sure when I will be able to return to running (definitely not before my Rainier climb since I can’t risk getting injured), but her blog helps keep me motivated for the day I once again lace up my shoes for a jog.
  • Living Life and Lovin’ It Megan is a newcomer to the ostomy blogging community. I love how she writes about her ostomy experiences in some posts and then things as diverse as chickens and pitcher plants in others. Life is a beautiful mix of so many things and her blog celebrates that.
  • Amazing Adventures- Ostomy Included I only recently discovered this ostomy-and IBD-related blog and am already hooked. Just reading the author’s story reminded me so much of my own—right down to the post-surgery incision complications that I frustratingly faced after surgery. I love this blogger’s adventurous spirit and thoughtful writing and can’t wait for future posts.
  • Gutless Cyclist The author of this blog has also had some health setbacks recently. Despite this, he stays positive and works hard to get back on his bike. Reading his posts fills me with inspiration.
  • Theflowrylife This blog was only started in November 2012, but is already one of my favorites. I love the author’s focus on mindfulness and enjoying the present moment.
  • Love for Mutant Guts It has been great to see Alyssa’s confidence as an IBD health activist grow through her blog. She always has a kind and encouraging word to say too.
  • A Guy with Crohn’s Jeffrey does a great job of spreading IBD awareness. I enjoy reading his posts on a wide variety of topics including gluten-free cooking. To top it off, Jeffrey recently took part in the WEGO Health Health Activist Writer’s Month Challenge and managed to write a post a day for 30 days. I sometimes have trouble writing a post every couple of weeks, so that is a major accomplishment!
  • Intense intestines When I first stumbled upon Brian’s blog I couldn’t believe it. Here was another outdoor-loving person who had gone through ostomy surgery one day after I had. The organization Brian started, The Intense Intestines Foundation, has grown to become one of the most incredible resources for those with IBD.
  • Squirt’s blog Donna is a fellow nature-loving ostomate with an adventurous spirit and that shines through in her blog. She does so much to spread ostomy awareness. I am pretty sure if Donna lived closer, we would be meeting up to explore forests, streams and fields on a regular basis.

Now for the seven interesting  tidbits about my life:

  • I have way too many hobbies. As if the plethora of outdoor sports I enjoy aren’t enough, I love drawing, painting, printmaking, journaling, sewing, tying fishing flies, storytelling, writing, drumming and playing the guitar. Whew! The upside–I can’t remember a time that I was ever really bored.
Drum circle fun.
Playing my djembe.
  • I can do an awesome squirrel voice. This comes in handy for the above-mentioned storytelling hobby and the many puppet shows I conduct for kids as a park naturalist.

    My squirrel voice was first developed for the puppet on the right, but has since been used while impersonating a variety of rodent characters.
    My squirrel voice was first developed for the puppet on the right, but has since been used while impersonating a variety of rodent characters. (Oh, and I also hand-sewed these three puppets.)
  • Weather fascinates me. Ever since I spotted a twister that came within ½ mile of my house as a child, I have been interested in weather. I have the National Weather Service radar bookmarked on my computer and could watch clouds all day. I was bummed that all my hospital room windows faced east when I was stuck there during my UC and surgery recovery. It drove me crazy to not be able to see the weather coming in from the west.
  • Social media wears me out. Though I enjoy public speaking and teaching, I am a total introvert at heart. I am the person at parties who you see having an in-depth conversation with someone in the corner instead of mingling. In the same way, I love interacting with people one and one through blog comments and emails. However, I definitely fall short in the realm of social media. The pace of Facebook and Twitter is crazy and by the time I process all the information and think of what I want to say, posts are already dead and buried. And I find writing within the 140 character limit of Twitter nearly impossible!
  • I drive a pink scooter. In an effort to keep my carbon footprint as small as possible, I make my 28-mile round-trip commute on my scooter when the weather cooperates (my bike gets 90-95 mpg). With my pink helmet and blond ponytail, I must look like Barbie going down the street because I often get waved to by little girls.
Heading to work on my scooter.
Heading to work on my scooter.
  • I love gummy candy. I try to eat healthy, but I have weakness for gummy bears, octopi, worms or whatever crazy-shaped creations I can find in the candy aisle.
  • I was a really creative kid. When I was a child, my parents set up art studios in the basement for my brothers and I, and stocked them with markers, paints, papers and all sorts of materials. I would spend hours down there drawing and creating art projects. I also used to develop my very own book order forms for my parents to fill out. Once they marked which titles they wanted, I would make little books and write a tale within the pages so that I could fill their order. My brothers and I also used to type up scripts and song sheets for shows and then perform them for our family.
Sitting in my homemade cardboard sleigh during a one of our Christmas productions.
Sitting in the homemade cardboard sleigh during act one of a Christmas production.
Act two involved some singing complete with a microphone. Now if only I actually could have carried a tune!
Act two involved singing in an elf costume (with a cool microphone)! Now if only I could have actually carried a tune.