Turning 40

I couldn’t stop smiling as I sat in the stands at Coors Field. I was attending a Colorado Rockies game for my 40th birthday, and the evening had been amazing so far. Planning to ride our bikes to the stadium (to avoid traffic and the parking fee), Doug and I had parked our car about a mile away.  Just as we were about to unload our bikes from the roof rack, a massive storm blew in and we watched lighting streak across the Denver skyline as hail pummeled our car. Once the storm ended, we jumped on our bikes and cruised downtown, breathing in the wonderful spring smell of rain-soaked ground and blossoming trees.

We arrived at the stadium an hour early, so we stopped to enjoy drinks at the Irish pub next door. I was halfway done with my Strongbow Cider when the waitress surprised me with a free birthday shot. I have no idea what was in the fruity purple concoction, but she assured me it didn’t have gluten in it, so down the hatch it went. This was a little more than I would normally drink on a mostly empty stomach with my ostomy, but hey, it was my birthday. Time to throw caution to the wind. My stomach wasn’t empty for long. As soon as we walked over to the stadium, I indulged in one of my favorite treats. I hardly ever eat hamburgers due to having celiac disease (and the fact that they are not that healthy), but Coors Field has a special gluten-free concession stand. Soon I was in my seat, huge burger in hand and eagerly anticipating the game.

Nature even provided some pre-game entertainment for my birthday. Perched on the balcony railing above me, a male house finch was singing his heart out. Over and over he belted out his melodious tune, and I kept thinking that there had to be a female baseball-fan-of-a-finch listening somewhere in the stands. I hope he finds her. There are certainly many great places to tuck a nest in the stadium and then the pair can watch every home game as they raise the next generation of Rockies-loving finches.

If this amazing start to my birthday evening wasn’t great enough, things got even better. The Rockies were clobbering the opposing team in one of the best games I had the pleasure of watching. In between watching unbelievable plays, my mind cycled through memories of being at the stadium so many times before.

It was on a previous visit to Coors Field that my final UC flare first made itself known. I am sure many IBDers know the feeling of thinking they have finally found the magic bullet of probiotics, diet and medication to keep their illness in control, only to have their body fail them yet again. It was during a night similar to this one that I was having fun watching the Rockies when one such disappointing moment came. I got up to use the restroom during the 7th inning stretch and noticed a tiny speck of blood from my intestines on the toilet paper. My heart sank. I left the bathroom and tried to focus on the rest of the game, but all I could think about was the fact that my four-month remission was over and my UC was back. At the time, I had no idea that those initial specks of blood would turn into the massive flare that would cost me my colon. When I look back at my photos from that evening, I see a woman who is blissfully unaware of the major life change that is about to happen. If you would have told me that night that I would have an ostomy a few months later, I would have said you were out of your mind.

Sitting in the stadium on my 40th birthday, I realized that I still had no idea what was around the corner. But if there is one thing I have learned in my 39th year, it is that this uncertainty is okay. Tomorrow would be on its way soon enough, but right now I was enjoying watching the players slide into bases and hearing Doug yell GO TODD at the top of his lungs every time Todd Helton was up to bat. Right now I was having fun singing Take Me out to the Ball Game and seeing the people around me laughing and goofing around with their friends and family. Right now I was smiling as I blew out the candle in my birthday cupcake and made my wish for the year. Right now I was happy that my ostomy had allowed me all these moments.

For me, turning 40 wasn’t something to be sad about. It wasn’t about all the things that I hadn’t done or about goals not yet achieved. Turning 40 was about celebrating all the things I had done. It was about lightning and skyscrapers, house finches on balconies, bike rides through puddles, baseball players getting out of pickles and every other great memory I have from that day and all of those before.

Part eight in a series: I am thankful for online friends

I am thankful for online friends

I am not sure what words I typed into the search engine to stumble upon Charis Guerin’s Inspire.com website, but it was one of those lucky moments of fate. I was just entering a horrendous flare up of ulcerative colitis, and was surfing the internet to read about the experiences of people who were going through the same thing. As I dove into the story that flashed up on my screen, I could not believe how much I had in common with the young woman who wrote it. She was strong and active and into fitness just as I was. At the time, she even had a job that very similar to mine where she worked on kids’ programming– only at a historical site instead of a natural area. A year before, an ulcerative colitis flare had hit her hard… so hard that she had gone through surgery to remove her colon.  I was so inspired by her story that I decided to contact her.

This was the first time in my life that I had reached out to a complete stranger about a health issue, and it felt really weird to pour my heart out and list all my unpleasant symptoms to someone I did not know. I can’t remember what I wrote exactly, but I am sure it must have sounded like a pretty desperate plea for help because within a short time, Charis emailed me back. As my disease quickly worsened, and I found myself in the hospital facing the possibility of surgery, Charis’s encouraging emails and phone calls helped get me through some very uncertain times.

As I continued to write Charis over the course of the year, I discovered that she was facing hard times herself as her j-pouch failed and she recently decided to undergo permanent ileostomy surgery. We have supported each other through all these health twists and turns and her friendship means a great deal to me. I hope I can be there for her during these tough times as she was for me. Right in the middle of of all these big challenges for Charis, she has started a successful new Facebook project called FullFrontalOstomy to help those with IBD and/or ostomies reach out to each other. This speaks volumes about how strong and inspirational she is. I hope that someday I get to meet her in person. What do you say, Charis? The 2012 CFFA Team Challenge Half Marathon or maybe at the UOAA conference in Florida?

Since reaching out to Charis, I have made so many more amazing friends through the internet and continue to every day.  I am extremely thankful for online communities where people can reach out, connect and get support. These forums, web sites, Facebook pages etc. allowed me to meet so many other people who were going through the same challenges and who were willing to talk openly about them. As an ostomate and/or person fighting IBD, you need a community where conversing about output or gas-filled pouches is as easy as discussing the weather. You need a place where talking about a new ostomy product feels as natural as talking about the latest release by your favorite band. You need to surround yourself with people who don’t blush when the topics of urgency, diarrhea or bloated and painful stomachs come up. Without online friends to talk about these things with, life can feel very lonely. I am thankful everyday that the internet has allowed people with ostomies and/or IBD to find each other and converse so easily.

With this post, I wrap up my series on the things I am thankful for. Of course, there are oodles of other things that I am extremely grateful for that I have not listed. Still, when I look over the list of the things I have written about over the last week, I quickly realize that the vast majority of the posts are about people. This isn’t surprising. When it comes down to it, people often make the biggest positive impacts in our lives. I will be forever thankful for the countless ways that these individuals, and so many others, have changed my life for the better.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Part seven in a series: I am thankful for my friends

I am thankful for my friends

Friendship can be such an intangible thing. It is the warmth that surrounds you when someone you care about is around. It is the spark that ignites when you realize you have things in common with another. Friendship is the security of confiding in someone you trust or the comfort in knowing a person is always there for you. When I was in the hospital sick and at home recovering from surgery, I felt friendship everywhere:

It lived in the cards and flowers that filled my room and the funny pictures my friends drew me.

It was found in a visit from a friend who, after getting a desperate email from me the day I found out I might be facing surgery, drove across town on her lunch break to show me her ostomy. It was also in her long and thoughtful responses to several more frantic emails in the ensuing weeks.

It waited in a care package of chocolate and other goodies sent across the country from friends I had worked with long ago and hadn’t seen for years.

Friendship resided in the emails that poured into my inbox. Many of these messages were never returned because I was so exhausted. That didn’t matter; my friends just kept sending more.

It was found in the conversations I had with friends who called to cheer me up, or left in voice mail messages when I couldn’t answer the phone because: A) I was sleeping, B) I was talking to a doctor or nurse, C) I was in the bathroom, or D) I was sleeping some more. (Ditto on the statement above about not always returning those messages, and double ditto on my friends leaving more anyway.)

It sat in the stack of People and US Weekly magazines a friend brought me so I could laugh at the ridiculous stories and focus less on being sick.

It demonstrated itself in the bravery of my friend, who is a world-class germaphobe and hates to even touch doorknobs, taking a trip the eighth floor of the hospital to see me. Twice. And she even ate dinner with me in the common area in my hospital wing on one such visit.

Friendship existed in the moments when my friends understood that I was too tired to see them at all.

So yes, friendship might be intangible, but my friends made sure there were tangible signs of it everywhere to help me make it through the hard times. I am so incredibly thankful for my friends… they mean more to me than my sometimes-quiet nature would ever reveal. I don’t think I could have made it through all this without them.

Purposely missing from this post is a mention of the friends who I may not have met in person, but have developed lasting friendships with online. Stay tuned…

Part six in a series: I am thankful for understanding coworkers

I am thankful for understanding coworkers

One of the hardest things about facing ostomy surgery was knowing I was going to be away from the park where I work for a long period of time. I had already missed several weeks due to my ulcerative colitis flare, and now I was going to be out for roughly eight more weeks. I work with a small group of people, and I knew it was going to burden my coworker’s schedules to fill in the gaps my absence would leave.

However, I had no sooner mentioned surgery than everyone was offering to cover for my programs and even switch their days off. One thing I was going to miss was a holiday festival for young kids that I usually coordinate. I tried get as much done in the brief period of time I returned to work before surgery, but ended up leaving many loose ends for my coworkers to sort out. When I was in the hospital, they sent a photo of themselves preparing for the event. They were all sporting funny faces with craft supplies hanging off their ears and trying to make it look like absolute chaos. But it wasn’t. My coworkers did a stellar job carrying out the event, and filled me in on all the details via email.

Some might prefer to not get emails from work while recovering at home, but that wasn’t true for me. I love my job and missed being there. I wanted to hear about the amazing stars that were out at the astronomy event at the park or the cool shelters the kids built at one of our nature-play programs. My coworkers frequently sent me notes to say hi, pass on well-wishes from volunteers, ask how I was doing and fill me in on all the latest happenings. It made me very happy and reminded me of the normal world that I would soon return to.

When I did go back to work and had serious lifting restrictions, my coworkers went out of their way to help. It was a bit of a pain asking for assistance with lifting every little thing, but they were always willing to move tables, carry taxidermy animal mounts up from the basement, and haul around boxes of program supplies for me. I loved it when I was carrying something really light and they still ran over to grab it from my arms.

Another difficult thing with IBD and ostomies is knowing how much information you want to share and with whom. This seems especially true at work. When I was away from my job with my ulcerative colitis flare and for surgery, I didn’t tell my coworkers much about my condition due to to fear of the stigmas surrounding it. In retrospect, I realize my reluctance to talk about it made things not only harder on myself, but also more difficult on my fellow staff members. The park where I work has a large crew of caring volunteers, and many of us are good friends. During the time I was in the hospital, these volunteers wanted to know what was going on, yet I had only given my coworkers rather nebulous facts to pass on. (I said, I have an auto-immune stomach condition. Can’t get more nebulous than that, right?)

I had told my boss a bit more information, but had asked him not to share it. I am sure it was an awkward time for everyone, and one of my few regrets surrounding my UC and surgery experiences is that I wasn’t more open about it at work from the beginning. It was silly of me not to share more. After all, if I were getting surgery on my heart, knee, or back, I certainly would have told everyone without a second thought. I work with a very compassionate group of people who would have been completely understanding and supportive. I am glad that they were so patient with me as I processed the events and finally became comfortable talking more openly. I am thankful to work with such a great group of people.

Part four in a series: I am thankful for my surgeon

I am thankful for my surgeon, Dr. Craig Brown

How could I possibly be laughing? I had just been wheeled into the sterile operating room, had scooted over onto the operating table and was now gazing at the big round lights looming above with doctors and nurses in masks poised over me. Wouldn’t anxiousness have been a more appropriate reaction to this scenario than this sudden case of the giggles? And no, it wasn’t medication or nervousness causing me to crack up; it was Dr. Brown’s sense of humor. The room was freezing and he had just said something hilarious about this being my third surgery and how it was supposed to earn me a free cup of soup. Dr. Brown could always tell the funniest story or joke at exactly the perfect time to make me smile and erase my worries for at least a few minutes. And when you are feeling awful and terrified, even small moments of laughter are a big deal.

Dr. Brown’s sense of humor was just one of the many things that made him the best doctor I have ever had. Anyone with a medical worry can relate to the unbelievable sense of relief that comes with simply hearing your doctor’s voice on the phone advising you on what to do next when you are anxious about something. Dr. Brown was always there to help me out with concerns and is the most accessible doctor I have ever worked with. When I had problems, I didn’t talk to his nurse– I talked to him. He called often to check in both at the hospital and when I was back at home… sometimes even on the weekends. The speed at which he returned calls was unbelievable. He even squeezed me in for quick office visits at the last minute when I was concerned about something. I know he had many other patients, so I am still not sure how he did it. Maybe he is really a superhero?

Dr. Brown is most definitely a surgical one. His knowledge and skills are impeccable and I developed absolute trust in his judgment. A month out of surgery, I was having some issues and Dr. Brown sent me over to the ER to get a CT scan. After I had the test, other doctors came in and told Doug and me about the next steps. They did a fine job, but I still couldn’t wait for Dr. Brown to stop back to discuss the results and plan. Somehow it put me at ease to hear about it all from the doctor that I trusted the most.

Much of that trust came from Dr. Brown’s amazing bedside manner. He had the exceptional ability to be both direct and honest in his communication, but also compassionate and kind. He took the time to get to know both Doug and me, and treated us as friends. One day he called up to my hospital room just to recommend that I stroll to a nearby park because it was nice outside.

What do you think?  That was one of the things Dr. Brown said often. He really took the time to listen and get our opinions. He empowered Doug to be a partner in my care and spent just as much time answering Doug’s questions as my own. I can remember sitting on the couch and hearing the two of them talking on the phone about how to carefully pack gauze into a small tunnel that had developed in my abdominal wound. I loved it because Doug had never done anything like that before, but really wanted to do the best job possible. Dr. Brown was always so encouraging and confidence-inspiring.

When I was in the hospital with my final UC flare, my GI doctor told me that if I wanted to pursue surgery, she wanted me to have my operation with the best. I will forever be grateful that the referral sheet she gave me had Dr. Craig Brown’s name on it.

Part three in a series: I am thankful for my family

I am thankful for my Family

“I think it is going to bust open,” I cried in a panicked voice. A small gap in my incision had formed the day before, and I had just lifted up a dressing to discover that it was now twice as long, much deeper, and oozing copious amounts of drainage. As always seemed to be the case when things went awry for me post-surgery,  it was the weekend which meant I had to wait a couple of days to get in to see my surgeon. Fortunately, my mom, who had flown in from Washington to help me out, was there to keep me from going crazy with worry.

There is nothing like having your mom close by when you are hurting, and her presence comforted me to no end. My mom and I have always been close, and during her visit, it felt just like the old days when we spent a lot of time together. In the two weeks she was here, we managed to have lots of those mother-daughter chats that I miss so much. We also took trips to the mall so I could get my post-surgery exercise and try on fun clothes to help me feel confident about my brand new ostomy. She cooked for Doug and I, and even made a just-out-of-surgery-safe Thanksgiving dinner. Even though I felt poorly, I have the fondest memories of her visit. When she left, I cried because I missed having her here.

My mom and I right before she headed back to WA after helping me out for two weeks post-surgery.

I know my dad wanted to be here too, but he was not able to make the trip out from Washington state with my mom. That was okay… his love was with me. I also knew he was sitting back there worrying about me every second like dads always do. He called every day to check in and let me know he was thinking about me. I was grateful for the sacrifice he made in being without Mom to keep him company for two weeks. I know it must have been a very difficult and lonely period, especially the timing being right over Thanksgiving which is normally a time to be close to your loved-ones.

Still, my family is used to being spread out over great distances. Not only do my parents live all the way out in Washington, but my older brother lives in New York City and at the time of my surgery, my younger brother was living in B.C., Canada. He now lives in New York City too. Though they couldn’t be near, my brothers called often to give me support when I was making tough decisions about surgery and to cheer me up after the operation. It was fun explaining to them what it was like to have an ostomy. I am sad that I hardly ever get to see them, but I feel their love with me all the time. Usually when my brothers and I finally meet up again, even if a year or two has gone by since we last saw each other, we start talking and hanging out like barely a day has gone by. I love that.

Doug’s parents were there for me as well. When I was in the hospital with my UC flare, my doctors would allow me to go for walks outside as long as I was with someone and it was during the daylight hours. Doug couldn’t always get off from work during those times, so his parents would come visit often and take me on strolls outside. Those days in the hospital were so long and monotonous, and I appreciated their visits so much. Once I could start eating regular foods again, they brought gluten-free pretzels and cookie treats to my  hospital room to help me start gaining the 25 pounds I had lost. While I was later recovering from surgery, Doug and I would go up to his parent’s house in Fort Collins on the weekends where I could rest while also getting a change of scenery. In between short walks outside, I would curl up on the couch and watch football games with Doug and his dad, usually dozing off until a loud HOORAY would wake me up and alert me to changes in the score. To this day, whenever I am up at their house, it feels like a place of refuge. I look at those couches and just want to cuddle up in a blanket. So much healing happened there and I am so thankful for the love and support of Doug’s family.

When the incision I mentioned did end up opening due to my body being uncooperative in its healing, I found myself heading back to surgery to have it repaired. The hospital had signs posted that only a couple of family members were allowed in the pre-op area at once, but due to the evening hour and things being slow, the staff made an exception. There around my bed were Doug, my mom and Doug’s parents all cheering me on. I knew my dad and brothers were thinking of me too. At that moment, I felt the incredible love of my family so strongly. They were there for me then and always are.

Part two in a series: I am thankful for Doug

I am thankful for my husband, Doug

The other morning, I wandered downstairs and started making myself a cup of tea, still a little groggy after allowing myself the luxury of sleeping until 10 a.m. Doug, always the early riser, had already been up for 5 hours and was bouncing with excitement over some news he had to share. He told me to stop what I was doing and go take a look on the computer. There on the screen was a touching post on my blog regarding Doug’s thoughts on my surgery and his plans to contribute the site. I was incredibly moved by his efforts and reminded once again of the continuous love and support my husband gives me. He is always there for me… whether giving me high-fives on a run or hugs on a hard day. Doug proofreads blog posts when he is trying to watch a football game, understands my need for quiet time when I want to be a hermit in my art studio, and is my biggest fan with any endeavor I attempt. I know there are times when I am difficult, yet his love surrounds and comforts me eternally.

Of course, Doug and I have had our share of hard moments and misunderstandings, as I imagine most couples who have been together for a long while do. After navigating the waves and rapids of tough times and conflicts, we always find our love steadfastly waiting on the other side. Oftentimes, the challenges faced in those rough waters makes our love even stronger than before.

Every day, I am thankful for the day Doug came into my life. Over 20 years ago, I stopped Doug in the stairwell at our college dorm. I had seen him in some classes and was looking for an opportunity to talk to him. Not knowing what to say when the chance finally presented itself, I blurted out the most geeky pick-up line ever, “Hey, how do you think you did on that wildlife management exam?” Fortunately, he wasn’t scared away and we immediately struck up a conversation. I must have been pretty smitten afterwards, because when we were done talking I couldn’t even think straight and went down the stairs towards the basement when I actually lived on the 3rd floor.

At that moment in time, could I ever have imagined that the stranger I had just talked to would become my best friend, husband and partner though the greatest times and the hardest? Could I have anticipated all the amazing adventures we would share or the unconditional love we would have for each other? Could I have fathomed the the support and care Doug would give me when I was facing and recovering from surgery? I know now that those were the luckiest few minutes of my life. No words can begin to describe the love I feel for Doug or how grateful I am to be his wife.

Celebrating our adventure on Mt. Belford and Mt. Oxford in July 2011. On a side note, we cannot help accidentally dressing alike after all these years.