It was a gorgeously sunny October day last year when I packed up my harness and backpack and headed out the door. No, I wasn’t going on a hike or climb. In fact, the place I was traveling to wasn’t even outside. As I arrived at my destination, I walked down the sidewalk and through the double sliding door of the building. I made my way to the check-in line by the front desk and felt somewhat self-conscious with my huge backpack sticking out of a bag slung over my shoulder. A few moments later, I entered the crowded elevator, where people gave me quizzical glances. Such gear would be expected at a trailhead, but it was not the norm here. However, today, having my pack and harness was as important as it would have been on any hike or climb. As the elevator door opened on the ninth floor, I nervously walked to the department down the hall to meet my wound, ostomy and continence (WOC) nurse for the first time. It was time to have the site of my stoma marked.
I had been told to wear my favorite pants to the meeting so that the location would match with my clothing. However, I also decided to bring my harness and backpack. With outdoor activities being a huge passion in my life, I wanted to make sure that my stoma location would work as well as possible with my gear.
At the meeting, the nurse shared important information about what to expect with output, eating, activities etc. Finally it was time to get the location marked. I felt a little funny explaining to her that along with making sure the spot worked with my belly and with my clothing, I also wanted to test it out with my harness and pack. Fortunately, she didn’t make me feel silly about my request at all, and soon I had a big blue dot on my abdomen about two inches to the right of my belly button and two inches below. This was a good location because it was below my belt line. This meant that gear or clothing waistbands would not rest on my stoma or prevent output from reaching the bottom of my pouch.
When I got home, I stood in front of the mirror and looked at the mark. I tried to picture what it would look like with a stoma there instead. Suddenly, my decision to have the surgery seemed very real, and I felt excited and nervous at the same time. To further discover how my new stoma spot worked with my clothing and gear, I filled up the ostomy appliance my nurse had given me with applesauce and taped it on top of the blue dot on my belly. I then went out to the garage to dig out every backpack I owned. The one I had taken to my nurse visit was my favorite overnight one, but there was also the brand new day pack I had just bought before I got sick again. I had only used it once. And then there was the large load-monster of a pack that I took on very long trips. Would that one work with the ostomy? One by one, I tried on the packs and they all seemed to rest well above my stoma. I was encouraged.
One of the questions I get most often from readers of my blog is why I chose to have a permanent ileostomy instead of trying j-pouch surgery. Though I have mentioned a few of the reasons in other posts, I decided to address this topic in a little more detail. The point of this post isn’t to tell you that one surgery type is better than the other. They are both very good options. My goal in this writing is to share the thought process I went through to make my choice.
In the course of my illness, all my symptoms, colonoscopies, and genetic testing pointed to Ulcerative Colitis and not Crohn’s. This made me made me a candidate for either surgery type. At age 38 during the time of my surgery, why would I choose to live with a “bag” for the rest of my life?
It wasn’t a decision I took lightly, and I gathered all the information I could. This began when I was still in the hospital, facing the possibility of emergency surgery. The very kind and helpful general surgeon who would have done my surgery had I continued to decline, visited my room almost every day to check in and patiently answer my seemingly endless questions. He introduced me to the words “ileostomy” and “j-pouch” and gave me a great foundation of information to build on.
“How about going ziplining,” our friend suggested. My first thought was, Absolutely! That sounds fun, I have always wanted to try it. My second thought was, Wait, what about my ostomy? How will my pouching system hold up to zipping through the air in a harness attached to a cable? Not to mention that there won’t be any restrooms for three hours. What if my pouch explodes or leaks? Maybe I should hold off.
Some fears keep you alive– like being afraid to climb higher on a route because it is above your ability, or being terrified of a river crossing because you know it might sweep you off of your feet and send you into the rapids. But there are also those fears that don’t have such dire consequences. The ones that pop into our heads and stop us from doing things that would actually be rewarding and good for us.
I recognized that the fears that were trying to stop me from going ziplining were of the latter variety and purged them from my head. I knew I could go 4-5 hours before draining my pouch– even longer if I pushed it a bit and let my appliance fill up a tad more. I knew the harness would likely cause no problems and that I was strong enough for the adventure. There was no reason not to give it a try.
We signed up for a 5-stage tour through the tree tops at the Crested Butte ski resort. One of the rules was that you couldn’t carry anything in your hands, so I guzzled a bunch of water to avoid getting dehydrated. Then we met with our guides and harnessed up. Much to my delight, the bulky, adjustable one-size-fits all harnesses still worked fine with my pouch. The upper part of the hip belt sat well above my stoma, and the harness barely touched my appliance.
I had to do a double-take when I looked at my Ostomy Outdoors blog counter the other day and saw that it had hit the 500 views mark after only a couple of weeks. I never expected to have so much interest in the site. Thank you to everyone who has read, commented on, or included links on their own websites or Facebook accounts regarding the blog and videos.
I know firsthand the importance of hearing other people’s stories when facing ostomy surgery. The whole experience is a complex stew of hope, fear, excitement and worry. One needs help sorting through these feelings while trying to make sound decisions… usually while feeling very ill on top of it all.
Yesterday was my sixth-month anniversary of my permanent ileostomy surgery, so it seems like a fitting time to start my Ostomy Outdoors blog. I have been active in the outdoors since I was a child, and one of my biggest fears about ostomy surgery was that I would no longer be able to take part in the outdoor adventures that I love, like rock climbing and backpacking. Through writing and short films, this blog will document my return to these activities after having my colon removed due to ulcerative colitis (UC).
My battle with UC began in 1999. It started out very mild but worsened over the years, with 2009 and 2010 bringing my worst symptoms yet. My abdominal pain increased, and I constantly bled, making it hard to keep my iron levels stable, resulting in fatigue. I would sometimes have small accidents and began to put pads in the back of my undies when hiking, just in case. Of course, I was also a little embarrassed about all of this, and except for my husband and parents, never talked to my friends and family about it. I was a master at covering it up. There were a few times my cover was almost blown. I remember once when I was out hiking, my friends got ahead of me on the trail when suddenly I had to go the bathroom. Without any time to inform them of my situation, I ducked behind a boulder to dig an emergency cat hole. They couldn’t see where I had gone, and thought I had disappeared! Needless to say, they were very relieved when they saw me walking towards them again on the trail. Urgency is one thing when you are hiking; it is another matter up on a rock face. Often if I was feeling ill with UC, I would cancel my climbing plans. Still, most of the time I managed to lead an active life with the disease by ignoring the pain and not letting it stop me.