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.

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Another view of Heidi’s story

My name is Doug, and I’m the lucky one who is married to Heidi, the champion of the effort called Ostomy Outdoors.

When Heidi started this blog six months ago, I didn’t imagine that I would be writing in it myself. You see, I’m not an ostomate. But I live with an ostomate, and I’ve become intimately familiar with a whole new world of experiences, vocabulary, and feelings related to ostomies, surgeries, and recoveries.

We digitally recorded a happy moment between a painful wound-packing session and a slow recovery walk last winter.

I found out from Heidi that it’s not just people considering ostomy surgery who are reading this blog and watching the videos. Some readers are people like me: intestinally healthy friends, family, and acquaintances of those who have IBD, Crohn’s, ulcerative colitis, and/or ostomies. So, I figured it was time to diversify the writing a bit on Ostomy Outdoors, and try to provide not only a different perspective for this readership, but possibly serve as a sounding board for the “others” who are in the lives of readership.

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Celebrating my first year as an ostomate

Today is the one-year anniversary of my ileostomy surgery. I thought about climbing a mountain to honor the 0ccasion, but decided to celebrate by enjoying a normal day. After all, as much as I love getting outside to challenge myself, it was the simple everyday things in life such as being able to go to work, eating a regular diet, and hanging out with friends and loved ones that I most longed to do when I was sick and then recovering from surgery. So, today I woke up and enjoyed my drive up to the park where I work. On the way, I could see the freshly snow-dusted mountains of the Continental Divide in the distance and was grateful for such a spectacular commute. At my job, I contentedly worked on an kid’s owl night hike that I will be presenting soon. After work, Doug and I had dinner with some friends. We joked that we should have a party with stoma-shaped cookies and a commemorative all-liquid dinner, but we opted for pizza and beers instead. It was a wonderful day, and it was the perfect way to top off my challenging yet life-renewing first year with my ostomy.

Enjoying pizza and beer on the 1-year anniversary of my surgery.

Last year, the day of my surgery was full of much different experiences, but was also a celebration of sorts. I remember waking up in the morning and breathing a huge sigh of relief. As we drove to the hospital at 5:15 a.m., I was scared and nervous, but also felt a profound sense of peace as I rested my head against the window and gazed up at the stars, pondering what my life without the sickness and pain of ulcerative colitis was going to be like. I checked into the hospital and made my way to pre-op, finally feeling secure that nothing was going to get in the way of my surgery.

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A dot marks the spot

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.

The paper cut-out shows where my stoma is. The location between the waist belt and leg loops prevents the harness from rubbing on my stoma. My belly button sits right under the waist belt.

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.

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Permanent ileostomy or j-pouch: that was the question

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.

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Crossing the expanse (feat. new video)

“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.

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Here’s to 500 views!

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.

Continue reading “Here’s to 500 views!”