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.
When I first got out of the hospital around Thanksgiving in 2010, I was overwhelmed with my ostomy appliance. I remember calling Doug on the phone in tears the first time I tried to change it on my own. Output had gotten all over the place, there was way too much skin showing around my stoma, and I had put the one-piece pouch on quite crooked. Doug had gone to the airport to pick up my Mom so that she could help take care of me during my recovery and wondered why I hadn’t waited until they got home so that they could assist with the change. I didn’t have a good answer. I have a fierce independent streak, and I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it on my own. However, after that disaster I quickly realized that I wasn’t ready. I needed their help, and Doug or Mom assisted me with every single change in those initial weeks.
Though I was feeling better about my appliance after a few weeks, I still wasn’t all that efficient or confident at changing. So I went back to my stoma nurse for a refresher. She gave me some more tips which helped and soon I could change my appliances by myself. Still, it was the one thing ostomy-related that made me cry out of frustration time and time again. My stoma always created output during the change, making things take a long time, and I struggled to get my pattern cut to the right size. I constantly worried that I wasn’t getting things perfect and that I was either going to strangle my poor stoma or that my skin was going to get eaten away from cutting the wafer too big. It was at these times that I had my biggest moments of doubt about backpacking. If I couldn’t even handle doing the changes in my house, with hot running water and oodles of washcloths at my fingertips, how would I possibly do it out in the wilderness? No matter how I tried, I couldn’t picture it as a reality.
The problem was, I was jumping to step 20 when I should have been concentrating on getting the basics down. I realized this was causing undue stress and anxiety, and I began to focus more on the moment and tasks at hand. I could figure out the backpacking part later.
Snow is soon to fly in the mountains, and my peak ascending opportunities are going to be more limited for a while. I have turned my attention to getting back into running, something I have been neglecting while preparing for and carrying out all of our backpacking and summit trips this summer.
I have decided I want to begin training for the 2012 Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation’s Team Challenge half marathon. I know I won’t be ready by this December, so I plan to work up my strength and endurance and then join the organization’s formal training group next fall. I am super excited. I did several 5K and 10K runs, including one trail running race in my pre-surgery days, but never a half marathon.
In the past, some of my worst ulcerative colitis flares happened when I was training for races. I believe running aggravated my colon. I knew where all the restrooms were on my running routes. Sometimes on routes where no bathrooms were available, I can remember speeding up on the last mile, bursting through my front door and barely making it to the bathroom on time. On trail runs, I used to bring toilet paper and supplies in my waist pack to dig an emergency hole in case I really had to go. Gone are those days! My appliance adheres really well through exercise with no leaking issues to date. As long as I empty before I head out on runs, I will be good to go for hours.
I was looking through a little spiral-bound book that I kept my journal entries and notes in during my hospital stays. I thought it was interesting that last year around this time I was keeping a log of my bowel movements in it to report to the doctors and nurses in the hospital during my final flare. Now I am starting up a running log. What a change!
Last year at this time, I was just beginning my downward spiral into my final severe Ulcerative Colitis flare. Each day of the next few months will be an anniversary of something UC-related, and the flashbacks to those harder times will be abundant: there are the dates of my multiple ER visits, the admission for my 16-day hospital stay, my first Remicade infusion, the day I came to realize that surgery was my best option. It seems like reminders of my past illness are lurking around every corner. But then so are reminders of my amazing recovery.
Healing physically and regaining strength follows a fairly logical and direct path; recovering emotionally is a bit more circuitous. Sometimes it is hard for my brain to grasp all that has happened in the past 12 months. How in the world did I make it through the tough events of the year to get where I am now? It all seems to have gone by so fast, and I don’t believe my mind has fully processed everything yet.
Many new ostomates wonder how to deal with their output on hikes, as we usually have to empty our appliances every 4-6 hours. The answer is to dig a “cathole.” This is the term commonly used by backpackers for a hole to bury feces in. Because this is a very important skill for any outdoor enthusiast with an ostomy (or IBD) to have, I created a short video to cover some of the basics.
I am guessing that I have dug around 500 catholes in the backcountry in my lifetime. As an ileostomate, I am increasing that number at a rapid rate. Gone are the pre-ulcerative colitis days of having 1 or 2 bowel movements in a day. Now I consistently empty my pouch around 6 times in 24 hours. On the trips when I don’t use closed-end pouches, that equals 48 catholes on a 7-day trip! Knowing how to properly dig a cathole to protect the environment and water sources is crucial.
On a three-day backpacking trip this past weekend, my husband and I finished our fifth and sixth 14ers (a peak above 14,000 feet) since the beginning of July. Most summers before this, I was lucky if I did one or two. I have definitely caught the 14er fever. Hiking these peaks has provided me with the perfect opportunity to get outdoors and challenge myself physically while still babying my abdominal muscles. Indoors, I do a battery of physical therapy exercises that safely strengthen my core. In concert, these two activities will prepare me for the more rigorous demands of technical rock climbing in the future.
While hiking these peaks, I have been amazed at how quickly I am progressing and getting my strength back. While I walked the first one at a turtle’s pace, I am now hiking the peaks briskly and with little fatigue. All these successful peak hikes have also made me realize how well I have adapted to my ileostomy. Managing my appliance on the trail using both closed-end and drainable pouches has become second-nature. Moreover, changing my wafer outdoors, which is one of the things I was most fearful of, has proved to be very similar to doing it indoors except that I must pack out the trash (and the views while changing are more spectacular).
However, one aspect of my ileostomy that still baffles me is figuring out how much water to drink. One function of the colon is to absorb water. When it is removed, the small intestine is able to adapt and take on some of this role, but not as well. Because of this, ileostomates must drink more water to avoid dehydration. It has not been unusual for me to drink 8+ quarts of water on some of my all-day hikes. Up to this trip, I have not had any issues with dehydration. However, conditions were different on this excursion. The temperatures while making the strenuous uphill hike to camp were in the 80s which is warm for the elevation we were at. Despite drinking almost 3 quarts of water (some of which included a sport drink mix) and eating plenty of snacks along the way, I got to camp with a headache and bad nausea. Before we proceeded to empty our backpacks and set up our tent, I sat in the shade and drank some more fluids. In about an hour, I felt better. I upped my water intake over the next two days and did not run into the problem again.
One of the hardest things in recovering from surgery and getting back into outdoor activities is knowing how to pace yourself. There are times in the months after surgery when there are clear lifting restrictions and guidelines, which provide easy-to-understand parameters for your activities. However, once those restrictions are lifted and you are feeling ready to get back to your normal sport routines, the path isn’t as clear.
Though it may seem like I am doing a lot of outdoor activities since surgery, I have paced myself very slowly. I started out with many short walks. When those felt good, I moved on to longer and steeper excursions. On the hike to Mt. Elbert covered in this video, my legs got extremely tired on the hike out, and I thought perhaps I had overdone it. Still, within three days, my sore muscles had completely recovered–a sign to me that the hike, though strenuous, was not at a level that pushed me too hard. By the next weekend, my muscles were feeling great and ready for a new adventure.
The following is a list of additional things that I am doing to prevent injury:
I always wear my Nu Hope hernia prevention belt when I do any outdoor activity beyond a short, flat-terrain day hike when I am carrying no significant weight (say 10-15 pounds).
I have my husband, Doug, help me lift my heavy backpack on to my shoulders. Once it is resting on my hips, I am better able to handle the weight without straining my abdominal muscles.
I use hiking poles to help with my stability as I get stronger.
I leave for hikes extra early to allow myself the ability to hike at a slower pace with more frequent breaks.
I pay very close attention to my body. So far I haven’t witnessed anything more than normal post-workout muscle aches. However, if I feel something more significant, I will back off and give my body more time to adjust to the next level of activity.
I am working with a physical therapist to strengthen my core muscles using very mild and low-impact exercises that are safe for the level of healing I am at.
My goal for the fall is carrying out a week-long backpacking trip with a few peak ascents. Hopefully with my training regime, I will be ready for this challenge.