Let the races begin!

Last Sunday I went with Doug and his dad to run the Journey Quest 5k in Fort Collins, a fundraiser for the Shared Journeys Brain Injury Foundation (SJBIF). The organization provides programs that help people with acquired brain injuries regain independent, satisfying and productive lives. This was my first 5k race since my ostomy surgery 16 months ago. The overall time I achieved in this run would determine my wave for the 10k Bolder Boulder, which I plan to run on Memorial Day.

Getting ready for the run.

I started running again last summer, but have mainly been working on endurance by going on longer runs. Since I have not been focusing on speed, I wasn’t sure what to expect my finishing time to be for this race. I have never been a very fast runner. My speed has been in the nine-minute mile range in just about every 5k or 10k I have done. Therefore, when I set my goal for this run, I simply hoped to at least match my time from the last 5K I did prior to surgery, which I completed in 29:43.

I felt fairly strong and crossed the one-mile mark in nine minutes and then the two-mile mark at 18 minutes. Despite the decent start, I really struggled in the final mile. There were a few times I had to tell myself that I needed to ease up because my lungs and heart felt like they could barely keep up with what I was trying to make my legs do– I simply could not breathe. I relaxed the pace a bit, crossed the finish line and realized that I actually shaved a handful of seconds off my last 5k with a time of 29:19. I was happy with the result, but could not believe how hard the race felt. I have never been so utterly exhausted during or after a 5k. Doug and his dad met me at the finish line after running great races too (Doug came in second in his age group, 40 to 49), and I couldn’t even talk from lack of breath. Doug’s mom caught us each on camera as we ran the race.

Doug heads out from the starting line.
Doug cheers on his dad as he prepares to cross the finish line.
I am exhausted but still smiling as I finish the race.

This race made me realize that if I want to get faster times, I must change my training strategy. I really like going out for long, slow runs, especially on the trails, but I need to mix things up and start including some speedier runs in the mix if I am going to match my pre-surgery time for the Bolder Boulder 10k. I have always finished that race in just under an hour, but based on how I felt on this run, that would be impossible right now. Time to put some more miles on the running shoes.

I am also glad to report that my ostomy caused no issues during the race. The event started at 10 a.m., so I ate my normal breakfast of a protein shake, a banana and a bowl of oatmeal at 6 a.m. I emptied my pouch before heading to the start line and was good to go for the entire time. There was a party following the race and I refueled on some chili and a few cups of popcorn. Yes, I said popcorn! I find I have no issues with this favorite treat of mine if I chew it well and drink plenty of water (24 ounces in this case.)

Speaking of water, I have never been a fan of the hydration stations at races where one stops to slam a small cup of water. Even before surgery, I always got a gassy bellyache from gulping the water down… that is if I didn’t choke on it first because I was breathing so hard. Most of the time I would just drink a little and toss the half-full cup onto the ground or skip some of the water stations altogether. With my ostomy, I am even more conscious of avoiding things that cause me gas pains. Not to mention that I need to drink a lot more water during activity to prevent dehydration. I usually carry a CamelBak hydration backpack on my runs, and decided this would be a good strategy for the race as well. I filled it with just the amount of water that I would need for the race so that the pack was light. This worked well because I could sip small amounts of water through the hose as I ran to stay well hydrated and didn’t get a bunch of air in my stomach.

One less-than-ideal thing I had to deal with during the race was trying a different wafer than my favorite one. Typically, I reserve sampling new supplies for times when I know I don’t have something big going on in my schedule. However, I have recently had some skin issues under the tape of my wafer: little red bumps that are insanely itchy. My stoma nurse is working with me to try to troubleshoot the cause, but in the meantime, I decided to try a sample of a tape-less wafer to give my skin a break. The 5k was on day four of wearing this new wafer. I was worried the sweat might make it fall off during the race, yet I didn’t want to risk irritating my skin by removing it early. By the morning of the race, my wafer was already starting to peel up on the edges. However, with a few little pieces of 3M Medipore tape in strategic places, the wafer held on just fine. Whew!

All in all, the race went well, and I am excited to push my running to the next level. I look forward to adding a few more races to my schedule in the coming months. And I still have my sights on the CCFA Team Challenge Half Marathon in December. I am hoping the shorter races will help prepare me for that big distance. Most of all, it feels great to discover another favorite activity that is once again possible thanks to my ostomy surgery.

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Heading to camp

I first learned about the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of America’s Camp Oasis when I was stuck in the hospital for 16 days with my final flare-up of ulcerative colitis. I had been researching treatment and surgery options on my laptop from my hospital bed, and somehow stumbled upon a link to a website for the camp. As I was looking through the photos of the children at camp, I was immediately inspired. Knowing how hard dealing with UC was in my 30s, I couldn’t imagine how difficult it must be to have the disease as a child. All the things I took for granted as a youngster, like attending school functions, taking part in school activities like plays or sports, or going to summer camp would all be very challenging. The mission of Camp Oasis is to enrich the lives of children with Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis by providing a safe and supportive camp community. As I read about Camp Oasis, I was so deeply moved that I promised myself I would look into volunteering there after I recovered.

In February, I started to research the dates for the camp that takes place in my home state of Colorado. I was happy to discover that I had no work conflicts during one of the sessions and could request time off to be away for a week. I sent in an application, was interviewed, and found out a couple of weeks ago that I was accepted as a volunteer for the camp session for 7- to 13-year-olds in July. Today I went in for some vaccinations that are recommended for all camp staff and volunteers, and I am working on completing my paperwork.

Growing up, I loved being outdoors and my family did a lot of camping. I also took part in some summer camps with Girl Scouts and other organizations where we did nature study, sports, and arts and crafts. These early experiences had a major influence on me and laid the foundations for my love of nature, outdoor adventure, and art. Yet I often wonder: Had I developed IBD at a much younger age, would I have been able to be involved in these things? Thanks to Camp Oasis, many children with IBD do have the chance to take part in such fun, life-enriching experiences. I am eager to help children at camp discover all the amazing things they can accomplish. I can’t wait for July!

Me at camp when I was 11 years old. I am the one in the striped shirt on the far right.

Craving normalcy (feat. new video)

In the initial months after ileostomy surgery, all I craved was normalcy. Life as I knew it had completely disappeared. Gone were the days of getting up and going to the office to work on a variety of enjoyable challenges like writing nature-education curriculum and leading hikes. In my free time, there were no more hiking, snowboarding or running adventures anywhere on the horizon. Instead, life revolved around the wiggly red stoma on my belly. My days played out around endless worries and looked something like this:

7 a.m.  How am I going to get my appliance on while my stoma is spewing liquid output everywhere?

9:30 a.m. Okay… got the appliance on. Wait, is that skin showing between my barrier ring and stoma? Geez, maybe I should do it over. My output will certainly eat away my skin if it touches that exposed 1/8 inch. But will it destroy my skin more if I pull the wafer off so soon? I better just do it to be on the safe side.

10:30 a.m. I can’t believe it took me over two hours to get an appliance on and this second one still doesn’t look that great. I need to call Doug and vent about it or I will cry for hours.

10:45 a.m. I need to drink some water. I am already way behind on my liquids today and I haven’t eaten breakfast yet either.  I am really not hungry, but Dr. Brown said I need more protein. Is a protein shake and eggs enough?

11:30 a.m. I have only been up for a few hours and I am already tired. Better go take a nap. Am I always going to have to sleep this much?

1:30 p.m. Is that just a regular itch or is it from output touching my skin? Man, this incision hurts. I am not hungry, but I need to eat with my pain pills. I better have some lunch. When are these pain pills going to kick in? Drat, maybe I should have just sucked it up and not taken the pills. What if I become addicted to them?

2 p.m. Why am I watching this stupid TV show? Shouldn’t I be doing something productive? I am just too tired. Dang, I forgot to order those Hollister samples again. I am too tired to do that too. I can’t believe I am about to take another nap. I am supposed to be going for a walk right now, not sleeping.

3:30 p.m. The neighbors must be wondering what happened to me. I am walking so slow and hunched over, but it hurts too much to stand up straight. Is this two-block walk through the park really all I can muster? I can’t believe how much this hurts. This used to be my warm-up walk before I ran five miles, and now I can’t even cover this short distance. And I’m walking as slowly as a turtle.

4 p.m. I miss Doug. I am so lonely stuck here by myself. When is he coming home from work?

5 p.m. Doug is home! Doug is home! Doug is home!

6 p.m. Is this too late to be eating dinner? I am supposed to eat before now, but that isn’t very handy. Is four weeks post-op too soon to eat steamed broccoli if I chew it really, really well? I am so hungry for veggies. What if I get a blockage? Or horrible gas?

7 p.m. Wasn’t that just the 12th time I emptied my pouch for the day? When is this output going to slow down! It is like water. Have I had enough liquids to drink to offset that?

9 p.m. Okay, time to take a shower. Can I get this appliance wet? I better tape plastic wrap all over my belly just to make sure it stays dry and doesn’t peel off.

10 p.m. Time for bed. I should lie on my right side all night just in case I leak. Don’t want to get stool into my open wound.

11 p.m. My back hurts. I sure wish I could lie on my left side but I am too afraid.

12 a.m. Better get up to empty my appliance just in case.

2 a.m. Better get up to empty my appliance just in case.

4 a.m. Better get up to empty my appliance just in case.

7 a.m Thank goodness it is morning but I don’t want to get up. I am going to lie here and cry for a while. Will my life ever be normal again?

And so it went for the initial couple months after surgery. I was overwhelmed and depressed that my entire life now seemed to revolve around my stoma. I tried and tried to picture what things would be like when everything settled down, and I actually learned how to manage my ostomy, but it seemed impossible. I couldn’t see beyond the hard times I was facing in those moments. It was particularly difficult to imagine how I could possibly ever do outdoor sports like snowboarding again.

I wish I would have had a crystal ball back then. Had I, I would have seen that I shouldn’t have worried so much. My ostomy output would settle down as my body adapted. I would figure out my systems and become more efficient with them. My incision would heal. Someday in the not so distant future, my ostomy would feel like a regular part of my life as I returned to work and went on outdoor adventures again. In the crystal ball, I would have seen the point I am at now when everything is so much easier. The normalcy I craved after surgery has been restored to my life.

Last Sunday was a beautiful powder day in the mountains, and Doug and I headed up to go snowboarding. I decided to film the day’s events and create a video showing a typical day on the slopes with my ostomy. I realize everyone’s experiences are going to be a little different regarding their emptying schedule, when they eat, etc. What I hope to show is that once a person adapts to life with an ostomy and gets their own particular systems down, life can feel wonderfully natural again.

The New Year: looking back and looking ahead

Happy New Year everyone! I hope 2012 brings health and many blessings.

As I set out to write my first post for 2012, I couldn’t decide if it would be best to look forward and write about my goals for the coming year, or if it would be better to reflect on highlights from 2011. As you are about to find out, I like to juggle a lot of things. I might as well keep up with that tendency and write about both in the same post!

I have never been a fan of creating a formal list of New Year’s goals. I have a lot of interests and love them all… everything from activities at work, working on projects involving ostomy awareness, artistic endeavors, fitness goals, to trips Doug and I want to go on. I get a little frustrated when I try to make a formal goal list because there is so much I want to do! I soon discover that it is probably unrealistic to accomplish it all. That said, there are a few things that are a high priority this year.

  • I want to do a better job of keeping in touch with my friends and family. To all my family and good friends who are reading this: did most of  you get a Christmas card from me??? (Rhetorical question!) I didn’t think so. The same busyness I mentioned above sometimes keeps me from answering emails, writing or calling people, and spending time with my loved ones. I want to be better about making sure these people know how much they mean to me.
  • I want to continue sharing my thoughts on this site. No need to elaborate much more on this one. I have a huge passion for showing people what is possible after ostomy surgery and hope to keep writing and creating videos.
  • I want to get back into working on art. My creative endeavors like drawing, painting, blockprinting and keeping illustrated journals are also big passions for me, and I keep another website covering some of those pursuits. If you visit the site you will see that my last post was completed in August. Not so good. And there is a printmaking project that has been gathering dust on my art studio table for over a year. Art needs to be part of my life again. I realize that may mean a few less posts here, as there are only so many hours in a day, but I am going to try to balance both…. all while working and doing outdoor adventures and exercising. Whew! It is going to be a busy year.
  • I want to go on a climbing road trip.  Two weeks, camping near the crags, waking up and firing up the camp stove, climbing routes all day and then coming back to camp to relax with a beer only to do it all again the next day — that is what I am longing for this year. When Doug and I were in college we spent a summer living out of the back of our truck and traveling the west, climbing pretty much non-stop. I am psyched to get back to that, even if it is only for a couple of weeks. I wasn’t strong enough for this type of trip in 2011, but I will be in 2012 and look forward to doing it with an ostomy!
  • I want to run in the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of America’s Team Challenge Half Marathon next December. I am only up to running about three miles right now. However, I have almost a year to train and it seems like I am finally getting off the plateau I have been stuck on. I am feeling so much stronger on runs lately and plan to inch up the intensity a bit in the ensuing weeks.

Now to rewind and reflect on 2011– the first full year of living with my ostomy. There have been so many highlights this year and most of them have already been covered in posts. Great times with friends and family, fun outdoor trips, stellar surgery results– I could write a book on all the amazing things about this year. To keep this post from becoming as long as a large novel, I will cover just a few major categorical highlights. Here are the best of the best for 2011:

  • Discovering my body’s ability to heal. There are many, many examples of this, but there is one that sticks in my mind the most.  Ten weeks after my initial surgery, I had to have an operation on my  incision, and my surgeon ended up removing some sutures that my body had reacted poorly to and then fixing things up. The resulting wound had to heal from “the inside out” with the help of a wound vac. Seeing that wound for the first time was a surreal experience. It was 13 cm long by about 3 cm wide and another 1 cm or so deep. I had to detach mentally to view it, and when I did, it reminded me of an interesting dissection project from biology class. Actually, my scientist-side was pretty fascinated– it was certainly not a part of me that I had ever gotten to see before (and hopefully never would again). Right before my eyes I could see my abdominal wall and the layers of skin tissue on the sides of the wound opening. What happened in the following six weeks was even more captivating (okay… except for the pain of the wound vac which was really bad for me at times). The wound filled up with healthy red granulated tissue and then sort of zipped itself up from top to bottom. How did my body know how to do that?  It was absolutely amazing! I thought I would end up with a heinous scar, but it actually looks pretty great considering the wound that was there before. Now whenever my body is healing, even from something as small as a pulled muscle, I think about that experience. The body’s ability to heal is truly amazing and something that 2011 will always remind me to celebrate.
  • So many firsts! After I was sick for a while and then started to feel better, life just got so exciting! In the beginning, the firsts are so small. There was the first walk after surgery, the first time output came out of my stoma, the first appliance change. Things progressed from there… there was the first time I got brave enough to eat a peanut, the first try at putting my favorite jeans back on, drinking my first beer. Then there were all the athletic firsts… snowboarding, hiking a 14er, running, climbing. I am still hitting firsts all the time. Yesterday was the first time I climbed a 5.9-rated route at the gym. It was a delicate climb that required more balance than brute muscle power. Still, it was the first time that I felt like I was back in my old climbing body, doing some of the more athletic climbing movements that I used to. What a way to end 2011!
  • A new outlook. I write often about how being sick and going through major surgery has changed the way I view things. This has been one of the biggest blessings of 2011. I find examples of this new outlook in even the smallest moments of my life. For instance, a few months ago I was getting ready to lead a campfire program at work. It had been a long week and I was feeling tired and “grumbly” and not into it. Suddenly I remembered how much I missed my job last year and how much I longed to be out in the parks leading programs again. I immediately changed my attitude, got excited about the program and fully seized the moment. I got up on stage and shared information about all the amazing changes animals were going through to prepare for winter. I told stories, sang goofy songs with the kids and had one of the best programs ever. On the drive home I was overcome with emotion because it had felt so good to be out there again doing what I love. Life had given me back all I had ever hoped for and here I had been sulking just a few hours earlier. It was a big reminder to live with a spirit of thankfulness for what I had. Gratefulness, the ability to live more in the moment, the capacity to deal with uncertainty and change– these are just some of the ways I have changed for the better I have made in 2011.

As soon as I am done with this post, I am going to go for a run. I love the thinking-time running gives me, and inevitably, I always start composing blog entries in my head. I am sure as my feet hit the pavement and my thoughts drift off, I will think of hundreds of other things I could have included in this post. Suffice it to say that it has been an incredible year of recovery, growth and change. I am so excited to see what the next year will bring!

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 five in a series: I am thankful for Remicade

I am thankful for Remicade

“What?!” my friends and family might say upon seeing Remicade on my list. “But you hated that drug!”

Sometimes it turns out that the things we are most thankful for are the same things we didn’t much like when we were experiencing them. So it went with me and Remicade, or Remi, as Doug and I nicknamed it.

I’ll be honest. I wasn’t excited to take this drug. When my GI doctor at the hospital said my options were Remicade (infliximab) or surgery, I was leaning towards the surgery. I found the thought of getting regular infusions of such a strong biologic medication for the rest of my life daunting. But I knew my doctors were right in their advice: I was in no shape for surgery at that time, being very sick, weak, under weight and on high doses of steroids. The plan was to take three infusions, and if all went well, heal up a bit. I would regain some strength and come out of the flare, and then I could see a colorectal surgeon to discuss possible surgical options.

So my short relationship with Remi began. And wow… was it great in the beginning! Within 5 days of my first infusion, the horrible flare that I had been battling for over a month came to an end, and I was able to leave the hospital. But there were signs that things were not going to be so rosy with me and Remi. The day before I left the hospital, I developed really intense throbbing back pain. I had an x-ray which revealed nothing, and I went home thinking it was just pain from being in a bed so long. Over the next week, things got much worse as the pain began to migrate to different joints one at a time and left me incapacitated and literally crying in agony for hours every day. It was crazy-bad and I knew it was nothing I could ever live with. And so, my relationship with Remi ended as abruptly as it began. My future infusions were cancelled due to the reaction, and the pain began to subside as the drug drifted out of my system over the following weeks.

But even though my memories of Remicade are a little traumatic, I know it was paramount in returning me to health. It is the one thing that kept me out of emergency surgery and bought me precious time to heal, taper off the prednisone a bit and see Dr. Brown, who I mentioned in my last post. My story might have turned out so differently without it. I know there are many thousands of  people with IBD and other diseases who rely on this drug and that it has changed their lives for the better. So yes, even though Remi and I didn’t end up getting along, I am extremely thankful for our short time together.

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.

Continue reading “A dot marks the spot”