My favorite products for dealing with ostomy waste in the backcountry

Just one more cast, I thought, as I tossed my line in the still waters of Middle Willow Lake in the Gore Range of Colorado. It was a phrase I had been repeating to myself all morning, and by that time I had completed dozens of “final” casts– almost every one hooking a hungry brookie. I nervously looked at the blackening clouds coming over the ridge but even the threat of a downpour couldn’t stop me from flinging my line in the lake again. Sure enough– a trout grabbed the elk-hair caddis fly. I reeled the fish in, released the hook from its mouth and watched it swim away.

Fly fishing before the storm came in.
Fly fishing before the storm came in.

Suddenly, a swift downdraft disrupted the glassy surface of the the lake and a crack of thunder smashed the silence of the mountain basin. That really would have to be my last cast of the day.

Doug motioned to me from down the lake shore that he too was ready to call it quits. Hail let loose from the sky and pelted my forehead as I hefted my pack onto my back and fastened the hip belt. That is when I noticed the bulging ostomy pouch on my belly and remembered that I had not emptied it since before breakfast; it was now late afternoon. Oh well. It would have to wait. Doug and I threw on our raincoats and made our way through the forest and back to camp.

When the rain didn’t let up for hours, I cursed not emptying my pouch earlier when the weather was fair. I could have taken my sweet time digging a perfect hole in the perfect location while blanketed in warm sunlight. Instead, I was cold, damp and stuck under our cooking tarp watching the torrential rain form small lakes around our backcounty site. Teeth already chattering from the damp chill, there was no way I was going to take a ten-minute hike into the forest surrounding camp to empty my pouch. Fortunately there was another option: in the tent I had a supply of closed-end pouches on hand. Within a few minutes I had a fresh one popped on and the used one bagged up.

Doug waits out the rain under our cooking tarp.
Doug waits out the rain under our cooking tarp.
warming-up
It is very important to color-coordinate your mug and jacket while in the backcountry.

Our backpack in the Gore Range has been just one of many outdoor adventures we have embarked on this summer (which is one of the reasons I have been so absent on this blog!) We also went on two more backpacking trips, including a short trip in the Mt. Massive Wilderness and a rugged nine-day adventure in the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness– all in our home state of Colorado. Early June also included a climb of the First Flatiron in Boulder, CO. Each trip was unique, and I loved having a variety of waste management techniques to pull from. In this post I will highlight my favorite products and techniques for dealing with output during those situations when emptying would be inconvenient or impossible. Some of these methods I have written about before and are tried and true for me. Others are new things I have just recently discovered.

Our first backpacking trip of the summer was a three-day adventure in the Mt. Massive Wilderness in Colorado.
Let’s go that way! The summer of 2015 was filled with three amazing backpacking/ fly fishing trips in our home state of Colorado. Our first one was a was a three-day adventure in the Mt. Massive Wilderness.
Trip number two consisted of a four-day hike into the Willow Lakes area of the Gore Range.
Trip number two consisted of a four-day journey in the Willow Lakes area of the Gore Range.
We ended the season with a 9-day off-trail backpacking and fly fishing adventure in the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness in Colorado.
We ended the season with a nine-day mostly off-trail backpacking trip in the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness.

Closed-end pouches
So often, closed-end pouches are labeled as being designed for colostomies. True, ileostomates tend to have more profuse output which makes swapping out multiple pouches everyday an expensive endeavor.  However, for certain short-term situations, closed-end pouches can be an incredibly useful tool for all people with ostomies.

There is no place to drain a pouch on long rock climbs such as the First Flatiron, which Doug and I made an ascent of in June.
There is no place to drain a pouch on long rock climbs such as the First Flatiron in Boulder, CO, which Doug and I made an ascent of in June.
Swapping out a closed-end pouch on a climb up the FIrst Flatiron this summer was easy.
Fortunately, swapping out a closed-end pouch on a climb is easy– even while tied in with my harness buckled.

I use them on rock climbs, trips near water, snow adventures and any other times when the environment does not allow for digging holes to bury wast. They are easy and mess-free to swap and pack out.  Moreover, lately I have discovered their handiness for nighttime use on backpacking trips.

Though I dig holes and empty 90% of the time while backpacking, overnight emptying has always been a challenge for me. For some reason my digestive system changes when I am doing strenuous activity all-day and I have to empty a lot more at night than I do at home.

In order to minimize my impact on future backpackers, I like to walk a fairly long distance from camp to empty, and I only dig holes in areas where no one would likely set up a campsite in the future. The problem is, places like that are hard to find in pitch blackness. I used to pre-dig a few holes during the day and then make mental notes to find them in the dark, but it was still a challenge to hike to these locations in the middle of the night when I was sleepy. If it was raining, it was even worse. I soon discovered it was a lot safer to stay close to camp and swap out closed-end pouches in the middle of the night. During the day, I would go back to using a drainable pouch.

Hiking into the darkness to find a place to empty my pouch is not my favorite thing to do. I have since started swapping out closed-end pouches at night on wilderness trips so that I don't have to do this.
Hiking into the darkness to find a location to empty my pouch is not my favorite thing to do. I have since started swapping out closed-end pouches at night on wilderness trips so that I don’t have to do this.
It feels great to relax in my sleeping bag knowing I am not going to have to hike off into the dark woods to empty.
It feels great to relax in my sleeping bag knowing I am not going to have to hike off into the dark woods to empty.

Doggie Poo Bags
Managing an ostomy in the wilderness requires packing out used supplies. One of my favorite items to secure used pouches and wafers are simple opaque black doggie-poo bags. They are cheap, non-bulky, and lightweight. Moreover, Ziplock bags can easily un-zip or pop open when jostled. However, doggie poo bags can be tied tightly with an overhand knot. Even when packing out pouches with the the most watery output, I have never had one leak.

LOKSAK OPSAK Odor-proof Barrier Bags
Though doggie-poo or other plastic bags may work well for holding used pouches, they don’t do a good job of containing odors.  Even when I double-bag them in a regular Zip-lock bag, the smell still comes through. One great product for solving this dilemma is OPSAK odor proof barrier bags. They come in two different sizes and are great for holding in odors when you need to pack out full ostomy pouches. They are pricey, so I place all my sealed doggy-poo bags into one OPSAK, empty it into the trash at the trailhead, and then save it for another trip.

My pouch pack-out trifecta: the full pouch goes into a doggy-poo bag, that goes into a Ziplock, a few of those go into a Ziplock and than all of it gets placed into a re-usable OPSAK Odor-proof Bag.
My pouch pack-out trifecta: the full pouch goes into a doggy-poo bag, a few of those go into a Ziplock to contain odors a little bit more, and then those get placed into a re-usable OPSAK Odor-proof Bag.
OPSAK bags come in a large size too for a more extended expedition.
OPSAK bags come in a large size too for a more extended expedition.

OstoSolutions Ostomy Pouch Disposal Seals
Unfortunately, closed-end pouches that are full of ostomy output are incredibly heavy and take up space in one’s pack. I once weighed my full nighttime pouches on a two-night backpack trip and they collectively weighed three pounds. Multiply that for longer trips and the extra weight becomes quite burdensome.

I was faced with such a dilemma on a nine-day backpacking trip in the Sangre De Cristo range of Colorado in August.  This trip was a particularly strenuous one with difficult off-trail travel over incredibly steep mountain passes. Our packs were heavy due to the amount of food we had to carry and the last thing I wanted to do was add more weight to my pack in the form of closed-end pouches filled with poop. At first I had planned to just go out into the night to empty to save from carrying the extra weight, but every evening at bed time the storms and torrential rains seemed to roll in.

I scramble up a steep gully with a heavy pack on a 9-day off-trail backpacking trip in the Sangre de Cristo Range, Colorado.
I scramble up a steep gully carrying a heavy pack on a nine-day off-trail backpacking trip in the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness, Colorado.
I didn't need the added weight of full used ostomy pouches in my backpack.
Food and supplies for such a long trip were heavy, and I didn’t need the additional weight of full used ostomy pouches in my backpack.

Fortunately, I found a great way to solve this problem by using some OstoSolutions Ostomy Pouch Disposal Seals that I had brought along. In the tent, I would swap out a closed-end pouch as I always had. However, instead of just tossing the full one into a baggie and tying it shut, I would cap it with an OstoSolutions Seal. In the morning, I would take a long hike from camp and dig a cathole in perfect Leave No Trace style. I would then remove the OstoSolutions Seal from the full pouch and dump the contents in the hole. Finally, I would snap the OstoSolutions Seal back on the now-empty pouch and bag it up to be packed out. The weight savings in packing out used (but no longer full) pouches was huge! The OstoSolutions Seals themselves are very light. I found that packing one for each night (plus a few more for those rare nights when I might have to empty twice) was easily doable. The seals would also be handy in alpine areas where digging holes to empty can cause damage to the delicate environment. A full pouch, capped with an OstoSolutions Seal, could be packed out until one got below treeline. There the seal could be snapped off, and the contents of the pouch buried in a much less fragile place.

I can snap an OstoSolution Seal on my pouch at night and then pop it off later to empty the contents into a cathole (a six-inch deep hole dug in the ground.)
I can snap an OstoSolutions Seal on my full pouch at night and then pop it off later to empty the contents into a cathole (a six-inch deep hole dug in the ground.)
Doug and I descended the steep gully below the notch in this photo on day seven of the trip. It was essential to keep our packs as light as possible in such terrain.
Doug and I descended the steep gully below the notch in this photo on day seven of the Sangre de Cristo trip. Keeping our packs as light as possible was essential in such rugged terrain.

Don’t let a fear of being away from a bathroom prevent you from heading into the wilds. With these four supplies (closed-end pouches, doggie poo bags, OPSAK bags, OstoSolutions Seals), you will be ready for storms, darkness, snow, rock, water, a heavy pack or any other challenges that might present themselves in the backcountry. If these supplies end up not working for you, get creative. An ostomy can be managed in even the craziest situations– it is just a matter of experimenting and finding the right tools for the job.

Yep
Stormy weather seemed to follow us on all of our trips this summer! Doug casts a few more times before we hastily return to camp.
Not another storm! Dealing with my ostomy in foul weather was an everyday occurrence on most of my trips this summer.
Yikes! Yet another storm! Dealing with my ostomy in foul weather was an everyday occurrence.
However, the clouds did part enough that I got some glorious backcountry lake swimming in.
However, the clouds did part occasionally, and I was able to get some glorious backcountry swims in. I do not have to make any special modifications to my ostomy system when swimming– it adheres just fine as is.

 

These goats have nothing to do with ostomies, but I did see them on one of our trips and they are cute.
These goats have nothing to do with ostomies, but I did see them on one of our trips and they were cute.

 

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Marshmallows and paper towel hats: tips for anytime appliance changes

The main room of our condo during a recent vacation with Doug’s parents looked a bit like an outdoor gear store. Snowboards and skis of all sorts lined the wall and a plethora of boots sat in front of the fireplace. Closets, dressers and duffel bags overflowed with Capilene, fleece and Gore-tex clothing. During a week in the mountains near Winter Park, Colorado, we took part in two days of biathlon racing, and one day each of skate skiing, snowboarding and telemark skiing. I also managed to squeeze in some hiking and sketching in my nature journal in Rocky Mountain National Park. With so many activities on the schedule–some of which required an early start–it was hard to know when to fit in my appliance changes.

Our vacation included to days of biathlon racing.
Our vacation included two days of biathlon racing. I would rather change my appliance after dinner and face the biggest volcano of ostomy output than get up at 4 a.m. to change my appliance before a race.
I also put on my telemark skis after not using them for eight years (and then could barely walk for the next week.) I am trying to relearn this skill so I can use my tele skills to get out to some Colorado ski huts next winter. Stay tuned for a post in 2016 about changing your appliance in a communal ski hut.
I also put on my telemark skis after not using them for eight years (and then could barely walk for the next week.) I am trying to relearn this skill so I can use it to take trips to Colorado ski huts next winter. Stay tuned for a post in 2016 about changing your appliance in a communal ski hut.
Since I could barely walk after my day of telemark skiing, I opted to sit down and sketch in my nature journal for one day of the trip.
Since I could barely walk after my day of tele skiing, I opted to sit down and sketch in my nature journal for one day during the trip.
My snowboard was feeling left out, so I took it out for one day on the slopes. My legs were so tired from days of non-stop winter sports, that I completely lost the ability to make my board turn after a few runs. Note to self-- sliding down the entire front side of the Winter Park Resort on your heel edge is not much fun. Best to take a rest day instead.
My snowboard was feeling left out, so I took it out for one day on the slopes. My legs were so tired from days of non-stop winter sports, that I completely lost the ability to make my board turn after a few runs. Note to self– sliding down the entire front side of the Winter Park Resort on your heel edge is not much fun. Best to take a rest day instead.

Unfortunately, appliance changes aren’t that quick for me. Due to pretty acidic ileostomy output, I have to protect my skin with several layers of products. Stoma powder, skin prep, Duoderm, Eakin Seals and paste–I use them all. My changes usually take at least 30 minutes–sometimes longer.  Even when I use all those products, my output chomps through them like a piranha if I try to go longer than three or four days, and I end up with very raw and painful skin.

The the saying "simple is better" does not apply to my appliance changes. I need a lot of layers of products to protect my skin. Putting on all this stuff takes a lot of time and gives my stoma ample chances to expel output everywhere.
The saying “simple is better” does not apply to my appliance changes. I need a lot of layers of products to protect my skin. Putting on all this stuff takes a lot of time and gives my stoma ample chances to expel output everywhere.

Those with an ileostomy know that it can be pretty hard (if not impossible) to find even a short chunk of time when your stoma isn’t pooping. Usually I try to change my appliance in the morning as that is when my stoma is the most quiet. However, on a busy ski vacation (or any time with a full schedule) that plan doesn’t always work. If I already have to wake up at 5 a.m. to make it to a race on time or catch first tracks in powder, it is hard to get up even earlier to fit in an appliance change. Also, I don’t like worrying about when I am eating and how it will impact my appliance swap. If I want to head out to a restaurant for a post-ski meal later in the evening, I go for it even if I know it will be harder to change in the morning due to the extra output. In some cases I will even switch out appliances in the evening right after a big dinner (gulp!) if that is the best way to fit it into my schedule.

If you are wondering if I have a particularly quiet and cooperative stoma, the answer is no. My stoma is a non-stop workhorse and churns out output 24/7.  Fortunately, I have some tricks that allow me to change at any time of the day even when my stoma is active.

Trick number one: Marshmallows
My stoma nurse first let me in on this little secret. If I eat four to six regular-sized marshmallows about 15 minutes before a change, my stoma will usually stop outputting for about 30 minutes–just enough time to finish getting my appliance on.  I can’t make any promises that it will work for you, but I recommend giving it a try. It is the only time you will get to eat marshmallows for health reasons. I have no idea why the very first individual to discover this trick was dining on marshmallows right before changing their appliance, but I sure am thankful for their sweet tooth!

This photo isn't from our winter vacation but does show my love for marshmallows. They are best over a campfire, but I will happily eat them cold before a 5 a.m. appliance change.
This photo isn’t from our winter vacation but does show my love for marshmallows. They are most delicious when toasted over a campfire, but I will happily eat them cold before an early morning appliance change.

Trick number two: Make a hat for your stoma
When I first got my ostomy, I absolutely dreaded changes. They were tear-filled endeavors wrought with frustration because I couldn’t get my barrier ring and wafer on without my stoma pooping all over the place and ruining the adhesives. I turned to the internet for ideas to solve this problem and discovered a post on a forum that suggested wrapping the tip of my stoma with a strip of paper towel. I gave it a try and couldn’t believe how well it worked! Plus I liked that it made my stoma look like it was wearing a cute hat.

Four years later, and I still use this method during every single change. As my stoma chugs out stool, the little hat fills up. When it has reached maximum carrying capacity, I simply pop it off, toss it in the trash can next to me, and wrap on another. Along with collecting output, the stoma hat frees up my hands to put on powder, barrier film, and all the other products that I use to protect my parastomal skin. It also keeps the base of my stoma dry as it absorbs some of the moisture from the mucous membrane.

This little trick allows me to change whenever I need to as it doesn’t matter if my stoma releases output; the hat is always there to catch it. Occasionally, if my output is profuse and watery during a change, the technique doesn’t work as well. However it is better than nothing, and if my output is watery, sometimes gulping down a few extra marshmallows will temporarily slow down the flow until I can finish the change.

I realize that making a hat for a flush stoma won’t work very well, so this trick works best if your ostomy protrudes from your belly a bit.

The only supplies needed for a stoma hat are one-inch-wide strips of paper towel.
The only supplies needed for a stoma hat are one-inch-wide strips of paper towel.
JWilbur my stoma models a poo-catching paper towel hat. To make one, simply wind the paper towel strip around the top of our stoma and you are set to go.
My stoma, Wilbur, models a stylish poo-catching paper towel hat. To make one, simply wind the paper towel strip around the top of your stoma and you are set to go.
It is easy to slid your wafer right over the stoma when it is wearing a hat. Note that under the wafer, I have already put on my Eakin ring and other materials.
It is easy to slide your wafer right over the stoma when it is wearing a hat. Note that under the wafer, I have already put on my Eakin ring and other materials. If you are using a one-piece appliance, you can still use the hat method. Just pop the hat off right before you put your appliance over your stoma.
All pouched up with no mess at all. For those who are wondering about the tape job, I love Convatec wafers but the tape irritates my skin. I cut it off and add my own strips of Medipore tape.
All pouched up with no mess at all. For those who are wondering about the tape job, I love Convatec Durahesive wafers, but the tape irritates my skin. I cut it off and add my own strips of  3M Medipore tape. This combo adheres well through showering, swimming, and all sorts of sweat-inducing sports.

If you feel your ostomy controls your life and confines you to a certain schedule, keep searching and experimenting to find solutions. I’d never have guessed that something as simple as marshmallows and paper towel “hats” would give me the freedom to live with my ostomy on my terms rather than the whims of my stoma.

A forgotten anniversary

Yesterday morning while perusing Facebook, I saw a post by Brian Greenberg, founder of the Intense Intestines Foundation, regarding the four-year anniversary of his ileostomy surgery on November 9th. I was thinking about how awesome it was that he had accomplished so much since his operation and how happy I was for him. Then I came to a sudden realization: if Brian was celebrating his stoma’s birthday, it meant that I had completely missed the anniversary of my own surgery. You see, when I first discovered Brian’s website a few years ago, I found out that it wasn’t only a love of the outdoors that we had in common: our surgery dates were only one day apart. When I was getting used to my first day as an ostomate, Brian was being wheeled into the operating room. I remember wishing I had known him then. We would have had much to talk about as we prepped for and recovered from surgery.

Now, four years later, I couldn’t believe I had actually forgotten about my stomaversary. It was a date I always ardently celebrated. My surgery had given me my life back and had allowed me to do all the things I loved again. To think I had let my stoma’s birthday pass by without notice made me feel sad and disappointed.

However, I soon started to look at my forgotten stomaversary differently. The reason I had my ostomy surgery was so that I could return to all the things I love and lead a normal life again. I wanted a life in which my family, friends, hobbies and career were at the forefront and health issues faded into the background. Yet in those initial weeks after surgery, my stoma dominated my world. More than anything, I just wanted to get to point where it felt like my ostomy was part of me and not something I had to think of at every moment. On November 8th, I gave my ostomy nary a thought. Perhaps forgetting about my stoma really was the best way to celebrate how far I have come in the past four years.

That said, I don’t intend to let the date slip by again. Wilbur, my stoma buddy, we will definitely celebrate your 5th birthday with a bit more fanfare next year!

Hiking the day after my stomaversary-- completely unaware that I had failed to remember the important date. I guess I was too busy trying to figure out how far I could lean into 60 mile-per-hour winds without falling over.
I went for a hike with family and friends the day after my stomaversary. It would have been the perfect chance to celebrate, but I was completely oblivious to the important date. I guess I was too busy trying to figure out how far I could lean into 60 mile-per-hour winds without falling over to think of such matters.

 

Ostomy awareness comes in small forms too

Today is the one-year anniversary of my Mt. Rainier climb. I can’t believe 12 months have gone by since I stood on the summit. When I returned from the climb, I blogged about the adventure. However, I had intended to write a couple more posts related to the trip. The weeks sped by and I never got around to it. What better time to revisit the topic than on this anniversary?

At our high camp the night before our summit attempt
At the Ingraham Flats high camp the night before our summit attempt

As someone who has a big passion for spreading ostomy awareness, I viewed my trip to Rainier as a great opportunity to share information about ostomies with others and show that anything is possible with a stoma. In fact, as I walked into our pre-trip meeting at the guide service, I had all the things I wanted share with my teammates during introductions neatly figured out in my head. The problem was, things didn’t go as planned.

As we sat in a circle and got ready to meet each other, the lead guide threw out some questions to break the ice and get us started: Tell us who you are, a little bit about your climbing experience and something weird about yourself, she said.

Something weird about myself? That wasn’t the introductory question I had hoped for. Everything I planned to say about my ostomy didn’t fit at all with the concept of weirdness. If anything, I wanted to talk about how normal life with an ostomy was. I came up with another silly non-ostomy-related answer for the question and scrambled to think of another way to bring up my surgery.

As I shared a little bit about my climbing experience in my intro, I did mention that I had been severely ill with ulcerative colitis three years prior and had gone through major surgery to remove my colon. I talked about how much it meant to me to be healthy enough to climb Rainier. However, I didn’t mention any details about the surgery or the fact that I had a stoma or wore an ostomy appliance.

As I left the meeting, I felt disappointed in myself for being vague about my surgery type and not talking more openly about my ostomy. How could I have let such a good opportunity to spread awareness slip by?

That is when it hit me. I didn’t feel like talking about my ostomy in this situation– not because I was ashamed, but because I didn’t want it to define me on the climb. After all, my stoma was really such a small part of me in the bigger picture of my life.

As it turned out, I did succeed in spreading the word about ostomies on my trip–it just happened a little more quietly and gradually than I had originally planned. I ended up having many great one-on-one conversations about my ostomy with most of my teammates when the topic of surgery came up. These small chats with individuals did just as much to spread awareness as a bigger announcement would have. I have also formed lasting friendships with some of my Rainier co-climbers and they continue to learn more about my life with an ostomy as time goes on.

I was more comfortable talking with others one-on-one about my ostomy.
I was more comfortable talking with others one-on-one about my ostomy.

Most importantly, my ostomy made its way to its rightful place on my climbing adventure–in the background. It didn’t become too much of a focus, and my thoughts and energy were left to more important things like cheering on teammates, taking in the beauty of the landscape and feeling the strength of my body making its way up the mountain.

So worry not if you are shy when talking about your stoma. Ostomy awareness comes in many forms:  from a grand campaign to a small heartfelt conversation with a friend.

A big city adventure

Usually when Doug and I head out on vacation, it involves traveling into some remote wilderness or challenging ourselves on rock faces. However, this April, we embarked on a different type of adventure as we made a trip to New York City to visit my brothers. Instead of hiking to backcountry lakes and peaks, we walked to different neighborhoods. From Manahattan’s Greenwich Village to Brooklyn’s DUMBO, we enjoyed taking in the unique character of each place. We also strolled through many of the city’s green spaces including Central Park, Prospect Park and the Highline, and visited the Gugenheim, Museum of Modern Art and the Natural History Museum.

On top of the Rock
On top of the Rock
Central-park-sketching
Sketching in Central Park
Exploring Brooklyn on Citibikes
Exploring Brooklyn on Citibikes

Usually on our wilderness trips, I have questions about routefinding, which layers to wear and whether or not the cloud build-up might lead to a storm.  However, on this vacation my queries were of a different sort–  and some of them became relevant when dealing with my ostomy on the trip:

Do New Yorkers ever get tired of being in small, crowded places?
I marveled over how many people lived in the NYC area and how crowded things were. On the L-train that led to my brothers’ neighborhoods in Brooklyn, I often felt like a pickle in a jar–we were packed into the subway so tightly, yet more and more people would cram in at the next stop. If  you lost your balance when the train came to a fast stop, it didn’t matter because there was no room to fall over.

I also couldn’t believe how tiny some of the restaurants we visited were and how we were often eating shoulder to shoulder with the party at the next table. The restrooms in these little establishments were also itty-bitty compared to the multi-stall bathrooms found in most Colorado restaurants.The square footage of the typical New York apartment is also on the small side making for tight quarters when we were staying with my brothers. I loved having ostomy deodorizer along on the trip so I didn’t have to worry about stinking up these small spaces when emptying or changing my appliance. A dozen drops of Hollister’s M9 drops in my pouch completely eliminated any odor. It is pretty darn cool being able to make your poo not stink on command– something that isn’t an option for those with colons!

How can New Yorkers eat dinner so late on a regular basis?
At home, I often run or go to the gym when I get home from work which sometimes has me eating at 8 p.m. It isn’t a problem for me and I don’t notice a difference in my overnight output schedule whether I eat early or late. Still, in NYC we pushed my eating schedule to the max and we sometimes at dinner as late as 9 or 1o p.m. I wondered at first if this would have me emptying all night. Fortunately it didn’t and most nights I was able to sleep tight until morning. Even if I would have had to get up, the inconvenience would have been totally worth the experience of visiting so many fun bars and dining on everything from tasty Thai food to hearty Italian fare, spicy Mexican dishes and New York pizza (gluten free of course!)

Fabiane's Cafe in Brooklyn had the best gluten-free pastries!
Fabiane’s Cafe in Brooklyn had the best gluten-free pastries!

Where do people with IBD find bathrooms in this town?
In the woods, it is easy to find a bathroom anywhere. If you duck behind a tree and dig a hole you are pretty much set to go. In the suburbs, you can often drive to a fast-food restaurant or gas station and easily use the facilities. In New York City, we were always traveling by foot or subway, and it wasn’t easy to find public bathrooms that weren’t reserved for customers. I drink a lot of water to prevent dehydration with my ostomy and I end up urinating a lot. There were many times I thought my bladder was about to burst when I managed to find a restroom in the nick of time. (Thank you, Trump Tower!) Though BM urgency isn’t as much of an issue with my ostomy because I have a lot of control over when I empty, the lack of public restrooms would be incredibly hard during an IBD flare.

Though thoughts about my ostomy did pop into my head a few times on the trip, the vast majority of the time it was at the back of my mind. I was left to focus on fully enjoying the big city adventure and trying to figure out another perplexing question:  how the heck do women cover such long distances in the city in high heels! I have hiked miles and miles on wilderness trails, yet my feet and legs never get so tired as when I visit New York City. People there walk everywhere. Fast. And often in fashionable footwear that doesn’t look very comfortable. I have no idea how they do it. After five days of walking around the city visiting parks and museums, I could barely lift my legs.

My feet feel happy on our initial day of sightseeing in NYC as brothers and I walk across the Williamsburg Bridge. From there we walked to China Town, Little Italy and eventually Lower Manhattan. After five days of pounding concrete on such adventures, I can barely walk!
My feet feel happy on our initial day of sightseeing in NYC as brothers and I walk across the Williamsburg Bridge. From there we walked to Chinatown, Little Italy and eventually Lower Manhattan. After five days of pounding concrete on such adventures, I can barely walk!
Resting my feet on the rooftop after a long day of sightseeing
Resting my feet on the rooftop after a long day of sightseeing

Doug and I had loads of fun visiting the Big Apple, but after six days there, we were ready to return to the wide open spaces and slower pace of Colorado. In the weeks ahead, we look forward to returning to many of our favorite summertime sports in the wilds.

Patience and progress

It’s as harsh out here as on top of peak in a snowstorm. This thought pounded in my head as I cross-country skied down a slope in my second-ever biathlon. The wind was blowing against me so strongly that I had to use my poles to make downward progress. I was freezing in my minimal layers, and I felt eerily alone on the course with no one in sight and snow swirling all around me. The weather was declining rapidly, and I was relieved to be on my final of five laps.

In the distance I could see the biathlon range as I steadily made my way up a final incline. Snow was filling in the trail with drifts, and I felt like I could have walked faster than I was skiing. All that powder would have been much beloved if I were out snowboarding, but I didn’t much appreciate it in a Nordic race. As I got closer to the finish line, I could see the person recording times from a stopwatch. It seemed to take forever for me to reach him. But I finally made it! I finished the race and was super happy that I stuck with it and did not give up. I couldn’t remember doing anything that felt so physically strenuous– not even hiking up Mt. Rainier. Skate skiing is one of the most aerobically intense activities I have ever done.

Happily leaving the starting line before the wind and snow picked up.
Happily leaving the starting line before the worst of the storm blew in.
I could barely stand up in the wind after shooting in the prone position. Miraculously, I actually hit four of five targets!
I could barely stand up in the wind after shooting in the prone position. Miraculously, I actually hit four of five targets at 50 meters away!

We wrapped up the weekend with more fun. After completing the race, we stayed overnight at Snow Mountain Ranch/YMCA of the Rockies (the place where the biathlon was held) and even hit up the climbing wall in the pool. The next morning, we got up early and drove to Copper Mountain to go snowboarding.

A little post-race climbing at the pool.
A little post-race climbing at the pool.
Powder day at Copper Mountain!
Powder day at Copper Mountain!

When the event results came in a day later, I discovered that I had the slowest pace of anyone who finished any of the various distances. It wasn’t a surprise. This is a new activity for me and I didn’t expect to be good at it right away. I had been working on my shooting a bit, but had put very little attention into becoming better at skate skiing. That changed last weekend when I took a beginner lesson and picked up countless tips that will help me improve. I also plan to begin working on my cardiovascular fitness again by running and going skate skiing as much as I can. I know it is going to take a lot of time and many little steps to get better at the sport.

That reminded me a lot of getting back into the fitness activities and sports I loved after ostomy surgery. Like training for biathlon, it wasn’t a quick process. One of the most common questions I get from blog readers is how long it took me to get back to “X” activity. Since a lot of information on that subject is buried in other posts, I thought I would create a summary of how long it took me to return to activities and what some of the challenges were. Keep in mind that I did have some significant complications with my abdominal incision healing due to a rare reaction to my particular suture material. This extended my healing time.

Snowboarding:  I did this activity for the first time at around five months post-op, but because it was the end of the season, I was only able to get a few days in. I was surprised at how effortlessly the movement of boarding came back to me after losing so much strength after surgery. The most difficult part was getting back into a standing position after taking a tumble. Due to the crunch-like movement involved, it felt hard on my core. I wore (and still wear) a six-inch wide hernia prevention belt to help support my abdominal muscles. At first I was also careful to not venture onto icy terrain since falling onto my butt hurt the area where my anus had been removed. By the next season (about a year post-op), all that pain was gone and I was able to return to my pre-surgery level of boarding.

Getting up after all the falls on my first post-surgery snowboarding trip was tough on the abs!
Getting on my feet during my first post-surgery snowboarding trip was tough on the abs!

Hiking and backpacking: I went on my first backpacking trip at around five months post-op as well. I checked with my surgeon to make sure carrying 25 pounds was okay and then headed into the backcountry at the first opportunity–which happened to be a very cold and snowy April weekend!  Once again, I wore a six-inch wide hernia prevention belt and was mindful to keep the weight in my pack light. Doug carried many of my things and helped lift the pack onto my back. Once it was centered on my legs, it didn’t strain my abdominal muscles at all. The cold made this first trip with my ostomy difficult, but I was happy with the extra challenge. I knew if I made it through that, warm weather adventures would be easy.

After this trip, I kept hiking every weekend and slowly upped the distances traveled and amount of weight carried. I went on a few more overnight trips and began hiking 14,000-foot peaks. I remember walking like a turtle on the first one, but I just kept at it. By ten months post-op, I was able to go on an eight-night backpacking trip carrying 52 pounds.  Through all these adventures, I was continuously experimenting with supplies and techniques for dealing with my ostomy outdoors and I tried to put myself in challenging situations to maximize my learning and face my fears. For instance, I could easily have changed an appliance before a wilderness trip, but instead I would purposely wait to do it in my tent in the backcountry just so I could get the practice and become confident with my ostomy in those situation.

A little snow couldn't keep me out of the backcountry once my surgeon gave me the go-ahead to carry a pack again at 5 months post-op.
A little snow couldn’t keep me out of the backcountry once my surgeon gave me the go-ahead to carry a pack again at 5 months post-op.

Running: I waited seven months after surgery to go running and I progressed really slowly. For whatever reason, this activity made me much more fatigued than hiking or backpacking. I also had pains in various areas of my abdominal wall (almost like a stitch or side-ache in the muscles surrounding my stoma) for almost a year after surgery. I never knew exactly what caused this, but it always felt okay again a day or two after running so I chalked it up to muscle fatigue. After all, I had been cut open from belly button to pubic bone. That is bound to affect the abdominal wall a bit! Eventually those muscle aches went away and now I am able to go on long runs with no discomfort. I also wear a six-inch wide hernia prevention during this activity to help support my abdominal wall.

Jumping for joy on my first trail run which happened a little over a year post-op.
Jumping for joy on my first trail run which happened a little over a year post-op.

Rock climbing: This is the activity I took the longest to return to. Climbing involves many twisting and stretching movements and a lot of physical exertion. My surgeon never said I had to wait a year to go, but that is what I decided to do in order to give myself plenty of time to heal. I knew my ostomy was permanent and I wanted to do everything in my power to reduce the possibility of a long-term injury like a parastomal or incisional hernia. I was willing to wait as long as it took for my body to tell me I was ready. In the meantime, I worked on hiking and backpacking so it never felt like I was sitting around waiting to climb. To get stronger while I was waiting, I worked with my physical therapist to strengthen my core with gentle and safe exercises. By eleven-months post-op, I finally felt that I was strong enough to rock climb. I started in the gym by ascending routes that were easy and low-angle. Then I started to do the same outside. Over the following year, I slowly bumped up the difficulty of routes I was attempting and ventured onto more vertical terrain. At 22 months post-op, I led my first easy sport route. Now that I am over three years out from surgery, I am climbing in the gym on a weekly basis, doing overhanging routes and am back to scaling rock walls at my pre-surgery level. The only thing that I have yet to do is return to leading traditional routes where I place my own gear. Just like with every other strenuous activity, I always wear a six-inch hernia prevention belt.

Leading a climb at Shelf Road in Colorado this fall. I was back to leading sport climbing routes 22 months after surgery.
Leading a climb at Shelf Road in Colorado this fall. I was back to leading sport climbing routes 22 months after surgery.

Yoga: Like rock climbing, I waited a year to do yoga. I know I could have gone earlier, but I was busy working on the core exercises with my physical therapist and decided to wait to try yoga until my incision area felt solid. Interestingly, I found corpse pose to be one of my most uncomfortable poses. Lying on my back made my incision area ache like crazy. I think this was the result of horrible posture during the first four months after surgery when my incision was extremely painful. During that time, I was protective of the area, and I found myself walking in a hunched-over position. It took a while to reverse that and make my muscles to feel okay with being lengthened again. Nowadays, corpse pose feels fine and the only thing I still have trouble with are bridge positions. My body tells me to go easy on those and so I do!  I wear a hernia belt while doing yoga too, but switch to a four-inch model as it is easier to bend with that width.

Bicycling: This sport was gentle on my body and would have been perfect after surgery save for one thing: my butt hurt from having my rectum and anus removed. And this pain was not quick to go away. It took almost a year for the deep muscles in that area to feel like normal again. Fortunately, once I hit six months-post op, my pain had at least diminished enough that I could sit on the seat without too much discomfort. Now I can spend hours on the saddle with no issues.

My first bike ride at six months post-op: a short jaunt to see a Rockies game. It did hurt my healing butt a bit, but was tolerable.
I took my first bike ride six months post-op when Doug and I pedaled a short distance to see a baseball game. It did hurt my healing butt, but was tolerable.

As I get into my new sport of biathlon, I realize that it is going to take a lot of hard work and patience to get better. I know someday when I am skiing a bit more efficiently and faster, those early times when I struggled up the hills or felt like taking a nap in the snowdrift will seem like a distant memory. It was that way with my ostomy. Getting back to my pre-surgery activity level took perseverance.  My progress sometimes seemed dauntingly slow. However, as I moved towards that goal, I celebrated each small victory. Before I knew it I was back on my favorite slopes, trails and rock faces and my life was richer for all the tiny but amazing steps that got me there.

“It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.”
-Ernest Hemingway

Me and my wound vac going for our first trail hike after surgery. I traveled a whopping 1/8 mile and I was thrilled. After having major incision healing complications, this was a huge milestone for me and I went home and celebrated with my first post-op beer.
Me and my wound vac returning from our first trail hike after surgery. This was four months after my operation and I traveled a whopping 1/8 mile. After having major incision healing complications, this was a huge milestone for me and I went home and celebrated with my first post-op beer.

Skating into year four on skinny skis

Magazines? Bolts? Barrels? No… I wasn’t reading, building something or making wine. I was sitting in class learning all the terminology to shoot a .22 rifle in a biathlon race. Doug and I decided to give a new sport a try this winter and biathlon looked like a lot of fun. This weekend there was a clinic to learn about rifle safety and how biathlon races work.

I cross-country skied years ago, but it had been at least ten years since I had been on skinny skis. The shooting part was new to me, save for a couple of lucky shots (I hit the target!) with a BB gun in Wyoming. I was a little nervous to try both of these things together, but I am glad I did. I had a great time! There were many newcomers to the sport in the class and it ended up not being intimidating after all.  I even managed to hit a few targets during the practical portion of the class. Of course–it will be much more difficult to do that while skiing in an actual race. One of the biggest challenges of biathlon is attempting to hit targets when your heart is pumping fast and you are breathing hard.  There is a race in January that I am thinking of doing so I can get a feel for what this really feels like.

Getting a feel for my skinny skis.
Getting a feel for my skinny skis.
Doug taking aim at the biathlon range.
Doug taking aim at the biathlon range. The distance is 50 meters.
I earned my red book during the course. This shows that I
I earned my “red book” during the course. This shows that I am now certified to take part in biathlon
races or practice on the range.

At the clinic, I was focusing on keeping my hands warm (the high temperature was a whopping 13 degrees), remembering how to skate ski and figuring out a lot of new vocabulary and skills. I was also hoping that skate skiing wouldn’t irritate the avascular necrosis (AVN) in my left shoulder joint (which fortunately it did not). One thing that I wasn’t thinking about at all was my ostomy. My altered plumbing feels very normal to me now and it rarely enters my mind except when I go to empty my pouch.

That wasn’t the case three years ago. At this time back then, I was a month out of surgery and struggling emotionally. It felt like my ostomy was the only thing I thought about during an entire day. Changes were overwhelming, I was full of anxiety and I wondered if life would ever feel normal again. Even though I had wanted my ostomy for treatment of my UC, I grieved over the changes to my body and cried every single day.

Those times were tough, but I know that I had to go through them to get to where I am now. Returning to an adventurous life after my ostomy didn’t happen all at once; it took a lot of small steps. Had you told me back then that I would be shooting a rifle at a biathlon course in a few years, I would have thought it was crazy! As I enter my fourth year with an ostomy, it is great that life feels so normal again and it is also wonderful to be trying a new sport challenge. I can’t wait to see where my skinny skis take me!

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