Some of you may already know from my Facebook page that I recently experienced a kidney stone. I am sharing a few more details about the experience here on the blog as dehydration is one of the challenges of having an ileostomy and is something that can contribute to stone formation.
On Sunday, November 3rd, the NOAA forecast called for gorgeous weather. Doug and I had planned to head to the local crag for some climbing. Instead I woke up at 4:30 a.m. with a strange pain in my groin area. Doug heard me stirring, but since the pain was pretty minor, I told him to go back to sleep while I got up to make myself some tea and take a warm shower. Perhaps that would help it go away. I figured maybe I had just pulled a deep muscle, as I had gone for a pretty hard run the evening prior.
When I was in the shower, the pain started to get worse and it was strange because it felt like I already had to urinate again even though I had just gone when I got up. Great, I thought. I bet I am dealing with a urinary tract infection. I noted in my head that if things didn’t get better, I would schedule an appointment to see the doctor when the weekend was over.
After I got out of the shower, I sat down to go to the bathroom and suddenly felt an extremely sharp pain explode in my left flank. I knew right away that I was probably dealing with a kidney stone. I had had one 14 years ago and the pain was reminiscent of that experience. I also knew that this would likely require a trip to the ER. I started to make my way around the house to gather my insurance card, clothes, spare ostomy supply kit and other things I might need. I got about two minutes into that endeavor before I was brought to my knees by an even more intense pain. I crawled up the stairs and yelled for Doug to wake up and help me.
Seasoned from the days when I would wake up screaming from Remicade-induced joint pain or the times when I needed to be taken to the hospital late at night for UC flares, Doug sprang out of bed and into action at top speed as if he had rehearsed it 100 times. He helped me get dressed and he held my hair back when I began to vomit from the pain. I am not sure how I managed to walk on two feet out to the car, but soon we were zooming down the road to the hospital. Curled up in the front seat, I tried to use the mindfullness meditation techniques I had learned after surgery, and I attempted to focus on each breath instead of the waves of pain and nausea I was experiencing. When we got to the ER, Doug ran in to get a wheelchair while I waited doubled-over next to the car. A nurse heading in to start her shift rushed over to help. Within minutes, I was lying in a bed hooked up to an IV with some much needed Dilaudid.
During my eight hours in the ER, the pain was so intense that I still hurt a lot even with the pain medication. The doctor decided to order a CT scan to see how big the stone was. Fortunately, it was 4mm: a size that I could likely pass on my own. However, I still couldn’t be released from the hospital until the stone moved to a place that was a bit less painful. I was sent home when I could finally hold down some Vicodin pills without throwing up. Before leaving, I was told the the CT scan also showed two more 4mm stones–one in each kidney. They couldn’t tell me if, or when, those would decide to make their way down the ureters.
When I got back to our house, Doug made me endless cups of herbal tea and I watched at least two tear-jerker dramas on Netflix which is one of my tried and true methods of feeling better. Every time I would get up to urinate, I would eagerly look in my strainer to see if the stone had passed. Finally, first thing the next morning, it popped out. I was so happy to see that little rock. It reminded me of a precious nugget in a gold pan! Once the stone passed, I had instant relief and was back to running and hiking within a couple of days.
My stone was sent to the lab to be analyzed later that week and I discovered it was the common calcium oxalate variety. I was given a sheet with recommendations for fluid intake and also a list of high-oxalate foods to avoid. Unfortunately, these foods are currently things that make up a larger portion of my diet: spinach, nuts, peanut butter, quinoa, legumes, oatmeal, berries, almond flour (which is a gluten-free baking staple) and chocolate. These are all things I eat a lot because I love them and I thought they were also good for me (well … except for the chocolate). Another thing I am supposed to avoid is salt. This is hard because when I exclude salt from my diet, I start to feel dizzy, weak and nauseated. Due to this and the fact that my blood pressure has gotten very low at times, my doctor recommended last year that I increase my sodium intake–especially when I am active. I feel that an appointment with a dietician may be in order to find out how to best manage having both an ileostomy and a predisposition to kidney stones.
While I wait for an upcoming follow-up appointment, I have been doing a little bit of research on kidney stones for a better understanding. I read that those with IBD and/or ileostomies can be prone to kidney stones due to the way these conditions affect urine volume, urine pH and calcium and oxalate excretion in the body. Interestingly, the calcium oxalate stone I had 14 years ago occurred at the same time I first developed ulcerative colitis symptoms. I am not sure if this is a mere coincidence, but definitely something to ponder.
The take-home message with all of this is that I need to drink a lot more water. I usually try to take in 3-4 liters in a normal day (more when I am doing something active). However, I also know that I have gotten a bit complacent with my hydration. Other than a few isolated times, I haven’t really felt dehydrated since surgery so I figured I was doing okay with my water intake. There were even a few times that I left my water behind on short runs because I thought I felt fine without it. I also got careless about drinking enough at work, oftentimes returning from leading a program to find the water bottle in my pack still full. I guess rather than giving me subtle signs that I needed more H2O, my body decided to give me a huge wake-up call in the form of a kidney stone. It is a lesson I won’t soon forget. In fact, I think it is time to go have a glass of water right now!
When I woke up this morning, I wasn’t sure how to celebrate my 3-year stomaversary. As I made breakfast, I tossed around some ideas. I thought about going to Zumba like I usually did on Friday evenings but it didn’t feel like it honored the specialness of the day enough. I considered taking a sketching excursion, but I really wanted to do something active. Soon the ideal activity popped into my head: I would go on a trail run! Though I recently started running again after a year-long hiatus due to hip woes, I hadn’t yet been off the road. I quickly formulated a plan in my head. After work I would stop at a local park and do my favorite trail running loop and then I would meet Doug in town for a celebratory dinner.
When I climb, I am only thinking about the rock in front of me. When I do yoga, I am focused on my breath. Running is one activity where I can let my mind travel on a whim. On the anniversary of my ostomy, I really wanted to have a chance to contemplate the positive impact that Wilbur the stoma has had on my life. A long run through the gorgeous landscape would provide the perfect opportunity to do that.
Sometimes I ask myself why it is so important for me to celebrate my ostomy surgery date. I am sure if I had elbow surgery I might note the anniversary as it approached each year, but I don’t know that I would feel the need to set aside time to reflect on the experience and do something special to commemorate it.
When I was in the hospital for 16 days with my final UC flare, many doctors and nurses passed through my room and I had a lot of great conversations about my desire to have permanent ileostomy surgery. There were so many varying thoughts and opinions on the matter. I remember several individuals commenting on the fact that, at age 38, I was awfully young to be considering a permanent ileostomy. Why wouldn’t I want to give the biologics a longer try? If I really wanted surgery, why not at least try a j-pouch? Was I sure I wanted to wear an ostomy pouch for the rest of my life?
Trying to justify my choice to others was extremely difficult. I remember having a heartfelt conversation with my GI doctor and IBD nurse about the things I valued in life and why I thought the ileostomy was the best choice for me. My reasons were often hard to put into words, but inside my heart was screaming. I just want my life back!
My life. The one that included hanging out with my hubby in the mountains and on rock faces. The one that wanted to be able to enjoy a fun dinner out with family and friends without UC food worries. The one that included teaching others about nature out on the trails in my job as a naturalist. I saw the permanent ileostomy as the fastest, least complicated and most predictable way of getting back to the things I loved the most. I never felt that I was too young for surgery. Instead, I felt that I was too young to not take a difficult but important step to get my quality of life back.
So every year, on November 8th, I feel the profound desire to reflect on and celebrate that big decision. It isn’t only a time to honor all of the amazing things I have done in the past three years and my renewed health — it is a celebration of my ability to listen to my heart and follow the treatment path that I felt was right for me.
A few weeks ago, Doug and I climbed an eight-pitch rock formation in Rocky Mountain National Park called Spearhead. It was a great adventure and my first big backcountry rock climb since surgery. All went well but as we summited we noticed some huge thunderheads building above us. We descended and got safely back to camp just as the lightning, hail and rain began. We packed out our soggy gear and hiked the six miles back to the trailhead in a light rain. Little did we know at the time, those sprinkles were the start of a weather system that would last five days and flood parts of the Front Range of Colorado. Sections of the roads we traveled on that evening would be completely wiped out, and homes and businesses that we passed by would be damaged or destroyed.
Doug and I walked around our own neighborhood during the time of heaviest precipitation and watched small creek beds fill and and overflow their banks and turn into swift rivers. Our immediate area was spared the worst of the rains and did not sustain any damage except for some flooded trails and parks. As we watched the disaster unfold only 20 miles to the north and learned of the immense destruction there, we wondered what we could do to help. We put our names on a volunteer list for a large organization, but were told that it would be a month before needs would be completely assessed and our applications processed.
A week after the flood Doug and I made a trip up to Boulder, one of the severely impacted towns, to go to a premiere of a climbing film. It was crazy to see how much flood recovery had already happened. Major roads had been cleared, a lot of businesses had reopened and things looked normal on the surface. However, before the presentation, a group of local climbers got up on stage and talked about all the work that still needed to be done. Right after the flood, these individuals saw that their neighbors were in need and simply showed up with shovels and buckets to dig out impacted homes. Soon they had a name: The Mudslingers. The newly formed community-based volunteer group invited everyone to join in and help make a difference. It was easy—all you had to do was show up at their makeshift office in downtown Boulder and they would assign you to a project.
Word of the Mudslingers spread quickly and soon it became a large group made up of people of all different backgrounds—not just climbers. When we were finally available to volunteer this past weekend, we were afraid that there wouldn’t be that many projects left to help with. After all, it had already been three weeks since the flood.
Of course I thought about my ostomy. Would the lifting be too heavy? What would I do with my full pouches out at a flood site with no restrooms for miles? I hadn’t let my ostomy stop me from anything before and I sure wasn’t going to let it hinder me from volunteering. I would wear my hernia prevention belt and ask for help if a task involved heavy lifting. Certainly I could shovel dirt and that was what was most needed. As far as dealing with my waste, I would just do the same thing I did on a mountain: find a somewhat private spot, swap out a closed-end pouch and pack it out.
We showed up at 8:30 a.m. on Sunday and there were about 20 people gathering on the sidewalk outside the office. After signing liability waivers, we jumped in a car with a couple other volunteers and began driving 30 minutes to the site. On the way there, it was hard to even tell there had been a flood. It was a gorgeous day and cows were grazing in farm fields as we passed. Bicyclists were out in droves enjoying the beautiful weather. I kept watching for flood damage, but I couldn’t really see anything save for some puddles in the fields and some grass that looked like it had been matted down by water. I was starting to wonder what kind of work we would be doing. It seemed like the area wasn’t that heavily impacted. I would soon discover that I couldn’t have been more wrong.
When we got within 10 minutes from our destination, I started to see some low-lying areas where it looked like a lot of mud had been cleaned up from yards and piled up. However, it wasn’t until we came face to face with a “road closed” sign that I had the first inkling of the sheer destruction I was about to witness. The house we would be working on was just beyond this sign, so we drove around it. As we turned into the driveway, we noticed that the main road extended only another 50 feet before ending in an abrupt cliff. It had been completely washed out by the flood. “Road gone” may have been more appropriate wording for the sign.
When we got to the property, I stepped out of the car and looked around in disbelief. The damage was so much worse than I had imagined and my mind had a hard time making sense of the disorder before me. There was a children’s slide up in the branches of a cottonwood and a huge construction dumpster tipped on its side and pushed up against a tree like an empty cardboard box. Across the river an RV sat marooned in silt while a garage had been completely moved off its foundation and stuffed with branches from the force of the water. Jumbled tree limbs, house parts and other random items formed debris piles everywhere. On the property, there were enormous mounds of destroyed belongings: muddy shoes, mattresses, appliances, luggage, packages of unopened chips, a child’s toy, and a crushed TV were just a few of the objects I saw stacked up. Some of the items belonged to the person who lived in the house but many of the things had traveled there from miles upstream. The house had already been dug out by an earlier group of volunteers, but there was still two to three feet of wet silt covering the floor of a barn and a large portion of the yard.
After looking around for a few minutes, we were briefed on the project. Our main objective in the morning would be to clear large debris out of the mud in the yard so that a tractor could come through and scoop up the remaining dirt. There was such an overwhelming amount of deposited silt that it was hard to know where to take the first scoop. We all just started to dig in. Soon we were finding all sorts of things including a bike, golf clubs, a dog crate, fishing poles, a propeller and even a toilet. The most frustrating thing was that a huge number of window frames had washed down from somewhere up stream and were layered in the silt like sheets of paper. We would dig out one only to find another right underneath. We got so excited when we were able to remove one with the panes still intact, but most were broken and trying to remove all the glass from the mud was impossible. Digging through the mud, it was hard not to get emotional. I knew that every object we found contained a story of someone who had been impacted by the disaster.
By lunch we had made some amazing progress. As we sat down to eat, the homeowner, tenant and a neighbor that was also helping with the cleanup came over and told us stories about the flood and its aftermath. The 70-something homeowner now lived in town but rented out the property. She had bought the place in the 1970s and talked about the home’s rich history and all the memories of the time she had lived there. Due to the fact that the home was on a creek that was usually a small trickle, she did not have flood insurance. The homeowner had talked about wanting to give up once she saw the damage because it had been so overwhelming.
The renter who lived in the house had been keeping a close eye on the rising creek only to have a drainage ditch behind the house unexpectedly overflow and quickly inundate the house. He evacuated before things got really bad and thought he would come back to some wet carpeting the next day. Instead he found his house full of deep mud with all his belongings on the first floor and in the barn destroyed. This had been his home for 10 years and he talked about how it was the only place his grandchildren had ever known. It was clear that all the individuals loved this place and that their loss was huge. I couldn’t have imagined going through what they had, and my heart ached for them.
After lunch the crew divided into two teams. One went to dig out the three feet of mud in the barn. The rest of us donned masks and headed into the house to remove insulation and drywall. An earlier group of volunteers had already taken the walls out up to the high water mark soon after the flood, but it was determined that the rest of the drywall up to the ceiling should be taken out. As I was ripping out the walls with the rest of the team, I got really sad. Just a few weeks ago, these were cozy rooms full of someone’s treasured belongings.
As we finished up in the house, I noticed that the walls along the staircase to the second floor were intact and covered with framed family photos. I held my hand in front of my eyes so that I could block out the area we had gutted and just focus on that one little space untouched by the flood. The comfort and tranquility of the upper stairwell stood out against the piles of broken drywall, dirt and bare studs that had become the barren first floor. I closed my eyes and pictured the lower level becoming a comfy home again. I imagined colorful walls and rugs, artwork on the fridge, comfy furniture and laughter filling the now empty space. Though it would take some time to get there, I knew those things would be a reality thanks to all those who had volunteered.
The day came to a close and I wasn’t the only one full of hope. At the end of the day the man who lived in the house smiled as he talked with me about the how the house would be even better than before once repaired. Walking back to the car, tears welled up when I overheard the homeowner talking on the phone about how overjoyed she was at all the progress that had been made during the day. I looked around and things still seemed so daunting. However, in her eyes the improvement was huge—the property she loved was starting to be recognizable again. As we all got in our cars to leave, she invited us to return to see the place once it was rebuilt.
I know from going through serous illness and ostomy surgery how important it is to have hope. I also know that sometimes it gets lost and you need others to help you find it. In this case hope was well hidden in many feet of thick mud and was particularly hard to locate. Still, it had no chance of remaining concealed with 20 hearty, shovel-wielding volunteers working tirelessly at the site. With each piece of drywall torn out and each bucket of dirt removed, hope was unearthed and the despair of these individuals began to turn into optimism. Words can’t describe how amazing it felt to be there for someone in need and to be part of that transformation.
I must admit it. I have been very fortunate when it comes to my ostomy. I have had the best medical team imaginable through my UC and surgery journey. I have a wonderfully constructed stoma that functions perfectly and my wafers never come loose or leak. As of yet, I haven’t had the troubles with foods or blockages that some people with ostomies do. I don’t take any of this for granted and try to live each day with a sense of gratitude over the way things have turned out and for my restored health.
I felt this same level of thankfulness many times on my Rainier climb. I would stop for a few moments, look around in amazement and think I can’t believe I am really here and then close my eyes and give a silent thanks. Leaving the park after the climb was really hard. I didn’t want to let go of all I had experienced on the mountain. As we drove away, I kept wanting to take one last glance at the peak–as if each additional view would somehow help me better process all that being up there had meant or would make the memories more lasting. My ascent of Rainier couldn’t have turned out more perfectly, and it felt as if the stars had aligned for so many aspects of the trip:
My climbing team was amazing
I climbed with the best group of people that anyone could ask for. We had a total of four guides and eight participants in our team. Just by sheer luck of schedules– two of our guides also happened to be doctors and three of the other clients were nurses. Though I didn’t talk about my ostomy a lot on the climb (I had other things to focus on), having teammates with medical knowledge made bringing it up infinitely easier.
Our group met at the guide service headquarters the day before our climb to go over gear and logistics. After the meeting, I stayed back to talk with Emily Johnston, our lead guide, and also an ER doc. I brought up some of the unique challenges my ostomy presented (hydration, having to empty on rest breaks, etc.). She had some experience with patients who had ostomies and was very understanding and matter-of-fact about it. From that point on, I knew there would be no awkwardness when I had an ostomy-related question or needed to deal with it on a rest break.
All four of our guides were amazing and top-notch. One of our guides, Craig John, had made it to the top of Everest. Liam O’Sullivan, another guide and doctor, had set a speed ascent record on Rainier in 2008. Emily, Liam and Craig had also climbed Rainier over 100 times. Our final guide, Jeff Ward, was certified with both the International Federation of Mountain Guides Associations as well as the American Mountain Guides Association and instructed other alpine guides. Suffice it to say that we were in very good hands.
The other climb participants were some of the nicest people I have met. We formed a quick bond and everyone was so encouraging and supportive of each other. I truly hope that someday we will get to meet up in the mountains and climb together again.
The weather cooperated
Day one was sunny and clear blue, but when we woke up on day two, an angry looking lenticular cloud had situated itself over the top of Rainier. Fortunately, we were only practicing glacier travel skills and rope work near our low camp at Camp Muir that morning. After a short hike to the high camp at the Ingraham Flats in the afternoon and an early dinner, a ferocious thunderstorm blew in. Not only were we surrounded by intense lightning–which was fortunately attracted to the higher ridges and not our camp–but three to four inches of fresh graupel (soft hail-like snow pellets that resemble the innards of a bean bag) fell. The forecast didn’t look good for our summit attempt the next morning either, and we went to bed feeling disappointed that we probably weren’t going to make it any higher on the mountain.
Much to our happy surprise, we woke up to our guides’ voices telling us that the skies had cleared! We quickly ate breakfast (at 11:30 p.m.–yes, that’s right, in the middle of the night), got packed up and then tied in with our assigned rope teams. It was slow going with all the fresh deep graupel on the trail which made it feel like we were walking in deep sand. I was second in line, and for every step forward, I slid a half a step back.
The route was also more technical than it usually was at this time of year. Several larger crevasses had opened up, and we had to cross the gaping abysses by walking across extension ladders secured on each end. When I shined my headlamp into one of the voids I could not see the bottom. As we hiked, we could see that the stars were disappearing in the dark sky– more clouds were coming in. We pushed on and reached the top of Rainier at 7:30 a.m. We were only able to bask in our success for maybe ten minutes before it was time to head down. The clouds were looking alarmingly like the ones that had just dumped on us the previous evening. Even in good weather, the technical crevasse sections of the route had a tendency to cause a bottleneck of climbers. Being stuck waiting in an exposed place surrounded by lightning would have been terrifying and dangerous. Though we all would have loved to spend more time on top, we knew it was not worth the risk. As it turned out, the clouds blew over without incident and we ended up having great conditions for our descent.
My ostomy behaved
Two days before I was to leave for my climb, my ostomy acted up for no apparent reason. I had pure liquid output for a while and when I changed my appliance wafer one final time before leaving, I noticed I had numerous ulcers on the surface of my stoma. I had experienced these on many occasions before and even had them biopsied (which only showed non-specific inflammation and not Crohn’s). However, this time there were more ulcers than usual and some of them looked different. Along with he circular ones that I have been getting on the side of my stoma, there were strange elongated amoeba-shaped ulcers on the tip and just barely extending into the inside of my stoma. I thought, Oh no! I don’t need something new to deal with right before heading out on the climb.
I decided not to worry about it. If I had liquid output and had to change my closed end pouches more frequently along the route, so be it. I had also trained with a much heavier pack than I would actually be carrying on the trip. I knew that if I had to bring more water to offset any extra fluid loss, I would be fine with the pack weight.
Luckily, the morning we left the trailhead, my output thickened and my ostomy fell into its usual pattern of having to be emptied every four to six hours. The first day of the climb I was even able to go one stretch of eight hours. When I returned to my lodging after the climb and put on a new wafer, I noticed the ulcers had also started to go away. Whew!
I ran into one of my IBD role models on a rest break
Years ago, Doug did some website work for International Mountain Guides and met with the three guys that ran the company: Eric Simonson, Phil Ershler and George Dunn. When it came time to climb Rainier, we knew we wanted to make the trip with their guide service.
In 2006, when I was first diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, I also found out that Phil Ershler had Crohn’s disease and had recovered from colon cancer. He and his wife Sue had just shared their story in the book Together on Top of the World which chronicled their journey to overcome those challenges and climb the seven summits together. I read the book and went to see them speak at a local climbing shop and was deeply moved. The things that Phil had gone on to do in spite of IBD were truly remarkable. As my disease continued to worsen over the years, Phil’s story remained an inspiration to me.
When we knew we wanted to do our climb with International Mountain Guides, I emailed Phil and asked him his thoughts on doing the climb and what route might work best for me. He gave me some great suggestions and was really encouraging. As luck would have it, we ran into Phil on the way to Camp Muir on day one of our trip. He was descending from a day hike with his wife and a friend and happened to pass by just as we had paused for a rest break. He stopped to chat with our group, and I pulled him aside afterwards to thank him in person for the encouragement and inspiration. I still can’t believe that of all the days on the mountain… and all the people who climb it… and of all the places to take a rest break… we ran into Phil right there that day. Seriously. What are the chances?!
Though there were many fortuitous things on my climb, there were also aspects that were not just a matter of luck:
I trained really hard
The months before my climb were a roller coaster ride of injury and uncertainty. From being diagnosed with steroid-induced avascular necrosis in my shoulder in December to having hip and Achilles tendon problems in the spring– I really thought I might never be able to do the climb. However, I did everything I could to make it happen. I worked diligently with my physical therapist to get to a point where I could at least hike and aqua-run again and then did those activities week after week. If I was tired after work, I still found the motivation necessary to head to the pool. When the alarm went off at 1 a.m. every weekend to hike a big peak, I rolled out of bed and did it. Once on Rainier, this training made the climb so much easier. I still can’t believe how healthy and strong I felt up there; it was everything I had hoped for.
I was willing to ask tough questions
When I filled out my application for the climb last fall, I was very open about my ostomy. I wrote about the challenges it presented and asked for feedback from the staff about how I could handle these things on the climb. No– it wasn’t easy writing to strangers and explaining ostomy waste and my various needs related to it. However, because I was straightforward and honest about my situation, I got some amazingly helpful suggestions and gained insight into how I could adapt to the conditions I would likely encounter on the trip. Once I got up there, I was able to enjoy the climb and not worry about my ostomy because I knew what to expect.
I did not give in to fears
There were a plethora of things to be nervous about in regards to my ostomy on Rainier. Would I be able to stay hydrated on long days when all our water came from snow and could only be obtained at camp? Would it be really hard to swap full pouches on steep slopes in the cold? What about when being roped up on a team? Would my heavy pack be a problem? How much should I tell my fellow team members about my ostomy and when? I knew rest breaks were kept short. Would I have enough time to empty my appliance plus refuel and hydrate?
Instead of getting too worried about any of these things or letting them stop me from going, I equipped myself with as much information as possible to help me prepare for the trip. Beyond that, I wholeheartedly jumped into the unknown and let it play out minute by minute. There were many times that I had no idea where I would swap out a pouch within the next hour or when a conversation with another person might turn to my ostomy. I figured it out as I went along and that is one of the things that made it such a grand adventure.
The video in this post covers some highlights of the trip and conveys the emotions of the climb better than I could ever express in writing. Due to the fast pace of the climb and the fact that we were moving through difficult terrain in roped teams, carrying ice axes and wearing heavy gloves, we weren’t able to record nearly as much footage as we usually do for our films. I plan to do two more written posts in the upcoming weeks covering more details about the Rainier trip: one on the specifics of how I managed my ostomy on the climb and another regarding the sometimes challenging issue of knowing how much information to share with others regarding one’s ostomy.
When life gets busy, some things end up on the back burner. Lately, that item has been sleep. There has barely been a night in the past couple of months when I have gotten more than seven hours of shuteye—usually the number has been closer to five and there have been times it has been less.
What has forced sleep onto the back burner? In part, it’s a large, glaciated peak named Mt. Rainier that I will be climbing very soon. Along with my full-time job, life lately has consisted of these four things: hiking peaks every weekend to prepare for Rainier, going to the gym in the evenings to train for Rainier, keeping up with my physical therapy so that my joint issues don’t crop up on Rainier, prepping and packing for the Rainier climb. See a theme here? All these things take up an incredible amount of time. Many evenings I don’t get to bed until late trying to squeeze it all in. Most every training peak we have done has required a wake-up time of 1 a.m. in order to make it to trailheads early so that we can summit peaks before afternoon storms roll in. And even then—we experienced static electricity and buzzing hiking poles on one peak as a rogue storm cloud blew in at 9:30 a.m. Yikes!
With the climb on the front burner and sleep on the back one, my blog has worked its way into the far rear corner of a little-used cupboard behind a large kettle. Tonight I clanked through the pots and pans and dug it out for a quick post. To everyone who has been tuning in to the blog or who have emailed or commented and not gotten an answer: thanks for your patience. I will be back to posting and corresponding regularly once I return from the trip. Below, I am including some photos of our adventures so you can see what I have been up to. Since my last post about five weeks ago, we have climbed six 14ers and four 13ers, including a three-day backpack trip with one of the adventures. Whew!
As I prepare for Rainier, I am starting to get a little nervous about some ostomy-related things. I am wondering what it will be like trying to discreetly swap out closed-end pouches while roped up on a team, including some strangers. I hope I can keep up with my hydration needs. I am afraid that during short breaks, all my time will be used dealing with my ostomy and that I won’t have time to eat and refuel. Will my ostomy supplies make my pack heavier than everyone else’s? I know it will all be fine, but there are a lot of unknowns on the trip.
One thing that has really helped me not worry are the amazing staff at the guide service we will be using, International Mountain Guides. I have explained what having an ostomy is like to them and have asked for their suggestions on everything from dealing with poop on the mountain, to questions about hydration and accommodating my gluten-free diet. It is always a little awkward bringing up the intimate details of life with an ostomy, but being open about it helps me get the answers I need. The staff has made the process so easy. I feel comfortable asking them anything which definitely helps quell the fears.
In many ways though, I love the uncertainty. The best thing I have discovered for becoming confident with my ostomy is to throw myself into new situations wholeheartedly. Through those occurrences, I learn that I can be resourceful and adapt to anything. I can’t wait to see what challenging experiences await me on the gorgeous ice-covered slopes of Mt. Rainier. No doubt I will come back from this adventure with my horizons stretched even farther.
Last weekend I was reminded why I love using closed-end ostomy pouches on hikes and climbs. I was up on a long ridge between between Loveland Pass and Mt. Sniktau in Colorado. Though it was a gorgeous 75-degree day down in Denver, up at 13,000′ it was blustery and frigid. We left the house at 4:15 a.m. so that we would be done with our climb and back to the car before afternoon thunderstorms came in. I emptied my appliance before leaving the house, but by the time we reached the summit of Mt. Sniktau at around 9 a.m., my pouch was reaching its 1/3 full point. This is typically when I like to empty it.
Problem was, no ideal place to empty a pouch could be found on the entire ascent. The wind was howling and shelter was non-existent. On top of this, there were many feet of snow on the ground. The few places where there was exposed earth, it was frozen solid. There was also no way to go off of the ridge to empty away from the trail. Precarious cornices sat 50 feet to the east of the route and dangerous avalanche slopes could be found 50 feet to the west. Emptying would have meant draining my pouch in the snow close to the area where people travel. Once the snow melted, fecal matter would have been left on top of the ground in a popular area. This was one of those instances when wearing a two-piece ostomy system and using closed-end pouches was almost a necessity.
If you are just finding out that you will be having an ostomy, or are recently out of surgery you may find the sheer number of ostomy appliance choices to be overwhelming. Closed-end, drainable, one-piece, two-piece — what do all these mean and which ones are best suited for various outdoor adventures? A lot of these choices come down to a matter of personal preference. The goal of this post is to share some information on the basic types of appliances and explain how I utilize the various options on peaks and trails. I’d also like to hear what you’re using in the outdoors.
First, ostomy appliances come in one- or two-piece options. With a one-piece appliance, the wafer (also sometimes called a skin barrier) is permanently joined to the bag and cannot be separated–you’re literally stuck with this pouch until you remove the whole thing. The benefits of this style is that it has a low profile and sits very flat against the abdomen. The disadvantage is that because the wafer and bag cannot be separated, you lose the flexibility of being able to swap out different types of pouches unless you take the whole system off your belly. I used one-piece drainable pouches for the first five months after surgery, and on one of my very first major outdoor trips as an ostomate: a three-night early spring backpacking excursion. The ground was snow-covered and frozen on this adventure and I ended up trying to drain my pouch into plastic bags so that I could pack out my waste. It didn’t go well and I got output all over my pants and all over the outside of the bag I was trying to drain into. From that point on, I recognized that a two-piece system would be a better option for my outdoor trips.
With a two-piece appliance, the wafer and pouch are separate and attach to each other with a plastic ring that snaps together much like Tupperware. Once the wafer is on your belly, different styles of pouches can be put on or taken off this ring. These systems are a little higher profile because of the plastic ring. However, there is much flexibility in using them because you can swap out different types of pouches depending on your activities. Due to this, a two-piece appliance is my clear choice for outdoor adventures. Also, I find that even with the plastic ring, two-piece ostomy systems are undetectable under my clothing.
There are also choices for the pouch portion of an ostomy appliance; they come in drainable or closed-end versions. Drainables have a tail that unfolds so that output can be emptied out of the bottom. Once the tail of the pouch is wiped clean, it rolls up and closes with either a clip or a Velcro strip until it needs to be emptied again. A person with an ostomy may use the same drainable pouch for multiple days.
Closed-end pouches have no tail. Once they fill up, they are designed to be thrown away full. Due to their simpler design, they cost less per bag than drainable pouches. However, most ileostomates don’t use them the majority of the time. Due to output coming directly out of the small intestine having higher water content, those with ileostomies usually have to empty their pouches six times a day or more. Even though closed-end pouches have a cheaper per-pouch cost, going through so many in 24 hours makes them impractical and not cost-effective. Generally closed-end pouches are better suited for those with colostomies who may only have to empty a few times a day. That said, there are occasions when closed-end pouches are the perfect tool for those with ileostomies too.
Drainable pouches are my preference most of the time, even on wilderness adventures, as long as I can find a good place to empty. Packing out full closed-end pouches can be heavy due to the high water content of ileostomy output. In fact, I once weighed the trash bag that contained a day’s worth of full closed-end pouches after an all-day climb and it came in at 3.5 pounds! Multiply that for trips that may be several days long and you can see why I use closed-end pouches only when necessary.
However, my hike on the ridge is an example of an ideal time to use a closed-end pouch. I also like using closed-end pouches in other places where it is impossible to empty: on cliff faces when climbing, on rocky peaks where it is impossible to dig a cathole, and on crowded urban trails. Though I haven’t been on a river trip with my ostomy yet, I can also see them being very useful in these situations when one cannot get far enough from a water source to empty. Also, it takes longer to dig a hole in the ground and properly drain my pouch when in the wilderness than to swap out a pouch. There have been a few times when I have been caught in storms and have decided to swap to a closed-end pouch instead of draining in order to minimize my exposure to lightning, high winds, cold rain or other dangerous elements. Both drainable and closed-end options also come in smaller sizes if one wants a tinier pouch for some activities such as swimming.
It is also worth mentioning that there is one other style of two-piece ostomy appliances; they are called adhesive coupling systems. Instead of having a plastic Tupperware-like ring like traditional two-pieces, the wafer has a smooth plastic area and the pouch affixes to this with a sticky adhesive ring. The benefit of these is that, without a plastic ring, they are very flat on the belly. You can still swap out pouch styles by peeling off the old bag from the wafer and sticking on a new one. However, I find that adhesive coupling appliances don’t work well on my outdoor trips . When I peel off the full pouch, a little output inevitably gets on the place where I am supposed to affix a clean one. I then have to fully clean this in order to get the fresh pouch to stick. It ends up being too messy and hard to deal with in the wilderness where there is no water to clean up with. I find it much easier to use the traditional two-piece appliances with plastic rings. Even if a small bit of output gets on the ring, it still snaps together fine and is not messy at all.
A downside of closed-end pouches is that they are a disposable item. I try to make the best environmental choices possible in my daily activities, so I do sometimes cringe when I throw away my bag of closed-end pouches after a climb knowing I have added more to the landfill than I would have if I would have stuck to a drainable that day. I try to remind myself that I do this for a medical reason and to deal with a basic life process of bodily waste removal. In other aspects of my life, I try my best to be gentle on the earth. I take reusable bags to the store, drive a fuel-efficient vehicle, use public transit, buy organic produce to protect wildlife from pesticides, use eco-cleaners to keep toxins out of our water supply, recycle every item possible, and make wise purchases. I hope that, in the grand scheme of things, the impact of the pouches that I throw away is small. I really do only try to use them when absolutely necessary.
When I was on Mount Sniktau on Sunday and decided draining wouldn’t be possible, I even began to wonder if I could find a good place to take off my full pouch and put an empty closed-end one on. It was so windy and there were people everywhere on the ridge. Once my pouch was 1/3 full, I couldn’t find a place to make the switch. I decided I would wait until later to deal with it. The good thing about my ostomy is that, unless I eat something that irritates my stomach and gives me pure liquid output, I have plenty of time to get around to emptying. It is rarely urgent.
As I made my way down the ridge from the summit, more and more people were coming up and I realized I couldn’t be fussy with my site selection for swapping. My pouch was now 1/2 full and I needed to take care of it soon. I ran ahead of Doug and his dad but also saw that some people were heading towards me. I had about 5 minutes before they reached me so I tossed my pack to the side of the trail next to a small pile of rocks and tried to create a wind break. I then dug my supplies out and tied a small doggie poo bag to my pack strap so it wouldn’t blow away (this is what I would throw the full pouch into). Next I pulled down the front of my pant waistband, took my hernia prevention belt off, and quickly swapped out the full pouch for the clean one. Just as I had gotten my clothing back into place and was bagging up my trash, the two hikers approached me. I said hello and we talked for a second about the route. They clearly had no idea I had just dealt with my ostomy. To them, from a distance it probably looked like I was futzing around with my clothing or backpack. One can very discreetly manage their ostomy on the trail with a two-piece system and closed-end pouches.
With all the options out there, it pays to experiment with all the different brands and styles. Don’t feel like you have to use only one type of appliance. Have a dressy occasion where you definitely don’t want your appliance to show? Wear a sleek one-piece that week. Hanging out at the beach all day? Go for a mini drainable pouch that won’t hang out beyond the bottom of your suit. And if, like me, you find yourself needing to empty on a wind-swept ridge with sheer drop-offs on both sides — a two-piece with a closed-end pouch may be just the ticket. Take advantage of all the products out there to make life with your ostomy the best it can be.
On Friday I was having some major déjà vu. However, it wasn’t all in my head. I actually was in a place that I had been before: the outpatient surgery pre-op area of the hospital where I had the colonoscopy that led to me being admitted for a 16-day stay for my final severe UC flare in the autumn of 2010. Except for the fact that I wasn’t feeling sick and hadn’t just been through the worst bowel prep of my life, it felt crazily familiar. The same nurse that had checked me in for that colonoscopy over two years ago checked me in on Friday. He even recognized me! That said, that is where the similarities of the visit ended. Unlike last time, I wasn’t in the outpatient surgery area for anything serious and didn’t even need an IV. I was simply there to have Wilbur, my stoma, biopsied.
In March I wrote about some ulcers on my stoma. After an appointment where I brought some stoma photos showing what had been going on, my IBD nurse prescribed a couple of months of Pentasa to try. Since then, we have been patiently waiting for some ulcers to show up so that they could be biopsied to better determine if I was actually dealing with active IBD. It seemed like every time I would get an ulcer, I couldn’t get in for a biopsy because it was the weekend, I was out-of-town, the ulcers would heal too quickly, or my doctor was not available.
Finally, the perfect chance presented itself. Last Thursday night, I was changing my appliance and spotted a big ulcer that had appeared during the day. The next morning I emailed my IBD nurse and she put things in motion to see if my doctor could squeeze me in for a biopsy. However, my doctor wasn’t working in the GI office that day; she was working at the hospital so I would have to see her there. Within a few hours, everything was set up and I drove from work to the hospital, checked in and was soon on a stretcher in a gown reminiscing about how sick I had been last time I was in that situation.
Once things were ready, I was wheeled down to the room where they do colonoscopies and there I saw my GI doctor for the first time since my UC flare 2.5 years ago. I think my GI doctor is one of the greatest, nicest physicians ever, and I was truly happy to see her again under much better health. We caught up for a bit and talked about the biopsy. She explained the procedure and said she would be using the same tool to remove tissue that she did for intestinal biopsies during routine colonoscopies.
I didn’t even have to take off my wafer. We simply snapped off my pouch, cleaned off the stoma a bit and were set to go. My doctor pinched off a half-dozen tissue samples from my stoma with the tool, including the area of the ulcer. We chatted as she worked and she laughed saying how strange it was to be talking to someone while doing an intestinal biopsy because usually the patients are under sedation. It is pretty handy that stomas have no nerve endings. My stoma bled a little when she plucked off the samples, but the whole procedure was pretty uneventful.
My stoma was completely cooperative and the whole process was mess free until the very end. When the nurse had removed my pouch, she sat it on the table. When we were done, she handed it to me to put back on. It was a fresh pouch from that morning, and I had emptied it before heading to the hospital so it was fairly clean, but there was a bit of output in it from the drive and checking in to pre-op. I had fully intended to put on a clean pouch on after the biopsy and had brought with me. However, when the nurse handed me the one we had removed I thought Oh… maybe I can just re-use this since it is fairly clean. Big mistake. Trying to put on the half-full pouch while in a reclined position didn’t go so well and I ended up spilling a small amount of output on my belly. It was a little embarrassing, but the doctor and nurses helped me clean up and were so nice about it that it seemed like no big deal at all. I tossed the old pouch, put on a totally clean one and was good to go.
In the days since the biopsy, Wilbur has started to look like he was attacked by a vicious woodpecker. There are small, circular, ulcer-like depressions in every spot where tissue samples were removed. Though the sores are scary to look at, they should heal in a couple of weeks.
On Tuesday I got the results of the biopsy. It showed non-specific inflammation, but no signs of Crohn’s disease or ischemia (lack of blood flow to tissue). We will keep an eye on things for any changes, but the doctor said that such inflammation could be caused by something as basic as mild surface irritation from my pouch.
It is a relief to know that these ulcers are likely harmless and it feels great to have this and so many other concerns resolved as I head into summer. My shoulder avascular necrosis is feeling great with physical therapy, my hip pain appears to be caused by something pretty benign, and my recent Achilles tendon heel tweak hasn’t been hurting when doing my Rainier training hikes. It definitely feels like the dark cloud that has been hovering over me all winter is finally dissipating. I am really hoping that the sunshine sticks around for a while!
Heart pounding, quads burning and lungs barely able to keep up — I could not believe I was standing at 13,000 feet again. Yet there I was! Doug and I spent the weekend in Breckenridge with his parents. Our rental was a mere two miles from the Quandary Peak trailhead, so yesterday we decided to head up the trail to see how far we could get.
I had no intentions of making the summit, and just wanted to be out in the mountains moving my body again. With the sudden onset of groin pain in mid-January and an MRI in February that showed gluteal tendinosis in my hip, I had been doing lots of physical therapy and taking a break from hiking. In fact, I was starting to think that my Rainier attempt in July might not happen. I tried to keep my fitness up with biking and swimming (doggie paddling really… I cannot do any overhead swimming strokes because it hurts my shoulder avascular necrosis (AVN) too much). However, those activities hardly replicated the intensity of climbing big peaks with heavy gear at altitude.
Fortunately, last week I got some good news at a much-anticipated appointment with a new orthopedic surgeon. After looking at my MRI, he didn’t see anything in my hip except for the gluteal tendinosis. However, he does not think that the tendinosis is causing the groin pain I have been experiencing because that type of injury typically causes outer hip soreness. This makes sense as the physical therapy I have been doing for the last two months has really helped some of the pain in the outside of my hip, but did little for the groin. The bottom line is that the doctor did not know what was causing the soreness in that part of my hip; the joint looks healthy. He said sometimes they really can’t find anything and oftentimes these issues resolve on their own with time. He thought it was fine to start training for Rainier again as long as the pain didn’t worsen.
I also talked to him a lot about my shoulder AVN. Though I really liked working with the doctor that diagnosed the condition back in December, this particular orthopedic surgeon has more experience working with patients who have AVN. After looking at my MRI, he felt the AVN in my shoulder may not cause me any further issues. He said the necrotic area is small and that most of the cases he has dealt with have involved a much larger percentage of the humeral head. As a result, it is quite possible that I won’t ever need a joint replacement. Of course, he did say the exact progression is impossible to predict. The doctor said I was really, really lucky that I have not developed AVN in my hip. He has never had a patient that had it in the shoulder that did not also have it in the hip. (Could I be this lucky?!) Though he said it is always possible to develop AVN in another joint at any time down the line, the more time that passes after taking steroids, the better the chance is that this won’t happen. He mentioned that there are a lot of factors at play with steroid-induced AVN that doctors don’t understand. For instance, the window of time for developing AVN after stopping steroids appears to be a lot longer for some people and with some diseases than others.
It was a huge relief leaving the doctor’s office knowing that I had just been given the okay to get back to all my activities. And with my shoulder also feeling so much better, I happily started planning all my new adventures.
Unfortunately, my body wasn’t quite ready to cooperate. The morning after my appointment, I was bending over to pick something up off the floor and I felt a pull in my Achilles tendon. I was so disappointed. I had waited so long for that appointment with the new orthopedist and now I had developed an entirely new issue less than 24 hours later! This is so typical for me. There were many times when I was recovering from ostomy surgery when I would tell my surgeon everything was great at an appointment and then have something go wrong the following day.
Luckily, I had an appointment with my physical therapist that evening so I could at least discuss my latest joint woe with someone. He felt I had probably just strained the Achilles tendon a bit and gave me some stretches and strengthening exercises. Because my pain was minor, he thought I could still train as long as the movement of hiking didn’t irritate the tendon. Obviously if the issue starts to become more painful I will head back to the orthopedic doctor.
So, I wasn’t sure what to expect on the adventure yesterday. Much to my surprise, I felt great and ended up hiking around 5 miles round trip with a couple thousand feet elevation gain, making it to the 13,000′ shoulder of Quandary Peak. My Achilles did not hurt and my hip felt okay. A few times along the way I just stopped and listened to the beautiful sounds of being on a remote mountainside again. I could hear the wind in the tree branches and the snow crystals hitting my jacket and it felt amazing to be out there. I actually pinched myself a couple of times to make sure it wasn’t a dream. The feeling of happiness felt so similar to those first wilderness hikes after my ostomy surgery when I realized that I would still be able to do an activity I loved so much.
I look forward to the many mountain trips on the horizon as I start to train for Rainier again. If If I end up not summiting the big peak due to all the recent training hiccups, I will be okay with that. If the fun I had today is any indication, just being on that massive and beautiful mountain is going to be a breathtaking experience in and of itself.
Last Tuesday evening, I left work in a gorgeous swirl of falling snow but promptly got stuck in standstill traffic due to slippery road conditions. I half-thought of exiting the freeway and heading home, but the destination was too important and I knew that getting there would soon melt away any stress that had accumulated on the drive. In fact, it was almost guaranteed that I would leave the event in a good mood. I always do. So where was I heading that had me filled with such eager anticipation?
The fourth Tuesday of every month is my Ostomy Association of Metro Denver meeting. I started going to these meetings as soon as I was healed enough after surgery to get to them and quickly discovered how valuable they were. When you have a condition that is hard to talk about with most people, there is a feeling of instant comfort that comes from being surrounded by others who immediately understand what you are going through. A place where it is okay to talk about normally taboo subjects such as gas, rectums and bowel movements. Now that I have been attending the meetings for almost two years, I cannot imagine not having this support system in my life. I absolutely love talking to those who are facing or recovering from surgery and doing what I can to offer encouragement. I head home from every gathering wishing I had more time to talk to everyone and eager for next month’s meeting to arrive.
One thing that I hear many young people on IBD and ostomy internet forums say is how they often walk into such meetings and feel that they are the only one in their age group there. Many times these people don’t come back for this reason, and I think it is really unfortunate. Regardless of age, everyone can relate to the overwhelming emotions that come with ostomy surgery. Though different for each person, we all have stories of difficult times, fears we are facing, successes we are celebrating and hopes and dreams for our lives beyond illness. Coming together to share our experiences and thoughts on these things can offer profound opportunities for healing. I love the conversations I have at the meetings and learn something from every single person there whether they are 25 or 70 years old.
And guess what? If you wish that there were more people at the meetings your age– stick around. The next time someone else your age is nervously walking down the hall towards the meeting room and peeks in, they will see you there and feel less apprehensive. If that person chooses to also come back next time, it has a ripple effect and soon the group becomes more diverse. Make the meetings be what you want them to be by participating and returning for the next one.
If you don’t have access to a local support group to meet people in person, there are many groups to join on the internet. I wrote a post a while back about the importance of reaching out to others online. One of my biggest twists of luck when I was in the hospital and facing the possibility ostomy surgery was that my room had a good internet connection. Whenever my favorite nurse would see me typing away on my computer at an intense pace, she would always remind of how fortunate I was to be in that room because many of the others on the floor had poor Wi-Fi signals. I don’t know what I would have done without my computer. It became a lifeline from my isolated hospital room and allowed me to meet others who had gone through surgery and gone on to lead active lives.
Because of my own experience in reaching out for help when I was sick, it is a huge priority of mine to try to answer every single comment and email I receive on this site. Sometimes it takes me a little while due to a busy schedule, but you will hear from me if you write. Last fall, an email appeared in my box from another local adventurous ostomate: Lewis Benedict. That initial contact led to other opportunities to meet up including a recent hike of Twin Sisters Peaks in Rocky Mountain National Park. Lewis is now working on his own ostomy awareness website, ostomatevillage.com, and was even on cover of The Phoenix magazine this quarter! I am so proud of his accomplishments and look forward to many future adventures with Lewis and his wife, Tara.
I am thankful everyday that I have met so many amazing people through my ostomy association meetings, OstomyOutdoors.com, and other websites and social media. You all inspire me to no end and help keep me motivated when my own life presents challenges.
I am going to end this post with a video of the hike with Lewis mentioned above. I hope it provides some inspiration to get out there and meet other people with ostomies. If you are feeling alone while facing or recovering from surgery, or if you just want to meet other people who have been through similar things, know that there is a strong ostomy community out there. You just have to reach out.
Beyond great doctors and following the treatment plans they prescribe, one of the things I find most important when dealing with difficult medical conditions is maintaining a sense of hope. I simply have to be able to believe that the possibility of a good outcome exists, even if I know the road to get there might not be easy or certain. When I was facing ostomy surgery, one of my biggest sources of hope was The Phoenix magazine, the official publication of the nonprofit United Ostomy Associations of America. The minute I stumbled upon it online, I subscribed and bought all the back issues. I eagerly read every word of every issue. Along with a vast array of educational articles about products and managing an ostomy, there were countless inspirational stories about people with ostomies who were out there living life to the fullest. I learned about a woman who had hiked the Appalachian Trail and another who had visited China. I found out about a climbing guide in Alaska who had an ostomy and another individual who had climbed Everest. Reading about these people was as important as figuring out how to get my wafer to stick: they allowed me to visualize what my life could be like in the future. They gave me hope.
Last fall, I began contributing to The Phoenix myself by wring the quarterly Ostomy Outdoors column. This is certainly something I never would have visualized as being part of my future while lying in my hospital bed a couple of years ago! Life is full of beautiful surprises and being able to help people through the same magazine that provided so much inspiration for me is humbling.
Whether you are facing surgery, just recovering, or a seasoned ostomate, each issue is full of great articles on supplies, skin care, stories about others who have had ostomy surgery and so many other topics. And now it is even easier to view the publication! The UOAA is offering an online subscription for only $19.95. Find out more information and get a free preview of the online winter issue at the following link.
And speaking of hope — I hope to never let a season go by where The Phoenix doesn’t show up in my mailbox. It is such an invaluable resource for me.