Hand jams and high steps: outdoors on the rock (feat. new video)

Five days ago at our local crag, I stood at the base of a short, easy (5.6) route, looking up and assessing the possible moves and thinking about how my body might handle them. This outdoor climb (on real rock!) looked easy and had obvious holds, but it was still much different than the indoor routes I had been training on. In the gym, the wall is peppered with holds and any time one of the routes (marked with colored tape for various difficulty levels) would get too hard for me, I would simply grab a hold marked with another color to make it easier. It was a different world outdoors. Here, the holds were spread out with far less to choose from than in the gym.

Until that moment, the last time I had been outside on the rock was in July of 2010. Doug and I had taken a nine-day trip to a climbing area called City of Rocks in Idaho. Amazingly, this trip fell right in the middle of the only true remission I ever had in my 10-year history with Ulcerative Colitis. I remember walking to the outhouse in the dark to administer my maintenance dose of Rowasa and wondering if I even needed it. I would check my toilet paper whenever I went to the bathroom, certain there would be blood on it. Astonishingly, for the first time in a very long time, it looked normal. Every time I got to the top of a cliff on that trip I remember pondering how amazing I felt. I seriously thought I might have somehow been spontaneously cured.

Enjoying remission on top of a route at the City of Rocks in July 2010. This was one of the last climbs I did before falling ill with the final severe UC flare that led to my surgery.

Sadly, that joy didn’t last. Two months later my final raging ulcerative colitis flare came on and I found myself lying in a hospital bed instead of sitting on top of a cliff. When I was ill it took a ton of effort just to bend over and pick something up off the floor. I sometimes thought my climbing days were over for good.

But they weren’t. One of the main reasons I chose to have a permanent ileostomy surgery was because I felt that it would give me the best chance of returning to climbing. Still, it was a long road to get back to the rock, and the strenuous nature of the sport made me apprehensive and cautious. It took a lot of time to heal, get strong (I’m still working on that) and gain confidence, but the moment had finally arrived to attempt my first outdoor route after the operation.

Many months had gone by since I last sat at the base of a cliff lacing up my rock shoes in anticipation of an ascent. This time, as I began to climb, I barely recalled what it felt like to dance up a route with the sun warming my back and the wind gently blowing my hair against my face. I had forgotten how amazing it was to have my mind focused only on the cracks and crimpy holds in front of me and nothing else. These things had once been so beloved and familiar to me, and though they now felt foreign, I could sense my body waking up and remembering with every reach, jam, and high step. My passion for climbing had been rekindled, and this was only the beginning.

If you’re new to Ostomy Outdoors, don’t forget to check out all the other adventure videos we’ve put together for you.

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When to be patient? When to push?

It is obvious when reading my blog that I am happy with my ostomy and super thankful for the surgery. However, there are still days on which the fears capture me. This morning when I woke up, my abdomen was unusually sore to the touch in about about a 3-inch perimeter around my stoma. It has been a while since I have had ostomy-related pain of any sort, but I was instantly taken back to those days after surgery when I was desperately trying to sort out what was normal pain and what might be something serious. I had a short period of intense anxiety issues after my surgery due to some complications (I hope to write a little more about this in a future post), and this morning I was back in that place for a moment.

My stomach clenched up and my head spun in a storm of worry thinking about all the things that the pain could be from. I knew the pain had nothing to do with a blockage, my output was completely normal in consistency and quantity. In a moment of rational thought, I remembered all the exercise I had done during the week. Two nights ago, I had upped my workout at the climbing gym. It was the first time I had ventured onto more vertical routes– still easy but slightly more strenuous than the slabby ones I had been doing. This week I also went from running every few days to running 30-45 minutes each evening. The runs I had been doing previously were short mileage-wise and slow, but last night, I felt carefree and energetic, and I ran faster than at any time since surgery. It was invigorating to fly down the trail at a brisk pace and with no rests. I couldn’t wait to go again today.

But now this pain. I really hope I didn’t overdo anything and cause injury. Tomorrow is my appliance-changing day, and I will get to take a better look around the area. In the meantime, I am actually relieved that the muscles on the other side of my abdomen are starting to hurt as are my calves. That means that the pains around my stoma are likely nothing more than sore muscles too. I am going to guess that they just came on sooner and fiercer because that side is much weaker. I canceled my run for the day and went for a speedy walk instead.

One would think that a year after surgery, especially with all the hiking I have done, that my body would be ready for such a workout. When I am feeling so well and healthy, it is incredibly difficult to know how hard I can safely push myself. The little pieces of colored tape marking even the 5.7 rated routes (an easy-to-moderate grade) at the climbing gym keep tempting me, as do the steeper trail runs. How will I ever know when I am ready for these? I wish that there was some kind of manual that said 365 days after surgery you should be able to do A, B and C. Seeing that there is a much higher likelihood of going downstairs and finding a sloth sitting at my dinner table holding a fork in his three toes than acquiring such a publication, I will have to continue to proceed through trial and error.

I hope tomorrow when I poke around my stoma that everything feels great, and that I can slip on my running shoes once again and hit the trails… albeit with the pace turned down a notch. Patience, Heidi, patience.

A dot marks the spot

It was a gorgeously sunny October day last year when I packed up my harness and backpack and headed out the door. No, I wasn’t going on a hike or climb. In fact, the place I was traveling to wasn’t even outside. As I arrived at my destination, I walked down the sidewalk and through the double sliding door of the building. I made my way to the check-in line by the front desk and felt somewhat self-conscious with my huge backpack sticking out of a bag slung over my shoulder. A few moments later, I entered the crowded elevator, where people gave me quizzical glances. Such gear would be expected at a trailhead, but it was not the norm here. However, today, having my pack and harness was as important as it would have been on any hike or climb. As the elevator door opened on the ninth floor, I nervously walked to the department down the hall to meet my wound, ostomy and continence (WOC) nurse for the first time. It was time to have the site of my stoma marked.

I had been told to wear my favorite pants to the meeting so that the location would match with my clothing. However, I also decided to bring my harness and backpack. With outdoor activities being a huge passion in my life, I wanted to make sure that my stoma location would work as well as possible with my gear.

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

At the meeting, the nurse shared important information about what to expect with output, eating, activities etc. Finally it was time to get the location marked. I felt a little funny explaining to her that along with making sure the spot worked with my belly and with my clothing, I also wanted to test it out with my harness and pack. Fortunately, she didn’t make me feel silly about my request at all, and soon I had a big blue dot on my abdomen about two inches to the right of my belly button and two inches below. This was a good location because it was below my belt line. This meant that gear or clothing waistbands would not rest on my stoma or prevent output from reaching the bottom of my pouch.

When I got home, I stood in front of the mirror and looked at the mark. I tried to picture what it would look like with a stoma there instead. Suddenly, my decision to have the surgery seemed very real, and I felt excited and nervous at the same time. To further discover how my new stoma spot worked with my clothing and gear, I filled up the ostomy appliance my nurse had given me with applesauce and taped it on top of the blue dot on my belly. I then went out to the garage to dig out every backpack I owned. The one I had taken to my nurse visit was my favorite overnight one, but there was also the brand new day pack I had just bought before I got sick again. I had only used it once. And then there was the large load-monster of a pack that I took on very long trips. Would that one work with the ostomy? One by one, I tried on the packs and they all seemed to rest well above my stoma. I was encouraged.

Continue reading “A dot marks the spot”

Permanent ileostomy or j-pouch: that was the question

One of the questions I get most often from readers of my blog is why I chose to have a permanent ileostomy instead of trying j-pouch surgery. Though I have mentioned a few of the reasons in other posts, I decided to address this topic in a little more detail. The point of this post isn’t to tell you that one surgery type is better than the other. They are both very good options. My goal in this writing is to share the thought process I went through to make my choice.

In the course of my illness, all my symptoms, colonoscopies, and genetic testing pointed to Ulcerative Colitis and not Crohn’s. This made me made me a candidate for either surgery type. At age 38 during the time of my surgery, why would I choose to live with a “bag” for the rest of my life?

It wasn’t a decision I took lightly, and I gathered all the information I could. This began when I was still in the hospital, facing the possibility of emergency surgery. The very kind and helpful general surgeon who would have done my surgery had I continued to decline, visited my room almost every day to check in and patiently answer my seemingly endless questions. He introduced me to the words “ileostomy” and “j-pouch” and gave me a great foundation of information to build on.

Continue reading “Permanent ileostomy or j-pouch: that was the question”

Back to climbing

“The scariest thing for me through this whole ordeal has been the rapid weight loss over the past two weeks. My muscles are gone and when I squat down to the floor to pick something up, I can barely get back up. I feel like I am doing the hardest move on a rock climb just to do some simple movement. I try to do a couple walking laps in the hall everyday to stay strong and keep my legs moving. I just want to be healthy and well again.”

Around this time last fall, I emailed the above update to a couple of good friends while I was in the hospital with my UC flare. I was so weak that it was difficult to do even the most basic things, like stand in the shower or walk up the stairs. I seriously wondered if I would ever be strong enough to rock climb again.

Last night, thanks to the health I regained through surgery, I made my first trip to the rock climbing gym in over a year. At first it felt foreign to put my harness on and tie my figure-8 knot, but once I placed my hands and feet on the holds and began ascending the wall, the movement felt natural to me.

On my first route in over a year

Continue reading “Back to climbing”

The “what-if” Game

People can be good at all sorts of games. Some are awesome tennis players, and others play a mean game of poker. A few might even be able to pull off an amazing backbend to win a Twister tournament. I am great at the game of “what if,” and wish I wasn’t so competent at it. I find that my mind constantly likes to worry itself over how I will handle some challenging aspect of having an ostomy.

This week, despite no differences in diet or timing, I had a nightmare appliance change. The second I took my wafer off, my stoma started to spew like crazy, and it wouldn’t stop. Minutes whizzed by, then an hour, as I went through half a roll of paper towels trying to keep up with the mess while still trying to make progress with the change. As the clock struck the two-hour mark, I finally had successfully placed a new pouch on. At that exact moment, my mind also decided to play the “what-if” game.

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Welcome: the story of my outdoor adventures as an ileostomate (feat. new video)

Yesterday was my sixth-month anniversary of my permanent ileostomy surgery, so it seems like a fitting time to start my Ostomy Outdoors blog. I have been active in the outdoors since I was a child, and one of my biggest fears about ostomy surgery was that I would no longer be able to take part in the outdoor adventures that I love, like rock climbing and backpacking. Through writing and short films, this blog will document my return to these activities after having my colon removed due to ulcerative colitis (UC).

My battle with UC began in 1999. It started out very mild but worsened over the years, with 2009 and 2010 bringing my worst symptoms yet. My abdominal pain increased, and I constantly bled, making it hard to keep my iron levels stable, resulting in fatigue. I would sometimes have small accidents and began to put pads in the back of my undies when hiking, just in case. Of course, I was also a little embarrassed about all of this, and except for my husband and parents, never talked to my friends and family about it. I was a master at covering it up. There were a few times my cover was almost blown. I remember once when I was out hiking, my friends got ahead of me on the trail when suddenly I had to go the bathroom. Without any time to inform them of my situation, I ducked behind a boulder to dig an emergency cat hole. They couldn’t see where I had gone, and thought I had disappeared! Needless to say, they were very relieved when they saw me walking towards them again on the trail. Urgency is one thing when you are hiking; it is another matter up on a rock face. Often if I was feeling ill with UC, I would cancel my climbing plans. Still, most of the time I managed to lead an active life with the disease by ignoring the pain and not letting it stop me.

Continue reading “Welcome: the story of my outdoor adventures as an ileostomate (feat. new video)”