Living with an Ostomy and IBD led her to become an Unexpected Beauty Queen and Advocate

 

Hi Everyone! My name is Robin Brown, I’m a 40-year-old wife, momma & farm girl. I also happen to have an ostomy and the title of Mrs. Washington World America!

My relationship with my guts has been a long battle….even as a child I suffered from severe ulcerative colitis symptoms but I wasn’t officially diagnosed until I had my first bowel resection at age 21 as result from an infection following an appendectomy. I lost my marriage and some guts but I finally got some answers…or so I thought. The next ten years were a rollercoaster of medications, treatments, alternative therapy and surgeries(15 to be exact.)

I was miserable. My family was miserable. But, I’d had enough and didn’t want any more treatments. Soon I was back in the hospital and one doctor reviewed ALL my info and said he knew exactly how to fix me…OK, just one more surgery then. Well, he was right…he fixed me!! I was no longer having incontinence issues, I could eat again (personalized diet plan) and was feeling great compared to the previous ten years. End of story right?!

WRONG! Less than a year after surgery I was in an accident where I was crushed between our off-road truck and the back wall of our garage. It was a literal and figurative blow that nearly took my life. I had holes in my large intestine, holes in my small intestine, a shattered pelvis, four broken bones in my back and an aortic aneurysm. I had to undergo countless operations, hours of physical therapy and I was even put into a coma while doctors worked fixing one piece at a time.

After everything began to heal I realized how broken I was. After the accident, I lost myself. I had worked as a medical assistant for years and loved working in healthcare. Now that was gone. I was finally a mother after trying for nearly ten years. Now I couldn’t even lift my two-year-old son for a hug. I took great pride in being a partner to my husband. Now I needed him to help me sit on the toilet. I was stressed and depressed. My UC symptoms worsened by the day and now that I had shortened guts it caused a multitude of other problems like rectal prolapse (twice!) which led me to finally agree to get my colostomy pouch. I cried, a lot.

Being home, then in and out of the hospital, and no longer able to have a 9-5 job I decided to start a little online business selling skincare and cosmetics. Not really to make money but just to feel like I was doing SOMETHING! I had to get out of this funk. I was hiding. Hiding from my husband, even though he had an easier time accepting things than I did. Hiding from my reflection- because every time I saw myself I felt depressed and sad. I was hiding from the world by wearing bulky sweatshirts in the middle of summer so no one would see my bag. Then one day in my online makeup group I shared a bit of my story. The response was amazing and beautiful and that’s when things began to shift. One afternoon I received a message from an old friend suggesting I compete in a Mrs. Beauty pageant since the focus is so much on what you do to inspire rather than just what you look like. Me? In a pageant? Probably not. Then a few weeks later the same suggestion from another. Ok universe…I hear you. I decided to apply for the Mrs. Washington America pageant and was quickly named Mrs. Mason County.

Great! What in the heck did I sign up for? Before surgery, I swore off swimsuits and anything tightly fitted. Now, not only will I wear a swimsuit on stage but I’m going to ask to be JUDGED?!?! What on earth was I thinking? Now, in addition to volunteering and fundraising, each queen must have a platform. Something they want to bring awareness to and are passionate about. The obvious choice for me was gastrointestinal disease and ostomy awareness and education, but that’s not the most beautiful platform and can make people uncomfortable. As quickly as the idea came, fear and doubt began to creep in and I promptly began thinking of other ideas.

At my first pageant event, a holiday party to meet all the other queens, we were introduced to a designer that would be custom designing an opening number dress for each of us! As I chatted with the designer I quietly mentioned I had a colostomy bag and could we design something to hide it as much as possible because I wanted to feel beautiful. A short while later I bumped into a sister queen at the elevators. She introduced herself and wanted to know if she could ask a personal question…of course, I said! She asked if she overheard my conversation correctly that I had a colostomy bag? Yes, yes I do! “Really?!? Where, I don’t see it?” She continued, “are you happy you made that choice? What’s the hardest part? Does it hurt?” A million questions rolled off her tongue at once and then she shared her struggles with GI disease and the fact that an ostomy has come up in her doctor’s appointments and she was terrified and thought life would be over¬– until she met me! I knew right then, I had the right platform and that by sharing my story I could help others in ways I never dreamed.

At that moment a woman approached. She wanted to let me know her husband has an ostomy and seeing me on stage gave them so much hope and even though I didn’t win they were cheering for me! Again, I had to thank the universe for letting me know I was exactly where I was supposed to be.

In the months leading up to the pageant, I began volunteering at hospitals and schools, sharing about differences and acceptance. I had the opportunity to be a speaker with a major medical company to share my ostomy journey and provide input to how they can better serve our community. I even went live on Facebook and showed my bag to the world!

In a few short months, I became empowered and proud of my body and my spirit again. I walked the stage in a swimsuit like I was a supermodel, rocked a gorgeous FITTED gown with grace, and with a smile heard myself say the word bowels, as it proudly rang through the pageant auditorium.

Guess what? I didn’t win. I did not even place in the top 10. I went to the coronation party with a stage smile and promptly excused myself with my best friend by my side. She knew I needed to cry. As we reached the bottom of the grand staircase I could feel the tears of disappointment welling, and her hand grasping tighter to my arm letting me know I just had to keep it together for a few more seconds. At that moment a woman approached. She wanted to let me know her husband has an ostomy and seeing me on stage gave them so much hope and even though I didn’t win they were cheering for me! Again, I had to thank the universe for letting me know I was exactly where I was supposed to be.

Soon after, I applied to represent Washington at the Ms. World International pageant after a few weeks and committee meetings later, I was selected! I am now Mrs. Washington World America and I couldn’t be more proud to represent my state and the ostomy community at the upcoming pageant.

I never thought I’d have an ostomy. I never dreamed this farm girl would be a beauty queen. I never imagined my trials would become my triumph and my story of hope. Throughout my life, many have attempted comfort me with the words “everything happens for a reason.” This honestly just kept me waiting for a moment of clarity and answers but that moment never came. I found no reason! I think sometimes bad things just happen and it’s up to us to give them meaning and purpose. For me this is it. Sharing my story, my triumphs, my tragedies. All in the hope that it can be a light for someone stumbling in the darkness.

 

Robin Brown will be this year’s Ostomy Awareness Day Champion for UOAA. Check out all the ways to get involved and join with her on Saturday, October 3, 2020.  

Bladder cancer and urostomy surgery do not stop Annemarie from living her best life.

I am a bag lady. I am highly educated and employed, yet carry a bag wherever I go. I don’t leave home without it. Because of bladder cancer, I have a urostomy. Like many other women, it took some time for my diagnosis. At 57, many of the symptoms I experienced were attributed to my age: menopause, UTIs, kidney stones, fibroids, etc. Thanks to the fibroids, I was scheduled for an ultrasound. It was my gynecologist who found the bladder tumor. She referred me to a urologist. In fact, she insisted. Her office called to make sure I followed through. I met that week with a local urologist. He did a scope. I saw him look at the nurse, concern written on both their faces. He started talking about surgery and apologizing for the diagnosis. In my naivete’, I had gone to the appointment by myself. I don’t remember him even saying the words, but I had bladder cancer.

Scans and a transurethral resection of a bladder tumor (TURBT) were scheduled for the following week. Usually an outpatient procedure, I was in the hospital for 4 days due to heavy bleeding after the TURBT. The tumor was large and the doctor couldn’t get it all but he thought it had penetrated the muscle. Unfortunately, the pathology was inconclusive so he did another TURBT the following week. The outcomes were exactly the same so we both decided my best chances were for a second opinion at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. Throughout our discussions, he explained what my future might entail. It looked likely that they were going to have to remove the bladder and I would either have a new “bladder” or a bag. Quite honestly, I had no idea what it entailed, but I was horrified.

Dana-Farber is an amazing place. I had a whole team in place: a medical oncologist, an oncology urologist, a nephrologist, among others. The plan was an MRI to confirm the tumor’s pathology, a nephrostomy tube, chemotherapy and, if the cancer had not spread, a radical cystectomy. If it had spread, I would not need surgery but would be eligible for palliative care. Who would have thought surgery is the best case scenario. Due to claustrophobia, and despite anesthesia and Ativan, I moved so the MRI was inconclusive. I needed another TURBT. Thanks to my new amazing surgeon, the tumor was removed and the passage to my kidney was cleared. The pathology of the tumor showed no spread to the muscle and an ultrasound showed no more kidney hydronephrosis. Even better, I would no longer require chemotherapy. I did try immunotherapy with BCG but it did not work. The cancer was aggressive so we had to treat it aggressively. My radical cystectomy was scheduled for January 25, 2019.

It took me a long time to get there. I even asked what would happen if I did not receive the surgery. I would be dead in a year.

Wow, that was sobering. Because of the proximity of the tumor, I did not qualify for a neobladder. I would have to have a urostomy. Every time I talked about it, or even thought about it, I cried. I felt like I was going to be a freak. I offered my husband a divorce if he wanted one. I was devastated and frightened. I have learned that fear of the unknown and our imaginations are far worse than the reality. While so much of what had happened to me was out of my control, I did have control over one thing: HOW I handled everything. I decided knowledge was power. I was fortunate. My hospital had a class for urostomy candidates. For the first time, I was able to see an actual urostomy pouch. I was given hands-on instruction on how to change a bag. I met ostomy nurses (the best people in the world!) who would be helping me.

I decided I would be the one to handle my changes, right from the start. I would take control.

My surgery lasted 7 hours. I needed a transfusion but things went well otherwise. The surgery was not easy. People have described it as feeling like you were hit by a bus. I never really had any pain. It was easily managed with Tylenol. However, I was so weak. I eventually needed an iron transfusion. The one thing I wish I had gotten for my return home was a shower chair. Showers were the worst for me. It took me two months to feel more like myself and another month before I felt ready to return to work. I also cannot say enough about getting a good ostomy nurse. I have been described as a delicate flower (surprising to those who know me). I have very sensitive skin. The nurse was a Godsend to me in trying to manage all of my skin issues. After my visiting nurse visits ended, I continued to see the ostomy nurses at the hospital where I had my surgery. It took a year but, through trial and error, I finally have gotten a handle on things.

I had a few leaks. They were usually caused by user error. They were not the huge floods I expected. Honestly, none of this was as awful as I expected. So many people said this would be my “new normal”. I can’t stand that term. I call it my new reality. There isn’t anything normal about having a urostomy. However, it is very doable. I now wear two-piece bathing suits. I didn’t before. I am wearing the same clothes as I did before. I can kayak, hike, ride my bike, swim for hours, anything I did before. I was here for the birth of my first grandchild. I am back to work, a job that I love. I am not shy about talking about my bag to others. It is not a secret. In fact, I am kind of proud of it. I am alive and life is good.

Finding Hope in the Stories of Others

By Scott Steehn

All stories have a beginning, and mine is no different. It started on a cold, slate-colored February day in Erie, Pennsylvania in 1992. I was a successful standup comic who had headlined clubs and theaters in all 50 states and seven foreign countries. I was recently engaged to my soulmate, and we were making plans for a big October wedding. I was just finishing up a great week at a terrific comedy club in Erie and, as I prepared for my two shows on Saturday night, I felt like everything couldn’t have been going any better. But, in just 12 hours, none of those things would matter.

It started when I was onstage during the first show. I began having abdominal pain on my left, lower side. It wasn’t a huge pain and mainly felt like a had a fairly intense need to move my bowels. I finished up my show and made a beeline to the restroom. And…nothing happened. Nothing at all. The NEED was still there, and, in fact, it was getting worse. I, of course, had been constipated before, but this felt somehow…different.

I did my second show, but the pain was now almost unbearable. I headed back to my hotel, stopping only at a drugstore to pick up a laxative. I had convinced myself it was just constipation and had even assigned the blame to the shrimp dinner I’d had the night before. “Fresh Shrimp” in February…in Erie?! What did I expect to happen?

I took the laxative. And I waited. And tried. And waited some more. And then the pain got bad. Real bad. I could barely walk and couldn’t move without intense pain shooting out from my left side. Now I had a new theory. Burst appendix. This was before the days of Web MD, and I was limited to only what my imagination could conjure to freak myself out. So, not wanting to die a ridiculous death in the Erie Hilton, I called a taxi and headed to the hospital.

They got me into an exam room in short order. The doctor examined me and, taking advantage of his fancy medical degree, immediately eliminated appendicitis. So much for that. He then told me he had an idea what it was but wanted an MRI to confirm the results. A quick trip through the “donut of doom” confirmed his initial diagnosis. It was something called diverticulitis. He explained how we all have small abscesses in the colon and how they usually don’t cause any problems. Sometimes, however, those abscesses become infected. It causes horrible pain and constipation, and once it gets this bad, it has to be treated with antibiotics and mass quantities of fluids. I spent a painful week in the hospital and was discharged with very specific instructions on how to adjust my diet and lifestyle to prevent a recurrence. I thanked all the staff for the great job they did, signed some papers, checked out…and promptly ignored his instructions for the next 20 years.

Christmas Eve, 2012. My wife has had enough. The final straw came when I was unable to make it upstairs for the family gift exchange. As soon as it was over, she came down and told me we were going to head to the emergency room. I didn’t have the energy to argue. Plus, I knew she was right. I’d been feeling terrible for almost three years. Something was definitely not right. It seemed like it emanated from the “diverticulitis spot” that I had become intimately familiar with due to the flare-ups I suffered through two or three times a year. The only confusing part was I had undergone a colonoscopy six months prior and had received a clean bill of health. Only much later did I learn that I had received a negligent result. My doctors all agreed- there was no way my problem could have been missed.

I should have known I was in trouble when, after the emergency room doc saw me initially, he asked me if I’d like anything for pain. I jokingly said, “Sure, how about some morphine?” He immediately replied, “Okay, we’ll get that going for you.” Uh oh. A little later he told me I had a blockage that had been caused by a buildup of scar tissue from the repeated flare-ups of diverticulitis. They needed to get rid of the infection and then remove the two damaged sections of bowel. Surgery was scheduled for New Year’s Eve. Merry Christmas and Happy freaking New Year!

I spent the next week in a morphine haze. I met my surgeon, a brilliant young lady who looked impossibly young for someone with that much schooling. She explained that they were hoping to remove the damaged sections laparoscopically. It was a relatively simple procedure that would require a couple of days of recovery in the hospital, a week or two at home, and then back to my normal life. The alternative would be invasive surgery, much longer recovery time, and, while the healing took place, I would need to have a colostomy. Due in part to my opiate fog and also due to my refusal to accept reality, I was 100% convinced everything would be done laparoscopically. No worries.

The first thing I noticed when I came to was something in my throat. Something huge and foreign. As my world blinked into focus, the nurse was there to explain to me that the damage was much worse than they had anticipated. Full surgery had been performed and I was going to be in the hospital for a while. The drugs were very helpful in allowing me to deny exactly what exactly that meant. I was much more concerned with getting the tube out of my throat and the catheter out of the other end. That cavalier attitude about my situation would soon change.

The nurses and staff were great. They changed my colostomy bag for me and allowed me to STILL not grasp my situation. That all changed when I met the ostomy nurse. She was tasked with teaching me the intricacies of daily life with a colostomy. Reality came crashing through the door when I spent 30 minutes hiding in the restroom in tears unable to change my bag. I can’t do this! This isn’t fair! (Conveniently forgetting the 20 years I had spent ignoring my doctor’s orders) Gathering myself, I sucked it up, and FINALLY was able to do it on my own. I was discharged and sent home to recuperate and heal for 30 days before heading back to the hospital for takedown surgery.

I’d like to tell you a story about how well I adjusted. About how I was brave. About how I was thankful to be alive. About how I now appreciated my friends and family even more. About how I would now refused to take all the beauty of life for granted. That’s the story I’d like to tell. But I can’t. It would be a lie. Even though none of you know me, I promised myself I would be 100% honest about my journey. Warts and all. So here goes.

It was awful. I hated every minute of it. I thought having a colostomy was gross. And hard. Life wasn’t fair. NOTHING was fair. I can’t do this. There were the usual indignities. Accidents. Broken seals. Excess gas. I was in hell. Never for one moment did I think how my situation affected those around me. How my actions and attitude affected my family, and, my wife in particular, who only wanted me to get better and get back to being the man she married. As an added bonus, I was also taking 12 Oxycodone a day for pain, and, rightly suspected, now had a raging opioid addiction. My day consisted of sleeping, crying, bitching at my family, thinking about death, and dealing with my new, hated, appendage. Day after day. Rinse, lather, repeat.

Then, one day while noodling around on the internet, I found UOAA. I started reading about my condition. And I started reading other people’s stories. I found out just how many dealt with this particular challenge. I was stunned. And the more stories I read, the more my respect grew. People who had to deal with this for years. For decades. Tears streamed down my face as I read their stories. I’d love to tell you everything changed that day. How my attitude changed overnight and how I became Mr. Positivity. Alas, it wasn’t that simple.

What DID happen, is I became embarrassed about my actions. I had always prided myself on being a tough guy who dealt with problems head-on. The more I read on ostomy.org, the more I knew this was a lie.

Every day I read the stories of real heroes. Men and women who possessed the biggest superpower of all, the ability to live a normal life despite adversity that was currently bringing me to my knees. To say they inspired me, would be an understatement. Closer to the truth would be, they saved my life.

They gave me practical advice, “insider tips” on everything from bathing to sex, and something I hadn’t felt in a long time. They gave me hope. I never posted on the UOAA discussion board. Hell, I don’t think I even registered. Due to my “temporary” status, I really didn’t think anyone wanted to hear my whining. If everything went well, my life would go back to “normal,” while these people would continue to lead quietly heroic lives day after day, year after year. I didn’t feel worthy. And I still don’t.

That’s my story. Sure, there’s more, including an unsuccessful takedown, massive infection, emergency surgery, and an ileostomy for a few more months. There was a wound vac, and an in-home nurse to change my dressing daily. And, of course, after 6 ½ months of daily opioid use, I still had to deal with that King Kong-sized habit. Yet, in the end, I was okay. It probably took almost two years to feel like me again. And even that isn’t completely accurate.

I recovered, I felt better physically, but “myself” was different. I was more appreciative, more humble, and more thankful. I was well, but I’d never be the same.

So, thanks for reading. Thanks to Ed Pfueller for giving me an opportunity to share my story. Thanks to the whole team at UOAA and, for that matter, all of the sites designed to educate, inform, and help everyone on this particular journey. Lastly, more thanks than I could ever express to all the men and women who bravely shared their stories through blogs and forums. Thanks for your bravery. Thanks for your humor. And thanks for giving me the courage to understand and accept my condition with, what I hope, was grace and determination that would make you all proud. God bless each and every one of you and may your lives be full of the joy and love that you so richly deserve. I am forever in your debt.

 

Imagine being your 15-year-old self again. What did that feel like? Young, carefree, happy…healthy?
For me, I felt all of those things every day. I played the clarinet, got good grades, was athletic from running track, active in school/church clubs and had amazing family/friends. What more could I want as a teenager?

I didn’t want for anything until one day I no longer felt like my healthy self anymore and all I wanted was to be healthy again. This is when my life changed forever…

It was November of 2012, at the time I had just moved to Los Angeles, California with my mother from Maryland. I was very excited to move and support my mom with her new job opportunity. She is like my best friend and nurturer at the same time. It was always just her and I growing up, no siblings. California’s scenery was colorful and vibrant. All I could picture were the great things my future would bring living there.

That picture flipped upside down within weeks. I could feel my stomach expressing to me that it didn’t like the chicken nuggets or the pepperoni pizza, I was feeding it. Sharp pains that felt like knives were sticking me each time I would eat, pushed me to never want to pick up another piece of food again. No over-the-counter medicine could relieve the amount of pain I would feel. Sick little me sat helplessly with my mother by my side in Ronald Regan UCLA Medical Center’s emergency room waiting to be admitted and seen by a doctor. I thought to myself, “What was happening to me? I don’t understand.”

I couldn’t understand. I was just fine a month ago. My mom was just as confused as I was. The doctors weren’t transparent enough with my diagnosis and had trouble figuring out what was the actual problem. After a few tests, I was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis/Crohn’s disease. This diagnosis soon changed once the gastrointestinal team at UCLA Medical Center (UCLAMC) realized it was strictly my colon that was being affected which changed my diagnosis to ulcerative colitis.

I had no idea what ulcerative colitis was nor had I ever heard of it before. My current gastroenterologist, Dr. Ziring, asked who in my family had the disease but I wasn’t familiar with anyone. My father, mother, and grandparents didn’t have any trace of ulcerative colitis. It was concluded that the change in climate and stress could have taken a toll on my body to make me flare-up. I couldn’t eat certain foods anymore. I was prescribed all types of medication that I had never seen and forced to take pills that were pretty huge to swallow.

Lacee Harper with her mother.

Nearly one month spent in the hospital, my routine had changed. I would wake up take my meds first, eat (liquid-solid foods), watch TV, read a book, walk around to gain my strength and repeat at least three times a day. Once I was released, I remember being so happy to be a normal person again. That feeling went away when my mom took me to buy nutritional drinks to restore my protein, vitamins, and minerals. I couldn’t fit into any of my clothes from the amount of weight I lost and my toned body went away. Dr. Ziring told me that I would live with this forever because there is no cure, which I didn’t want to believe. All I could do was try to understand and educate why my body reacted the way it did to certain foods, activities and mental stability.

Fast forward to 2013 where I moved back to Maryland with my mother, I was enrolled back in my previous high school and actively seeing, pediatric gastroenterologist, Dr. Oliva-Hemker at John Hopkin’s hospital. I couldn’t do any of the previous extracurricular activities I participated in and could only workout at a minimal intensity due to my low blood counts. Throughout the school year, I experienced many flare-ups and trial/error with different medications. Some hospitalizations were longer than others and overtime I became stricter with my diet to prevent excessive flare-ups. My high school graduation wasn’t the best time for me because I was experiencing a severe flare-up that interfered with my ability to keep food down. I missed my senior week summer trip to recover in the hospital and get back to feeling better again.

After graduating from high school, I switched gastroenterologists since I was considered an adult. Dr. Rosen had been my mom’s gastroenterologist for years so the transition was smooth. I was stabilized on Humira and Prednisone throughout my community college career. By then, my mother and I had moved to Atlanta where the weather was nicer. I think the weather, being around family/friends and less stress I experienced helped my flare-ups calm down living in Atlanta. I truly enjoyed my time there and experiencing college at Georgia State University, as well as working part-time.

Lacee recently graduated with a master’s degree from the S.I. Newhouse School of Communications at Syracuse University.

Once I completed my first two years of college and received my associate’s degree, I transferred to Syracuse University (SU) to achieve my bachelor’s degree. This was one of the hardest transitions of my life moving from the South to the cold North. My third year of college and first-year being away at a university led to my body experiencing an extreme transition which resulted in three severe flare-ups. My mother left Atlanta and moved back to Maryland to be closer to me because she was terrified of how sick I was getting. Each time I flared up, I flew home to get the treatment from Dr. Rosen. Suddenly, Humira no longer worked for my body anymore and Prednisone wasn’t healthy for me to keep using to reduce inflammation due to its side effects.

During senior year, my 3-week hospitalization interfered with my academics and involvement in extracurricular activities. At this time, I was advised to try Entyvio and I was tired of trying new medications. The only way I could have some quality of life was to remove my colon. My mom was concerned for me, but I couldn’t let her concerns steer my thinking I knew I had to do this for me if I wanted to make it to graduation.

In November of 2017, I set an appointment with Dr. Colvin in Northern Virginia to discuss my surgery. I had the surgery during my college winter break, spent Christmas in the hospital, recovered and returned back to school. At the time, I didn’t know how I was going to apply to graduate school at the S.I. Newhouse School of Communications at SU but I did that during my recovery period. It took a lot of exercise, mental motivation, empathy and support from family, my best friends, mentors and peers at school. With amazing grace and good spirits, I got accepted into the public relations program at the S.I. Newhouse School of Communications.

From this specific point on, learning how to function in everyday life with my ostomy took a lot of patience, time, emotional breakdowns, motivation and positive mental strength. I don’t regret any of it at all. I do not have to worry about missing out or not fully enjoying any more important events of my life. Now as of 2020, I have been medication-free for two full years, graduated school with all of my degrees, feel healthier than ever, working full-time in public relations and am actively pursuing my dreams in the entertainment (modeling/tv/film) industry.

It wasn’t until a couple of months ago, I discovered United Ostomy Association of America (UOAA) and chose to reach out to Advocacy Manager Jeanine Gleba about getting more involved. Since reaching out, I have gained the opportunity to advocate for patient’s access to treatment during the Digestive Disease National Coalition Day on the Hill and spoke on the behalf of UOAA. I am elated to have met UOAA’s team and to represent others like myself who have experienced challenging obstacles.

I couldn’t be more grateful for my ostomy and must say that it changed my life for the good. Life is full of obstacles but how you choose to overcome them will make your life. I chose to take full control of my life in order to have a better quality of life. It doesn’t matter who you are, you can truly do whatever you put your mind to. Believing in yourself and staying grounded in positivity, motivation and dedication is key. Follow your dreams, find what makes you happy and don’t let the negatives take control of your life.

A Journey From Caregiver to Student, Ostomy Patient, and Nurse

My name is Jennifer Borchek, and I am a recent graduate of Chamberlain University with a Bachelor of Science in Nursing. I am a licensed registered nurse. I also have a colostomy. While I know that my condition changed a part of me, I also know that it has never defined me, my career choice, or who I have become.

A Career Path of Care

My passion for nursing stems from the love and care that I showed for my ailing grandmother during her time of need. My grandmother suffered from many health issues that demanded around the clock care. At the age of 15, my mother and I became the primary caregivers for my grandmother, so we relocated into our grandmother’s home to care for her as her needs increased. This responsibility was not something I took lightly. I spent many nights rushing down the stairs to my grandmother’s bedside when I would hear the slightest sound that might mean she needed attention. Eventually, the running up and down the stairs and the weight of my worry became too much; I picked an empty spot on the floor near my grandmother where I would sleep with one eye and ear open. By the time I graduated high school, I had developed a good sense of care and a strong interest in continuing my path in health care. I decided what better way to use my experience than to become a certified nursing assistant?

After my certification, I attended a local community college to complete my general education requirements and earn an Associate Degree of Science with honors. This brought me closer to my dream career of becoming a nurse. During this time, my grandmother passed away, and I took a break from school to work in a nursing home. My caring nature was fulfilled at my job by helping others know that their loved ones were well attended to. While working in this environment, I knew I could achieve more, and I decided to apply to nursing school to begin my path as a registered nurse. Soon after, I was accepted into a Bachelor program for nursing. I knew that it would be a challenge to continue my education, as balancing school, work, and family could be difficult, but I also knew that my dream and ambitions were strong. I was ready to face the academic and scheduling challenges ahead, but I was not prepared for the unexpected health issues that I encountered along the way.

A New Path with a Slight Turn

One day, while walking between classes, I started to feel a nagging pressure in my genital area. It became sporadic and seemed to have no pattern or reason for occurring. It would oddly come and go regardless of what I was doing at the time. I thought it would just go away, but it persisted. I spent countless months going back and forth to the gynecologist with the same concern. Consistent medical testing provided no reasons for the pain. For more than a year, I felt as though I was wanting and eventually begging to be heard by the doctor. Examination after examination, I started to think that maybe this was all in my head, and at times some doctors and nurses suggested that too. This was eventually disproved one evening when I felt a sudden burst of blood run down my legs after a hot bath. I rushed to the emergency room only to be told that I was “fine” and to follow up with my gynecologist. I went home that night heartbroken and confused; how could this not be enough to diagnose my health issue? So, yet again, I booked another appointment and headed over to the gynecologist’s office that I’d been to so many times before. After I was examined, the doctor removed her gloves, looked at me and said, “This is not your vagina anymore; this is your rectum. Go to the colorectal surgeon and tell them that you’re bleeding.” She walked out of the room without saying another word. I couldn’t even begin to comprehend what she was saying. Why would I need a surgeon? What does a colorectal surgeon have to do with my vagina? I was filled with a furious, confused, frustrated rage, and I was scared. I left with more questions than I arrived with, and now I was heading into unfamiliar territory. Did I have cancer? What kind of surgery would I need?

I later booked an appointment with a knowledgeable and focused colorectal surgeon at a well-respected teaching hospital. It took three very long weeks for my appointment date to arrive.

Diagnosis over Despair

I met the colorectal surgeon and he told me I had to be diagnosed under anesthesia. He suggested it was an anal fistula during the initial appointment. I was not sure what this diagnosis meant or how it happened, but in all, I liked and trusted this doctor. I felt as though I finally found someone who understood what I was going through and could diagnose what I had been complaining about for over a year. I scheduled the procedure during my one-week break from school. I liked that the doctor not only respected me and my concerns and feelings, but I also appreciated that he was very understanding of my desire to become a nurse. He helped me understand that my condition would not prevent me from living a normal life and achieving my degree.

Weeks later, I underwent anesthesia to be diagnosed. My surgeon told me after that I needed more surgeries to treat my newly discovered health issue. I had a rectovaginal fistula and he informed me that I had had it for at least five years. He also stated there was no exact reason why I had developed a fistula. While this made complete sense looking back at all my symptoms, I still cried when I heard this report. Suddenly, all the missing pieces were finally fitting together.

I had a diagnosis, but this was not the end of my battle. I underwent six separate surgeries all while maintaining honors in nursing school. The most recent was my ostomy surgery. During this time, I dropped down to only taking one class and had been unable to work a career-related job because of my health needs. The hours of studying were long and strenuous, but I fought through recovery one day at a time. Hauling heavy books and running from class to class were no longer a part of my day. Healing was just as important as learning, and I managed to balance the two. I often studied while soaking in the bathtub, as this was the doctor’s order to help the healing process.

During the increased workload of nursing school, I met two very caring friends, Laura and Bert, who helped me along the way. They were there for me when things got rough and made sure I didn’t fall behind in school during my health obstacles. I asked for health-related accommodations and was able to have Laura and Bert with me in every class and during clinical. This was a way to be sure that I would have the support and care if necessary. As a new ostomate, I knew anything can happen spontaneously. Having caring and trusting friends nearby encouraged me to relax about my condition and focus on my studies.

More Frustration, but Still Focused

Throughout my path, I was somewhat saddened to learn that ostomy surgery was a necessity. I understood that my fistula was not healing with the multiple surgeries that were performed, so the ostomy became a part of something I learned to accept. Even now my focus is to heal, rather than stress the need to reverse my ostomy before my fistula has completely healed. I was informed by my colorectal surgeon that rushing the process could result in the same challenges I had when I started my journey.

Jennifer with her close friend Jenell, left, whom she met at a UOAA Affiliated Support Group Meeting in Illinois.

Finding Friendship and Support through the Flaws

During my hospital stay for my ostomy surgery, my Wound, Ostomy and Continence (WOC) Nurse informed me that the Loyola University Medical Center held monthly ostomy support group meetings (One of 315 UOAA Affiliated Support Groups in the U.S.) and that she thought it would be beneficial for me to attend. She mentioned a young woman around my age who had recently had surgery. I thought it couldn’t hurt to show up.

I hoped to gain tips on care, products and living life differently with what seemed to be a flawed digestive system. I had already researched some of this online and in magazines, but I decided that more information could not hurt. Three weeks after major surgery, I walked through the door of the meeting room, still in pain and feeling a bit awkward about the whole thing. I sat down behind the youngest person in the room. She turned around and immediately greeted me with a friendly smile and introduced herself and her mom to me. She is in her late 20’s, her name is Jenell, and her stoma’s name is Piglet. Suddenly, I didn’t feel so nervous when Jenell asked why I came to the meeting. When I told her my story she said that it was unlike any story she had heard before. We spent the rest of the meeting talking about all things ostomy. We exchanged telephone numbers after the meeting and quickly became good friends.

Jenell eventually shared her own story with me and the story of naming her ostomy. Most ostomates feel naming their stoma helps them accept the transition of having an ostomy. With Jenell’s encouragement, I named my stoma “Rosita,” symbolizing that an ostomy reminds me of a rose. Jenell has helped me in so many ways by encouraging me about my health condition; she gave me confidence and showed me that even though my body changed, it doesn’t mean I changed as a person. She also taught me how to handle certain situations. For example, because of our invisible illnesses, we feel the need to educate the public on unseen chronic physical conditions. Together, the four of us – myself and Jenell and our stomas, Piglet and Rosita – make quite a team. We have a lot to be concerned about, but we also have a great future and much to be thankful for. We’ll face more challenges, but we’ll do it together.

My own experiences have helped me decide that I want to become a WOC Nurse and tell others with the same condition that they also can live a normal life. I want to help others with the transition of becoming an ostomate. I want others to know that they can follow their dreams, share their successes, lead by example, and show care from their experiences. I decorated my graduation cap to celebrate my decision and I included Rosita in my design to recognize that I have successfully overcome my challenges, and to show my ostomy is part of me and part of my future.

I am ecstatic to be sending out applications to be hired as a registered nurse because I never thought this day would come due to all my uncertain health issues. However, I will have to wait until my next surgery and through recovery. I know I’ll get there eventually because my challenges will not stop my dream!

Appreciation

All in all, I am very grateful for those I have in my life who have supported me: for Jenell for her friendship, for my surgeon with his knowledge and talents, for the WOC nurse that helped me get through my transition of being an ostomate, for my instructors for teaching me so well, for my classmates Laura and Bert and all the support they gave me, for Rosita for being so accommodating of my ongoing issues, and most importantly for my mother to whom I attribute my success. She encouraged my caring nature, has kept me strong and motivated, has lifted me when my spirits were low, and she is the reason I have fought so hard to become a registered nurse!

It’s Ivan’s 4th Birthday!
Four years ago today my amazing doctors, Dr. Leslie Demars and Dr. Joga Ivatury removed a huge tumor out of my pelvis and I woke up ALIVE and in a colostomy which I named (Ivan) after Dr. Ivatury, for life.
The first thing I asked Dr. Ivatury when I woke up was “did we get the f#@%r?” He smiled and smiled and said yes.

The next thing I asked was “am I in a bag?” He reluctantly said “yes.” My reaction? “Ok now let’s get me out of here so we can go to California.” I was working on a Tyra Banks product line at the time and did not want to miss the opportunity.

I was not always so positive. When I found out I had cancer in 2015 and would possibly be in a colostomy bag for life, I was devastated, to the point where I told my doctor “do NOT put me in a bag” so many times that he had to yell at me and say I have been up nights thinking about your surgery, I have no intention of putting you in a bag HOWEVER my job is to SAVE YOUR LIFE. So well, he was right.

I had such a different view on life when I woke up. God left me here to do some work and I was not going to let HIM down by playing small. I was going to live my life HUGE and give back to this world as much as I can.

I did allow myself to have strong feelings and concerns. “What if it smells, or makes noises or someone bumps it?” I would cry after cancer, but life was not over yet. What am I supposed to learn from this lesson and from what I am going through? It took me a lot of work to get to be okay. We got this one life.

I got up and forced myself to get out anyway. It helped so much that my kids, parents, and sister along with my husband and friends were supportive of me along the way.

I wanted to get back to doing the things I had enjoyed before cancer. One love was competing in Fitness America and WBFF shows in 2010 and 2011, where I placed in the top five in one of the shows I did. I knew I needed to love my body again and decided to tell the world in a live video to let people know to love the body you were given.

LeeAnne Hayden competes with her colostomy pouch and all at the 2017 America Fitness weekend in Las Vegas.

I was talking with my husband and friends and said I think I want to compete with “Ivan.” The second it came out of my mouth everyone was so supportive. I was sponsored for my training, plane, suit, costume, all of it. When I got there after months of training I almost didn’t want to do it. However, I knew I couldn’t let my fear stop me, I had to show everyone what I preached. The costume was great. It was a pair of wings that I could open and expand. I was shaking when I took my first steps out on that stage, I took a deep breath and opened the wings, hit my pose and completely teared up when everyone in the audience stood up clapping, screaming and some of them were crying. (Gosh I am starting to cry writing this) It was the most surreal moment ever. I felt amazing and supported and forgot I even had Ivan while I hit all my posing and walked off the stage to my friends in the back screaming and hugging me. It is a moment I will never forget.

There is such a stigma to ostomies, I have heard stories of how people have given up their lives because they didn’t want to be in one. I think we all need to be more vocal about it. So many more people could be saved. Thank you to UOAA for what you do with ostomy awareness!

That’s the way I’ve spent these last four years and I can’t wait to see where my life goes from here! I want to bring everything I have personally been through to all of you so that you may grow and live the life you want and deserve! Huge thank you to my wonderful doctors, my amazing family, my friends, all of you, and especially to GOD for allowing me to remain.

Whatever you want to do in life hope you run for it.

 

LeeAnne Hayden blogs about her life here and produces the LeeAnne in the City Podcast.

Ostomy Strong and Giving Back on the Ice

By Ed Pfueller, UOAA Communications and Outreach Manager

In 2015 things were looking up for Justin Mirigliani. An active father of two, his ulcerative colitis symptoms were in remission. In his free time, he was an avid weightlifter and loved skiing and playing ice hockey.

He probably could have been forgiven if he wanted to skip his yearly colonoscopy, it was his 10th test since his ulcerative colitis diagnosis in 2002. But his doctor made sure he was scheduled, and he went in. It was a decision that likely saved his life. He discovered he had to have his entire large intestine removed due to a severe precancerous condition called high grade dysplasia. A video before his ileostomy surgery shows the raw feelings of this life-changing event and the video below shows his journey to healing and thriving.

Since that surgery on September 24, 2015, he has vowed to do all he can to help others who suffer with IBD and to help remove the stigma attached to those who have a “bag.” Justin is determined to show, through his active lifestyle, that nothing is impossible with an ostomy. Justin has given himself an epic challenge to prove this point. He has continued weightlifting and is trying to become the first ostomate to bench press 405 lbs. You can see this journey documented on his YouTube channel The Strongest Ostomate in the World. (Parastomal hernias are a risk for all ostomates so check with your doctor before starting any exercise regimen.)

Though Justin had developed a small bulge around his stoma very early on, he is careful to complete lifts that do not add excessive internal pressure, like deadlifts or squats. He wears a binder to help support the area around his stoma anytime he lifts anything remotely heavy. In the past four years of heavy bench pressing, shoulder pressing, and bicep work, there has been no change in the bulge around his stoma. So as not to neglect his legs, Justin runs flights of stairs with a weighted vest. As he says, “It’s just a matter of improvising.”

Justin has also given back to the IBD community by creating Checkmates Charitable Association. Checkmates’ main event is a yearly hockey game with NHL alumni. Recently Justin decided to expand his charity’s mission to also benefit the ostomy community. “The UOAA Conference in Philadelphia has definitely opened my heart to wanting to include UOAA and do anything I can to help our community,” Justin says.

In 2020 Checkmates is expanding its mission into Canada by sponsoring a “Disease Without Borders” International NHL Celebrity Hockey tournament with its first game this February in Toronto, Ontario. The winner of that tournament will come down to the U.S. to play the Checkmates team at the Philadelphia Flyers Skate Zone in Voorhees, New Jersey in April. Justin’s ultimate goal is to use this year as the template for NHL Celebrity Hockey games and tournaments throughout cities in the US and Canada.

Justin says of the fundraiser, “We will never stop striving to make the lives of those with IBD and those living with an ostomy the best lives they can be!”

Like any other nonprofit organization, Checkmates is always happy for helping hands. If you are interested in volunteering with Checkmates please contact Justin. Checkmates is also looking for hockey players who want to play on the same ice with NHL stars. Players must be 18 or older, be able to ice skate forward and backward and be able to shoot a hockey puck.

Justin is grateful to his doctors, who saved his life, he and his family created this PSA to warn everyone to get their colonoscopies. Please share it. It just may save a life!

Until IBD has been eradicated and every ostomate is properly cared for, Justin promises that Checkmates will be on the front lines fighting for these communities to the best of its abilities. Justin believes “No matter what, your illness or ostomy will not hold you back!”

 

 

By UOAA Advocacy Manager Jeanine Gleba

Pinky O’Neil attends the 2014 MSA Pageant in October in Atlantic City. The same year she had Ileostomy surgery in March.

“A boa can hide a belly bump, if you arrange it carefully!” Ms. Senior America (MSA) alum, Pinky O’Neil, explains to me. After the Advocacy Session at UOAA’s National Conference in August, I met this very spunky woman. She left my presentation motivated to share it with her Affiliated Support Group to get more involved with advocacy on the national level. Since conference I have learned more about the essence of this “great advocate of positivity”, who recently celebrated her 85th birthday!

Pinky has had her ileostomy since 2014. When she started her ostomy journey at the age of 79, she was not well-informed. Supplies and advice were not readily available to her. To get her questions answered and get back to living her very busy full life she joined an ostomy support group, attended the past three UOAA national conferences, reads the e-newsletter and Phoenix magazine, and asks questions of suppliers.

Pinky teaching her 85th Big Birthday Bash attendees “I Feel Lucky” Line dance.

As a woman who has experienced many devastating set-backs in life, she learned early how to get her groove back on. Eventually after her long surgery recovery, Pinky resumed activities such as hosting monthly Singles Club Block parties and directing The Villages Singles Club Got Talent performing group, and her favorite physical activity – dancing. Pinky has been dancing for decades even doing One Woman Shows “Skeletons in your Closet” and “Mama was a Swinger” and opening her own business “Dancing Around with Pinky O’Neil”. All of this dancing brought her to the national stage.

Pinky O’Neil, Honorary Senior America & Esmeralda Ybarra Hetrick, Ms. Senior America 2019 from Pennsylvania, Pinky’s home State at the 2019 MSA pageant at the Resorts Hotel & Casino in Atlantic City.

As a Ms. Senior America (MSA), Pinky, has been strutting her stuff for years on the pageant circuit! She was crowned Ms. Virginia Senior America (MVSA) title in 1996. She has been involved with MSA ever since including being the MVSA State Director for ten years and then the MSA Public Relations Director for another ten years. She was awarded the Honorary Senior America title in 2006. The Ms. Senior America Pageant is “the world’s first and foremost pageant to emphasize and give honor to women who have reached the Age of Elegance,” according to the Senior America Mission Statement.

 

Pinky shared with me, “Presently, I mentor, recruit, present orientations, visit various MSA Pageants as well as attend the yearly national pageant in Atlantic City, New Jersey. We perform there with the Queens Choir. I am a member of the National Senior Alumni Association (NSAA). We solo at the pageant Alumni Show as well as direct & host MSA Showcases at Veterans Hospitals & Retirement facilities in our home states around the USA and on cruise ships to make others feel happy and youthful!” In addition, “As PR Director, I initiated & hosted Two Showcases at The White House in 2000 and organized a MSA entourage to St. Thomas in 2011. There we performed several MSA Showcases and collaborated with the St. Thomas Tourism Department to provide assistance for the first Ms. Virgin Island’s Senior America to tour the Mainland pageants.”

Pinky is an advocate for ostomates, because it is her strong desire to be a role model to others and spread the word that ostomies are lifesavers and that you should not allow your ostomy to hide you. From traveling the world to walking the stage runway, this is one woman who does not let her ostomy stop her!

 

By Steven Berit

I fainted the first time I lost a tooth. Not from the actual pain of the removal, but from the sight of the blood dripping from my mouth. I also fainted during a health talk in the sixth grade. Most people would call me “squeamish,” and I would agree. The sight of blood or even the mention of anything related to the human body can easily send me into a spiral of emotions typically resulting in me waking up in the nurse’s office. So, you can imagine my apprehension when the doctors first suggested the idea of me receiving a colectomy.

Hi, I’m Steven Berit. I’m eighteen years old and I am a senior in high school. I live in Pennsylvania with my mom, my dad, and my sister when she is home from college. I live a pretty “normal” life. I go to school, play football, and hang out with friends just like anyone else my age would do. The only difference between me and everyone else is that I have an ostomy bag and they don’t. This small detail isn’t even noticeable for most, but at first, it certainly was noticeable to me.

I was sixteen when I was first diagnosed with ulcerative colitis. The next year and a half would be full of trial and error, and with each passing day the errors stuck out more and more. Mesalamine, Remicade, Entyvio, and Xeljanz were just a few of the never-ending drugs that I was prescribed. The only thing that seemed to be working was steroids, but both my doctors and my acne-ridden face agreed that this was not a permanent solution. Finally, in July of 2019 while in my latest stint on the 5th floor of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, I made the decision to say good-bye to my very inflamed, friend- my colon.

I don’t remember much of the first night following the surgery, but the next couple of days stick out in my mind vividly. Well, I mean I clearly remember the restless nights. As for the actual stoma itself, this took me some time before I had my first encounter with it eye-to-eye or eye-to-intestine in this case. The second night was one of the worst nights of my life. I guess the anesthesia had worn off and with it came the regret. Yes, that second night I thought I made the biggest mistake of my life. There I laid in a hospital bed way too small for my eighteen-year-old frame contemplating if I could ever recover from this setback in my life.

Well, the sun rose and with it time for my first bag change. I remember screaming- a lot. They told me that the stoma couldn’t feel pain, but what they failed to mention was that I could still feel the pain of my hair ripping off my body as they pulled the adhesive off my skin. Trust me your average eighteen-year-old boy has plenty of hair to go around, but your eighteen-year-old boy that has been steroids for the last year and change has more hair than one would openly like to admit. But, as the bag came off, I got my first glimpse of my future in the form of a beautiful, red stump known as my stoma.

The next couple of weeks would come and go with relatively little struggle, but as summer came to an end my biggest challenge approached- going to school. I tried every possible combination of tucking my bag into my pants until I came to the realization that no one cared. Either people didn’t take notice of the bag of stool attached to my body or they too were busy and caught up with their own lives to care about what secret I kept hidden behind my shirt. It was my first time since being diagnosed with UC where I felt “normal” at school. Which was odd because to most this was the least “normal” I had ever been.

No, my journey with my ostomy was not one I would describe as love at first sight. But it has grown on me over time. Yes, I still need my parents help to change my bag every three days, but the once shrieks of pain have now subsided into murmurs. I now go to school every day like a new person. I no longer have fears of finding where the nearest bathroom is or if I am going to be able to take a test for thirty minutes without a wave of urgency coming over me forcing me to drop everything and make a mad dash to the nearest restroom. Instead, most days go by without any thoughts of UC or stomas crossing my mind.

As I come closer every day to my reversal surgery in December, I begin to wonder if I would be able to live with this bag for the rest of my life, and after some thought, I honestly believe I would be able to. UC has taught me over the years that I can overcome anything and the ostomy bag was just the latest thing I had to overcome. If I can go from fainting over a loose tooth to conquering a disease that once bullied me then I can overcome any challenges that may come my way. The once terrifying ostomy bag has become a cherished friend of mine who I will never forget even when it is gone. I cried when I had my first tooth removed. I may also cry when I have my ostomy removed, but I think these tears will fall for a completely different reason.

Colonel Justin Blum with Introduction by retired Navy Veteran Douglas R. Stocks

I’ve known Colonel Justin Blum for almost ten years and have learned much of his story over those years. For UOAA’s observance of Veterans Day, I asked Justin to share his story in greater depth. It is typical for us to remember our Veterans as heroes, but we don’t think or even imagine that they also may have been through a life-altering illness or traumatic event resulting in an ostomy. My wife Joanna (an ostomate) and I had the opportunity to spend an evening with Justin and his wife Leah after the Durham Run for Resilience 5K this past October. I was reminded that evening of the hero that Justin truly is, and felt it was time that others knew the story of this humble and well-respected man.

In 1993, when Justin was a Major on active duty in the US Army, he underwent surgery for an ileostomy due to ulcerative colitis (UC) which had progressed to colon cancer. Justin’s ostomy did not slow him down and he became one of the most respected officers in the state of South Carolina and the only member of the Army Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (JROTC) cadre with an ostomy.  Justin has had a highly successful career and life of public service. Justin has faced the gamut of living with a chronic illness, to receiving a devastating diagnosis, to ostomy surgery, to survival and finally triumph.

Here is his story:

In the Fall of 1971, I was a freshman at Morris Harvey College in Charleston, West Virginia. I was feeling the stress of being away from home for the first time in my life and of getting adjusted to college life.  I began noticing blood in the toilet after every bowel movement. I told my parents, who took me to a gastroenterologist during my Thanksgiving vacation at home. The gastroenterologist performed a sigmoidoscopy and determined that I had proctitis, an inflammation of the rectum and anus.

I transferred to Rider University in Trenton, NJ, for my second freshman semester to be closer to home, a decision made easier by the fact that Rider had an excellent ROTC program. I suffered with the proctitis and colitis for the next four years with only a prescription for the anti-inflammatory drug Azulfidine to combat the disease. In June of 1975, I underwent my physical exam at Fort Dix, NJ, to go into active duty in the Army. In the course of the physical, the Army doctor performed a rectal exam, and asked, “Do you know what you have?”  I acknowledged that I had colitis. In one of those strange twists of fate, my passion for serving the Army outweighed the colitis so the examining doctor wrote “Fit for Duty”.

For the next twenty years I hid my ulcerative colitis from the Army.  On days that I had attacks, I would explain that I was feeling bad due to having had too much scotch the night before.  Stationed in South Korea in 1976/1977, all too often upon returning to the camp motor pool after patrolling along the DMZ, I would have such severe diarrhea that I could not make it to the latrine and instead would jump into the nearest garbage bin since it was the closest “facility” I could find. I spent the next 13 years seeing civilian gastroenterologists for the colitis and who continued to prescribe Azulfidine. Finally, in 1990, my colitis was so bad I sought help at Eisenhower Army Hospital at Fort Gordan, Georgia where I began seeing Major Armstrong, a gastroenterologist, who informed me that due to my heath condition, resulting from severe flare-ups of UC, he strongly recommended surgery for an ileostomy.  My reaction, not unusual I am sure for people receiving this news, was an immediate, “No! Unless I have one foot in the grave with my back against the wall, I refuse to have this surgery resulting in my living with an ostomy bag!” This was twenty years after my first diagnosis of UC in November 1971. However, just a few years later after a colonoscopy, Major Armstrong told me that I needed ostomy surgery as soon as possible.

On February 28, 1993, I had surgery to remove my entire colon due to UC, which had advanced to colon cancer, and I was left with an ileostomy. As was not uncommon in those days, and even sadly still happens today, I had only one session with the ostomy nurse on how to manage my ostomy.  The day after surgery, I developed a leak in my appliance and called for the nurse, but no one responded.  I looked at myself in the latrine mirror with my ostomy bag hanging down, and I thought I looked like the Elephant Man.  After 10 days I was discharged but did not have access to an ostomy nurse or assistance of any kind except for follow up appointments three hours away at Eisenhower Hospital. I wanted to continue to serve on active duty, so I put my mind toward getting in the best physical condition possible. I started walking 9 miles a day, passed my physical fitness test, and was able to stay on active duty. In 1995 I was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel and in 1996 retired from active duty and transferred to reserve status, continuing to work for the US Army as a high school JROTC Instructor.

Life as an ostomate was fine except that I was experiencing pain from irritation of the skin around my stoma and I did not know of any ostomy nurses in the local hospitals and I didn’t know where to turn for help except for the still fledgling Internet of 1996. I was able to find a Crohn’s/Colitis chatroom on AOL (America Online). In that chatroom I was able to talk with numerous people who had either an ileostomy or a colostomy. On one occasion, an experienced ostomate was able to talk me through the steps to alleviate an intestinal blockage saving me a trip to the emergency room.  I was able to find an ostomy support group at the local hospital, but because they met at 10:00 AM and I was working an hour away, I was unable to attend their meetings. Despite all I learned from online resources I was still plagued with skin irritation around my stoma site which continued for the next 10 plus years.

Life took a turn for the better when in 2010, I received a letter from the nurse who ran the local ostomy support group, which talked about (the now former) Great Comebacks Program; a national honor program started by ostomate and former point kicker for the San Diego Chargers, Rolf Benirschke. This program recognized people who had lived an exemplary and inspiring life while living with an ostomy.  In 2011 I was the recipient of the Tony Snow Public Service Award, a subgroup of the Great Comebacks Program which emphasizes those in uniform living with an ostomy.

However, it was not the award that changed things for me, it was my ongoing communication with the ostomy nurses that I met through this program who eventually solved the problem of the skin irritation and pain that I had struggled with for so many years.

I have accomplished more in my life as an ostomate as a result of the care I have been able to obtain since my story was brought to the national level. If not for my quality of life-improving dramatically as a result of this assistance, these accomplishments would not have become a reality.  I owe so much to three WOC nurses: Donna Sellers, Joanna Burgess, and Joy Hooper. I met them through the Great Comebacks program, and they have always offered their help readily.  I have now been free from pain for the past nine years.

There are many who do not have the same easy access to professionals that I have had. I am very fortunate! That is why I believe everyone should seek out or become involved with a community of ostomates either through an online support group or hospital-based support group if possible. All ostomates should help other ostomates achieve the quality of life made possible by their life-saving surgery. Having UC and then colon cancer at age 40 meant years of pain and discomfort in my life. Ostomy surgery gave me a new life. Before I retired from teaching, I used my experience with my ostomy to motivate my JROTC cadets, inspiring them to never give up on anything and reminding them they can accomplish anything they set their mind to.  I no longer see myself as the Elephant Man, but as a man with a beautiful wife, supportive children and two amazing grandchildren.  Life is good!

The UOAA thanks you for your service Colonel Justin Blum and honors your accomplishments!

  • 1995 – Promoted to Lieutenant Colonel
  • 1996 – Retired from active duty; continued to work for the US Army as an Army JROTC instructor in the United States Army Cadet Command.
  • 2003-Named the United States Army JROTC Senior Instructor of the year
  • 2009 – Promoted to Colonel, in the South Carolina State Guard
  • 2010- Named Volunteer of the Year for the State of South Carolina
  • 2011- Named US Army JROTC Senior Instructor of the Year for the second time.
  • 2011 – Named the Tony Snow recipient for Public Service
  • 2019 – Lawson R. McElroy Award for Engaged Learning