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.

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 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.

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

 

My Colostomy Saved My Life

Without a colostomy, I would likely not be here to write this blog. It saved my life. I am a quadriplegic as a result of a spinal cord injury (SCI) that occurred when I was 16. That was 36 years ago. I am paralyzed from the neck down and SCI impacts the operation of the bowels. In simple terms, to move your bowels you have to use some type of stimulation because the regular nervous system is unable to work on its own.

For many years, I successfully used suppositories for my bowel routine. When they stopped working, I switched to a different type of suppository and began to use numerous stool softeners. Approximately three years ago, my system began to limp along. I couldn’t fully evacuate my bowels and I was losing my appetite.

And then one day my bowels stopped working. At that point I was using multiple enemas without success. I went to the hospital. Unfortunately, I had a history of bowel obstruction surgeries, so no doctor was willing to do a colostomy because of the risk of perforation of my bowels. As an attorney with the Federal government, I was unable to keep up with my job and had to retire on disability. I was bloated as if I was expecting triplets and felt horrible and weak. My quality of life was significantly impacted and my husband was cooking as much soup as he could, and that didn’t even help when it came to my appetite and nutrition. I tried acupuncture, stomach massage, herbal tea, you name it. I was depressed, exhausted, and scared.

My gastroenterologist suggested that I go to Mayo Clinic as a last resort. I traveled from Virginia to Minnesota with low expectations, hoping that the medical team could even just figure out something to help me go to the bathroom.

To my great surprise, Mayo Clinic agreed to do the colostomy. The surgery took place in late June, 2018, and since then I have regained my quality of life and feel like a new person. I have never been healthier. I have energy for work (my husband and I started a business, Happy on Wheels, LLC), social life, and exercise.

Many factors contributed to getting it right. First, colostomy nurses are my heroes. They marked the site for the surgery, fitted me with appliances to start off with, and explained how to apply everything. They trained my attendant on how to attach the flange and we examined the different types of pouches. I left with an initial supply, but they were very clear that it would be trial and error.

The ostomy nurses were spot on about flexibility. Every person is different and trying out different appliances is a necessity. There have been accidents and leaks and I have made adjustments. I have high output and cannot change my bag independently, so I devised a way to use an irrigation bag as a regular colostomy bag during the day, and I use a smaller pouch at night when I’m in bed. Additionally, figuring out the amount of supplies needed is unknown in the beginning. For the first couple of months we were frantically running around because I would run out of flanges and pouches. After about three months, I knew what I needed was able to establish a consistent ordering system.

My advice to anyone considering a colostomy is that the surgery is not the hard part. It is the period afterward when flexibility is needed. It is a learning process and each person is different. No pun intended, but there is no one size fits all.

Don’t get frustrated if your particular appliance doesn’t work. The companies that sell supplies, such as Hollister, Coloplast and Convatec, have very helpful representatives and are willing to send free supplies to try. I encourage new ostomates to also reach out to others who can provide tips on what has and has not worked for them. I have a good friend with a colostomy and her advice has been very helpful. The bottom line is that if you are open-minded and don’t get frustrated, within six months you should have things settled and develop a routine.

Getting a colostomy was a miracle for me. I intend to advise all quadriplegics that after a certain number of years they should talk to their doctor about proactively getting a colostomy before their bowels stop working. I am a happy bag lady!

Working with Takeda to Educate Others about Gastrointestinal Disorders

 

Ten years ago, I would have introduced myself as Gwen. Today, I am Gwendolyn, a version of me that’s been to hell and back with Short Bowel Syndrome, or SBS. A me who’s come to know a strength she had no idea she possessed. Gwen, before SBS, was career-driven, rushing through life. Everything for me was fast-paced—work, home, and family. But that was ten years ago, before SBS barged in and reshaped my entire life, stripping me of my identity. With August being SBS Awareness Month, I am sharing my story about living with SBS and an ostomy, as a way to drive awareness of this disease among others like me who are impacted.

I’m your typical New Yorker. What comes up, comes out. But not when it comes to SBS. It’s not the prettiest of conditions, is it? Intimate details aside, no one really understands what we’re going through. When I was diagnosed, I felt so isolated. To this day, I still have flashbacks of being in that hospital bed, wondering why. I wasn’t comfortable discussing what I was going through. No one deserves to feel alone with SBS. We are not hopeless. I don’t believe that. I’d like to believe that what I’ve been through is for a reason. Maybe sharing my story is my reason—to help people see that SBS can be a beginning, and not an end.

I entered the workforce shortly after completing high school. In 1991, I began working in construction. The minute I walked onto a job site, I felt at home. I started out as a temporary receptionist and after various projects, I worked my way up to office manager. I worked in construction for over 20 years. Come 2009, I was the administrative manager for the largest construction project in the country. I was happily married, living in the Atlanta suburbs, and enjoying any time I got to spend with my precious granddaughter. Life was good. I really felt like I had arrived. In fact, I was so focused on my job and being everything to everybody that I wasn’t giving the pain I’d been experiencing the attention it deserved.

By then, I’d undergone three separate abdominal surgeries: one to remove my appendix at age four, another to address a small bowel fistula at age 27, and finally a hysterectomy at age 40. For years, I’d been experiencing intense abdominal pain, which I’d alleviate with a pain reliever here and a pain reliever there. Until, one day, the pain relievers stopped doing the trick, and I’d just about had enough. I decided to finally seek medical attention. Turns out, I had quite a bit of scar tissue and adhesions leftover from my past surgeries. After talking it over with my doctors, I decided to go ahead with surgery to clean it up.

As far as I knew, the surgery was a success. I was released from the hospital on my 54th birthday. Two weeks later, my daughter came over and found me, incoherent, with a greenish fluid seeping through my surgical dressing; my temperature had spiked to 104 degrees. I was rushed to the hospital and immediately sent into surgery. I had developed a bad sepsis infection as a result of multiple fistulas found within my small bowels. I underwent two additional surgeries, which required the removal of portions of my small bowel, and was placed in a medical coma. While in the coma, my husband made the decision to have an air ambulance fly me to a larger facility where I was immediately rushed into surgery—again. This surgery would end up costing me additional portions of my small bowel and my colon as well.

I remember waking up days later and having no idea what had happened. So where am I? At a different facility, and in critical condition, so bad that they’d previously advised my daughter to say her goodbyes. My abdomen was completely opened and connected to wall suction. I also was left with an ileostomy. I’d have to now receive nutrition via total parenteral nutrition (TPN) twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. At no point did anyone say a thing about SBS.

I was admitted in May of 2009. I ended up going home in April of 2010. My body couldn’t seem to hold off the ongoing infections. It seemed that everything that could possibly go wrong did. Let me tell you, I cried a lot. I couldn’t help but think, Why me? What had I done to deserve this?

My husband came to visit every day after work and stayed with me in the hospital on the weekends. One day he came in and I was having one of my uncontrollable crying spells. He lost his temper. He said to me, “What the hell are you doing? You are not doing anything to help yourself!” He spoke the truth; no sugarcoating it. I got angry. But you know what? I needed to get angry. I needed to feel something other than self-pity. I stayed angry for a long time after that day—not at him, not at the doctors, but at myself for not doing my due diligence. It was hard for me to admit that. As an administrator, I was used to surveying contracts, invoices, as well as familiarizing myself with the details. Yet when it came to my health and being my own advocate, I felt I had failed. But that didn’t mean I couldn’t start now. My husband helped me see that. He got me out of bed every single day to walk. He would wrap me up in blankets, place me in a wheelchair, and take me outside in the dead of winter in order for the sun to hit my face.

I managed to make it back to see my original gastroenterologist in April 2010 after I was discharged from the acute care facility, who for the first time diagnosed me with Short Bowel Syndrome (SBS), or what he called “short gut.” After my diagnosis with SBS, it took me a long time to come to terms with it; no one told me how different my life could be. I had no choice but to do a little soul searching, and it was there I met Gwendolyn. Gwendolyn wasn’t scared; she wanted some answers. Gwendolyn knew that, in terms of healthcare, there had to be more options out there.

After I was discharged, I returned to the hospital in May of 2010 in order to reverse the ileostomy and close the opening in my abdomen. I prayed that, afterwards, things would go back to normal. Boy, was I wrong. I had lost 75 percent of my small bowel and 25 percent of my colon.

I was tired of relying on TPN. By that point my doctor and I reduced the amount of time for my infusion requirements at home. There were nights I couldn’t bring myself to connect to TPN, and my husband had to do it. I got tired of wearing the backpack if I went out, and people asking, “Are you going camping?”

My infectious disease doctor recommended a gastroenterologist he thought would be a good fit. He was right. At my first appointment with her, she listened to my case and evaluated treatment options that would help me reach my treatment goals.

To help monitor my health and stay where I want to be medically, I keep a daily log, which includes voids, bowel movements, when I take my medication, daily activities, and what foods I’ve eaten. I even log my blood pressure and temperature. I see my gastroenterologist every two months. A log takes the burden of remembering off my shoulders, and all of my doctors seem to appreciate the effort. I have an amazing medical team. My gastroenterologist. My infectious disease doctor. My therapist. My nephrologist. And my primary care physician. But my surgeon, he was a gift. The last time I saw him was in April of 2017. I had been his patient for eight years. Before I left his office, he gave me some of the best advice to date; he said, “It’s time to go ahead and live your life.” I can hardly talk about that man without crying. He saved my life, in more ways than one.

The reality is, I have good days and bad days. On my good days, I spend that time making cupcakes for my granddaughter. I make a mean cupcake. I do laundry. I go out with friends. That’s right—I leave my house! I don’t go anywhere without my little toolkit. Inside my purse, I’ve got baby wipes, disinfectant spray, odor eliminator, rubber gloves, and hand sanitizer. But you know what? It works for me.

While I don’t miss some of the old Gwen, I do miss her tenacity. So I’m working on getting a little of the old me back—saying “yes” to opportunities and working on relationships with others.

When I was diagnosed with SBS, I wish that I had done more research to learn what the future could be like living with SBS. I think that would have saved me a lot of pain and heartache. So I’m going to tell you what I wish someone would have told me. If you’re not comfortable with where you are, do something to get where you want to be. If you feel like something is wrong, do something about it.

To learn more about Short Bowel Syndrome (SBS), please visit shortbowelsyndrome.com. You can also engage with #shortbowelsyndrome on social channels, especially during the month of August, which is SBS Awareness Month.

Editor’s Note: This educational article is from one of our digital sponsors, Takeda. Sponsor support along with donations from our readers like you help to maintain our website and the free trusted resources of UOAA, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.

Living 10 steps from death’s door can take an emotional toll. My name is Makeda Armorer-Wade and I am an inspirational life coach and best-selling author. In July 2010, I received my first ostomy and January 2016, I received my second. While both surgeries were difficult physically as well as emotionally; my first was more difficult than the second, because I was not included in the decision in any way. It was an emergency surgery following a resection surgery a week earlier. The decision was made during a follow-up test and they were actually drawing on my belly in the elevator on my way up to the room. It landed me in the ICU and 10 steps from death’s door.

The second ostomy surgery was a decision that I made based on the recommendation from my GYN and surgeon. I was so debilitated that this was my only option. So although it was very difficult, it was less traumatic than the first, because I was involved in the decision and I thought I knew what I could expect.

I went to the United Ostomy Associations of America (UOAA) and read everything that I could. I went to what I call, “Ostomy School.” I did my best to connect with patients who were having a similar experience. Because I have lived with a Crohn’s disease diagnosis from the age of 16; I’ve understood the necessity to research and learn all that I can to manage my condition. Crohn’s disease was not a common diagnosis at the time I was diagnosed, and giving up wasn’t an option for me. Connecting with others and gaining knowledge was freeing. The more I learned, the more comfortable I became with living and embracing life with my new friend (ostomy) Rosebutt Buttercup. Yes, I named her. I was able to support new ostomates by participating in the monthly Mt. Sinai post-surgical support group.

Having my second ostomy has given me the freedom to go back to work, take care of my family, swim, cycle, attend social gatherings, participate in community service and travel. Sometimes listening to the despair of my fellow ostomates and experiencing my own despair at times, for lack of knowledge is what spurred me into action. I wanted to be an example, that there is still life to be lived after an ostomy. Our mindset is important. Where our mind goes, the body follows. Life is what we make of it.

As an author, coach and public speaker. I use my platform to share my story, as evidence that life can be all the things that you are open to making it. I am advocating for sponsorship to release a course that will be available for a small fee, to anyone who has an ostomy, considering getting one or a caretaker of someone who has one.

The biggest positive about living with an ostomy is understanding that without it, I would not be here. The first one was reversed, but as I moved toward having my second one I knew enough and it was the only way. I made the decision to move forward and I am not looking back. I had to embrace that I was enough and the new possibilities for my life were endless.

I realized that as long as I follow my P.L.A.N.(c), I have fewer challenges. I Prepare by anticipating each scenario; I Let go of Shame for all of the things that I can’t always do; I Ask for help when needed; and I Never give up no matter what. Repetition breeds mastery.

So, I share with others that having an ostomy is just an alternative way of going to the bathroom. We all have to go the bathroom. But now, I have the benefit of having more control over when I go. An ostomy is life-saving. An ostomy is an opportunity to really live your best life on purpose.

And while you may not feel that way in the beginning. It does get better. My advice as an experienced ostomate, is to get as much information about your surgery prior to getting it, if time allows. Speak to people who are successfully living with and managing their life with their ostomy. Read, watch videos and ask as many questions as you may have. And then work your P.L.A.N.(c). Be inspired, Be encouraged, Be hopeful. I believe in you. The possibilities are endless.

I  had been increasingly struggling with symptoms for over two years with medical personnel brushing me off because I did not fit the norms for bladder cancer and didn’t check off enough risk factors for it. By the time of diagnosis, at the age of forty, I was perpetually in pain and discomfort, I was periodically urinating blood clots and I was unable to sleep through the night due to the pain and frequent urination. I felt like I spent most of my time and energy running to the restroom. I even had one ED physician laugh at me and assume that I didn’t know my own body well enough to know whether I was urinating blood clots or having issues with my menstruation cycle.

I had my urostomy surgery on September 23, 2016 after receiving a bladder cancer diagnosis on August 12, 2016. I had Stage IV Bladder Cancer with a T4, muscle-invasive tumor.

Having my surgery has allowed me to get back to my own life and start living again…mostly without pain. I’m able to sleep through the night again and I do not spend most of my time running to the restroom.

I have been working in a pediatric GI office since 2012, so not only was I aware of ostomies and that a person could live a long, productive, great-quality life with an ostomy, I also had my very own personal ostomy support crew. My coworkers are amazing and have been so supportive through everything…several nurses have even given me ostomy/stoma care tips and helped me address potential concerns. One nurse, a true-blue friend, even helped me change my bag a couple of times when I first had my surgery and was in rehab!

Finding Support

During my chemo treatments, I first started looking at online resources and started reaching out. I remembered that my WOCN told me there was an active local ostomy support group. It wasn’t until November 2017 that I was physically able to make any meetings in person.

Encountering the Greater Cincinnati Ostomy Association GCOA was the best connection I could have made post-everything. I originally tried to connect with people through the American Cancer Society and the Cancer Support Community, but bladder cancer is sort of a red-headed stepchild of the cancer community. It affects many on a number of levels, but NO ONE talks about. Not everyone diagnosed with bladder cancer has to go through the extreme treatment measures I did, so there are varying experiences within the diagnosis. However, going to the local cancer-focused groups was very frustrating and discouraging for me as most of the people I met there were breast cancer survivors whose experiences did not have any similarities to my own. There were no local bladder cancer-specific groups in my area and there still are not.

When I finally connected with UOAA/GCOA, I found more understanding, empathy, compassion, and comradery in the first meeting than I had in several with the cancer organizations. People definitely made the difference. Online support was okay, but even there I was sometimes frustrated with the set up because it too easily turns into a forum for sharing memes and complaining about their situations. There’s not a lot of educational conversations or intellectual discussions about what I was experiencing, which was something I was craving.

Becoming Active Again

I am still experiencing neuropathy in my feet and ankles as a side effect of the chemo treatments that I will probably deal with for life and I am still working on getting my strength and energy back, but I am gradually reclaiming everything that I did before. I fell shortly after my last chemo treatment and spent about 3 weeks in the hospital/rehab before getting discharged on a Friday and returning to work the following Monday because I had exhausted all of my medical leave and it was either return to work or lose my job. I did not want to deal with the stress of job hunting after all I had been through and going on disability indefinitely was a luxury that I could not afford, so I returned to work completely bald and using a walker. The first day back, I could barely make it from the front door to my office chair. Still, returning to work was one of the best things for me because it forced me to have to rebuild my strength and be active.

I now work 40+ hours a week again with a team I love supporting and I volunteer with the GCOA and Hughes High School, my alma mater, as much as I can. I took over the presidency of the GCOA back in January. I still live alone on the 2nd floor of my quaint, inner-city, 2-bedroom apartment. I enjoy spending time with friends and extended family. Last May, I rented a car and went on a road trip by myself to Columbus, OH to participate in the BCAN Walk to End Bladder Cancer and catch up with some amazing people that I have in my life. I will be taking a plane and train trip in August to attend the UOAA National Conference and go on vacation in upstate New York afterward. I am finally able to start walking and being a bit more active again and have started trying to figure out how to do some of the higher energy things I used to do (like dancing and workout videos) despite the neuropathy, which sometimes makes it hard for me to coordinate my feet. It’s all a process though and I try to take it one day at a time. I’m hoping to be able to take a trip to Argentina in 2020…your attitude and determination are what makes the difference and I’m determined to accomplish things that I have always wanted to do despite the obstacles I’ve had in my past.

Raising Awareness

Both bladder cancer and urostomies are extremely rare and there are huge discrepancies in diagnosis and treatment of bladder cancer, especially with women and minorities. It has been really important to me to bring awareness to both issues because I truly believe that lives can not only be improved, but saved by advocating, educating and raising awareness of bladder cancer and ostomies. So many people immediately think that having your bladder or part of your colon is going to end life as they know it. In part, they are correct, but not in the way that most people think at first thought. People with ostomies can live long, productive lives and be amazing leaders in their communities…just like anyone else. Just because you will always have a medical condition that requires the use of medical equipment does not mean that your life is over. It is different, that’s all. We’re all different though, having an ostomy just makes you extra special.

When my urology oncology surgeon told me that he wanted to remove my bladder (along with various other abdominal parts), I didn’t hesitate at all and said, “Okay. So what’s next?” I knew that my life would be over if I didn’t get an ostomy and I knew that my life would not be over with an ostomy. It was one of the easiest medical decisions I have ever made. He could have asked me if I wanted a cup of coffee it was that easy. That doesn’t mean that I didn’t have struggles and the journey wasn’t a challenge because I did and it was, but I am grateful that I had a choice of life or death and that I was able to choose life so I could get on with mine. Raising awareness for bladder cancer and ostomy awareness means that I could help someone make that life-saving decision that much more quickly and that they would be able to move onto healing and gratitude that much more quickly, instead of being bitter, pissed and depressed over losing a non-essential piece of themselves.

I have raised money, made social media posts, written articles, blog, had discussions, and encouraged others to go outside of their comfort zone to seek support. Additionally, I fairly quickly began being more involved with my local ASG and am committed to thinking outside the box and expanding opportunities to reach people where they are at and, hopefully, encouraging to become/remain involved and to share their own stories.

Staying Positive

I’m alive! I’m not in constant pain and discomfort. I can sleep through the night and not be up every 10 minutes to go the bathroom. I don’t have to do that “gotta go” dance while standing in line for the ladies’ room. I can hook up to my Foley for long trips or binge-watching and not have to move for hours. My bladder does not interrupt me in the middle of the best scenes when I go to the theater. I’m able to concentrate again. I can relieve myself while standing up or writing my name in the snow (gotta see a little humor in the situation)!

My advice is to just focus on living your life. The closer you get to doing everything you did before, the more positive the picture of life with an ostomy becomes. Yes, you can live without those parts and you can still be an active person. Your life and your dreams are still unlimited…it just might take a little extra preparation and planning, depending on your personal diagnosis and situation, but real life and real dreams take hard work, no matter who you are! You have to work for the things in life that you want anyway…no matter who you are or what your circumstance is, but the harder you have to work for something, the more worthwhile, valuable and meaningful it is to you. Only you can make the decision on how meaningful you want your journey to be though.

Overcoming Challenges

Most of my challenges are from my cancer treatments and not from having an ostomy. Still, bending and twisting are sometimes challenges. I do have a hernia that I way too quickly achieved by sneezing and, although it does not typically bother me, it is something to keep in consideration when I am trying new movements or lifting heavier objects. I have neuropathy and slight hearing loss as side effects of my chemo treatments and those are more annoying and challenging than my ostomy issues. Every once in a while, I have a leak, but I generally carry at least a few supplies with me so I just try to catch it quickly, change and move on. I’m really fortunate to have amazing friends, family & coworkers who are really understanding and supportive when these things happen and they don’t bat an eye when I need to deal with these things. Overall, I’ve pretty much learned to have a new definition of “normal” and I take things day by day and slow down when I need to and, most of all, when new things come up, I TRY instead of just giving in.

Advice for those who may need ostomy surgery?

Don’t think twice! No, it isn’t always easy and it isn’t always an easy choice. Sometimes, it’s all very hard. Yes, life will be different, but, in the long run, it’ll be worth it and at least you will still have a life to live.  If you give the ostomy and yourself a chance, having an ostomy will ultimately give you a better quality of life. Also, don’t be afraid to reach out to others who have had similar experiences…that’s how you get through the challenging moments, days, and weeks. Also, I feel like it is critical to share your own story in some way, shape or form. Not only does it help others get through their situations, but it is a great way for you to heal and get through your own story. Sharing your story is a way of honoring yourself and allowing you to shed light on your own strength because many times you don’t realize just how strong you are. Martin Luther King, Jr said, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” Keeping your story bottled up inside and not even sharing it with the people you love is detrimental to your journey. You matter and so does your story, so share it.

Making a Difference

Last year, I hosted a virtual Run for Resilience Ostomy 5k walk locally and I had 6 humans and a canine share in a beautiful day at a local park. It was great to share my story with people who hadn’t heard about it before while walking. Prior to my own surgery, my team at work and I would wear blue and green on Ostomy Awareness Day in support of the patients and families we care for.

I have grown up participating in similar events and have always found them inspiring and empowering. This year, we hope to have even more participation and invite everyone to meet at a group meal afterward. I will be attending my first UOAA National Conference in August and I’m excited to make new connections and learn more information that will enable me to assist others in getting back into life after receiving an ostomy. I would like to see others get involved in these events because it gives them connections, information, support and empowerment. There is no substitute for making connections in real life with people who have tackled the same problems, fought similar battles, and, most of all, WON. There is strength in numbers and we are all stronger together.

About 4 years ago, I awoke to the alarm on my cell phone, and for some reason it seemed to be extra loud this time. I had probably only slept for about 2 hours, but still, I anxiously jumped out of bed with a nervous sense of excitement. Today was the day that would forever change the path of my life. Today was the day that I was headed to the Mayo Clinic Hospital in Phoenix Arizona to have an extremely risky abdominal cancer surgery with no real guarantees that I would even survive it. I had no idea that today was the day that would begin the toughest fight of my life.

You see, at the age of 51, I was diagnosed with “Pseudomyxoma Peritonei secondary to Well-Differentiated Mucinous Adenocarcinoma of the Appendix”. Ultimately this means that years ago, a cluster of cancerous cells had formed in my appendix which caused it to eventually explode. Subsequent to this painful event, the cancerous cells spread themselves throughout my abdominal cavity attaching and growing on the exterior of several organs and producing a considerable amount of ascites fluid. My surgeon explained to me that my condition was extremely rare, and risky with maybe a 30% chance of survival. He agreed to perform the surgery, but looked me in the eyes and said only if I will agree to do my part and be willing to fight for my life!

After the twelve and a half hour long surgery, I woke up to my family hovering over me, and praying for strength and healing. As I became more aware of where I was, I began to notice the multiple tubes, cords and electronic devices attached to me. The doctors and nurses were constantly coming in to check on me, making adjustments to my I.V., monitoring my pain level, and recording my vital signs. A little later, I was paid a visit by my surgeon and he introduced me to someone referred to as my ostomy nurse. I didn’t even realize that I had this bag attached to my abdomen until she asked for my permission to inspect it. Prior to the surgery, I remember my surgeon explaining to me and my wife that an ostomy bag was a possibility, but this was the least of my concerns and I didn’t really comprehend what that actually meant. Along with a couple of other organs, my colon was completely removed and I now had to embrace life with an ileostomy.

Robert at the Arizona Run for Resilience Ostomy 5k, “the sense of family, acceptance and understanding at this event provided much needed encouragement.”

 

For the first year, I dealt with it as best as I could, but in the back of my mind I believed that soon, I would be able to have the reversal surgery and no longer have to deal with an ostomy. As I was approaching the one year anniversary of becoming an ostomate, on Facebook I came in contact with a beautiful soul by the name of Jearlean Taylor. You have probably heard of her, and know that she has been a double ostomate since early childhood. We chatted for a while, and after a detailed discussion, I was convinced that having an ostomy wasn’t so bad. A few days later, I sat down with my surgeon to discuss the possibility of the reversal surgery, and we concluded that in my case, I would actually enjoy a better quality of life by keeping my ileostomy, which now has been named Paco.

Now that the decision had been made to keep Paco, I began to research ostomies and discovered the United Ostomy Associations of America. Come to find out, they were having an ostomy conference in California the very next month, so I

Robert at UOAA’s National Conference where he discovered he was welcomed into the “ostomy family.”

booked it, and made my way to Cali. Not really knowing what to expect, I was pleasantly surprised and almost overwhelmed with gratitude as I was so warmly embraced into the ostomate family. I learned so much about ostomies, and the stories shared by other ostomates really inspired me and gave me the courage to now tell my story. Last year, I finally felt I was physically strong enough to participate by walking in the Run For Resilience Ostomy 5K in Mesa, Arizona. Again, the sense of family, acceptance and understanding at this event provided much-needed encouragement.

 

I am inspired to inspire others by publicly sharing my journey of conquering cancer and living with an ostomy. Through music, speaking and near the completion of my first book, I am telling it all so that others will realize that life experiences will ultimately make you, and not break you. I have come to the realization that my ileostomy has not only changed my way of life but has actually contributed to saving my life. I am forever grateful…

“It’s easy to say what you’re willing to die for, but there is freedom in knowing what you’re willing to live for”.

–Robert Harrion

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Support Made the Difference Before Reversal

I was halfway through a 10-hour drive home to Lancaster County PA from Dayton, where I’d just finished a Relay For Life, when I felt the first pains in my lower left side. Thinking they were just cramps, I shrugged them off and kept driving. The cramps persisted though, so I popped a few Naproxen and tried to put my mind on something else.

Eventually I decided to stop at a hotel and sleep it off, then worry about it later. Whatever it was, I couldn’t do anything about it now, I’d call my doctor when I got home. A hospital “just happened” to be next to the hotel I chose, after bypassing 4 others.

When I checked in, though, I was so cramped up that I couldn’t even stand straight. I was sweating, weak, and had a bout of diarrhea. I had always been pretty healthy, so I had no frame of reference for what was going on with me. I figured I had a flu bug or maybe a cyst. I tried eating, taking a shower, more Naproxen, but nothing helped.

Finally at 1:23 am I felt a compulsion to go to the ER. I had no idea what was going on with me but I knew I needed to be checked out. After being checked in, I had a CT scan. The surgeon came back to me himself and announced that I had a ruptured colon and that I was going to have to go into emergency surgery. He could either sew it up or I’d have to have a colostomy.

I had never had issues with my colon and thought colostomies were for “old people”. Alone, still 4 hours from home, I had no clue what I was in for.

I woke up hours later in a drugged daze. The surgeon came in to say that he’d had to do the colostomy. “The hole was so big I could put my thumb through it!” he said in amazement. I looked down at my left side to see this new, strange thing called a colostomy bag attached to me. How was I going to live with this?

At home, I connected with several different sources that I couldn’t have done without. A home health care nurse who showed me how to use and live with the bag, a WOC nurse who educated me, an online support group with fellow ostomates, who were always there for tips or to hear me vent.

I thought my life would be suppressed. But I was still able to swim, jog, bike, go out to eat, travel, and all the others things I did before.

I was fortunate to have a reversal three months later. I recovered quickly with no further health issues. I have a scar, but it reminds me to be thankful for the surgeon, nurses, and support group people who helped me along the way-I could not have done it without them.

Learn more about Jennifer’s story before and after her emergency surgery on her blog.

I was told if I didn’t have the surgery when I did, my Crohn’s disease would have killed me. Surgery made a drastic change in my life for the better. Now I will be around for my wife and kids.

I had a promising career in the United States Army, but that all quickly changed. In 2014 I was deployed to Afghanistan. During my deployment, I noticed something wasn’t right and started having a lot of stomach pains and other symptoms. At the time I didn’t think much about it. I was focused on the mission during my deployment. I always put my soldier’s needs before mine. So nine months went by and I came home in 2015. Still having these symptoms I was asked to do another deployment to Iraq. I took the deployment for another nine months. Towards the end of my deployment, I was in a lot of pain. Once I returned back home I finally saw a medical doctor. After several tests, I was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease. Later I started treatments, but nothing was working. As a result, I was medically discharged from the military in August 2016; whereupon, I continued my treatments back home in Dayton, Ohio. In December 2016, I was still in so much pain that I went to the emergency room for testing. When the doctor came back, he told me I needed to have emergency surgery. That December I had my first surgery and I went home with a permanent ostomy. It was a difficult transition back to civilian life and even more challenging now adapting to life with an ostomy.

I really struggled in the beginning. I felt alone trying to figure things out. I went from being in the best shape of my life from being in the military to gaining weight and being depressed. I even shut my family out. I didn’t think support would benefit me because in my mind they were civilians and not prior military service members. One day I woke up and realized this doesn’t have to be this way and turned it around. I did reach out to a few support groups on Facebook looking for advice and how people deal with having an ostomy pouch. I realized it wasn’t about the military anymore, but all of the support people out there are willing to give. My wife is my biggest supporter!

I’ve read so many articles about Crohn’s and ostomy pouches, but I haven’t really felt like anyone was affected in the military as much. Now I want to share my story. I reached out to UOAA because I hope to advocate for all military and their families that struggle through this. I want to be the one who is there for a fellow service member that when they find out they have this disease that they are not alone and even though you loved and enjoyed the military, there’s still a bright future outside of the military.

Even after two years I still struggle with the thought of having a “bag” and some pain, but I am able to stay active now and recently went back to doing what I love – getting fit, and being outdoors and hunting and fishing. I feel having an ostomy was a slight setback, but it was not the end. There are far worse things in life. So if me having to do this to save my life and be able to enjoy it, then I find that as my motivation to keep going. Most importantly, I’m no longer out with the constant bathroom trips and horrible pain that left me not being able to love life and spend time with my wife and kids.