Caring for a child with short bowel syndrome (SBS), a serious and chronic malabsorption disorder, can often feel isolating and disheartening.1, 2, 3 Unexpected barriers and challenges can make the condition difficult to manage and live with. And, because SBS is rare, finding information and support can be especially difficult. But for my daughter Mariah and me, this life with SBS is not about injustice, it’s about empowerment – a lesson Mariah has taught me better than anyone. As she puts it, “Mommy, I picked this life, and I picked you to be here to do it with me.”

Hearing those words years ago through the smile of my young daughter has been the ultimate source of strength for me. Mariah was born with most of her small bowel and half of her colon missing and was diagnosed with SBS at birth. She doesn’t receive nutrients as well as she should, which can lead to malnutrition, dehydration and other physiological complications. However, she was also born with incredible, innate resilience – that resilience has empowered me to break down walls and advocate fiercely on her behalf along our journey.

Finding strength has not always been easy. At the time of Mariah’s birth, the doctors said she would not live past one year. Essentially, I was told that my daughter had a death sentence. I did not accept that. But even though I didn’t doubt that she would survive her SBS diagnosis, I still grieved. Then, eventually I said to myself, “We will be the exception. We will be unique, and my child will thrive.” And, ultimately it was Mariah who created her own reality by not only surviving, but thriving. She simply shocked everyone.

Mariah is now ten years old, and she’s just like other kids in so many ways. For example, she certainly doesn’t like to clean her room! She is also her own wonderfully special person – she is a trickster who loves playing jokes on her brother and sister, and even kids around with nurses and staff during difficult hospital visits. She is equally nurturing and an avid caretaker of the sunflowers in our garden.

As Mariah gets older, I want to encourage her to become independent in every aspect of her life and to be curious about her SBS management. She already likes to gather her own supplies and has taken a particular interest in flushing out her own line (of her total parenteral nutrition [TPN]). Mariah doesn’t have the eating aversion that some kids with SBS might develop, so I allow her to eat whatever she wants and stock up her assigned “snack pantry” with what she chooses. Giving her the option to choose her own snacks is just one way that we’re building and supporting Mariah’s self-reliance in her SBS care and daily life.

This sense of independence helps Mariah feel like her true self because, as other parents of children with SBS likely know, the disease is not always pretty. That was especially true of Mariah’s experience following a surgical procedure known as an ileostomy. An ileostomy is a surgically created opening from the ileum, the lowest part of the small intestine. The intestine is brought through the abdominal wall to form a stoma. We agreed to do the ileostomy after she had been experiencing incredible pain when trying to use the bathroom. She would have acidic bowel moments and fissures – it was just awful.

The ileostomy was a temporary solution at best but was by no means perfect. We never had enough bags (or ileostomy pouches) and living with an ileostomy was challenging for us. At Mariah’s school, I would try to encourage curiosity and acceptance by telling the other kids that Mariah was an “alien from another planet” to explain her pouch. While a somewhat satisfactory explanation for most of the kids, she still experienced bullying from some of them. Thankfully, Mariah has always been confident in letting those bullies know that even if they weren’t being very nice, she would love them anyways. She punished them with kindness. It’s just another one of those things that makes her “Mariah”. Ultimately, Mariah was able to have the ileostomy reversed a few months ago which was a relief to us all.

In the moments of struggle that come with her SBS, Mariah has always responded with even greater moments of strength – sometimes even more strength than I possess myself. She has already had 40 surgeries in her first ten years of life, and on one occasion I decided to do her makeup with “winged” eyeliner before her procedure. However, when she came out of surgery, her makeup had been smeared. When she saw that I was crying, I told her the white lie that it was over the ruined eyeliner rather than let her see how hard it was watch her endure another challenge. Yet she was the one who said, with an unbothered smile, “Mom, stop! It’s not that serious, we’ll fix it later.” Her spirit is my strength, and that spirit inspires me to advocate fiercely for her every day.

In general, I feel there needs to be greater advocacy for the lives touched by SBS. It’s rare, and in my experience, there aren’t many people who can bridge the gap between parents’ understanding of the condition and the knowledge that medical professionals have. Although people living with SBS often have a circle of care that includes healthcare professionals across various disciplines, it can be difficult to merge everyone’s insights and get on the same page.

I have learned that to speak the same language as medical professionals, you must be invested and passionate about your research. For me, Google is my best friend. I research online to understand things like the vascular system and other biological processes. I read medical case studies online. I look at clinical studies. I constantly do my own fact-finding because I want to understand how a treatment will impact my child. The best way to do that is by arming myself with information as I fight to ensure she receives the care and treatment plans that are most appropriate for her. 

It can take time to find medical professionals who are comfortable when a parent says, “I respect your opinion, but I’ve done my research, as well, and we’re not going to do that; we’re going to do this instead.” I’ve learned that you can, in fact, get through brick walls. Although sometimes it’s by going over, around or under versus breaking through. And when medical professionals don’t think I’m at their level, I have no problem “putting on my heels” to get there so they hear me.

Although I am not a physician, I do have a PhD in Mariah – no one knows her better than I do. I know that when she has an infection, her eyes will turn bright green. When she’s going to have a fever, she sleep talks. I’m compelled to ask the deeper questions about why a doctor may believe a new treatment or procedure is necessary. This sometimes has forced us to switch providers because in my view, “protocols” are not personalized to Mariah’s needs. Every person with SBS has a unique experience.

We are ALL human, doctors included. And we can make mistakes, learn and grow. All the things that I didn’t know when Mariah was diagnosed with SBS have helped me remain teachable and earnest in advocating for her. I’ve learned so much more by recognizing what I don’t know. Being humble enough to take advice has given me the greatest defense.

Nevertheless, it is challenging to constantly find resources and support, especially as a single parent. Trying to make ends meet at home while managing Mariah’s SBS journey is an ongoing challenge. Even when reaching out to other parents in the SBS community, it can be difficult to find balance. But the biggest support I find is that I don’t feel alone. When I talk to other parents in the community about our experiences, they just get it. I don’t have to explain Mariah’s condition or worry I will feel crazy. I can just ask, “Do you experience this?” and they say, “Yes, we got you!”  Immediately, I feel less alone.

This journey takes strength and resilience, there is no doubt about it. Even with the support of the community and loved ones, ultimately, no one really knows what it takes for Mariah to be Mariah. They don’t know she has to carry a backpack for her nutrition. They don’t know what it looks like when I have to hold her for 15 minutes after her three daily shots. But they do see her strength, and they are compassionate towards the way Mariah knocks down every obstacle in her way, even those that would probably defeat others. I am humbled that this is our walk, and I believe it was given to us for a reason.

Just as the community encourages me and reminds me that I am not alone, I hope to encourage others in the community who may just be starting out on their SBS journey or struggling along the way. When talking to parents of newly diagnosed children, I want them to know that every child is unique, like a fingerprint. It’s all about believing that your child can do what they need to do. The most important thing is to know you’re doing the best for your child at every step of the way. This condition does not have to be a death sentence. And, if your child is anything like mine, he or she is likely stronger than you ever could have imagined.

To learn more about Short Bowel Syndrome (SBS), visit https://www.shortbowelsyndrome.com/. To join the community and talk with others who are living with SBS, check out https://www.facebook.com/TakedaSBS.

This article was created by Takeda.

 

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.

 

In celebration of Wound, Ostomy, and Continence (WOC) Nurse Week 2021, help us to shine a bright light on these special nurses. They give us the hope, support, and specialized care needed to thrive in life with an ostomy.

WOC nurse volunteers spend countless hours advocating, leading support groups, educating, fundraising, and supporting UOAA programs and services. UOAA recognizes that not all ostomy patients have access to a WOC nurse and we’ll continue to advocate for access to a specialized ostomy nurse from preoperatively when your stoma site is marked through an ongoing lifetime continuum of care as outlined in our Ostomy and Continent Diversion Patient Bill of Rights.

We asked UOAA’s social media community to share how a WOC nurse has made a difference in your life, health, or support group. We hope more nurses will consider this rewarding specialty. Thank you WOC nurses, you are our guiding lights.

I would like to thank my WOC nurses who have and continue to support me as an ostomate. My nurses inspired me so much I went to nursing school and graduate this month with a BSN and plan on continuing on. To become a WOC nurse myself! Thank you WOC nurses! -Katie Lee

“My WOC was a lady named Gayle. She helped my Mom so much with me. I remember many visits to the ER ward and having her there. She was funny, nice and on it. I used to love seeing her. She stayed by my side from 3-6yr old into my adulthood. She fought hard to find a bag that was the perfect fit for me. She got a new product in and it changed my life significantly, she fought tooth and nail to keep me in that bag, even when Canada decided to stop offering it openly. I still wear that brand to this day. I always heard rumors she was also an Ostomate and I can’t say how long. That made me love her more. I will never forget those who had a hand in my welfare and saw me through their entire career. I miss her and the others immensely. Jody is my new WOC and although I rarely need her, she’s there to help, even if it’s a panic situation that couldn’t wait for an appointment.” –Camille C.

“Joanna Burgess Happy WOC Nurse week. You have been a true Angel of Mercy for me over the years!” –Col Justin Blum

“My son’s WOC nurses at CHLA were awesome!!” – Teri C.

I am a WOCN and worked with MANY ostomy patients in the past. The thanks go both ways — I have never (in a long nursing career) felt as appreciated for my clinical skills and assistance as I do when working with people with an ostomy. They are the reason I have stayed in nursing. -Cris R.

This is Karen with my husband at his 55th birthday party in 2019 -Pam Allen Williamson

We have 3 great WOC nurses in our community that come to our ostomy support meetings Karen Eubank, Michael Byars and Jason Pratt. Michael went above and beyond by creating a weekly outpatient ostomy clinic after I told him I learned some cities had those while attending a UOAA conference. Karen who has been coming to our meetings for over a decade, hosts many of our support group parties at her house, works at the ostomy clinic on a regular basis, pays to store donated supplies and often helps people after hours. Both of them visit my husband when he is hospitalized, came to the house to visit him when he was home on hospice and came to his funeral. We are extra grateful to Karen because before he left the hospital on hospice she applied a special high output bag connected to bed drainage bag to minimize the family’s need to interact with the ostomy. Karen who is a neighbor told me that she would come change the bag twice a week. The hospice nurse was fascinated and stayed late to watch Karen change it out. He was going to stay in the hospital as long as they would let him to avoid family having to deal with his bag because he had always been so independent with it until nearly the end. Karen’s solution allowed him to come home and be surrounded by family caregivers that loved him and have wonderful conversations remembering fun times and having important conversations instead of the visitor limitations hospitals right now. We are so grateful to her for this and hope it will benefit other families of bed-bound patients. BTW we still fondly remember my husband’s first WOCN Nurse Licklighter who was a nurse at Keesler AFB in 1993. She marked him before surgery and taught him how to handle his bag and he kept her handwritten instructions forever and sometimes copied them for others. -Pam A.W.

I can’t thank the nurses at Ohio Health Riverside Hospital they helped me so much and made an otherwise difficult transition quite non traumatic! –Carol B.

Thank you to Erin and Vanessa at New York Presbyterian! –Jameson Cycz

The ConvaTec nurse Lorelei. She has been a stoma saver. She helped me troubleshoot my leaking problem, got me into a new pouching system, that is awesome and when I ran out of samples and am in limbo with my supply company in getting the new pouches and other supplies, she set me up with a holdover supply, so that my stoma won’t be continuously injured by my current pouches.- Susan Gentner

I’m thankful for all of the WOCNs I have been to. Some I’ve known for many years. They are very knowledgeable and helpful with various products.I also want to give a shoutout to our great WOCNs at 11 Health & Technologies for being amazing for our team and patients. 💜 –Megan Alloway

Amazing Aimee Frisch. The best WOCN in know. Love you. -John Pederson

Happy ‪#WOCNurseWeek2021! What you do for ostomy patients and the impact you make is immeasurable!  Plus we are grateful for all that you do to support UOAA and our advocacy program! You are advocates for patients and can influence change. Shine on! @UOAA_Advocate -Jeanine Gleba

A research study about the benefits of perioperative self-management support for ostomates

 

Ostomates are not only dealing with intestinal concerns but are also at risk for a multitude of complications. Data shows that 38% of ostomy patients find themselves back in the emergency room or being admitted within the first 90 days post operatively [1]. This is one of the highest rates of readmission when compared to other types of surgery. The most common cause for re-admission is dehydration, at approximately 40% of post ileostomy readmissions [2]. We also know that 84% of ostomy patients develop skin issues. The causes of these can be chemical, mechanical, or microbial, and possibly avoidable. Ostomates also have significantly increased healthcare costs, especially when affected by peristomal skin complications, and leakage [2]. It is known that 25% of ostomates develop renal failure within two years. The complications these patients encounter require 7x more outpatient visits than the average patient. And 29.1% of ostomates experience readmission which costs approximately $16,000 per patient [1]. These statistics show that specialized care for these patients is imperative to improving patient outcomes in this patient population.

A recent study published by the American Society of Colon and Rectal Surgeons shows how one company, 11 Health and Technologies, is utilizing a novel care approach to improve the quality of life and outcomes in this type of patient. The company developed alfred: SmartCare, a unique care model designed to meet the specialized need of ostomates. The program consists of a SmartBag and SmartWafer, mobile application, patient coaches (who were/are also ostomates, trained to support this type of patient) and the nursing team. The patient wears the SmartBag and SmartWafer, which submits data to the mobile application and clinical dashboard. The data is visible to the patient, their coach, the nursing team and the patient’s clinicians to be used to identify trends and abnormalities in the values. The patient can see how much output they have expressed and what the temperature is of their peristomal skin. These data points can help to curtail oncoming hydration issues or infections. When abnormalities are identified, the coach can work with the patient to provide education and can escalate issues to the nursing team for medical guidance.

In the study, the outcomes of 66 new ostomates from 19 different states were monitored for the first 30 post-operative days. The study showed that close monitoring of ostomy output volume as well as perioperative self-management support can significantly reduce the rate of hospital readmissions in the first 30 days after ostomy surgery.

Patients and healthcare providers should be open to the use of innovative programs that use remote monitoring along with telehealth, as they can be beneficial in improving the outcomes of patients in the immediate post-operative period.

To read the full study, visit the Diseases of the Colon & Rectum online at: https://journals.lww.com/dcrjournal/Citation/2020/12000/Improved_30_Day_Surgical_Outcomes_in_Ostomates.17.aspx

Editor’s note: This article is from one of our digital sponsors, 11 Health and Technologies. Sponsor support along with donations from readers like you help to maintain our website and the free trusted resources of UOAA, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.

[1] Tyler, J. A., Fox, J.P., Dharmarajan, S., Silviera, M. L., Hunt, S. R., Wise, P. E., Mutch, M. G. (2014). Acute health care resource utilization for ileostomy patients is higher than expected. Diseases of the Colon & Rectum57(12), 1412-1420.

[2] Justiniano, C. F., Temple, L. K., Swanger, A. A., Xu, Z., Speranza, J. R., Cellini, C., Salloum, R. M., & Fleming, F. J. (2018). Readmissions With Dehydration After Ileostomy Creation: Rethinking Risk Factors. Diseases of the colon and rectum61(11), 1297–1305. https://doi.org/10.1097/DCR.0000000000001137

[3] Taneja, C., Netsch, D., Rolstad, B. S., Inglese, G., Eaves, D., Oster, G (2019). Risk and economic burden of peristomal skin complaints following ostomy surgery. Journal of Wound, Ostomy and Continence Nursing, 46(2), 143-149.

[4] Fearn, Robert I. M.D., M.R.C.P.1,2; Gorgun, Emre M.D.3; Sapci, Ipek M.D.3; Mehta, Saahil N. M.D.2; Dinh, Binh B.S.2; Yowell, Quinn V. M.S.2; Eisenstein, Samuel M.D.4 (2020). Improved 30-Day Surgical Outcomes in Ostomates Using a Remote Monitoring and Care Management Program: An Observational Study. Diseases of the Colon & Rectum: December 2020 – Volume 63 – Issue 12 – p e581-e586.

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!

By R.S. Elvey

Caring for an ostomy can often be a frustrating and challenging experience at any age. But combine advanced age and dementia and it becomes even more of a challenge for caregivers and loved ones. According to the Population Reference Bureau, the number of Americans 65 and older will gradually increase from 15% of our population to 24% by 2050. With this growth has come a rise in existing and new ostomies combined with Alzheimer’s or other dementias. The Alzheimer’s Association of America reports in their 2017 Alzheimer’s Disease Facts and Figures report, “Of the estimated 5.5 million Americans with Alzheimer’s dementia in 2017, 5.3 million are age 65 and older.” The association predicts a half a million new cases of Alzheimer’s dementia will develop annually.

This explosive growth in new cases of dementia is putting an enormous strain on family caregivers. The Family Caregiver Alliance estimates, “44 million Americans age 18 and older provide unpaid assistance and support to older people and adults with disabilities who live in the community.” These caregivers often have little or no preparation or support in providing care for people with disabilities such as stoma care. They become frustrated and worn out. In an online forum, an anonymous writer expressed her frustration about caring for her mother’s stoma as follows, “I am TIRED of it. I need someone to take over dealing with an ostomy and ordering the correct supplies for her, etc… And I am just going to make whatever decisions seem right regarding her bladder care, as I find out more info. I really wanted to yell at her tonight and that makes me feel like a terrible, awful person. I didn’t, but I did get a little firm.”

Studies have shown that family caregivers who provide care to family members with chronic and disabling conditions are also putting themselves at risk of developing emotional and physical health problems. When seeking stoma care information, caregivers often participate in online chat rooms and forums for anecdotal advice. Additionally, visiting nurses with wound and ostomy training often make home visits and teach ostomy care. But when they leave the caregiver is often faced with ever-changing challenges as their loved one’s dementia worsens. Most often they face the challenge of not knowing when a pouch needs to be emptied, appliances being ripped off by their loved one or attempts to empty and change the appliance that miss the mark and require massive cleanups.

Realizing the complexity of stoma care and dementia and the pressure it causes to caregivers, the Colostomy Association of the United Kingdom and the Dementia Association of the United Kingdom combined to issue a twelve-page downloadable leaflet at www.dementiauk.org entitled, “Caring for a person with a stoma and dementia”. They readily recognize that not all persons with dementia will profit from learning to care for their stoma. But where it is possible a person should be encouraged to participate in their own stoma maintenance.

The leaflet’s content is based on input from health professionals who care for ostomates with dementia and a stoma. A few of the hints and tips included in the publication are:

  • “People with dementia who are actively involved in changing their bags should be encouraged to wear gloves. This reduces the risk of infection, feces under the nails and fecal spreading.”
  • “Some people with dementia who require their bag to be changed for them might resist. In these cases distraction could help. For instance, encouraging the person to clean their teeth or brush their hair during the process might be helpful. Standing the person in front of a mirror so they can focus on the task they are performing and not the bag change can help.”
  • “Bag choice is important. One-piece bags with pre-cut aperture have the advantage of being uncomplicated for both person and caregiver. Two-piece bags, where the flange can remain in situ for up to three days, helps protect the skin where frequent changes are necessary.”

Individual and professional caregivers also provide additional advice based on their experiences. Many staff who work in nursing homes put a plastic bag over the pouch so that in case of any leakage, there won’t be a much larger incident. Many persons with Alzheimer’s or other dementias either pick or rip off their pouches. To prevent this from happening, many caregivers dress their loved ones in special clothing that has no openings in the front but still gives the appearance of normal clothing. One source for this type of clothing is Buck and Buck. Their online catalogue features adaptive clothing by gender and condition. Lastly, in this smartphone age there is even an app that might help. 11 Health has created the Alfred Alert Sensor. The sensor is applied to the pouch at a point where it should be emptied. When that point is reached it connects by Bluetooth wireless technology to the Alfred Alert app on your smartphone to tell you it is time to empty. The app can also capture patient output volume over a period of time. The data is stored in a HIPAA compliant cloud server where it can be shared by medical professionals and family members.

In the final analysis, caring for a loved one with dementia is a joint effort between the person with dementia, their loved ones, their medical consultants and other professional caregivers.

Editor’s note: UOAA Affiliated Support Groups all around the United States are open to ostomy and continent diversion patients, caregivers, family, and friends.

By Megan Herrett

Adequately summarizing what our family has gone through over the past almost ten years requires going back to the very beginning.  Our daughter, Maggie was three months old when we realized that she looked a little jaundiced.  Our pediatrician agreed and ran what would be the first of hundreds of tests to determine what was wrong with our baby and why her liver function tests were so elevated.  After being seen by multiple specialists here in Boise for a few months, we were referred to a doctor at Primary Children’s Medical Center in Salt Lake City in November of 2008.

Photo by: Natalie Koziuk Photography (www.nkoziukphotography.com)

When Maggie was about six or seven months old, we noticed that she was starting to scratch quite a bit.  Her arms, feet, and ears were covered in scabs and scratch marks.  This itching was a side-effect of her liver not processing bile correctly – when not processed by the liver, the bile backs up into the bloodstream and circulates back through the body, resulting in an increase number of bile salts in the body.  It is these bile salts in the bloodstream that make an individual with a liver disease very itchy.

At first, we were able to control her itching through several medications but by the time she was 12 months-old, her itching had become unbearable.  At that time, her liver was deteriorating quickly and she was exhibiting some developmental delays as a result of the incessant itching.  In a matter of weeks, she had pulled out all of her hair and she was maxed out on her medication dosages.

We were presented with the option of an ostomy-placing surgery when Maggie was just over one-year-old as an alternative to a liver transplant.  The purpose of her ostomy would be to (1) drain bile from her body to combat the itching, and (2) slow the progression of her disease by giving her liver a much-needed reprieve.

To be honest, I was devastated when I first heard the words, “ostomy bag.”  I imagined a life where Maggie would never wear a bikini or be a cheerleader or be captain of her swim team – all very big concepts when you are talking about a one-year old child.  I imagined her being bullied because she was different.  But, we needed a solution…and we needed to act quickly.

Photo by: Natalie Koziuk Photography (www.nkoziukphotography.com)

Maggie underwent ostomy surgery on October 30, 2009, and we haven’t looked back.  She is now eight-years-old and is thriving health-wise as well as academically.  Additionally, she is also excelling on a competitive gymnastics team.  And although Maggie absolutely beams on the outside, she struggles with confidence because of her ostomy pouch.  She is fiercely private and does not want any of her peers to know.  My husband and I have worked tirelessly to emphasize to her that her pouch is nothing to be ashamed of – after all, it saved her life and she would not be the person she is today without it.

In 2010, we were blessed by the birth of our son, Winston.  We soon discovered that he was plagued with the same disease and would then undergo the same surgery when he was just over one-year-old.  Although this news was devastating at the time, we have come to realize that it was a blessing in disguise.  Both of them have the same liver disease and both wear ostomy pouches – commonalities that they can rely on when the going gets tough.

I can still recall my “aha moment” though – that moment when I realized that we would not be a family that sat idly by and let her pouch be a source of shame or embarrassment for her.  Maggie was probably two years old at the time and we were in the throes of potty-training, where our previous line of attack of onesies and bib overalls to prevent her from yanking her pouch off, were no longer an option.  She was finally in a shirt and a pair of pants…and her ostomy bag was peeking out from the hemline of her shirt as we left a restaurant.  A man entering the restaurant noticed her ostomy pouch and said, “Ewwwww!  What IS that?”  Although my initial reaction was one of anger and dismay, it was then that I realized that working with her would be only one piece of the puzzle – we also needed to work with the community to help educate, support and raise awareness for those like Maggie so that the shame, fear and embarrassment would fade away to empowerment and pride.

It was this “aha moment” that led me to contact the United Ostomy Associations of America in January of 2016 about bringing their Run for Resilience Ostomy 5k to Boise.  My inquiry was met with a resounding “YES!”  We held our inaugural race on Saturday, October 8th and had over 160 people registered for the 5K and Kids’ Mile events.  We even had participants, including ostomates and ostomy nurses, drive in for the race from Spokane, Washington and Lewiston! And Hollister even donated ostomy pouches to include in our race registration bags.  If nothing else, I am hopeful that this year we laid the foundation for many successful years to come and got some ostomy-related dialogue started.  Instead of “ewww,” maybe people will say, “Oh, I know what that is and that saved their life!”

The Boise Ostomy 5k is now in its 4th year! For more information on our Run for Resilience events around the country visit www.ostomy5k.org