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 an amazing grandchild.  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 View: By Connie Confer

Most of the nation is gearing up for Halloween, with all of its tricks and treats. But as a lesbian who wears an ostomy bag, this month also includes some more personal holidays worth celebrating, especially if we want people to feel more accepted and safe.

Did you know that Oct. 5 was Ostomy Awareness Day? Just like the more established National Coming Out Day (Oct. 11), it brings an opportunity for people to celebrate their differences and their courage as they announce, perhaps with some trepidation, that they live with certain realities. They hope their family and friends will not shy away. They hope their bosses will not fire them.

That fear is completely rational. Just this week the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in cases that could indeed decide whether someone can be fired for being gay or transgender. We will have to wait for months to hear their decision and how it will impact our laws. But in the meantime, I want to advocate for acceptance, not alienation. I want to argue that open communication creates community and reduces stigma for people in my own life circumstances.

Yes, it is tricky to navigate the reactions of the world, and it takes some courage. But the treat continues to be that we are not alone. The LGBTQ community is indeed a family, with gay pride parades in every major city, and support groups for people who want to come out to their friends or family, or for parents and other family members who want to support a gay or transgender young person navigate in an unfamiliar world.

Connie Confer, left, at the California General Assembly where she has been key to getting proclamations to recognize Ostomy Awareness Day.

Similarly, my local Southern California, Inland Empire Ostomy Association, offers support and practical advice for people who find themselves facing surgery for an ostomy pouch. As do over 300 other United Ostomy Associations of America (UOAA) affiliated support and Information groups nationwide.

No wonder people worry when they hear they will be among the 100,000 people in the United States who will get an ostomy this year. The treatment for diseases such as cancer or Crohn’s almost sounds worse than the disease. People wear a pouch attached to the abdomen that holds urine or feces that must be emptied and changed regularly. It can be embarrassing to talk about it, but just the same, we must.

That surgery is life-saving. I am living proof. And the routine of wearing the pouch seems quite easy and normal to me now. I find that I can talk about it with people close to me, and that I do not feel any stigma. For others who want to get to a place where an ostomy pouch feels routine, you should consider attending a UOAA affiliated support group near you.

There is no reason to suffer in silence and there is every reason to be fully and proudly yourself, no matter what your reality. And if you are not impacted by these specific things, make sure you are supportive to friends and family who are.

Life lived honestly can be a real treat.

Carolyn “Connie” Confer served as the assistant city attorney for Riverside, California and has advocated for the LGBTQ community for decades. She was there in September when Assemblyman Jose Medina declared Oct. 5 as Ostomy Awareness Day in California in honor of the work of the Inland Empire Ostomy Association.

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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The Black and White of it? Support is Everything.

By Tricia Hottenstein  stomamama.com

I recently shared an article about a little boy who was bullied so badly that after twenty-six surgeries, he decided to take his own life. It hit me so hard. I read it with tears rolling down my face, my heart hurting for his loved ones and my soul hurting for the things he must have felt. I read it after spending a long weekend in the hospital and after undergoing three of four surgeries in just two months. I read it knowing the hurt of bullying and the feeling of people looking at me with any variant of disgust when seeing or talking about my ostomy bag. I read it after writing and sharing what was basically a diary entry of overwhelming emotions. It is by no means comparable, but it made me think a lot about the strong support system around me. I know that my mindset is shaped so greatly by those handpicked few who always have my back and in the midst of this article, fresh in my own rehashed wounds, my gratitude for life and the way it all works out has increased. I can’t be certain I’d have made it through the last few months had they happened to me a year ago when I was already down and struggling. Support is everything.         

I’ve had an ex who was (and still is) really supportive and caring, and one who made me cry and feel worthless in a hospital room. I’ve also had an ex who couldn’t hide his lack of understanding or his overly dramatic gags when he saw me changing my bag. The embarrassment and disrespect was the exact reason why I decided to mention my stoma the very first time I met my boyfriend. I had since decided that anyone who was less than understanding would be an immediate no. I was afraid of dating with an ostomy, but I was no longer willing to feel like a burden or anything less than sexy. I would be okay being single and building myself back up on my own.

And then practically out of nowhere, I was on a date. I was nervous in spite of it going so well, or maybe because it was. I spent many moments of conversation wondering if they were the right moments to bring up the surgery. I speak so freely of my bag to everyone. I answer questions from coworkers, friends, family, and strangers without thinking twice. This is my bag; it saved my life! It is worth talking about. But how do I casually bring this up without awkwardly ending a date? What if his response wasn’t what I wanted it to be? Although, that’s the point, right? I’m old enough, I’ve been through enough. No more on the fence with anything. It is black and white and I’m not moving forward with any more gray.

“Tell me something about yourself that would surprise me.” To be honest, I don’t even remember if he eventually answered the question. All I know is he stared at me. This moment of oh shit in my mind as he was staring at me, half laughing, shocked to be put on the spot. So I just went for it. “I don’t have a colon!” More stares, more shock. I explained the scenario in a nutshell. The disease, the surgery, and the bag I’ve had for several years.

“Well… I guess…that’s kind of shitty, huh?” The words hung in the air before we both laughed. And in all honesty, my reaction to that response could have been a variable one depending on many factors. But really, how better to respond? Because I don’t want someone who will constantly feel sorry for me, or who will treat me any differently. Rather, I want someone who will make me laugh, who will be understanding and upbeat, and who will continue on with the conversation afterward as if it is no big deal. Sure, there were questions to be asked, but not a single one of them seemed to really matter. And there it was, in black and white and bar lights: this glimmer of hope.

As it would turn out, it couldn’t have come at a better time. A few short months later, I was back in hospital gowns and waiting rooms. And not once did he flinch. Not when I delivered awful news, not while he sat next to me in pre-op, not when my bag leaked in the middle of the night or I got frustrated and had tears running down my face. The reality is, most of the time I didn’t even have time to process things before he was reassuring me I’d be okay and distracting me with nonstop laughter.

When I’m in the trenches, when I’m alone, when I think too much, it is easy to go to a place of overwhelming emotions. I have spent more than half of my life with this disease, and surgery went so well that I thought the rest of my life would be smooth sailing. I was finally meeting people who had never known me as sick. It sounds so irrelevant, but it is a huge deal. I remember several years ago when a family member introduced me as “the sick one.” It was intended to be harmless. Intended simply as a way for their friend to put a face to the person they had obviously spoken of. The person undergoing IV therapy, taking twenty-some pills a day, piling up medical debt, and seeing the best physicians while still unable to leave the house most days. It cut through me and it scarred deep. But post-op, there was this moment in life where that was no longer me. Now I was strong. I was an adventurer. I was healthy.

The frustration when that all came crashing down was audible. Suddenly I was right back down to the some of the lowest points in my life. I was again “the sick one.” Somehow even when things had been slowly going downhill, I was blinded enough by the highs to be shocked when I was back to square one. I was angry. I felt sorry for myself and felt alone despite the people around me. I started to prepare myself again for the life full of battles, ready to sink back to that person who laid in the fetal position on the sofa, unable to eat or move or laugh from deep within my belly. I just kept thinking, over and over, that this is my life. I had a whole other vision for it after my ostomy surgery, but this person, right here, in a hospital room getting bad news? This is my life.

Until the person next to me, the person who responded to the news of my ostomy when we first met with a poop joke, responded with another poop joke. The kind that made me laugh so hard that all the ugly tears shook off my face. And as he wiped the remnants of them away, he reassured me. With a few simple words, he reminded me of my actual life. Reality. Yes, I am the sick one. But I’m also the healthy one. In black and white, that is my life. Some days I will be an adventurer. I’ll feel healthy, I’ll laugh, and I’ll enjoy the smooth sailing. And some days I will be sick. I’ll be a warrior. I’ll look for hope and rely on others. And their support will be everything.

 

UOAA Resources:

Emotional Concerns

Sexuality

Living with an Ostomy

 

The Benefits of Giving Back In Spite of Your Health Challenges

By Lynn Wolfson

We all want to feel like valuable members of our community. However, many times we are held back by personal issues, lack of time or just a complete lack of knowledge on how to contribute to help others. For those who have not had the experience, they do not know the emotional elation that one gets by helping others.

Let me tell you a little about myself. I was born with a genetic disease that prevents my digestive track from functioning as it should. Consequently, I am fed through my heart (Total Parental Nutrition), I defecate into a pouch attached to my abdomen and I catheterize to urinate four times a day. All of this medical equipment did take me years to accept and learn to take care of on my own. However, once I learned, accepted and had my independence back, I wanted to give back to my community.

I started by participating in my local UOAA affiliated ostomy support group. I attended national ostomy conferences and met many people who also had ostomies. I then joined the Digestive Disease National Coalition in Washington, DC and learned how to lobby for Bills which are needed for the digestive disease community on Capitol Hill. There I met many people active in the digestive disease community and joined The Oley Foundation.

Lynn Wolfson is assisted by her service dog Zev as she travels for advocacy and conferences around the country. Lynn has battled Hirshprung’s disease since childhood.

After several years of attending national conferences with the United Ostomy Associations of America, The Oley Foundation, and The Digestive Disease National Coalition, I decided to create my own support group. I named it: The Weston Ostomy Tube Feeding Group. The group meets monthly from August to May and discusses many important issues regarding people with ostomies and enteral/parental patients.

Then I decided I wanted to help my local community. I started going to the Jewish Community Center and learning how to knit hats for cancer patients. I had not knitted since I was a little girl. I was not too optimistic since I have tremors. However, the ladies in the group taught me how to knit on a loom. I now make beautiful hats which I donate weekly to cancer patients. I was really feeling proud of myself.

One week there was a senior fair in the ballroom at the JCC while I was in my knitting group. I took a break from my knitting to go and check out the senior fair. While walking around the fair, I saw “Jet Express” and I stopped and asked about it. I was told that this was a service which the Goodman Jewish Family Services provided to seniors for $100 a year. The service is to pick up seniors and to bring them to medical appointments, shopping or social engagements. They needed volunteers to pick up these seniors. This sounded like fun to me. I called up Pam at Jet Express and signed up.

Since signing up, I have enjoyed taking seniors to medical appointments, the beauty salon, shopping or just spending the afternoon with a senior going wherever they would like. I find the seniors so interesting. I have one senior that has lived in Florida since the 1950s and she tells me what South Florida was like when she first came. Some seniors are here alone. Their children live out of state and they are lonely. I have one senior who I take out to lunch weekly. I find I learn so much from these seniors and I bring them home so happy. As happy as they feel, I always feel happier that I could do this for them.

Left, UOAA Advocacy Manager Jeanine Gleba with ,right, Lynn Wolfson taking part in the DDNC Day on Capitol Hill.

I then found out about The Cupboard – the kosher pantry which services individuals or families who cannot afford groceries, and Holocaust Survivors. The Cupboard is also part of the Goodman Jewish Family Services. I go to the Cupboard weekly to take grocery orders from the clients and help deliver the groceries. Since I cannot carry due to my medical equipment, I have a partner who can carry the groceries when I am delivering. I do the driving. Again, I really enjoy meeting and talking with all the clients. They are so appreciative of everything we do for them!

Many of the clients who are having a difficult time, emotionally, physically or financially are so elated when they see us, as they know they are not alone. I know for myself, that each one of us was given a “deck of cards” on life and there is no one that has received a perfect deck. We all have “rotten” cards. Those people that can overcome these “rotten cards” will be the most successful and happiest. However, as humans, we all need a hand in helping us to overcome our individual challenges.

Once we can master our personal challenges, there is no greater joy than giving back to others. Helping others helps each of us to love life even more and appreciate our individual gifts. Life is a matter of attitude. Those with a positive attitude can not only overcome their own challenges but also help others do the same.

By Tricia Hottenstein

The problem with being strong is that people expect you to always be strong. When your body has been put through so much, people expect it to willingly fight through anything. After life hands you a few too many lemons, you’re expected to just make an extra-large lemonade. The problem is, sometimes I can’t be strong. Sometimes I just don’t want to be.

When I get a new diagnosis or the old one flares up, I don’t always react with immediate strength. When I wake up to a leak or suffer through an obstruction, I don’t always react with immediate strength. When I need to call off work or cancel with friends and feel like I’m letting people down, I don’t always react with immediate strength. And sometimes, my lack of strength is why I need to cancel. Because it is damn exhausting sometimes. Dealing with life, dealing with an ostomy. Dealing with doctors and tests and medicine. With random pain or nausea. With what seems like a constant cycle of bad news after the last bad news. Dealing with an independent and stubborn 5-year-old when I’m not at my best. It’s exhausting.

And I just don’t want to be strong. I want to slump down in my seat and sob. I want to be needy, and helped. Most of the time, I feel like the benefit to

The author gets some much-needed self-care that is so important in life with an ostomy or chronic disease.

this life is that it made me a better person, a better friend. I can support someone through their hard moments because I’ve been through enough of my own. I may not be the most compassionate person in the world, but I will be there. For even an acquaintance. I will help anyone I can, however, I can. But the downfall is that sometimes I want to be the person on the other end. I give my strength to so many other people, yet for the most part, I feel I rely mostly on my own. And most of the time, I am strong enough for that to be possible.

Although I always think I’ve had this strength, having an ostomy made it necessary to rely on myself. By the time I had the surgery, I learned what I could and couldn’t eat. I had to self-navigate my triggers and try to make sense out of them. Oftentimes, I needed to coordinate doctors with specialists and be competent enough to fill in the blanks of my medical history. Mainly, I just had to deal. With the embarrassment, the unpredictability, and the often crippling pain. And then I had surgery, and had to be strong all over again. I had to relearn what I could and couldn’t eat and figure out all the tricks for keeping my ostomy happy. The learning curve was a tough one. Sure, there are support groups. But this is also an individual journey and I needed to be self-sufficient and strong.

But mid-meltdown? I am not. I want to be weak. I need to take a moment to feel sorry for myself. I do not want to hear about how I can beat anything because my body has already tackled everything else. I need to cry and process all the thoughts swirling in my head. I need to feel frustrated at the nonstop barrage of crap being thrown at me. I need to let my shoulders fall and my eyes sink. I need someone to be there for me the way I hope I would be there for them. I just need a moment. Because honestly, I AM strong. And I am damn proud of it. I try to be positive and handle things with composure and as much grace as my body (and personality) can put forth. And once I stop feeling sorry for myself, I will stand up and shake off and go forward and tackle everything on my plate with a vengeance.

I just need a moment.

More on Emotional Health

From Imperfection to Perfection

By Ellyn Mantell

My parents came in two different sizes…my father was extra large and my mother was narrow and slim. While it is not unusual for a daughter to model after her mother, I would say that my modeling was extreme. My mother not only was very weight conscious, she was very rigid and restricting of food and drink, and binging was a big part of her life, and as I found out later, unnamed bulimia. Her daily guidelines for foods to be consumed had a critique that usually ended with “remember, Ellyn,” she would repeat, “a moment to the lips, a lifetime to the hips!”

Blueberries, watermelon, and oranges were on her DO NOT EAT list since they had too much sugar. Meat, potatoes, breads were all annotated with what could just as easily have been a skull and cross bone. So as long as I followed her dictum, I would be narrow and slim like her, or so I thought. The problem was, however, that although I inherited her very narrow and slim upper body, I inherited my father’s larger and rounder lower body. Regardless of how much I tried, I was never to be lithe in my legs and hips. College not only brought the “freshman 15,” it brought anorexia and eventually, bulimia. So I lived with an eating disorder that lasted for years, and the reality of body dysmorphia that plagued me for decades. And now, as an ostomate, I am finally grateful and humbled by my beautiful body…because it is an incredibly resilient organism and I am so proud to own it!

For over two decades my strong little body fought through surgeries, hospitalizations, PICC lines, infections, abscesses and lack of bowel motility. And yet, regardless of my physical state, I would expect it to be thin and attractive, fitting into whatever garment I wanted to wear. I never questioned its strength, its ability to weather weeks in the hospitals or the most grueling of tests and procedures. It was never an issue of can I travel alone to Rochester, Minnesota to the Mayo Clinic by myself and stay for two weeks to have bowel retraining. I just wanted to be certain I could exercise, eat “normally” and not put on weight. Regardless of how many scars I had down and across my abdomen from 23 abdominal surgeries, the goal was to fit into my clothes and like what I saw on the scale. Enduring an enteroclysis study (a wire inserted down the nose to be able to see into the small intestine) I steadily focused on what I would allow myself to eat once I was finished. In retrospect, my expectation of my infirmed body to be perfect was abominable, and I would never, ever support anyone I love put that expectation on their body.

And then four years ago, I had my ileostomy, and suddenly, my now very obedient body gave way to an imperfection I was forced to acknowledge. The first time I saw my reflection in the mirror after the surgery, I was horrified. My high-output bag, which is transparent, was reaching down my short frame to my right mid-thigh. But after the shock of my appliance and pouch, I began to relax and look at the possibility that I could have a new life, free of hospitals, surgeries and worry. I began to see the beauty in my stoma, and named it, as many do. Her name is Lily because my mother, Lillian, gave me my first life, and Lily has given me my second.

No longer striving toward an unrealistic goal, I am no so proud of the ability I have to live and love my life. My little body is strong enough to advocate for others; it is strong enough to lead my support group; it is strong enough to visit those suffering in the hospital, and it is strong enough to start a grassroots movement to open our ostomy center, one of the few in New Jersey! On a personal note, I am strong enough to enjoy my beautiful family, my wonderful circle of friends and celebrate each and every day. And I have learned that perfection may never really have been a possibility for me or others, but imperfection makes me very, very happy!