By Ellyn Mantell
Setting the scene for you, imagine the patient who has controlled ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s Disease, or diverticulitis and is suddenly terribly symptomatic with infection and unremitting agonizing pain. Or consider the patient who has an accident in the intestinal region of their body. Or the patient who hears the news following a colonoscopy that there is colorectal cancer. Or the patient, like me, whose motility issues have made it impossible for the bowel to function. All of these scenarios are happening every day, all day, in hospitals and households and they all may very well lead to either a colostomy or ileostomy. (I believe a urostomy is always a permanent surgery)
Frequently, depending upon the physicality of the ostomy, a reversal in a matter of six months to a year is either discussed or promised to the patient. It is usually explained that for the connection to heal, it requires that time, and once healed, the reversal is smooth sailing. Except, in many cases, it is not, and that is what I want to bring to your attention, based on the people with whom I have spoken. Please remember, I am not a medical professional, but I interface closely with many patients in many situations, so I speak from my observations.
Sometimes, during those 6-12 months, the sphincter muscles of the rectum stop fully functioning, and the patient may be tied to the bathroom as never before. Or the connection is narrow and there may begin a pattern of bowel obstructions due to the backup of stool. Other times, the surgeon had good intentions for a reversal, but the patient is simply not a good candidate due to illness or stepping out of remission of some disease process.
The reason I am writing this graphic and perhaps uncomfortable blog for many to read is that an ostomy can happen to anyone for a variety of reasons. UOAA estimates there are 725,000 to one million of us in the United States who have ostomy or continent diversion surgery. I want to educate all ostomates that making peace with their new anatomy may be safer and provide a more predictable future than hopes for a reversal. I believe and have heard from others who give ostomy support that those who know they will be an ostomate for the rest of their life tend to be more open to embracing their new body, physically and emotionally. Those who have been given (false, in some cases) hope for a reversal are frequently disappointed and angry, feel betrayed and lose faith they will ever be “normal” again.
Support Groups are a wonderful way to begin to think of the new normal. It is so beneficial to meet like people, learn about appliances, clothing, foods, sleep, intimacy, maintaining health and to simply share experiences. If you cannot find one in your area, contact the United Ostomy Association of America or your local hospital. Take a family member, caregiver or friend if it gives you comfort. I guarantee you will feel empowered by taking this step, whether you are having a reversal in your future, or are embracing your ostomy for life.
Ellyn Mantell is a UOAA advocate and Affiliated Support Group leader from New Jersey. You can follow her personal blog at morethanmyostomy