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By Ed Pfueller, UOAA Communications and Outreach Manager

In-person peer support has always been at the heart of UOAA. Though people worldwide now routinely connect online with others living with an ostomy, the in-person experience of UOAA’s over 300 Affiliated Support Groups continues to endure and grow year after year.

The arrival of COVID-19 is challenging groups to maintain continuity after often decades of holding a routine meeting schedule. Ostomates new and old continue to need support during this time and video conferencing technology is making this happen. Zoom meetings have emerged as the platform of choice as our world strives for human connection during this period of isolation.

The South Texas Ostomy Support Group has been ahead of the curve and before this current crisis was already live-streaming with Zoom meetings as an option to in-person attendance. “Now that we are not able to meet up, we are still using the same meeting ID (link) but now that’s our only form of meeting,” says group president Christine Miller.

Christine recognizes that some may struggle to adapt to the new technology. “I made sure it was in the newsletter so those who needed help could call me and I could walk them through how to use Zoom prior to the meeting started. I had several calls the day of. It was exciting that we had so many people participate (10 people logged on). It was much less than a normal meeting but it was still heart-warming that they were still participating. We even had a newbie come! It was fun having her because she mentioned some of her problems and I immediately texted our Coloplast rep who jumped on for 15 minutes and became a very last-minute speaker for us.”

The Morris County New Jersey Ostomy Association, which has been in existence for over 40 years, is another group adapting to the times. UOAA Treasurer and the ASG’s board member George Salamy says that, after a trial to test for bugs, he and newsletter editor and webmaster Walter Cummins sent a broadcast email telling everyone they wanted to do a Zoom call.

“On April 15th around 23 people signed on with no issues. It was a mixture of older members and a few younger members, some with spouses, and our group’s WOC nurse,” George reports. “The original purpose of the call was to see how everyone was doing and if they needed anything. Everyone seemed to be okay. We talked about if there were any issues in obtaining products. I indicated UOAA works with the manufacturers and determined there were no manufacturing issues.” George adds, “People talked about shopping, which grocery stores were stocked, and some sanitary things we should all be doing (closing the toilet seat before flushing to eliminate germs). All in all, it went well. One member, who now lives in Florida, signed on and contributed much to the call. We decided to do this in May and will continue if needed. It’s a great way of keeping the members engaged.” After the meeting, members commented and made suggestions about future topics such as; the depression aspects of this “lock-down,” yoga, sound therapy for relaxing, and suggestions on where to shop and which stores had supplies.

Bob Baumel of the Ostomy Association of North Central Oklahoma sees potential in the virtual meetings because the organization’s meetings rotate between locations. “It will be interesting to see how Zoom works for our group. We may actually get better attendance using Zoom than we’ve been getting with physical meetings, considering that members who don’t feel well enough to travel to meetings, or who live far from our meeting locations of Stillwater and Ponca City, may nevertheless join meetings which are conducted electronically. Maybe we’ll like Zoom so much that we decide to continue holding some meetings with Zoom, even after the Coronavirus pandemic is over,” Bob says.

Liz Hiles of the Greater Cincinnati Ostomy Association has already hosted several Zoom calls for her group and hopes participation will increase. “I like the option on a number of levels and hadn’t previously considered it. I need to learn more about how to conduct and make it more productive. I like it for the younger folks who may be on the go or traveling. Though that could also apply to older populations too. I also like it for those that may be homebound or in a facility for whatever reason. Hospital, rehab, nursing etc.” Liz also organized a Zoom call for a group of young adults who all connected at last year’s UOAA National Conference and have tried to stay in touch on Facebook ever since.

Remember even if you have never attended a UOAA support and information group in the past you can always reach out and call a local leader nearby you for support. If they are not holding virtual meetings and you are familiar with the technology, perhaps ask if they need a volunteer like you to help them set it up for the group. Use whatever technology you and your group are comfortable with.

You can also use a landline to call into the group to chat, if you don’t have a smartphone or a camera on your computer. Zoom offers a free version if your group does not want to invest in a professional account. Members will just need to log back in when the meeting time hits its 40-minute limit. In recent weeks Zoom has responded to privacy concerns and it is suggested to use the password option for added security. Also, the Federal Trade Commission recently shared guidelines on staying safe while video conferencing.

This is a time for all of us to reach out and make sure our community is safe and supported. Although we are apart for safety, we can still remain connected and together.

The ostomy community is understandably very concerned about how the COVID-19 outbreak is affecting their daily lives, health, support networks, and access to ostomy supplies.

In this time of great uncertainty, UOAA recommends all individuals consult with their own primary care physicians with questions concerning their risk factor or if they exhibit any symptoms. Please follow the Center for Disease Control (CDC) website for actual up to date information. We recognize that many people living with an ostomy or continent diversion are older people and those with chronic disease and are therefore at higher risk of developing serious illness. Please also see CDC guidelines for people at risk

UOAA is also hearing from many Affiliated Support Groups who have prudently decided to cancel their upcoming meetings. Members should expect that their meetings will be canceled for the foreseeable future. Affiliated Support Groups are each independently run and members should contact their local leaders if they have any questions about their meetings. Community guidelines are also available from the CDC to assist leaders in deciding steps they should take to address public health concerns.  

UOAA reached out to the major ostomy manufacturers to see if the outbreak is currently impacting their production or supply chain. As of March 4, 2020 none of the manufacturers reported any issues in their operations as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak. Read our previous blog post for statements from individual manufacturers on this topic. Check with your distributor to see if there are any shipping delays due to increased demand of all goods at this time. 

If you develop a fever, cough and have difficulty breathing always contact your healthcare provider. They will determine if you are a candidate for a COVID-19 test. Medicare and private insurance should cover a test to see if you have coronavirus if requested from a physician. Additionally, Medicare is offering telemedicine options so people can stay home as much as possible during this crisis. Contact your private insurer to discover any additional benefits they may be offering at this time. For frequently asked questions and facts about this virus follow updates from the CDC on the latest COVID-19 guidelines.

UOAA will update this blog post with any information that may affect our community.