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By Molly Atwater

Ah, November… the leaves are changing colors and falling from the trees, the jack-o-lanterns have been put away and exchanged for candy canes, and the Black Friday sales emails have started trickling into our inboxes. That can only mean one thing: the holiday season is upon us! It’s safe to say that our celebrations in 2020 will be a little different than what we’re used to. A non-traditional Thanksgiving or holiday gathering can be hard on all of us now that the CDC is suggesting limiting gatherings to just those in your household. (They’ve got some suggestions on safer alternatives to consider here.) Regardless of how we’ll celebrate, there are still lots of cookies to bake, memories to make, and laughs to share. But what does that mean for those of us with ostomies? The holiday season is inherently stressful, but adding medical issues on top can feel overwhelming. But fear not – with a little extra planning and mindfulness, you can handle the next few weeks like a pro. Here are a few tips and tricks to make sure you have a HAPPY holiday!

Travel Prepared

If you must travel during this time, make sure you pack more than enough supplies. Odds are you won’t need all of them, but it’s always better to be safe than sorry. My rule is to figure out how many bag changes I expect to perform while I am away, and then pack double that amount of supplies.  That way, even if I have to do extra bag changes, I never have to worry about running out of my necessities. I also pack in-bag odor reducers and a small bathroom aerosol spray so I don’t have to feel self-conscious about any expected or unexpected ostomy smells.

If your holiday plans include traveling by airplane, pack your supplies in your carry-on. Airlines are notorious for misplacing luggage, so keeping your supplies with you at all times can save you a lot of worrying. Also, go ahead and download one of the UOAA TSA advocacy cards to make your security checkpoint experience easier. For even more peace of mind contact TSA Cares 72 hours before your flight for additional assitence. Don’t forget to throw an empty water bottle in your carry-on to fill up once you’re at your gate to prevent dehydration. 

Enjoy Meals with Peace of Mind

When it comes to eating, everyone’s post-ostomy diets are different. For some, ostomy surgery can open up foods that were previously off-limits, while for others, options might be more limited. Regardless of your digestive system’s abilities, take the opportunity to make your meals a little more festive! If you can eat things you’ve missed for a while, go for it! But if you’re dealing with more restrictions, all is not lost. Maybe you could make macaroni and cheese with turkey-shaped pasta or try your hand at some homemade applesauce.

Chew, chew, chew! A lot of the foods we eat over the holidays are out of our normal diet, so give your body some help with digesting. It’s not a ton of fun to step away from the festivities to deal with a blockage! If at all possible, it’s also helpful to stay on your normal eating schedule. With all of the uncertainties that come with the holidays, having one steady touchstone can really help.

Alcohol is a staple for some families’ celebrations, but it can be very dehydrating. That’s an issue for everyone, but it’s crucial for those of us with ostomies. Try to alternate your cocktails with a glass of water or your electrolyte beverage of choice. Don’t forget that with the weather cooling down, warm drinks like tea also count as hydration!

Trust Your Emotions

The holidays can be emotionally challenging for everyone, but for those dealing with chronic conditions, things may feel a little tougher.  If you are feeling blue, that is ok! All emotions are valid, so give yourself the time and space to feel sad or angry and to grieve what was.  But it’s also a great time of year to reflect on the things that you are grateful for, whether that’s your support system, your health, or even just for making it through this crazy year.

Some people don’t mind talking about their medical conditions, but if you’d rather not focus on your ostomy this holiday season, think of some ways to steer the conversation in a different direction. The questions people ask typically come from a good place, but you are fully entitled to a few hours without thinking about your health.  Brainstorming quick responses or coming up with other topics to bring up instead can help you feel more prepared if you do find yourself in a situation where you want a quick “out.”

Listen to Your Body

Dealing with chronic health conditions is exhausting, and putting on a smile when you aren’t feeling great makes it that much harder. Finding others who can accept and acknowledge that things are hard instead of offering common and well-meaning phrases like “it will get better” and “stay strong” can be extremely helpful and validating. Nobody wants to be a Scrooge during this time of year, but having a safe space where you can feel seen and heard can bring you back into the celebration faster than wallowing alone.

Find an outfit that makes you feel AMAZING with your ostomy! Since a lot of us have spent more time in sweatpants than ever before thanks to quarantine, take the opportunity to wear something that makes you feel confident. It doesn’t have to be fancy – maybe just your favorite pair of pajamas or an extra-festive mask!

Get Creative

If you can’t participate in some of your favorite holiday traditions, now is the time to get creative! There might be ways to augment some existing traditions, like making different cookies without hard-to-digest ingredients, or you can create brand-new ones.  Maybe it’s time to introduce a holiday movie marathon or invite your friends to join you on a wintery walk through the woods! Whatever you choose to do, I encourage you to find an activity that brings you joy.

The holidays might feel tricky to navigate, but with a little extra preparation, you can remove ostomy stress from your list of worries.  Whether you’re a new ostomate or a seasoned pro, I encourage you to find your own tricks for making this time of year as merry as possible. From all of us here at UOAA, we wish you a happy and healthy holiday season!

 

Molly Atwater is UOAA’s Director of Young Adult Outreach. After struggling with chronic constipation for decades caused by a collagen deficiency disorder, she underwent ileostomy surgery in June 2016. In addition to serving with the UOAA, Molly runs a social media account (“MollyOllyOstomy”) that aims to teach her more than 20,000 followers about life with an ostomy and other chronic illnesses. She lives in Northern Virginia with her fiancé, Thomas.

Two ostomy community leaders discuss effective ways to stay positive when times get tough.

Living through a crisis is hard for anyone, but there is an extra layer of concern for people with ostomies. Hollister sat down with two influential people in the ostomy community to find out how they cope during challenging times.

Amber Wallace is the creator of the Ostomy Diaries YouTube channel and social media platforms, and Dr. Paul Wischmeyer, MD is a critical care, perioperative, and nutrition physician at Duke University School of Medicine in Durham, North Carolina. Both Amber and Paul live with an ostomy.

Q: How can people with ostomies stay healthy both physically and emotionally when facing a crisis?

Amber: The best way to take care of your emotional health is to take care of your physical health. Continue to take your supplements. Stick to a schedule and make checklists. During a difficult time, I do the same things at the same time every day and that helps. It’s also important to get enough rest and exercise, even if you have to find a routine online. Grief and anxiety can manifest physically if you don’t put those things into practice.

Paul: I agree with taking the proper supplements. Some of us with ostomies absorb vitamins differently, so it’s important to consult your doctor before starting a regimen. Exercise is also very important. As a senior in college, I was doing research with a doctor at Mayo Clinic. One day he said, “Paul, you’re getting soft and look a little out of shape – do you want to keep getting sick? You should start running and taking better care of yourself.” I had never had anyone say that before and was motivated (and a little miffed) so I started running and ran almost every day for a year. And when that same doctor performed my tenth surgery to remove my failed ileal pouch, it took only four hours instead of eight. Afterwards he said, “Your abdomen looked like you never had surgery – your adhesions were gone! Whatever you did in the last year, you should definitely keep it up!” I haven’t stopped running and exercising since.

Q: What can we do to stay healthy if we have to travel during a health crisis?

Amber: It’s important to keep a change of ostomy supplies on your person when traveling and make sure to stay hydrated. We all have leak stories. One time I was hiking in the Great Smoky Mountains and my pouch fell off. I had to change it in a porta potty! And, of course, I use hand sanitizer constantly, especially on my phone.

Paul: I’ve had leaks on planes and have had to run to the washroom with it pouring down my leg. Never a dull moment with an ostomy some days! I keep supplies in a small kit. I also always wear an ostomy belt, which helps keep my pouch secure. When my wife and I travel now we wear masks and bleach wipe everything we have to touch.

Q: Where should people turn when having a really bad day?

Amber: Stay connected with nature and focus on things that are beautiful. Take a moment and be still. Keep grounded and turn to your faith. It’s OK to cry and let those emotions out. Recognize it, feel it, and embrace it. There’s a myth that if you ignore depression it will go away. You have to deal with it before you can move ahead. Last year after my wedding I was feeling down and didn’t know why. I was too ashamed to tell anyone. So I decided to speak to my doctor. He ran some tests and it turned out that my vitamin levels were out of whack. Never be ashamed to talk to your doctor, that’s what they’re trained in.

Paul: Well, as I shared before, exercise has been a true lifesaver for me. When I’m down I also often turn to my family. Being vulnerable is hard especially when you’re sick. I often have trouble loving myself with a body that could turn on me and threaten my life at any moment. Just a few years ago, I was sick again and needed three surgeries and a prolonged hospital stay (almost a month). My wife slept every night at my bedside in the hospital. Through that I realized that perhaps I am loveable no matter what. When feeling depressed, another resource I often use is to connect to the ostomy community on Instagram and other social media. I’ve seen so many people get support from others all over the world. It’s definitely healing to share your story…and to hear others and know you are not alone.

Q: A crisis can present problems with participating in milestone events, such as graduations and funerals. How can people still stay connected?

Amber: If it’s a death, you can honor them by the way you live your life and stay positive. That’s how you can keep their memory alive. If it’s a graduation or birthday, plan something with the person or people when you’re feeling better or the crisis is over. Connection is so important. Check-in with people, even your happy friends. You never know what they’re going through. Gratefulness works too, I write down one thing I’m grateful for each day and put it in a jar.

Paul: I agree about gratefulness. In our family, we play a game every night called “3 GOOD THINGS” where we all go around and name three good things that happened each day. At our hospital, we are spending conscious time thanking people for the little things they do. Getting out of your head and thanking someone else is so essential and therapeutic. It’s so important especially if you’re down. Gratitude is as rewarding to yourself as it is to the one you’re thanking.

 

This is an excerpt from “Tips for Coping in a Crisis” in the Hollister Incorporated Ostomy Learning Center. Read the full article here.

 

Editor’s note: This article is from one of our digital sponsors, Hollister Incorporated. 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.