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I am Alan Thompson, a New Jersey native who moved with my wife, Vita, to Florida in 2015. I recently joined the Daytona area chapter of the United Ostomy Associations of America; however, I am not a new ostomate, I had ileostomy surgery when I was 30 years old in 1986. I suffered from ulcerative colitis for about four years prior to the surgery and thankfully I never needed serious follow-up medical attention. I view the ileostomy surgery as a positive event in my life that ultimately motivated me to have a successful career in Federal Law Enforcement.

My first symptoms of ulcerative colitis occurred in 1982, when I was a clerk for the Postal Service in Phillipsburg, NJ. The symptoms significantly worsened in 1984 resulting in hospital stays that included hyperalimentation. I was even initially quarantined at a rural New Jersey hospital. The local gastroenterologist did not have a handle on my illness, but thankfully my Mom shared with me an advertisement in Parade magazine that described ulcerative colitis (UC) which matched all my symptoms. I was given Prednisone and Azulfidine to manage the UC. At first the medications worked but ultimately the UC symptoms kept coming back at shorter and more intense intervals. By 1986, I realized that surgery was my only hope. We had two small children and I had nearly exhausted my sick leave with the Postal Service. Vita and my parents, Madeline and Jessie Thompson, were very supportive through this entire ordeal.

Alan Thompson with wife Vita on Capitol Hill in 2017.

I met with Dr. Robert Riether in Allentown, PA. We first tried ileoanal anastomosis surgery in May 1986 at Lehigh Valley Hospital. But by September my condition worsened, and it became clear that an ileostomy was needed. During this tumultuous time, Vita became pregnant with our third child. My surgery was performed on September 19, 1986. I am eternally thankful for Dr. Riether who unfortunately, passed away at a young age in 2006.

Overcoming UC motivated me to reach new heights with my career. I eventually became Superintendent of Postal Operations in Flemington, New Jersey. In 1989, I took a test to become a Postal Inspector, which is a federal law enforcement position that enforces criminal laws related to the U.S. Mail. I passed the test and started the arduous process to become an Inspector which included an intense assessment interview, background checks and a medical physical. At the time, the maximum age for starting a career as a Federal law enforcement agent was 35, which meant that I needed to complete this process and commence a three to four-month training regimen in Potomac, Maryland by March of 1991. Unfortunately, due to budget reasons the training classes were suspended and I “aged out”.
In 1992, the maximum age for commencing a Federal Law Enforcement changed to 37 years old. I now had up to March 1993 to get into a Postal Inspector class. I had another round of background checks and another physical. The local postal doctors knew I had an ileostomy but found me to be in good shape to become an Inspector. I made it! I was slated to start at the Inspection Service Training Academy three days before my 37th Birthday.

To celebrate my potential advancement and spend time together as a family before I left, Vita and I took the kids on a long ride to the Camden, NJ Aquarium on February 26th. We travelled through a snowstorm and came back to a message on the answering machine. A doctor in Washington DC rejected my application because of my ileostomy. I was devastated. I made several calls and wrote letters to the postal hierarchy with little or no response from them. I heard that other Federal Law Enforcement Agency doctors were consulted, and no one had been known to have previously entered Federal Law Enforcement training with an ostomy. Fortunately, I still had my job as a Postal Supervisor.

Over the next several months we fought and secured another physical from a gastroenterologist with Vita’s advocacy on my behalf, the doctor approved of my candidacy to become an Inspector. I believe strongly that letters that we sent to New Jersey Senators Bill Bradley and Frank Lautenberg helped my cause. Our daughter Jessica, at age 11, also wrote a letter to Congresswoman Marge Roukema urging her office to intercede. That letter really turned things around and ultimately, I was granted an exception to the Federal law enforcement maximum age requirement and I was accepted in the next training class that commenced in September of 1993.

Under the heading of things happen for a reason, I learned after my initial rejection that my Mom had been diagnosed with colon cancer in February of 1993. She and my Dad didn’t want to tell me because I was headed to the training academy. My Mom ended up with a colostomy which, with my Dad’s hands on help, she lived with until she passed away in 2006. She always said that my having an ileostomy gave her the courage to handle a colostomy. Obviously, Mom inspired me too!

I passed the training academy and commenced a career in New York City as a Postal Inspector. My assignment was mail theft investigations which required surveillances during all times of the day. Firearms and Defensive Tactics training and annual physicals were also requirements. I also participated in the initial Anthrax investigation and assisted the Secret Service on a protection detail for President Clinton. Having an ileostomy certainly presented some difficulties but it never interfered in my daily activities that included investigating and arresting thieves and testifying on behalf of my agency. Ultimately, I became a Team Leader in New Jersey. In 2006 I transferred over to the USPS Office of Inspector General and continued investigating and supervising mail theft investigations in New Jersey and New York.

At the time of my mandatory retirement in September 2013, I was an Assistant Special Agent in Charge for the last five and a half years of my career. All told I had 33 years with the Postal Service. At no point after I was accepted into the training class in September 1993 until my retirement 20 years later did anyone mention my ileostomy. I am sure that upper management must have known about it, but I let my work speak for the opportunity that was given to me in 1993.

One tip that I can offer is that I quickly recognized foods to avoid and realized early on that weight control was essential in managing my ileostomy. I currently work out at least six days a week riding a bike and doing some weight training. I recently took up golf with low expectations and I love meeting those low expectations. Now as a retiree in Florida, I am grateful that I did not accept the rejection and instead pushed and advocated for the opportunity to demonstrate that my ostomy would not interfere with a career in law enforcement.

Expect More – Take Control of Your Health Care 

Part 6 in Series

 

By Joanna Burgess-Stocks and Keagan Lynggard-Hysell

 

There are many different emotions you may experience as a new ostomate, and it is important to understand that physical and emotional healing after surgery may follow different timelines. We understand that everyone copes with emotions differently. Some people struggle for a long time. Whether you would like to seek individual support from a social worker, therapist, or other medical professional or prefer support from a peer mentor or by attending a local support group; understanding the emotional impact of ostomy surgery and receiving the appropriate support is an important part of taking control of your health care.

 

Witnessing the Emotional Impact- a WOC Nurse’s Perspective

“Hello, my name is Joanna.  I am here today because I am your ostomy nurse”.  

I have repeated that sentence hundreds of times over the last 12 years. I am in the unique situation in that I am meeting you at a pivotal moment in your life, heading in a direction you might never have imagined–facing ostomy surgery. During that initial encounter I am sometimes met with a blank stare, a stunned look of fear and dread, or with complete relief.  Whatever the reaction, I am the person that is there to help you navigate the world of living with an ostomy. I take great care during that initial visit to meet you where you are emotionally, knowing that this is a sensitive topic for you, someone who most likely is not used to talking about the way you go to the bathroom. Soon, however, I will share with you that I too am an ostomate (person living with an ostomy) and have been one for 53 years since the age of three!  As I leave you that first day, I finally see a glimmer in your eyes–hope! A sign that maybe this journey is possible and that you are not alone.

As an ostomy nurse, I have had the opportunity to meet patients in a variety of settings and have worked with hundreds of patients facing ostomy surgery whether it be from cancer, bowel or bladder diseases or from emergent situations.  No matter the reason, the anticipation of ostomy surgery is a step into the unknown and can compound the anger, sadness, and fear about the medical condition that caused you to need an ostomy. As you face these multitudes of feelings and adjust to life with an ostomy, know that you can take control of what may feel like an uncontrollable situation.

 

Facing the Emotional Impact- a Patient’s Perspective

“Good morning Keagan, today a special nurse is going to come and teach you how to care for your ostomy and help with your first bag change.”

A special nurse?–I thought to myself. Why do I need a special nurse to show me how to take care of my pouch? I had so many questions, a multitude of emotions, and I was feeling overwhelmed. So many things were out of my control, my recent diagnosis of Crohn’s disease, my hospitalization, my surgery, and now the responsibility of caring for my ostomy. I felt helpless and was eager for some independence in managing my body.

My WOC nurse entered the room and introduced herself with a smile. As she sat beside my bed listening to my fears and frustrations she explained how we were going to change my pouch. In an attempt to gain some independence, I told her that I wanted to take the pouch off myself and as I lifted the edge of the barrier just enough to see the edge of my stoma and the few black stitches poking through my skin– I lost it. I didn’t want to do it anymore, any of it. I didn’t want my insides on the outside, I was scared of my own body. My WOC nurse stepped right in with encouragement and support and a perspective I will never forget. She said she understood that what I was going through felt unmanageable but that caring for my stoma was something that would allow me to be self-sufficient, and that changing my pouch would give me independence in caring for my health. Since my very first pouch change, I have been encouraged to shift my perspective and to be proactive in the areas of my care where I can take control.

 

Seeking Individual Support

It is important for you to seek the resources needed to understand and work through the emotional impact related to ostomy surgery. It can be very helpful to have someone affirm your emotional concerns as you adapt to life with an ostomy. Most will find their path to acceptance as they physically begin to feel better and become comfortable with the care of their ostomy. If you are struggling with depression, how to tell others about your ostomy, or any part of the adaptation process (including the lack of will to learn self-care), seeking support through counseling can help you address these struggles. A licensed professional has the skills to help you create the life “tools” you need for navigating the unknown, including fears of introducing your ostomy into a new or existing relationship, addressing body image challenges, or understanding the grieving process. You can speak with your physician for a referral if needed.

 

Finding Support in Others

The fear of the unknown can often be soothed by learning from those who have gone through a similar experience. UOAA has approximately 300 Affiliated Support Groups throughout the United States, providing the opportunity for you to connect with others within your community who have also undergone ostomy surgery. To find a local support group near you, visit UOAA Support Group Finder. If you would like to connect with others but prefer to do so through an online format or from the comfort of your own home you can join a Virtual Support Group. Another way to gain support is through an ostomy mentor. Ostomate Lois Fink describes in her book Courage Takes Guts; Lessons Learned From A Lost Colon, meeting her mentor for the first time at a restaurant. The mentor was wearing a very slim dress and Lois felt perplexed, trying to figure out where she was hiding her ostomy pouch!  Lois learned that she could be the same fashionista that she always was while wearing an ostomy pouch and it helped her face her ostomy surgery with more strength and confidence.

To learn how to connect with an ostomy mentor, many UOAA Affiliated Support Groups have certified visitor programs or you can contact UOAA for a list of current ASG visitor programs at 1-800-826-0826.  

 

Our Hope for New and Struggling Ostomates

It is the hope of all of us at UOAA that one day you will be able to look at your stoma and see it as something that was life-altering and maybe even life-changing, but it was also life-giving. Be patient with yourself as you journey through both the physical and emotional healing process and be sure to utilize the available resources to support you every step of the way.

 

Additional Information & Support

UOAA has developed several tools to help you navigate through various informational topics at your own pace. To help better understand what ideally should happen before and after ostomy surgery we have developed the Ostomy and Continent Diversion Patient Bill of Rights. To learn some of the common “ostomy lingo” you can refer to our blog Know Your Ostomy and Know Your Ostomy Pouching System and Supplies. Complete the accompanying checklists and keep them handy for your ongoing ostomy care.

As a new ostomy patient, you may have concerns or face many unknowns. UOAA provides resources to answer these frequent concerns and questions to best equip you in living with an ostomy. Here are a few of the ostomy educational resources available at ostomy.org:

 

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

After eight years of not responding to western pharmaceuticals, at the age of thirty, I found myself facing a colectomy. While I had anxiety about the ostomy surgery and fear of the unknown, my overall emotion was relief. This surgery was hopefully going to be the end of many years of pain and suffering. Thanks to the encouraging words of other ostomates I was wheeled into surgery with a smile on my face, excited about what the future would hold for me–I saw endless possibility!
The support I received from the local ostomy support group along with many wonderful bloggers inspired me to be vocal about my story. I started my own blog and instagram account to raise awareness about life with an ostomy and provide support to fellow ostomates. There is so much value in people who are facing an adversity to come together and lift each other up.
I’ve been on a rollercoaster ride with my permanent ileostomy (I named her Rita) for the past two years. Life is full of ups and downs, however, I am proud to say that Rita and I have traveled to Hawaii to snorkel in the ocean and hike through the cliffs of the Napali coast. We wore a bikini on the beaches of Maryland’s eastern shore, danced our way through weddings, explored new foods at restaurants with friends and worked our way through a graduate degree in acupuncture!
Philosopher Wayne Dyer once said, “When we change the way we look at things, the things we look at change.”  When diagnosed with ulcerative colitis it was easy to fall into a mode of feeling isolated and alone during periods of flares. I forgot what life was like as an energetic and healthy young professional. The expectation of a healthy life and the unfair reality caused a lot of unnecessary suffering. What I learned is that we all have the option to dance with life. Crisis can open a door to a new opportunity, a loss can be seen as a gain, and a breakdown can turn into a breakthrough.

You can follow Rena’s story on Instagram @myintestinalfortitude or her blog www.myintestinalfortitude.com