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Support Made the Difference Before Reversal

I was halfway through a 10-hour drive home to Lancaster County PA from Dayton, where I’d just finished a Relay For Life, when I felt the first pains in my lower left side. Thinking they were just cramps, I shrugged them off and kept driving. The cramps persisted though, so I popped a few Naproxen and tried to put my mind on something else.

Eventually I decided to stop at a hotel and sleep it off, then worry about it later. Whatever it was, I couldn’t do anything about it now, I’d call my doctor when I got home. A hospital “just happened” to be next to the hotel I chose, after bypassing 4 others.

When I checked in, though, I was so cramped up that I couldn’t even stand straight. I was sweating, weak, and had a bout of diarrhea. I had always been pretty healthy, so I had no frame of reference for what was going on with me. I figured I had a flu bug or maybe a cyst. I tried eating, taking a shower, more Naproxen, but nothing helped.

Finally at 1:23 am I felt a compulsion to go to the ER. I had no idea what was going on with me but I knew I needed to be checked out. After being checked in, I had a CT scan. The surgeon came back to me himself and announced that I had a ruptured colon and that I was going to have to go into emergency surgery. He could either sew it up or I’d have to have a colostomy.

I had never had issues with my colon and thought colostomies were for “old people”. Alone, still 4 hours from home, I had no clue what I was in for.

I woke up hours later in a drugged daze. The surgeon came in to say that he’d had to do the colostomy. “The hole was so big I could put my thumb through it!” he said in amazement. I looked down at my left side to see this new, strange thing called a colostomy bag attached to me. How was I going to live with this?

At home, I connected with several different sources that I couldn’t have done without. A home health care nurse who showed me how to use and live with the bag, a WOC nurse who educated me, an online support group with fellow ostomates, who were always there for tips or to hear me vent.

I thought my life would be suppressed. But I was still able to swim, jog, bike, go out to eat, travel, and all the others things I did before.

I was fortunate to have a reversal three months later. I recovered quickly with no further health issues. I have a scar, but it reminds me to be thankful for the surgeon, nurses, and support group people who helped me along the way-I could not have done it without them.

Learn more about Jennifer’s story before and after her emergency surgery on her blog.

Bruce and I were so young when we met at a dance, and for the first two decades of our married lives we never thought about life-altering health issues. And then in 1993, I had my first major bowel obstruction caused by an adhesion from a hysterectomy three months before. Suddenly we heard words like peritonitis, bowel resection and small bowel blockages. That vocabulary grew as the ramifications of 22 abdominal surgeries caused more and more scar tissue and concomitant problems. Finally, three years ago, after agonizing episodes and continuous visits to the emergency room, my surgeon and I agreed that it was time to see if an ileostomy would provide some relief.

I virtually bounced into the room with my ostomy nurse as she prepared to mark me right before my surgery, so hopeful that the tide would finally turn. She then walked us to the operating room prep area, preparing me for what was to come. But nothing prepared me for the way I saw myself the first time in my own full-length mirror. My body had betrayed me and I was now “marked” in a very different way. I looked to my lifelong dance partner with tears in my eyes.

Bruce took me in his arms and told me that not only did he love me, but that he had such respect and admiration for me, and I suppose “Lily,” as I refer to my stoma. My mother was Lillian and she gave me my first life, while Lily gave me my new life, and with that a sense that I can do anything. And the best news is that instead of spending time in the emergency and operating rooms, we have time to dance…even closer than ever before!

By the way, I am very proud to say that I am the president of my Ostomy Support Group in New Jersey, and I never miss an opportunity to welcome new or prospective members…how wonderful to be associated with this new life I so desperately needed, and so very much appreciate!

My colostomy story began when, at age 56, I discovered that I had late-stage colorectal cancer.  A large tumor was discovered during my first colonoscopy, and it was cancerous.  Thus began a long journey that eventually led to colostomy surgery on my 64th birthday.  After the initial surgery to remove the tumor and part of my colon and rectum, I had radiation and two rounds of chemotherapy.  The radiation permanently damaged my intestines and caused a bowel blockage that required more surgery, followed by years of chronic diarrhea and abdominal pain.  I finally found a surgeon in my home state who cut out some of the intestinal damage and gave me the surgery that infinitely improved my quality of life.

Before the colostomy, I was on a very restricted diet, but I can now eat many raw foods, including what I had missed the most for six years—salads!  It has taken me a while to adapt to changing and wearing the pouch, and I have had some “accidents” along the way.  These are usually caused by my skin allergy to adhesives, which causes the skin barrier to fail when I have had a significant amount of stoma output.  Still, I usually have enough time to get to the bathroom before the leak causes a major problem.  I have, however, received some valuable tips on handling and preventing problems online, because there are no ostomy nurses or support groups near where I live.  I have also shared information on how to reduce skin allergy problems and passed on what has worked and not worked for me.

My background:  I am originally from Baton Rouge, LA, and have a Master of Journalism degree from Louisiana State University.  I am a retired Army officer, having spent 20 years on active duty, mostly as a Public Affairs Officer.  I served two overseas tours in Germany and met my husband when we were both Army majors stationed at the Presidio of San Francisco.  My cancer was diagnosed in 2007, while I was working as a civilian for the US Army Cadet Command at Fort Monroe, VA.  My colostomy surgery was performed by Dr. David Beck at Ochsner Medical Center in New Orleans.  He is also retired from the Air Force.

Saying that my ostomy gave me my life back is not an understatement. I don’t think I have ever felt better in my entire life. I was diagnosed with Crohn’s when I was 15 and in the 12 years I suffered before having surgery, I never once achieved full remission. I missed more school than I attended, had to take a medical withdrawal from college, and struggled to find and keep a job. I was in so much pain and having so many symptoms that I couldn’t leave the house for entire days at a time.

After having my son I finally agreed to undergo ileostomy surgery after I had refused it for years. I was concerned about having a bag on my belly and the effect it’d have on my life. When I had a bunch of questions I referenced UOAA’s resources including the website and Facebook page especially when finding a bag that wouldn’t leak or cause skin issues. It has been incredibly helpful to see what products others are using. There’s always a great tip or trick within the community.

The truth is since my surgery I never felt more alive. I’m not afraid of road trips or adventures and I finally have the health and strength to do whatever I want to do. My entire outlook on life changed for the better and instead of being embarrassed about my symptoms, I am now confident and happy and proud to tell the world I’m an ostomate! I go to ostomy support groups and will always share my story and be available for questions. Sometimes it’s good just to know there is someone else like you.

I had ulcerative colitis that was unresponsive to any treatments including remicade infusions. In January of 2006 I had ostomy surgery. My first comment was “It is so quiet down there.”

After three horrible years my life was given back to me. I am now disease free and colon cancer is no longer a worry. My ostomy surgery has allowed me to have a more rewarding relationship with my wife and family. Having an ostomy has not stopped me from enjoying activities such as cycling that I participated in prior to surgery.  I still ride whenever I can.

As soon as I was physically able one of the first things I did was join a local UOAA affiliated support group. The support group was a lifesaver for me. When I first joined I was having terrible skin problems and there seemed no solution. The support group facilitator made one suggestion and my skin problem was completely resolved!  

As a result of my ostomy I have discovered a new passion in my life that I probably never would have done otherwise. I am now a freelance writer on ostomy topics that are of interest and concern to ostomates and their families and friends.  My articles appear in our support group newsletter and the Phoenix magazine. I want people who are facing this surgery to know that their quality of life can be restored through ostomy or continent diversion surgery. It truly is lemons into lemonade.