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By Diana Gallagher, MS, RN, CWOCN, CFCN – Facilitator for the NWA Ostomy Support Group

For many, ostomy surgery is lifesaving but their initial feelings on living life with an ostomy are negative. For individuals with years of unresolved incontinence or inflammatory bowel disease, however, life after surgery is frequently viewed as a positive improvement. For them, an ostomy is the promise of a return to a normal life.

As you prepare for surgery, the following are important tips to help you transition into your new life and embrace living with an ostomy. For more information contact United Ostomy Associations of America at  info@ostomy.org or 1-800-826-0826.

Select a surgeon with valuable experience in the type of surgery that you are facing. General surgeons as well as specialty surgeons can perform ostomy surgery. Specialty surgeons are those who have completed additional education, training, and fellowships within the specialty. These surgeons will be identified as Colorectal or Urology Surgeons. You can find a local physician through the website for the American Society of Colorectal Surgeons or by contacting the American Urological Association.

See an Ostomy Nurse. BEFORE surgery, your surgeon may refer you to a specialty nurse, like a Certified Wound Ostomy and Continence Nurse (CWOCN). If not, you will need to find a specialty nurse. This nurse will help ease your transition into living with an ostomy. Although education may be provided during your hospital stay it can be difficult to focus and remember because of anesthesia, surgical pain and stress. Your ostomy specialist will provide comprehensive education including practice pouch changes before surgery. In addition, he/she will identify and mark the best location for your ostomy. This is important because during surgery it is difficult for your surgeon to know where the waistband of your pants sits, where creases or irregularities exist and other special considerations to consider when selecting that optimal site.

Attend a United Ostomy Associations of America (UOAA) affiliated support group (ASG) meeting in your community if possible. You may think that you do not need a support group or feel that you are the type of person who does not feel comfortable in a group setting. Put those feelings aside; listening in the beginning is a good start. Join your local group, even if you don’t initially find someone your age with a similar story, there is a lot to learn. UOAA affiliated support groups are truly one of the BEST places to obtain the necessary education, helpful hints, support, and resources. Don’t feel that you are alone.

Determine which supplies will work best for you. In the beginning, you will most likely receive sample products from a number of companies. It is helpful to keep the 2 piece products from each manufacturer separated; wafers from one company will not necessarily snap onto a pouch from another company. The sampling program will help you try a variety of products to learn which ones work best for you.

Order your regular supplies. Once you know what you like best, an order can be placed through a distributor. There are countless distributors to choose from and depending on insurance, your supplies can be delivered monthly or every three months. The first time that you order, it is logical to order a month’s worth of supplies. As your expertise develops, you may fine-tune your list. Insurance normally pays 80% of supplies that are medically appropriate. If you have a secondary plan, the remaining 20% may be covered. Check for a list of the established limits for each product. Reorder supplies so that you are never without the supplies that you need.

Select a place to keep your ostomy supplies organized. Many people keep their basic supplies in a bathroom drawer, others buy a plastic organizer with several drawers that can be moved about. Excess supplies can be stored in a closet but regardless of where you choose to keep supplies, it is best to avoid temperature extremes and high levels of humidity.

Be prepared. In addition to the extra supplies that you keep on hand at home, always keep a small pouch with all the supplies necessary for a complete change with you. Like your other supplies, these should be kept away from temperature extremes and humidity. Hopefully, you will rarely need to make an unplanned change, but being prepared, makes most ostomates feel secure and confident. If you anticipate an occasional return to the hospital, keep a bag packed with your preferred supplies. The hospital may not have the brands that work best for you.

Promptly consult your ostomy specialist for any problems. This might be a decrease in normal wear time, a change in your stoma, or a problem with your peristomal skin. A good practice for all is to hydrate properly to avoid complications.

Recover from surgery and LIVE life to the fullest. Having an ostomy does not change who you are or what you are able to do. After recovery, work to strengthen your abdominal muscles to help prevent hernia risk and enjoy all your old activities including swimming. Every October UOAA holds the Run for Resilience Ostomy 5k where people of all ages prove living with an ostomy does not need to be limiting.

Advocate for yourself. You will find that not everyone is knowledgeable about ostomies. Educate others when possible but always be willing to advocate for yourself and others. You can also help to advocate on the national level by supporting UOAA’s advocacy program and taking part in events like Ostomy Awareness Day held on the first Saturday in October. UOAA works toward a society where people with ostomies and intestinal or urinary diversions are universally accepted and supported socially, economically, medically, and psychologically.

Share your experience and tell your story. Your story has the power to help others as they begin their journey. Connect with others in person or online and offer to help the next person who has this life-saving surgery.

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.