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Colonel Justin Blum with Introduction by retired Navy Veteran Douglas R. Stocks

I’ve known Colonel Justin Blum for almost ten years and have learned much of his story over those years. For UOAA’s observance of Veterans Day, I asked Justin to share his story in greater depth. It is typical for us to remember our Veterans as heroes, but we don’t think or even imagine that they also may have been through a life-altering illness or traumatic event resulting in an ostomy. My wife Joanna (an ostomate) and I had the opportunity to spend an evening with Justin and his wife Leah after the Durham Run for Resilience 5K this past October. I was reminded that evening of the hero that Justin truly is, and felt it was time that others knew the story of this humble and well-respected man.

In 1993, when Justin was a Major on active duty in the US Army, he underwent surgery for an ileostomy due to ulcerative colitis (UC) which had progressed to colon cancer. Justin’s ostomy did not slow him down and he became one of the most respected officers in the state of South Carolina and the only member of the Army Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (JROTC) cadre with an ostomy.  Justin has had a highly successful career and life of public service. Justin has faced the gamut of living with a chronic illness, to receiving a devastating diagnosis, to ostomy surgery, to survival and finally triumph.

Here is his story:

In the Fall of 1971, I was a freshman at Morris Harvey College in Charleston, West Virginia. I was feeling the stress of being away from home for the first time in my life and of getting adjusted to college life.  I began noticing blood in the toilet after every bowel movement. I told my parents, who took me to a gastroenterologist during my Thanksgiving vacation at home. The gastroenterologist performed a sigmoidoscopy and determined that I had proctitis, an inflammation of the rectum and anus.

I transferred to Rider University in Trenton, NJ, for my second freshman semester to be closer to home, a decision made easier by the fact that Rider had an excellent ROTC program. I suffered with the proctitis and colitis for the next four years with only a prescription for the anti-inflammatory drug Azulfidine to combat the disease. In June of 1975, I underwent my physical exam at Fort Dix, NJ, to go into active duty in the Army. In the course of the physical, the Army doctor performed a rectal exam, and asked, “Do you know what you have?”  I acknowledged that I had colitis. In one of those strange twists of fate, my passion for serving the Army outweighed the colitis so the examining doctor wrote “Fit for Duty”.

For the next twenty years I hid my ulcerative colitis from the Army.  On days that I had attacks, I would explain that I was feeling bad due to having had too much scotch the night before.  Stationed in South Korea in 1976/1977, all too often upon returning to the camp motor pool after patrolling along the DMZ, I would have such severe diarrhea that I could not make it to the latrine and instead would jump into the nearest garbage bin since it was the closest “facility” I could find. I spent the next 13 years seeing civilian gastroenterologists for the colitis and who continued to prescribe Azulfidine. Finally, in 1990, my colitis was so bad I sought help at Eisenhower Army Hospital at Fort Gordan, Georgia where I began seeing Major Armstrong, a gastroenterologist, who informed me that due to my heath condition, resulting from severe flare-ups of UC, he strongly recommended surgery for an ileostomy.  My reaction, not unusual I am sure for people receiving this news, was an immediate, “No! Unless I have one foot in the grave with my back against the wall, I refuse to have this surgery resulting in my living with an ostomy bag!” This was twenty years after my first diagnosis of UC in November 1971. However, just a few years later after a colonoscopy, Major Armstrong told me that I needed ostomy surgery as soon as possible.

On February 28, 1993, I had surgery to remove my entire colon due to UC, which had advanced to colon cancer, and I was left with an ileostomy. As was not uncommon in those days, and even sadly still happens today, I had only one session with the ostomy nurse on how to manage my ostomy.  The day after surgery, I developed a leak in my appliance and called for the nurse, but no one responded.  I looked at myself in the latrine mirror with my ostomy bag hanging down, and I thought I looked like the Elephant Man.  After 10 days I was discharged but did not have access to an ostomy nurse or assistance of any kind except for follow up appointments three hours away at Eisenhower Hospital. I wanted to continue to serve on active duty, so I put my mind toward getting in the best physical condition possible. I started walking 9 miles a day, passed my physical fitness test, and was able to stay on active duty. In 1995 I was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel and in 1996 retired from active duty and transferred to reserve status, continuing to work for the US Army as a high school JROTC Instructor.

Life as an ostomate was fine except that I was experiencing pain from irritation of the skin around my stoma and I did not know of any ostomy nurses in the local hospitals and I didn’t know where to turn for help except for the still fledgling Internet of 1996. I was able to find a Crohn’s/Colitis chatroom on AOL (America Online). In that chatroom I was able to talk with numerous people who had either an ileostomy or a colostomy. On one occasion, an experienced ostomate was able to talk me through the steps to alleviate an intestinal blockage saving me a trip to the emergency room.  I was able to find an ostomy support group at the local hospital, but because they met at 10:00 AM and I was working an hour away, I was unable to attend their meetings. Despite all I learned from online resources I was still plagued with skin irritation around my stoma site which continued for the next 10 plus years.

Life took a turn for the better when in 2010, I received a letter from the nurse who ran the local ostomy support group, which talked about (the now former) Great Comebacks Program; a national honor program started by ostomate and former point kicker for the San Diego Chargers, Rolf Benirschke. This program recognized people who had lived an exemplary and inspiring life while living with an ostomy.  In 2011 I was the recipient of the Tony Snow Public Service Award, a subgroup of the Great Comebacks Program which emphasizes those in uniform living with an ostomy.

However, it was not the award that changed things for me, it was my ongoing communication with the ostomy nurses that I met through this program who eventually solved the problem of the skin irritation and pain that I had struggled with for so many years.

I have accomplished more in my life as an ostomate as a result of the care I have been able to obtain since my story was brought to the national level. If not for my quality of life-improving dramatically as a result of this assistance, these accomplishments would not have become a reality.  I owe so much to three WOC nurses: Donna Sellers, Joanna Burgess, and Joy Hooper. I met them through the Great Comebacks program, and they have always offered their help readily.  I have now been free from pain for the past nine years.

There are many who do not have the same easy access to professionals that I have had. I am very fortunate! That is why I believe everyone should seek out or become involved with a community of ostomates either through an online support group or hospital-based support group if possible. All ostomates should help other ostomates achieve the quality of life made possible by their life-saving surgery. Having UC and then colon cancer at age 40 meant years of pain and discomfort in my life. Ostomy surgery gave me a new life. Before I retired from teaching, I used my experience with my ostomy to motivate my JROTC cadets, inspiring them to never give up on anything and reminding them they can accomplish anything they set their mind to.  I no longer see myself as the Elephant Man, but as a man with a beautiful wife, supportive children and two amazing grandchildren.  Life is good!

The UOAA thanks you for your service Colonel Justin Blum and honors your accomplishments!

  • 1995 – Promoted to Lieutenant Colonel
  • 1996 – Retired from active duty; continued to work for the US Army as an Army JROTC instructor in the United States Army Cadet Command.
  • 2003-Named the United States Army JROTC Senior Instructor of the year
  • 2009 – Promoted to Colonel, in the South Carolina State Guard
  • 2010- Named Volunteer of the Year for the State of South Carolina
  • 2011- Named US Army JROTC Senior Instructor of the Year for the second time.
  • 2011 – Named the Tony Snow recipient for Public Service
  • 2019 – Lawson R. McElroy Award for Engaged Learning

 

Ostomy Support, Love and Giving Back

By Jeanine Gleba, UOAA Advocacy Manager

On November 11th the United States observes Veterans Day to honor all those who have served in the United States Armed Forces. This year at UOAA I’d like to shine a light on two Veterans with ostomies who now continue to serve as volunteer advocates with UOAA in the Advocacy Network. Most recently, they were able to raise ostomy awareness in the state of Texas by garnering not one, not two, but three proclamations from their town, County and the Governor!  

Dan Shockley is an Operation Desert Storm; Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) and Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) veteran.  He served for 22 years in “the world’s greatest Navy” onboard 7 different ships. His last tour before retiring was after 9-11 on the ground in Bahrain in direct support of OEF and OIF between September 2001 – September 2003. In 2012 after his first and only colonoscopy revealed 100 polyps embedded in his colon, rectum and anus, he was diagnosed with a rare gene mutation known as attenuated familial adenomatous polyposis (AFAP). In July 2012 at 51 years of age, he had successful ileostomy surgery at Tripler Army Medical Center, Hawaii.

 Donna Desoto, Dan’s girlfriend, began her Military career in 1976. She was in the last basic training class of The Women’s Army Corps (WACS). She also attended the Medical Lab Assistant school at the Academy of Health Sciences at Ft. Sam Houston, TX. She was then chosen to join the medical research team at Headquarter Co Troop Command at Brook Army Medical Center under the Clinical Investigation Services. She co-invented a vaccine for burn patients and received The Army Commendation Medal for meritorious service of her research between 1976 to 1979.  While serving in the military she was diagnosed with Chronic Interstitial Cystitis. After over a year of trying to save her bladder with an experimental drug instilled in her bladder surgically, she had urostomy surgery. She also had a stroke prior to that due to an allergic reaction to an unknown medicine. It took 25 plus surgeries before removing her bladder. She was in the hospital the whole time leading up to the final removal of her bladder and then was medically retired in 1981.

I recently caught up with them and asked the following questions:

UOAA:          How did you two meet and become a couple?

Dan:            Donna and I met on the Singles with Stomas Facebook group in the summer of 2016. We commented on each other’s posts. In the following months we developed a friendship based on our commonalities. We’re both retired military, left-handed, interested in medical research, and of Scottish descent. In May 2018 she called me suggesting it was time for us to get together. At the end of July I relocated to South Texas to be with her.

UOAA:             Such a great story!

UOAA:          How did you get involved in UOAA?

Dan:           My involvement began as an inpatient at Tripler Army Medical Center, Hawaii, after my surgery. Tripler’s WOC nurse shared with me information about United Ostomy Associations of America. At that point I was eager to share my diagnosis and story with others and UOAA and become an advocate.

UOAA:            It’s so important for people to realize that they can make an impact when they do share their story whether it is inspiring someone else or making the journey a little easier for someone questioning life with an ostomy.  There is also a big need in our advocacy efforts especially legislatively because elected officials want to help their constituents who the issues directly affect and hear their stories.  We can raise so much more awareness when we grow in numbers.

UOAA:           Why do you advocate for ostomates?

Dan:               My life’s focus as a colon cancer warrior, having a rare gene mutation and an ostomy is to be a source for the importance of early detection. It’s also important to me to show that life can go on having an ostomy. I consider my diagnosis a challenge rather than obstacle. That said, there’s an old cliche you can lead a horse to water, however you can’t make it drink. I’ve heard there is a way to influence the horse to drink when it reaches the watering hole. Feed it salt along the way. Hopefully my story will serve as a source of salt for those who read it.

Donna:         The main reason I feel the importance of advocating for ostomates is because I feel increasing awareness is very important and other more well known causes get lots of awareness whereas I see that many people have little or no knowledge of what an ostomy is.  Also, I see a need legislatively for ostomates in areas that should be addressed especially one area I have experienced is the usage of restrooms and other public issues.

UOAA: Why is it important for people to get involved?

Dan:        Projecting a positive outlook is important to me. Having an ostomy is a lifesaving surgery. By sending out positive vibes I receive them back tenfold. I may have been diagnosed with AFAP but my AFAP mantra is: Always Forge Ahead with a Purpose!

Donna:   Being involved with UOAA and my other volunteer efforts (Donna founded Sav-Baby Inc.) has helped me to take my mind and focus away from my medical challenges and pain and allows me the opportunity to reach out to those struggling with their current or ongoing medical issues. Not only can I hopefully be an inspiration to others it is also an opportunity to make new friends and encourage them to get involved in some way such as a being a friend to someone else or becoming an advocate or volunteer.

UOAA:          And you and Dan certainly became friends! One of the most significant things that UOAA does is provide support through our Affiliated Support Groups.  It is one of the top reasons that we get calls into our 800 information line.  People are looking for emotional support and to meet others going through similar experiences so they can learn from each other.

Dan:       I’ve been a member of UOAA support groups in Eagle, Idaho; Carmichael, California, Honolulu, Hawaii and now both of us just started attending meetings at the South Texas Ostomy group in San Antonio, TX.

UOAA:         Do you talk about your ostomy and/or military experience with others?

Dan:        I share my ostomy and military experiences every opportunity that presents itself. As a “live case presentation” for the medical community and ostomy groups I feel it is important to show life can go on as if nothing happened. Being a source of inspiration and encouragement is important to me. It’s been said we’re unable to change the wind. However, we can adjust our sails. After 22 years in the Navy I’m good at adjusting. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it!

Donna:       I talk freely with others about my ostomy. I am no longer ashamed or embarrassed.  I am so proud to be a Canadian who became a US Veteran and citizen. I participate in both military and ostomy groups.  I try my hardest not to let my ostomy limit anything I choose to do in my life.

UOAA:            What does Veterans Day mean to you?

Dan:        Veterans Day is when I reflect on and recognize those who made the ultimate sacrifice to defend our 13 stripes and 50 stars. My father served in the Army during WWII, two of my uncle’s served in the Navy and 1 uncle served in the Marines during the Korean War. My brother served in the Air Force during the Vietnam conflict.

Donna:       Veterans Day is a very emotional day for me for so many reasons. My thoughts and prayers go out to all our Sisters and Brothers who lost their lives for our freedom, as well as those currently serving, those now retired and all of their loved ones.  The real special part of Veterans Day for me is that I was born in Canada. After college I decided to join the US Army and officially become a US citizen. I was so proud the day I became a US citizen and that same proudness was felt when I took my path to become a volunteer member of the US Army.  When my two adopted children were little and my little girl that I saved from abandonment was old enough I would tell them that I was “an Alien who wore combat boots”. They loved to share that story with their friends. My Uncle enlisted in the British Army and his submarine was lost during the war. His mother, my Grandmother, who brought me up in the United States was so sad on Veterans Day as it was forever painful losing her oldest son.

UOAA:             You are both a reminder to me of John F. Kennedy’s inaugural speech, when he said the infamous words, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”  You both embody “service”.

As Advocacy Manager I am in the unique position to not only hear many amazing ostomy stories of resilience but also to watch many passionate and fascinating people as they take action and work together to achieve a common good cause for our community.  It is truly an honor and a privilege for me to work alongside such dedicated, impressive and patriotic volunteers like Dan and Donna.

Thank you to all Veterans who have or are actively serving America! Happy Veterans Day!

“Here’s my UOAA acronym:” ~ D. Shockley

                                                      Understand (your diagnosis)

                                                      Overcome (adversity)

                                                      Attitude = 100%

                                                      Adapt (to your lifestyle as an ostomate)