“There’s nothing more we can do for you.”
Those are not words you ever want to hear come out of your doctor’s mouth. Nope. Those are words that make your heart race, your stomach flip-flop, and your eyes well up with tears.
“Ok,” I said. “So what’s next?”
“Well, the only other option is surgery.” Gulp. “You are a very good candidate and I can make several suggestions of surgeons I would trust if it were me.”
“Ok. But, Boz, be straight with me. We tried everything, right?”
I knew the answer to that question before I even asked it. Yes, we did everything. I know we tried everything. Boz told me, KAP told me, and my surgeon would tell me a week and a half later that I had the 3 of the top indicators for my surgery. So, yeah, we tried everything.
My Ulcerative Colitis was not especially terrible the first year. A negligible flare-up treated with topical steroids, 4 time-release pills, and an anti-inflammatory suppository seemed like nothing to worry about. Then Jersey happened. After that, they put me in a clinical trial for a new drug. It was all downhill from there.
A year-long flare-up (yes, it lasted a full year) that included every drug under the sun: Proctofoam, Canasa, Apriso, Hydrocortisone enemas (that was fun), some suppository concocted and mixed by a pharmacist that was definitely NOT covered by my insurance, Prednisone, Remicade infusions (yay, chemo), and finally, Humira injections.
For the science geeks out there (holla!), I was being treated with TNF blockers, but they are really designed for Th1 inflammatory diseases (Crohns) and Ulcerative Colitis is a Th2 disease. Hooray for Histology because I actually understand the difference!!!
In any event, Nothing worked. My immune system barely acknowledged the drugs and my disease continued to spread and wreak havoc on my everyday life, not to mention what it was doing to my running. As a lululemon Ambassador, personal trainer, and run coach, I was finding it nearly impossible to do my job, let alone get my own workouts in on a regular basis.
By the time I was training for Philly, I couldn’t run outside anymore. My workouts were relegated to the treadmill nearest to the bathrooms at the Palladium, and sometimes even that wasn’t close enough for me. I supplemented with indoor cycling classes, but fevers kept me from many of my workouts and home from school. I caught every flu and cold any one of my 400+ classmates had. I was exhausted all the time. I was anemic and getting sicker by the day.
My March colonoscopy confirmed that the disease had spread to take over nearly all of my descending colon, showing no signs of slowing down. Two marathons completed during flare-ups was two too many for me. As much as I didn’t want to lose an organ, I really didn’t want to lose my life.
So, after a year of being sick, getting iron IVs, having chemo drugs pumped into my veins every three weeks, and having my spirit beat to hell by Ulcerative Colitis, I chose the only option I had left.
I had my entire colon removed.
It was not a hard decision. It was either surgery now or later, since the disease was spreading and would eventually cause my entire colon to become necrotic, amongst other not-so-fabulous medical problems.
I trusted Boz when he said we had tried everything. I knew that if I didn’t respond to the drugs from the get-go that I would never respond to them. My body was breaking down and I never felt quite like myself. I wanted my life back. I had just been accepted to NYU’s Doctorate of Physical Therapy program and now I was scared I would be too sick to make it through the next three years.
I was fortunate enough to chat with some very candid young women about their surgeries and life after surgery. I also read other people’s stories online and they all said the same thing, “It was the best decision I ever made.” I was sold.
And so, with the unwavering support of JB, I met with a top colorectal surgeon and set a date to have my entire colon removed, a temporary ileostomy created along with a J-pouch. I have no colon. I have a stoma named Rosebud (think Citizen Kane), and a colostomy bag. I wrote about the surgery itself back in June, but have always been reluctant to “come out” about having an ileostomy. I guess the whole colostomy bag thing is why.
I didn’t look at it for the first two days after surgery. When my ostomy nurse, who is AWESOME, came to change my bag I finally saw Rosebud. I didn’t freak out the way I thought I would, though I still couldn’t bring myself to touch it. It took me a few tries to get used to changing my bag, but now I’m a pro.
The biggest fear I had (childish as it is to admit this) was that people would define me by my ileostomy/colostomy bag. Five weeks after surgery I started my DPT program with 43 perfect strangers whom I’d be stuck with for the next three years, come hell or high water. I didn’t want the first thing they knew about me to be that I have a colostomy bag and I didn’t want to be treated any differently by my professors. I told a few classmates just so I could get help if Rosebud freaked out during one of our 8:30-4:30 school days, but Rosebud is largely still a secret.
I decided when I started this blog that I wanted to Be the Change I want to see in this world. So, here I am. Loud and proud to be an ostomate! I have a stoma named Rosebud who hates dried fruit and spinach and talks after lunch like she’s reciting Shakespeare. Some of my classmates must have heard it but probably didn’t know who or what was making all that noise. It was Rosebud. Sorry for the noise.
I am still me. I ran 13 miles on Saturday, took a spin class yesterday, and am going to run my 10th marathon in October at the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, D.C., colostomy bag and all!
I am healthier and happier than I have been in more than a year now that I’m fully recovered from my surgery. JB remarked the other day how much healthier I look now. Looking back, I can see how sick I had actually become. I’ll have a second surgery in December to connect my J-pouch to my remaining small intestine so that I can do my thing like everyone else and Rosebud will retire back below my abdominal wall. If it doesn’t work and I have my colostomy bag permanently, I still won’t regret it. I’ll never regret it.
I can run 13 miles of Summer Streets and not look for a bathroom once. I can take a walk with my husband outside. I can take the subway. I can eat without fear. I can plan a date with friends. I can stand in the cadaver lab for three hours and not need to rush to the bathroom every 5 minutes. I can live my life.
So what if I have a colostomy bag? So what? I thought I might care more or be more sensitive about it, but I don’t and I’m not. Got questions? Bring ’em on. Got comments? I want to hear those, too! Do you have a colostomy bag? Tell me all your secrets about how you manage to keep your wafer on during 15 mile run, I’m dying to know. Do you have Crohns or Colitis? Have you been faced with the same decision as me? Tell me about it. I want to know.
You are not alone.
In hindsight, it doesn’t seem like such a big deal to me anymore. I’m happy to share my story and help other people to understand my disease and surgery. There are a lot of us out there with Crohns, Colitis, and Ostomies. We want you to understand our disease, to help us fight and to raise awareness about Inflammatory Bowel Disease. Walk with us. Run with us. Ride with us.
I hope that by reading my story, someone out there will realize that there is life after an ostomy. A great life, actually. You can run, you can swim, you can bike, you can do anything with your ostomy! And you can do it all with IBD, too. You just need a little support and a lot of courage to take the first steps.
Remember how treadmill running was my only option for the past year? Well, a few weeks ago I walked into the Palladium with a friend to work out. Whenever I used to walk into the gym while I was sick, I would have to run for the bathrooms. I mean RUUUUUUUUUUUN!!!!!!!!!! I expected that feeling to come over me as soon as I walked back into the building. The panic.
When it didn’t, I realized that my life had changed.
The nightmare was over.
Thanks for reading this crazy-long blog entry (that is, if any of you made it to the end). I hope you have a great day and a great run. Me and Rosebud are heading out the door right now!
Now go out and run!