This post is sponsored by the Autoimmune Association. All thoughts and opinions shared are my own.
An educated patient is an empowered patient. Over the weekend the Autoimmune Association presented its Inaugural Autoimmune Summit that aimed to do just that. The virtual two-day event featured 23 educational sessions and more than 50 autoimmune experts including physicians, nurses, policy experts, and of course, patient advocates.
The Summit covered a wide variety of important topics that impact patients and caregivers who live with autoimmune conditions. I had the opportunity to moderate a panel discussion about fertility, family planning, and pregnancy alongside Dr. Marla Dubinsky, Chief of Pediatric Gastroenterology at Mount Sinai and Co-Director of the Susan and Leonard Feinstein Inflammatory Bowel Disease Clinical Center and Mariah Leach, a mom of three who lives with Rheumatoid Arthritis and Founder of Mamas Facing Forward. As an IBD mom of three chidren myself, I’m extremely passionate about sharing guidance and support for fellow women on this subject.
During the discussion, Dr. Dubinsky touched on many aspects of the journey to motherhood and beyond with IBD, but one comment she made resonated with me. She said the greatest gift a woman can give their child, is to stay on their medication, and allow their baby to thrive in an uninflamed environment. As someone who needed and depended on my biologic with all three of my pregnancies that comforted me greatly and really struck a chord.
Other topics of discussion during the Summit included tips and tricks for managing multiple specialists to clinical trials, health equity, advocating on Capitol Hill, and complementary medicine.
A dream come true
Lilly Stairs, Vice Chair of the Board of the Autoimmune Association and Summit Lead, lives with Crohn’s disease and arthritis. As a patient advocate, she understands the vital importance of providing those who live with chronic health conditions to share their voice and articulate their needs and struggles.
“It has been a dream of mine and the Autoimmune Association’s to plan an event that unites community members from across autoimmune conditions. Our patient odysseys share deeply rooted similarities. By coming together, we can accelerate autoimmune education, awareness, advocacy, treatment, and someday, cures.”
Goals of the Summit
The goals for the Summit were three-fold. Organizers and presenters like myself hope you walked away feeling connected to people across the patient community, while learning tangible tips for managing your autoimmune conditions. Lastly, the hope is that attendees and Summit participants feel energized and excited about what the bright future holds for those living with autoimmune diseases.
Lilly went on to say, “Events like the Autoimmune Summit are essential engagements for patients and caregivers to participate in. These events provide tools to navigate life with chronic illness and empower patients with the knowledge they need to be “CEO, secretary, and treasurer of your care” as Hetlena Johnson, Lupus Patient Advocate so eloquently stated in the Managing Multiple Autoimmune Conditions panel.”
Events like this are a reminder that we are not alone in our journeys. Even though chronic illness can be extremely isolating, events like the Autoimmune Summit offer the opportunity for connection that often feels like much needed chicken soup for the soul. The camaraderie that is possible even though Zoom has a lasting impact on helping to lift the burden and self-doubt many patients face.
From the Speakers
Tina Aswani Omprakesh participated in a panel on complementary medicine and autoimmunity. As an ostomate who juggles Crohn’s disease, Gastroparesis, and IBS, she knows firsthand how imperative it is to take on illness with multiple approaches.
“This is an important subject that’s often not discussed in the autoimmune space. The reality is that many patients are thinking about exploring it but don’t know how to navigate it in a way that can help complement their existing therapies. These conversations are essential to proliferate both credible information and sources of complementary therapies so patients can truly live their best lives possible.”
Molly Schreiber lives with Type 1 Diabetes, Rheumatoid Arthritis, and POTS. During the Summit, she spoke about what it’s like to manage multiple autoimmune conditions.
“Anytime I can share my story, my hope is that attendees feel less alone in their battle with chronic illness. We may have different health conditions, but our fight is often the same—pain management, medical providers who listen, and affordable medications we can easily obtain.”
Alisha Bridges is a patient advocate who lives with Psoriasis. She participated in a breakout session geared towards dermatology. She says having the chance to speak at the Autoimmune Summit was an honor.
“I hope my story helped viewers to better understand the unique challenges of living with psoriasis as a woman of color especially in the clinical trials sphere. These conversations are imperative to elicit change for better care of patients of all backgrounds.”
It’s our hope attendees discovered tips for managing autoimmune disease from patient advocates like myself who understand your reality, while also learning about the latest research and future treatments on the horizon.
Did you miss tuning into the first-ever Autoimmune Summit? No worries! All the presentations were recorded and will be shared in the weeks ahead. I’ll be sure to share the Fertility, Family Planning, and Pregnancy discussion I was a part of on my social media channels as soon as the video becomes available.
Thank you to all who tuned in, to all who participated, to the organizers, like Lilly, and the generous sponsors who made this happen. It’s amazing to see what’s possible when patients have a proverbial seat at the table alongside medical professionals and digital health companies. Our voices matter and time and time again we’re being heard loud and clear.
There’s more than meets the eye when you’re watching a Chicago Dogs baseball game. Outfielder Brennan Metzger was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis when he was 19 and later re-diagnosed with Crohn’s disease at age 24.
He’s now 31-years-old and didn’t allow IBD to steal his dreams of playing in the big leagues. Unfortunately, his most challenging flare-up happened the first summer he was a professional baseball player. Brennan was drafted by the San Francisco Giants in 2012 after graduating from Long Beach State University. He ended up playing for the Giants until 2015, but his health was not cooperating during that time.
“The flare ups are very difficult, and unfortunately for me it cost me a year and half of my career, but more importantly it almost cost me my life. I needed a total of six surgeries and had a total removal of my large intestines. I’m currently on Remicade and thankfully it is keeping me in remission,” explained Brennan.
His advice for young athletes with IBD—to stay positive and continue to treat your body right despite the uphill battle. Brennan says the struggles with Crohn’s motivate him.
“When I am symptomatic and need to play, I get as much rest as possible, and compete to the best of my abilities. Now, my Crohn’s is just a piece of adversity that I do my best to accept and play through.”
Coping With Life as a Former Ostomate and Current J-Poucher
Brennan had an ileostomy for nine months. Once his body healed from the j pouch construction, his surgeon was able to perform an ileostomy take down and re loop his small intestine back inside his body.
“That was a tough time for me. I went through the struggle in the beginning of not being able to look at it, let alone change my ostomy bag. Once the unfamiliarity of the situation passed dealing with life with an ileostomy got better.”
At that point, Brennan learned to adjust. He reached a sense of acceptance knowing that it was necessary for him to endure this so he could get better. The fact that his ostomy was temporary helped him cope.
“To anybody that is adjusting to life with an ileostomy, don’t let the fact that you are different and have an ostomy bag hold you back from being you. If anything, it makes you unique and tougher than most. You’re a fighter, so keep fighting.”
Brennan is passionate about connecting with as many people in the IBD community as he can. He knows firsthand how lonely and isolating Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis can be, so anytime he can be a source of comfort or a role model for others, he jumps at the opportunity.
Choosing to Play Through the Pandemic
Deciding to play baseball as an immunocompromised player was nerve-wracking to say the least. Brennan says he realized he had two options—live in fear or live his life to the fullest. As a vaccinated ball player, he felt getting the jab allowed him to have some control and not let uncontrollable circumstances affect him.
“I chose not to live in fear and to compete because baseball in the summer presents a sense of normalcy and I think the world needed something to look forward to amongst all the negativity. I am still cautious and try to live healthy and do all the things to keep myself from getting sick. I look at the situation as being cautious, but not fearful.”
When traveling due to baseball, he makes sure to have a roll of Charmin ultra-soft toilet paper handy, because you just never know when you may need to go to the bathroom.
“I always search for the healthier options when it comes to diet. Sometimes it’s difficult and I just have to roll with the punches and accept that I may be taking a few more trips to the bathroom.”
How the Chicago Dogs Step Up to the Plate
The Chicago Dogs baseball team is part of the American Association of Independent Professional Baseball. Brennan is grateful for the organization and his teammates for never making him feel like a burden or less than because of his illness.
“The Chicago Dogs have been incredibly accommodating to my circumstances in having to deal with Crohn’s. They have been able to provide me with comfortable living arrangements and are understanding that there are times where I need to go about my typical workday a little differently than others.”
Brennan’s attitude on and off the field go hand in hand. He tries his best to focus on being positive, having fun, and being present in the moments provided by feel-good days. He loves connecting with others in the IBD community over social media, don’t hesitate to connect with him. Here’s how you can do so:
When IBD mom Jessie Magaro was pregnant with her first child, she knew early on she wouldn’t be able to carry another baby herself. Between the hormones from IVF and her Crohn’s disease raging, there was no way her or her doctors felt comfortable embarking on another pregnancy.
Before she got pregnant, Jessie had been in remission for more than 12 years. With pregnancy and IBD, there’s the ‘rule of thirds.’ One third of women will see their symptoms improve, one third will stay the same, and one third get worse. Unfortunately, Jessie fell into the last category. Since having her daughter, Mary Ligon on New Year’s Eve 2018, Jessie’s gotten an ileostomy and has grappled with her Crohn’s being out of control. When her and her husband started thinking about baby number two, she knew surrogacy was her safest and smartest option.
“My daughter Millie (born in April 2021) needed me more to be there as her momma once she got here than she needed me to carry her. Not only was my baby safer, but I was in a much better position health-wise to care for both my daughters.”
The Surrogacy Process
Surprisingly, the FDA controls surrogacy and has specific requirements for the IVF part of the process. Jessie recommends making sure your fertility clinic is well-versed on how everything goes down. Surrogates and biological parents go through medical testing and psychological evaluations prior to the transfer of the embryo.
“This was probably the hardest part for me mentally and emotionally. I was so frustrated and hurt that I had to pay someone a pretty penny to tell the government that I was mentally ok to have my own baby. It was just pouring salt into an already large and festering wound. Can you imagine having to have a stranger tell you if it was ok or not for you to bring your own child into this world?”
It’s important to note that surrogacy laws vary state to state, but in Georgia (where Jessie lives), you must adopt your baby back from the surrogate, even if the child is 100% genetically yours.
“You hire an attorney (one for yourself and one for your surrogate) and they actually file a lawsuit claiming your parental rights to the unborn baby on your behalf. I had to go before a judge and field questions on why I was pursuing surrogacy and whether or not I felt my husband and I were able to take care of the child once it was born. Again, insult to injury.”
There are several ways to go about surrogacy:
You can hire an agency to find you a surrogate and manage the process
You can use a friend or family member (they will still have to be medically and psychologically cleared by the clinic)
You can try to find one via word of mouth in your community.
There are tons of Facebook groups where you can “match” with one (local, regional, national, interest groups i.e., christian, altruistic, low comp, natural minded, etc).
“Normally, you would be able to attend all OB appointments with your surrogate, but Covid made things a little trickier for us. We were unable to attend the transfer, which was sad, but I was able to go to a fair amount of the appointments. My husband unfortunately wasn’t allowed to attend any. We both were allowed to be in the room for the birth though and that was the most important thing to us.”
The experience of having a surrogate
Jessie says had she not been able to carry her first child that she feels surrogacy would have been harder on her. She feels so fortunate that she was able to experience pregnancy once.
“I had already gotten to a place mentally and emotionally where I knew the only way to get my daughter here safely was by having someone else carry her. I wasn’t ever triggered per se by seeing a pregnant belly because I knew she was safer inside our surrogate. I had so much PTSD and trauma from my first pregnancy as well that looking at another pregnant person never made me think “oh man I wish that was me again” if that makes sense. I did/do still deal with mourning though over how pregnancy played out for me and that I was unable to carry safely again. I also find myself spiraling occasionally thinking about how much it cost us to get our children here versus someone who could just have them themselves naturally. It’s been a massive financial burden/sacrifice for my husband and I (but oh so very worth it).”
The Financial Cost of Surrogacy
When looking into surrogacy, Jessie tells me you can ballpark around everything costing $100,000. There are many factors involved that play into whether that number is more or less depending on if you’ve already gone through IVF and have embryos. Much like IVF, there are some grants available for surrogacy, though much less common.
“The ways to bring the cost down for surrogacy would be to do an “independent journey” like we did where you don’t use an agency. You can also use a surrogate (whether it’s a friend, family member or even a stranger) who does not want to be compensated or wants very little. Medical bills will bring the cost up or down significantly depending on insurance plans and same with your legal fees as those will vary based on the surrogacy laws in your state.”
Defending her Decision
While Jessie says it was empowering to make the decision to utilize a surrogate to do what was best for her health and for her family, it’s been frustrating to constantly feel like she still needs to defend her decision to other people and even some doctors.
Whether it was …
“Aren’t you worried about having another child when you’re so sick?”
“Why don’t you guys just adopt??”
“Aren’t you worried the surrogate will want to keep the baby?”
“Aren’t you worried she won’t know you/you won’t be bonded to her??”
“Just one kid is great you should just be ok with having just the one”
“I know most of the time these comments don’t come from a place of mal-intent, and I try to use them as an opportunity to educate if it feels productive, but everyone is different what they’re open to accepting in their heart and their mind. In my mind, the girls are going to know the stories of how they came to be eventually, and hopefully they’ll see how wanted and loved they were. How unbelievably hard they were fought for. And how many people played a part in bringing them into this world.”
Managing IBD and Motherhood
Prior to looking into surrogacy, Jessie and her husband had to discuss at length if they would be able to handle a second child with her IBD. They also had to loop in their families knowing they would need their help when they couldn’t manage everything on our own.
“My husband and I say all the time, in all seriousness, that my illness has become a third child in a sense. There’s not a day, hardly an hour, that I don’t have to think about my Crohn’s or manage something with it in some way. It’s a difficult balancing act every day when I wake up trying to prioritize who needs the most at what moment (my kids, myself, or even my husband). I deal with a lot of guilt and grief with that. That I’m not the mom or wife I want to be … that I’m not able to give everyone what they need and deserve.”
Jessie often thinks of the oxygen mask analogy and says as an IBD mom it’s imperative to make sure her proverbial mask is on and secured first before she can help anyone else, which is very hard to do as a mother.
Meeting Millie the Day She Was Born
It makes Jessie emotional to think about what it was like to walk into the hospital with her husband and know they were about to meet their daughter. They were able to be in the delivery room when Millie came into the world.
“I had an overwhelming sense of gratitude looking at our surrogate knowing what SHE went through and had sacrificed to get her here. All the anxiety I had been suppressing for months and months from having someone else carry her, to giving up all control, to doing it in the middle of the pandemic, to being so scared something would go wrong like it so often had for us in the past. It just all came pouring out of me uncontrollably as she was pushing. The moment she was placed in my arms it just felt like a lightning bolt connecting us. I felt bonded to her instantaneously. She was mine and I was hers and there was nothing on this earth I wouldn’t do to protect her.”
Jessie knew from the start of this journey that her surrogate would be a lifelong friend. Their families grew close through the process, and they live nearby one another. She says she’ll always hold a deep place in her heart for her and is incredibly grateful to be a family of four.
When Campbell Dwyer was three years old, her health took a turn for the worse. She was diagnosed with Hirschsprung disease, a rare congenital disease that affects the colon and intestinal motility. She underwent three surgeries by the time she was four.
Her life began with two colostomies before she transitioned to a permanent ileostomy in her thirties. After her 10th surgery, she joined several online support groups geared for those with ostomies. To her surprise, she discovered there were many children who had ostomies.
After doing research, Campbell was shocked about the lack of literary support for children coping and coming to terms with ostomy life. She decided to change that by creating a book series called “My Silly Illy”.
“I want children to understand having an ostomy does not define them. It is simply a piece of them that contributes to their individuality. My hope is that this book will help teach inclusion and acceptance.”
Her thought-provoking, heartwarming, and humorous story aims to help children understand what is happening with their bodies and how to thrive with their new appendage.
The only constant in life is change
Throughout her lifetime of coping with Hirschsprung disease, overcoming numerous surgeries, and transitioning from a state of merely existing to living. Campbell says she welcomed each high and low as part of her transformation.
“Making the decision to write this book series has been my greatest personal success yet. I have confidence that my personal battles with an invisible disease and life with an ostomy will encourage and motivate those younger than me and promote strength to their families. I can finally see that nearly forty years ago, my future was being purposefully designed to make a difference in the world.”
Bringing My Silly Illy to life
Talented illustrator, Ana-Maria Cosma, took Campbell’s vision, thoughts, and scribbles, and brought them to life with the hope of creating a life-changing and eye-opening literary experience for many.
“My vision for this book is that the ostomy will be portrayed to each child as their personal superhero. The last page of the book has a faceless child, this is by design. The child can draw their face, or the loved one can cut out a picture and place it on the spot. There are also fun hairstyles that can be cut out. I want children to see themselves in each page of this book; to see themselves enjoying their favorite foods, traveling, and playing.”
Gearing up for a hospital tours
In the months ahead, Campbell plans to visit children’s hospitals around the United States, as well as bookstores. She’ll be hosting book readings, signings, and round table discussions with families and children coming to terms with ostomy life. Her goal is to champion pediatric ostomy patients and help their loved ones and parents understand what the child may not be able to communicate.
You can order “My Silly Illy” in the following places:
Being diagnosed with IBD as a pediatric patient looked different in the 1970’s. For 54-year-old Brett L., the start of his patient journey began when he was only nine. The year was 1976. He started experiencing fevers, bloody diarrhea, vomiting, and abdominal pain. As he puts it—the symptoms started a year-long quest to find an answer. A quest that involved frustratingly long waits at doctor offices, endless tests, and medical trials. He was ultimately diagnosed with acute ulcerative colitis at the age of 10. Now, in 2021, Brett has unique insight and perspective to share with our community.
Patient “Number 1”
As you can imagine, Brett spent many years on high dose steroid and sulfur pills. The side effects of the steroids (moon face, weight gain, bloating, mood swings, and ravenous hunger, etc.) added insult to injury. From 7th through 9th grade, Brett missed nearly 60 days of school each year due to severe flare ups and hospitalizations. By the time he was 13, Brett’s parents were desperate for a cure as his condition worsened. With no relief from traditional medicine, they sought out additional care from holistic doctors, nutritionists, even an angel healer at one point! Nothing helped to manage Brett’s IBD.
“In 1981, I was 14. I’d been battling debilitating and severe flare ups that made me so weak I had to crawl to the bathroom or walk doubled over in pain. Each hospitalization was taking its toll. Over the years, though I was growing, I had lost 30 pounds. It was at this point that my doctor proposed something that had never been performed on a pediatric IBD patient—a total colectomy and “pull through” operation that would leave me fully reconnected and waiting for the ileostomy closure…allowing me to eventually go the bathroom normally again after a recovery period of a year or so. It was risky surgery back then. But not having it was a risk too. I agreed, and we went ahead with the surgery.” said Brett.
Brett was deemed “patient number 1” for this pediatric procedure and his case study was published in medical journals. To this day he remembers waking up from surgery in the pediatric ICU at Westchester County Medical Center in Valhalla, NY. He recalls counting 18 tubes and lines connected to his body and thinking that he couldn’t believe he chose to do this to himself. The surgery lasted 14.5 hours and the incision ran from his pubic bone to his sternum—the entire length of his abdomen.
Living with an ileostomy as a teen
“I learned to manage the ileostomy with some upsetting and messy mishaps at the very beginning. And in class sometimes the stoma would make embarrassing sounds. I learned to feel it coming and cover it with my hand to quiet it. But without a colon, I was now a healthy 14-year-old. The doctors said that upon examining what was left of my colon, they estimated I had about two weeks left before a fatal perforation,” said Brett.
A year later his ileostomy was reversed, and he was able to go to the bathroom “normally”, again. While he’s grateful for this—it hasn’t been all sunshine and rainbows. Brett says he initially had an abscess at the closure of the stoma. Ever since, he has gone to the bathroom more than normal people. In recent years Brett developed a challenging case of chronic pouchitis that at its worst caused pain and had him going 20-30 times a night.
The good news is that “after about 4 years of this, I finally seem to have treated and solved it myself, with psyllium husk powder at breakfast and lunch times, and 3 Lomotil pills with dinner. I’ve also reduced fluid intake during meals and become more careful about not overeating. I learned some of this in my online research about immediate post-op colectomy patients. The doctors had a hard time helping me with this, but I seem to have resolved it myself.”
From past to present
Today, Brett is a healthy 54-year-old man and his pouchitis has never been more under control. Through all the ups and downs with IBD, he’s lived a fulfilling life as a professional singer, and as an executive of multiple companies.
“In my career I’ve been an investigator, a head of marketing and sales, I’ve grown startup companies, and have traveled the world for business and pleasure. I’ve earned an advanced degree from an ivy league school, and I have an amazing 16-year-old daughter who is a gifted, performing singer-songwriter in her own right.”
Brett believes his ulcerative colitis has made him more appreciative of life and the little things.
“I have always been that person who lingers over sunsets, gazes at the moon, and stops and notices the teeny flowers poking through the cracks in the sidewalk, or street art, and the coincidental things one comes across as noteworthy or remarkable. I notice and really drink in the happy, good moments because I know what it’s like to not be able to be out and experience these things. I know I am fortunate to be here to tell my story.”
Here are some helpful nuggets of knowledge Brett would like both those with IBD and their caregivers to know:
Don’t let fear of IBD stop you from living your life and having fun, or asking that person out, or going out with friends, when you are feeling well. As soon as I was feeling well enough to get back out there after a flare up, I lived life to the fullest and played like every other kid. You deserve to be there just as much as every other kid, teen, or adult does. When you are feeling well, try to make the most of that wellness, and not let the fear of what might happen stop you from living.
You are not “less than”, because you have an illness. In fact, you may even have an added level of maturity because of your illness that others do not, because of your need to contend with it, and interact more with adults and medical professionals and present your situation to them in a coherent and meaningful way. Look for the silver linings in everything. Notice the small pleasures, they help you get through the down times.
To parents—your child is a survivor. It takes a lot to keep them down. They will have ups and downs with their IBD. But 2021 is the best time ever to have to live with this diagnosis. Current treatments and even surgeries have changed the game and the patient experience, for the better and the future is even more promising. IBD can be traumatic. Children and adults can benefit from seeing a therapist to help cope with the lifelong nature and complications of the disease.
Motherhood is so much more than a word—it’s an expectation and an identity. It’s a right of passage many girls dream of when they think about their future and what their family will look like. But family planning, pregnancy, and motherhood are far from a given, especially for those with chronic illness. As an IBD mom of two with one on the way, I’ve recognized that while my story and my experience may comfort and guide others—it’s only that, one story. I fully understand I am extremely lucky not to have the struggle of infertility or physical limitations to hold me back from having children, despite my Crohn’s.
This week kicks off IBD Motherhood Unplugged, an ongoing series that will be shared periodically in the months and years ahead on Lights, Camera, Crohn’s. The series will feature guest posts from women with Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis who may not physically be able to carry a child, who battle infertility, who grow their family through adoption and surrogacy, who have children following loss—the list goes on and on. Ultimately, I want everyone to feel seen, heard, and understood. There’s not one cookie cutter approach to becoming a mom or having a family.
The first article is by my dear friend and fellow patient advocate and thought leader Tina Aswani Omprakash. Tina is a 37-year-old woman in New York, living with perianal, fistulizing Crohn’s Disease. She’s endured more than 20 surgeries and lives with a permanent ileostomy. Since she was a child, she thought she could put off motherhood and did so through many years of virulent disease. At one point, as a young adult, she needed to go on a disability and be taken care of by her mom. When she got married to the love of her life, Anand, nearly 11 years ago, the questions started.
“Being of South Asian descent, the nosy, busybody aunties at weddings and cultural events would always find ways to jeer and sneer at the fact that I hadn’t had a child yet. And after I started Stelara 5.5 years ago and tasted remission for the very first time in a decade, I too began to wonder: is it time for me to consider my own child?”
I’ll let Tina take it away and explain her struggles with family planning and finding out pregnancy wasn’t in the cards. Her heartfelt words and openness about feeling excluded from being an IBD mom, shed light on an important topic and aspect of our illness that is often not discussed or talked about. We hope in sharing this—if you are going through the same situation, struggles, or worries, that you know you are not alone.
Genetic counseling, surrogacy, and reproductive endocrinologists, oh my
In April 2016, I went to see a reproductive endocrinologist, who did a transvaginal ultrasound. Based on his medical expertise, he thought he could retrieve maybe three of my eggs, which was incredible news given everything I had been through surgically. He had proposed 2-3 rounds of IVF for hormone stimulation and egg retrieval but there was no guarantee that the eggs retrieved would be viable to be combined with my husband’s sperm. He didn’t think carrying the baby was a good option for me given all the scarring from surgery and fistulae. Moreover, fertility is often affected by j-pouch surgery and later excision. As such, he offered me the option of surrogacy and asked me to seek genetic counseling due to the hereditary nature of my Crohn’s Disease.
Anand and I went through months of genetic counseling, an expensive process that didn’t lend to any substantial findings. Crohn’s, as many doctors have explained to me, is spread out over several genes and one gene cannot be targeted necessarily as a form of gene therapy. That left us both stumped as his family has a history of an autoimmune condition called ankylosing spondylitis and I have various skin and bowel autoimmune conditions on my side of the family.
During this time, we also looked into the surrogacy process. Since the reproductive endocrinologist recommended that I not consider a pregnancy myself given all the surgeries, fistulae, and pelvic cysts I’ve had, we obliged. But considering all the legal and surrogacy fees, we were looking at $100,000 for one surrogate pregnancy (at least), which was an extraordinary sum of money for us. So, we decided to table having a child for the time being and think over adoption, another expensive proposition.
Tick, tock, tick, tock…
Two years passed and we came to realize that there is no easy solution. During that time, the IBD Parenthood Project shared excellent knowledge for women with IBD to conceive and carry a pregnancy to term safely. And I thought, let me ask my GI doctor now about his thoughts. Unfortunately, he reiterated the same thoughts as the reproductive endocrinologist shared: for someone with my surgical and fistula history and aggressive family history of Crohn’s disease, it may be best not to try. He also said the risk of me using hormones for egg retrieval would risk a blood clot in a patient with my history.
Part of me was still in denial that motherhood may never be a possibility. Within weeks of my conversation with my GI doctor, I was diagnosed with mild endometriosis by a premier OB/GYN surgeon in NYC. I asked him, “What do my options for pregnancy and fertility look like now?” And he said very openly and honestly, “Bleak at best. Let’s say you do carry the pregnancy and don’t lose the baby, Tina, will I have to cut through bowel and scar tissue to get to your baby?” After a brief pause, he said, “I would recommend adoption if having a child is something you really want to consider.”
While, on one hand, I genuinely appreciated his honesty, on the other hand, the statement, “cut through bowel and scar tissue to get to your baby” seared through my mind for months after and has left its mark even today. I needed to hear it; I needed my bubble to pop. But the statement no doubt cuts and ravages every minutiae of my being as a woman. Not having the privilege to choose to have a baby was suddenly taken from me in that one fell swoop and it left my head spinning.
Losing Motherhood to Crohn’s Disease
My God-given right as a woman was taken from me in that instant. As if having six fistulae and Crohn’s wreaking havoc on my pelvis and reproductive system wasn’t enough, let’s take Tina down another notch. Let’s take away her right to choose to have a child.
Even though voluntary childlessness is always a choice, now I didn’t even have that choice. Childlessness was thrust upon me like a stab wound in the back. All I was left with were unaffordable options of surrogacy or adoption.
So why not adoption? It’s simply too expensive and I do wonder about whether I’ll be able to even take care of the child given my constant roller coaster of health issues and medical appointments. Hiring full-time help seems out of reach, too.
Include Women Who Aren’t Mothers
That day with the endometriosis surgeon was nearly three years ago. And I’ve done a lot of work in therapy to process much of it. But I can’t say I don’t feel left out every time I see a mom scolding her child or complaining about her child(ren)’s mischievousness because I, like many other women with chronic illnesses, will never be able to experience the joys and sorrows of motherhood.
As happy as I am for my friends with children, there is a deep void I’m reminded of every time someone else gets pregnant, hosts a baby shower, or sends along amazingly cute photos of their child(ren). I will never be able to have that, no, but I wish I could still be included in the mommy paradigm as a cool aunt or as a godmother. But I’m often not, and that makes me feel sad and excluded.
Dealing with the Cultural Aspects
In American culture, it’s hard enough as it is to be a woman of my age without a child, but in Indian culture, you’re really considered a pariah of sorts. I’m often asked the question of when I will bear a child now that Anand and I have been married for so many years. I usually find ways to dodge those questions by changing the subject or by simply saying, “whenever the time is right.” It’s not a conversation I want to be having with acquaintances nor do I want to be fodder for gossip.
But when it comes to my close friends saying, “Tina, gosh, you would have made an amazing mother, you have so much good to impart on to the world,” it feels good and bad all at once. I’m flattered that someone would think I could do a fine job as a mother but saddened by the fact that I will never know that for myself.
Becoming a Mother Hen
Alas, today in 2021, I continue to focus on my advocacy work and my graduate program, in attempts to focus my attention elsewhere. And in the words of my therapist, “if I cannot be a mother to a child, I can at least be a mother hen to my IBD community, helping to educate and guide patients of underserved populations who would otherwise feel bewildered.” I take a lot of solace in that and recognize that I wasn’t supposed to be here today with all the near-death experiences I’ve had with my brand of Crohn’s disease. All I can express is my gratitude for being alive today, for being able to do this work, and for being able to be a mother hen in my own way to my community.
To my fellow IBD women & chronic illness warriors: please know you are not alone. Please know it’s okay to be sad, angry, and terrified. Many of us are struggling deeply with the idea of motherhood as our clocks keep ticking. Do your research, learn what your options are and make the best decision with your specialist(s) regarding conception and pregnancy. And if having a child is not in the cards, that’s okay too. Never forget (and I need this reminder too) – not having a child doesn’t make you less of a woman.
For many of us, when we’re initially diagnosed with IBD or when we flare, we experience weight fluctuations. The number on the scale may plummet during times when eating anything hurts or seems to make symptoms worse. The number on the scale may skyrocket when we’re on prednisone and not only retaining fluid, but also wanting to eat everything in sight.
Andrew Jagim, PhD, CSCS*D, CISSN was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis in 2014 after being infected with an intestinal parasite (Giardia). He managed to remain in remission for a few years until things went downhill quickly at the end of 2016. He dropped 50 pounds over the course of 3-4 months, was going to the bathroom 15-plus times a day, was running constant fevers, severely fatigued, anemic, and had little appetite. In the spring of 2017, after two weeks on TPN and several days in the hospital, he decided that a sub-total colectomy was his best option at the time. Since then, Andrew’s battle has been a rollercoaster of ups and downs, resulting in 12 colorectal surgeries.
Sports and fitness have always been a huge part of Andrew’s life—so much so, that he made a career out of it. He has a doctorate in exercise physiology, is a certified strength & conditioning specialist and a certified sports nutritionist, so he has an extensive background when it comes to understanding the important roles of exercise and nutrition for health and performance.
“Throughout my life, a large part of my identity has always been tied to my physical appearance. I’ve always been known as someone who is athletic, big, and strong with a high state of fitness. I struggled immensely during my flares and surgery recoveries when I couldn’t work out, when I looked sick or couldn’t stop losing weight. It was like I was losing a sense of who I was and who I identified with. When I looked it the mirror, it pained me to see my hard-earned muscle just “falling off” when I was too sick or weak to workout. However, I have always been determined to rebuild my body and regain what I lost.”
This week on Lights, Camera, Crohn’s—a look at the impact disease flares and surgeries can have on body composition, and how you can try and counteract the changes through diet and exercise.
A cornerstone of the disease itself is a high state of inflammation – most of which is centralized to the gut; however, this can also have systemic effects thereby resulting in widespread joint pain, fatigue and even a state of anabolic resistance within muscle tissue. Essentially, this makes it challenging to maintain or increase muscle mass during a period of high disease activity. This can be coupled with a reduction in appetite which can exacerbate body weight loss and muscle loss.
Surgeries can range from minimally invasive procedures to treat a fistula to much larger and complex operations such as removal of sections of the bowel and placement of a stoma for an ostomy. Depending on the magnitude of the surgery, patients often must modify diet and physical activity based on the recommendations of the surgeon.
These modifications will likely lead to decrements in body weight, muscle, strength, and endurance in the short-term; especially individuals who may have been highly active prior to the surgery. However, in patients who may be extremely ill at the time of surgery, the procedure may help them regain lost weight and strength as their body may finally be able to heal and recover from the inflammatory cascade brought on by IBD.
The Case Study Andrew Conducted
A year and a half after Andrew’s colectomy, he decided to schedule the second step for the J-pouch procedure. However, prior to, he decided to take advantage of this unique opportunity and conduct a case study on himself to document the changes in body composition and performance throughout the recovery process. He was curious how a surgery like that would impact someone with his fitness state as most of the literature focused on smaller or more sedentary individuals. Leading up to surgery, he had been able to resume his regular fitness routine and got his weight close to where it had been for most of his adult life.
“As seen in the figure below from my published case study, there were significant declines in body weight (-10.5%), lean body mass (-9.9%) and endurance (-40.3%) 4-weeks post-surgery. At 16 weeks postoperatively, most parameters were near their baseline levels (within 1–7%), with the exception of my peak endurance, which was still 20.4% below baseline. Thankfully, I was able to leverage my educational background and expertise in exercise physiology and nutrition to use targeted exercise and nutritional strategies to retrain my body and build my physique back up,” explained Andrew.
The balancing act of trial and error
As many IBD patients know, there are a lot of nuances, misconceptions, and unknowns regarding how diet impacts disease. For Andrew, it has been a lot trial and error to find foods that worked for him and helped him achieve his goals.
“Early in the recovery stage, just getting my appetite back and trying to eat more while not interfering with any post-operative dietary recommendations was always my goal. For me, this meant trying to eat about 2,500 – 2,750 calories and 150-170 grams of protein per day. In my opinion, these are the two most important dietary goals when it comes to regaining any weight (especially muscle mass) following surgery or during a flare. It will also help support the tissue and incision recovery following surgery”
Regarding exercise, strength training, is the most effective form of exercise to regain lean body mass following surgery. However, most colorectal surgeons (for good reasons) impose a lifting restriction of no more than ~10-15 lbs. for about 6 weeks following surgery to allow the incisions to heal and avoid the risk of hernia.
“For my larger surgeries, this was easy to abide by as I was in so much pain and was so fatigued that it was a struggle to just get dressed and ready for the day, so there was no temptation to get back in the weight room any time soon. But for the smaller surgeries, as I got closer to the 6-week mark, I was anxious to get back to my old routine. I took a very conservative approach and used a lot of alternative training techniques (i.e. blood flow restriction training, isometrics, resistance bands, etc.) to elicit an adequate training stimulus while not having to lift heavy weights and to avoid injury,” said Andrew.
Andrew’s main piece of advice about life with IBD? “Be prepared for a rollercoaster of changes to both your body composition and physical abilities throughout battles with IBD – especially during a flare or following surgery. Unfortunately this also will likely take a toll on your mental health as well, or at least it certainly did for me. However, just know that you can always get it back in time and more often than not, come back even stronger. Be patient and give your body rest when needed but otherwise keep grinding.”
Everyone has their own battles they are fighting
“I think my experience with IBD has taught me that everyone has their own battles they are fighting – even if they don’t show it. Additionally, it is also a reminder that not all disabilities are visible as a lot of people are probably unaware that I live with a permanent ostomy. I have chosen to keep a lot of my health struggles private and I think a lot of people will be surprised when they hear what I’ve endured over the past five years as I have still managed to have a successful career and not miss much work – despite all the surgeries and time spent feeling very ill.”
Andrew’s IBD journey also shifted his research focus a bit and challenged him to apply my knowledge of how to increase performance, strength and muscle mass in athletes towards a more clinical application.
“A lot of the strategies that work well with athletes can be modified and used in clinical settings as several of the benefits (i.e. increased muscle, strength, endurance, energy, etc.) may also help improve quality of life in patients will a chronic illness, those who are critically ill, or those recovering from surgery. It’s just a matter of making the appropriate modifications and fitting them to the current need,” said Andrew.
For anyone with chronic illness, it’s safe to say living with a disease gives you perspective. Your patient experience and journey shapes you in ways you may never have imagined, until you’ve lived it—persevered—and can look back at all you’ve overcome to get to where you are today. In Part 4 (the final installment) of “So, You Have An Ostomy,” we dig deep into what ostomates wish they knew that they know now, how best family members and friends can offer support, and why some choose to show their ostomy and others do not.
What Ostomates Would Tell Themselves If They Could Go Back in Time
Brian Greenberg wants anyone who is contemplating getting an ostomy to know that life doesn’t end after surgery, it begins again. He says after being sick and thinking an ostomy would be worse, it gave him his life back. He went from being in bed and alone to being an Ironman and marrying the love of his life.
“There are a lot of ostomates out there and none of us are recreating the wheel. If you have a fear or question, chances are there is someone who already has created a solution. I went from being bedridden to completing a full 140.6-mile Ironman, which showed me anything is possible. My ostomy has allowed me to not only live a normal life, but a good life.”
Ashley Clark says she used to be scared to leave the house. Her ostomy has given her freedom that she never had before.
“Prior to my ostomy, I didn’t want to make new friends or spend time with people I wasn’t comfortable around, I had no energy and I felt like I was trapped inside this body that couldn’t do all the things my brain wanted to do. Since my ostomy, I feel like I’ve gotten myself back in a lot of ways. I make plans again and I travel and spend time with people I love. I don’t take life for granted.”
When Michel Johnson thinks about when he had an ostomy, he says it not only saved his life, but taught him to reframe the tough times. He believes he became a better person in many ways and that his level of gratitude and compassion for others grew exponentially. He’ll always remember when he had his first bag leak in public the first time he left the house after surgery.
“I was in at a grocery store and struggling to change my bag in the restroom. I got poop on my shirt. I was embarrassed. A lady noticed the supplies in my hand and the mess on my shirt when I went into the restroom. She told me she was a nurse. She had a store employee block the bathroom door and she came in to help me, even gave me her blouse to wear (she had a tank top on under her blouse). I cried and hugged her so tight. Couldn’t believe she was so sweet to me in my time of need. It’s moments like that, which change a person.”
Alison Rothbaum credits her ostomy for allowing her to be alive. She says she wouldn’t have made it beyond age 23 if she didn’t have her colectomy. Since surgery, she’s been able to travel, work, and actively participate in the lives of her nieces and nephews. She advises ostomates to cut themselves some slack and acknowledge how far you’ve come every step of the way.
“You’re learning a new lifestyle of personal care externally and recovering internally. There’ll be days you are so upset, and then there’s days you only remember you have an ostomy when you go to the bathroom. This new life may have not been what you had in mind years ago, it may not be ideal, but it’ll be ok.”
Gaylyn Henderson created Gutless and Glamorous, a non-profit organization, as a way to empower and uplift those living with chronic illness and to raise awareness and erase the misconceptions of living with an ostomy. She doesn’t want others to suffer because of the fear of being stigmatized; it’s her goal to eradicate the stigma.
“Through it all I have learned to remain constant in my beliefs and that is to not let the beliefs of others control how I view myself. I’ve learned the importance of loving myself and staying true to myself and knowing I am capable of overcoming anything. I’ve learned that one of life’s most rewarding challenges is to accept yourself for who you are and all that you are completely and consistently. I am so in love with my new body; my new body saved my life in more ways than one.”
Loved One or Friend an Ostomate? Here’s how you can offer support
Listen. Listen. And listen some more. And be there. You don’t have to know what to say, you don’t need to have the right words or give advice. Let your loved one or friend know they are not alone and don’t pretend to understand what your loved one is going through, because you simply can’t relate (unless you’re an ostomate yourself)! Ostomates say when they complain or having a hard day, they just want to be heard and believed.
Karin Thum says to find your tribe and love them hard, “It may be a friend, or maybe a family member. Someone who doesn’t have Crohn’s or ulcerative colitis may not fully understand. But the right support won’t try to understand. They’ll just want to be there for you. Let them. It’s hard for those closest to us who love us to watch us go through what we do.”
IBD mom and ostomate, Byrd Vihlen, recommends loved ones to ask questions and take the time to learn more about ostomies, the disease, and what this means going forward.
“This surgery is NOT A CURE. Knowing that you care enough to want to be educated means the world. I would also advise that going into surgery, the recovery could be very different than what is described by the doctors, prepare for that emotionally so you can better support your family/friend…and not put any extra unnecessary stress on them during a fragile time. Empathy goes a long way.”
Speaking of empathy, Tina Aswani Omprakash recalls how one of her friends once insisted on watching her change her ostomy bag. As first, Tina says she was freaking out saying no. But now, when she looks back, she realizes that was one of the most supportive experiences.
“She asked questions as I went along and was curious to understand how it worked and why people felt such a stigma around it. It made me feel like a human being and that someone actually cared and wanted to learn and support me. I’d say if you’re close family, be there when the ostomy nurse is teaching how to change the bag. Oftentimes, we are in such a rut and on painkillers that we have no idea what’s going on. Support us, ask questions, be there and take notes. It can only help.”
Kristina Schook, 24, of New York, was diagnosed with Crohn’s when she was eight. She needed an ostomy when she was in high school and says the entire experience was insanely hard on her. Her bag would constantly leak, and it messed with her self-confidence. She says she had to alter what sports she played because of the leakage, but is thankful she was never judged by her peers. When it comes to advice for family and friends, Kristina says, “Just let us rant if we are upset. Don’t tell us you understand because our intestine is literally out of our body. It’s extremely hard to deal with mentally. For me, reversal was a great option and I don’t regret it.”
Jordan Ditty says patience is key.
“This is a big change. There will be a lot of emotions around it whether it was planned and wanted, unexpected, or they were dreading it. Offer to sit with them while they change their bag, watch a movie together, bring them coffee, listen to their frustrations, hold them when they cry, they need your support. While at the same time don’t treat them any different, this ostomy did not change who they are as an individual.”
Lindsay Dickerson says if you care about someone with a digestive disability and ostomy, recognize the mental toll their patient experience can cause.
“We are shuffled from specialist to specialist, appointment to appointment. There are days we can’t function and (personally) I feel worthless as a friend, wife, mother, and person. Educate yourself on your loved one’s condition. Support them when they feel down. Help them understand it’s not their fault, even though we will feel like it is at times. On the days they need that extra help – give it to them. There are days we can’t do it all and need this help, it’s a lifetime condition. Empathy and love are what we need and the more you give of it the better.”
Showing Your Ostomy Bag to Others
Whether or not you choose to show your ostomy bag publicly is a very personal decision. Some people feel empowered by it, others prefer to be more discreet. You do you, boo boo.
Natasha Weinstein says sharing her ostomy with the world is so much fun. When she first got her ostomy, she would put duct tape all over the bag, thinking it would make it more “socially acceptable” for people to see. Then, she realized a few things.
“Number one—duct tape is uncomfortable. Number two—I was going through a lot of bags and duct just to go swimming, which made the bags heavy! Number three—the bags are already skin colored so what was I doing?! Once I got rid of the duct tape, everything got easier and all I had to do was choose my bathing suit of the day. Now it’s become routine to take a post-race photo with Ziggy out wearing my medal because we’re accomplishing and conquering life together.”
Tionna Forchion says being transparent about her life with an ostomy has been extremely fulfilling.
“I hid my bag from family and friends for many years and now I openly post pictures on social media showing my ostomy and it feels so empowering to show the love I have for myself in my entirety, and that includes my ostomy bag. It’s rewarding when other warriors on social media write me messages saying that me posting pics showing my bag has helped them embrace and love themselves flaws and all. That’s really why I do it, to inspire others to love everything about themselves and so other ostomates know they are not alone.”
Sahara Fleetwood-Beresford shares her ostomy with world so that people can see that it’s ok not to be like everyone else. She doesn’t feel embarrassed or ashamed and doesn’t think of her bag as an issue. “It is what it is—it’s part of me. The same as my moles, scars, stretch marks, etc.”
Speaking of scars (or battle wounds as I like to call them), Lindsay says, “I love showing off my ostomy. I’ve had 14 surgeries in my lifetime at this point and the ostomy is a symbol of everything I’ve overcome and how I’ve taken the steps to improve my life for the better. All bodies come in different shapes, sizes, and abilities. I feel confident with my ostomy out and welcome anyone who has questions about it!
Payge Duerre says showing her ostomy doesn’t phase her anymore. She says it doesn’t make her feel empowered, either.
“I post for others. I show for others. I show and post because I’m 110% okay if I get hate or negative comments. I might cry if there are mean people, but I truly post and show my ostomy because I’m confident about it and hope to support others by doing so. My ostomy has completely changed my life for the better. There is no possible way I’d be this healthy version of me with my colon. I no longer shit my pants, I can travel more than five minutes away from the bathroom, I’m not missing every other day of work/school/events because of pain so immense I can’t get off the couch. I don’t have to spend an entire day every four weeks getting my infusions.”
Tina and many others I interviewed, choose not to show their ostomy or their stoma. But each ostomate said they respect the many people who do.
“I don’t feel that I need to show it to talk about it or to empower others. Culturally speaking, I think for me, it’s better left to the imagination. I do show what a stoma bag looks like and show different activities you can do with an ostomy but I think this is an individual’s choice to show or not to show and still feel empowered.”
When Life Comes Full Circle
Over the course of the past few weeks, I’ve had the privilege of connecting with more than 20 ostomates around the world who have candidly and whole-heartedly shared about their personal experience. As someone with Crohn’s who does not have an ostomy, I consider your ostomy a symbol of strength and survival. What each ostomate endures prior to surgery, through recovery, and in life, takes patience and perseverance. It takes strength from within. A strength I can’t even begin to fathom. Ostomies are a visible reminder of the often invisible battles those with IBD and other digestive diseases face while having chronic illness. It’s normal to grieve and be devastated. From what I’ve learned through these warriors, the best way to view life with an ostomy is to think of all the positive it will bring to your life and how it will improve your health and condition. Shifting your perspective and thinking of your ostomy as a gift rather than a curse seems to be the best medicine of all. Thank you for following along through this series. I hope you feel better educated about life with an ostomy and have learned something, I know I did!
Celebrating Ostomy Awareness Day (October 3rd, 2020)
This year marks the 10th Anniversary of National Ostomy Day. This day serves as an opportunity to spread awareness about ostomy surgery.
Twitter Chat (#ddhchat): Diet and Digestive Health Chat about Nutrition for the Ileostomy hosted by ostomate Tina Aswani Omprakash and Neha D. Shah, MPH, RD, CNSC, CHES Friday October 2 at 12 p.m. EDT.
Dating with IBD can be daunting. Add an ostomy to the mix and that stress is amplified ten-fold. In Part 3 of “So, You Have An Ostomy” hear from several ostomates about navigating relationships, intimacy, discovering what clothing and undergarments work best, and why some choose to name their stoma and others don’t.
Brian Greenburg, 37, of New York was diagnosed with Crohn’s at age 11. He has a permanent ostomy and “Ken Butt”. As a married man, he reflects on what it was like to be part of the dating scene.
“The best piece of advice I was given about dating is that my ostomy won’t keep me from meeting the “right one”, it will keep me from trying to be with the “wrong one”.
Read that again. It’s powerful and so, so true for anyone with a chronic illness. Brian advises it’s best to talk confidently about your ostomy and not to shy away from communicating with your partner.
London Harrah, 29, of California, was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis two years ago. From the get-go, his gastroenterologist told him there was a possibility he was going to need an ostomy. At first, London was completely against the idea. His disease didn’t give him any other choice and he ended up with an ileostomy.
“I was having 20 bowel movements a day and throwing up at least one time a day and I was losing a lot of blood. I mentally and physically got to the point where I could not take it anymore and after countless visits to the doctor and attempts at different medicines, I told them that I wanted to proceed with the surgery. I had basically given up on any and all expectations on what I wanted my life to be and had accepted that I just needed to feel better.”
London recalls making his first post about his ileostomy on social media and expecting that no women would be interested in him because of it. He was single when he had the surgery and had accepted he was going to be alone the rest of his life.
“Over time I gained more and more confidence and ended up testing the waters with talking to women. I soon was able to figure out that, if anything, having this surgery just assisted me in weeding out the bad apples. There are a lot of people out there who see beyond the surface of someone and will accept you for the person you are.”
London is currently in a new relationship and just got past the peak of explaining everything about his ileostomy in detail with his girlfriend. He says he feels a lot better knowing she accepts him completely.
Jordan Ditty says she was worried going into surgery not how it would impact her marriage, but moreso that her ostomy not only affects her life, but her husband’s as well.
“Going through surgery, seeing my stoma, sharing the frustrations and wins, naming my stoma together…it all brought us closer. If you ask my husband, he will tell you it did not impact him at all, he was happy that I was no longer in pain and we were able to live.”
As far as intimacy goes, Jordan says she was nervous, but that her ostomy did not affect a single thing.
“I personally always empty right before we do anything then just fold it up, so it is not flapping around between us. There are also many options out today for ostomies, crotchless lingerie that keeps your bag in place if you don’t want your partner seeing it, high waisted options, belts, etc. Find what makes you comfortable, just remember you are still you, beautiful as ever because you are finally healthy!”
Andrew Battifarano is a 26-year-old in New York, as far at the dating scene in the Big Apple, he says he’s usually open about his ostomy and finds it’s beneficial for both sides. Andrew says most people are super accepting and appreciate his honesty.
“There are those who are grossed out and don’t want to deal with someone who has an ostomy. It’s good to know who wants to be in your life and will accept you no matter what early in the process rather than later. I think everyone has their own methods, but I stand by being forthright early on so you can tell a potential partner what it is and hopefully educate them a little bit.”
Payge Duerre met her boyfriend after she had an ostomy. She says he saw her bag in a photo on her Tinder profile and stalked her ostomy Instagram before they met in person.
“He had actually said that my ostomy was a small part of what drew him to me, he could only imagine how I was living, and he wanted to take care of me like no one else did. It did not impact being intimate at all. We both think scars are more beautiful than untouched skin. And it has helped my intimacy. Not having that pain and sickness wearing me down all the time, or not worrying about using the bathroom in the middle of being sexy has helped me.”
Richard Harris, 39, of the United Kingdom was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis when he was 23. He says his girlfriend at the time of diagnosis and his first surgery is now his wife and the mother of their two boys.
“We’ve really been through it all together. She visited me in hospital when I was sick and had lost more than 3 stone (40-plus pounds!), so I think she saw it as a life or death thing too. Post-surgical recovery, intimacy took a while, but we got there in the end. The Coloplast Senusra Mio has a handy fold up feature with some Velcro to tuck the bag away which I tend to do.”
Tim Albert’s girlfriend has been by his side through it all, too.
“Initially I was concerned she wouldn’t want to deal with the struggles an ostomy brings, but she has proven time and time again that she has my back with this. For me, it wasn’t easy to be intimate, simply because I didn’t have the core strength. I physically couldn’t perform like my old self, and that was a tough pill to swallow. With time, I got stronger and that aspect of our relationship became fun again.”
Lindsay Dickerson says her ostomy did not impact her husband at all.
“He assured me multiple times that I am just as attractive, and it does not take away his sexual drive for me (just being blunt). However, as confident as I was with showing my bag off for others everywhere else, the bedroom was a different story. Finding lingerie that is “accessible” to your significant other but covers up the bag has helped me with confidence. Switching brands helped also – Hollister was super loud, and you always heard it during sexy time. The Coloplast Mio makes no noise.”
Byrd Vihlen says her husband is very information oriented and learned the ostomy terms before she did from reading an informational packet provided by the hospital.
“He helped me empty my bag, with no hesitation, for several days after surgery when I was unable do it. It was truly a sign of unconditional love. If your significant other cannot accept that you need an ostomy bag, their love is conditional.”
To name a stoma or not to name a stoma
Of all the ostomates I spoke with—it was a mixed bag (no pun intended!) when it came to those who choose or chose to name their stoma and those who do not. Each person’s reasoning and explanation made a lot of sense.
Tina Aswani Omprakash said her husband named her stoma “Snuffleupagus” in the hospital after surgery since it resembled the snout of the Sesame Street character. She also calls him “Bebu” which is a loving term that means “baby” in Hindi.
Sahara Fleetwood-Beresford’s experience is unique in that she has gone back and forth through her journey.
“I did not name my first one. I named my second one because I read it could help with acceptance of it. It DID make it easier to talk about to people. I do still consider my current stoma to have the same name, but I don’t often refer to it by name anymore. I usually just say “my stoma” because I felt like referring to it by name almost made me think of it like a sperate entity, when it’s not. Porta didn’t shit in the shower – I shit in the shower! Porta is not farting – I am farting. You get the idea.”
Jordan Ditty and her husband named her stoma “Norman”.
“We call him Norman when he is being difficult and Norm when he is being good. I thought it was silly at first to name him, but after a few weeks of being home with it, we came up with a name. It normalized it, made it easy to throw into a conversation, my friends and family all refer to my stoma as Norman.”
For those who haven’t chosen to name their stoma, the consensus was that it’s “just a part of them and not separate.”
Ostomy Secrets Underwear for Men—supportive and comfortable
Ostomy Secrets Wraps for Women—helps keep everything secure
High waisted tights, leggings, skirts, dresses, and jeans
American Eagle jeans
KanCan pants—with their stretch to allow the bag to grow
Vanilla Blush Hernia Support Vest for strength exercises
LuLu Commission Pants (for Men)
Aerie leggings and underwear for security and flexibility with an ostomy
Natasha Weinstein recommends discussing ostomy accessories with your care team.
“Would you do better with an ostomy belt? Are you active? Do you like to run, hike, bike, swim? You can still do these things! I am a runner and started running because of the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation’s Team Challenge program and continued running despite my Crohn’s. Having an ostomy has made it easier for me to run since I am less worried about when I’ll need a bathroom next. Like more extreme sports? On my 27th birthday Ziggy stoma (yes I named mine and I recommend you do too – it helps with acceptance and I have all my friends referring to him as Ziggy), well Ziggy and I jumped out of an airplane! IT WAS A BLAST! What I promise is you can truly do anything you set your mind to, and your new ostomy will be along for the ride.”
Stay tuned Wednesday (September 30) for the final piece in the Lights, Camera, Crohn’s “So, You Have An Ostomy” series. A look at the perspective gained, advice for caretakers and family members, and incredible stories of ostomate perseverance that are sure to inspire.
Navigating life with an ostomy takes patience and persistence. The adjustment is not only emotionally and mentally taxing for many, but the physical day-to-day takes some getting used to as well. In Part 2 of “So, You Have An Ostomy,” I interviewed ostomates about everything from diet, to bag changes, and how best to pack when you’re away from home. It’s my hope that by hearing these words of wisdom, that you’ll feel better equipped and more at ease should you need to make these lifestyle changes for yourself.
Discovering Your “New” Diet with an Ostomy
After ostomy surgery, it’s recommended to stick to a low residue diet for about six-eight weeks. Once you reach that point in recovery, work with your surgeon and GI dietitian to reintroduce foods one by one to see how you tolerate them. Hydration is key every single day. When you are outdoors or more active, you will want to make sure you hydrate before, during, and after, not only with water, but having some sodium and sugar in your system for better absorption. This can either be a homemade mixture, powders (ex. DripDrop, Liquid I.V.), or premade drinks (ex. Pedialyte, Metamucil Water, or Gatorade). Ultimately, you want to keep a pudding consistency of output.
If you’re eating high fiber foods like nuts and raw veggies and fruits, ensure you are chewing well, eating a bit slower, and drinking water throughout the meal, as these foods are harder to breakdown.
Sahara Fleetwood-Beresford, 32, of the United Kingdom, was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis at age 19. Since then, she’s had three stomas. When it comes to diet with an ostomy, it’s very much trial and error, like it is with IBD. For many, marshmallows, unsweetened applesauce, and peanut butter are the ‘go-to’s’ to thicken output, but unfortunately those don’t do the trick for Sahara.
“My main piece of advice is not to be afraid of trying things. If you chew thoroughly, that minimizes the risk of blockages. Your stoma will be settling in for up to twelve months, so if something doesn’t agree with you in the beginning, try it again later. My diet is healthy now, thanks to my stoma. I can eat all of the fruits and vegetables that I couldn’t eat before due to pain caused by strictures.”
Karin Thum, 42, of Florida, battles not only Crohn’s disease, but Spina Bifida. She says an ostomy isn’t as bad as it seems and that in time, you’ll find it’s the best thing you could have done for your health and your quality of life. When it comes to her top dietary hack she says, “I’m a salad girl. I learned from my doctor to use scissors to cut up lettuce so that it’s easier to digest. This way I don’t have to give up eating salad completely and can enjoy one of my favorite foods in moderation.”
For Andrew Battifarano, 26, of New York, he noticed he has higher output after having a sugary drink, like soda. Steering clear of these has helped his bag from filling up so quickly.
“At the same time, I try and have as much water I can tolerate. You can easily get dehydrated without even realizing it (I have and it’s not fun), so staying on top of that is super important. And eating less at night, or having smaller meals spread out will make you have less output when you’re sleeping, which might help prevent any leaks and also let you sleep longer without having to get up during the night.”
Tim Albert, 32, of Wisconsin, received his ostomy this past November. If he ever feels dehydrated, he swears by DripDrop ORS. He says if he drinks 16 ounces of water with DripDrop he starts feeling better in 30 minutes.
“As far as output, I’ve learned to think of things the same way a diabetic might manage their blood sugar. If I eat something that will water down my output, I need to counter it with something that will thicken it. Foods are going to be different for each person, but for me, I am able to thicken things up with apple sauce. I like to buy the little pouches; they are great for on the go.”
Sarah Byrd Vihlen, 33, of Georgia was initially diagnosed with ulcerative colitis in January 2014, but has since been switched to Crohn’s. She underwent subtotal-colectomy surgery right after bringing her two-year-old daughter, Penelope, into the world via c-section. Talk about a rockstar IBD mom. When it comes to diet, she says it’s very much like what you’re told with IBD.
“I typically avoid anything with large seeds or nuts, and if I do eat them, I chew thoroughly, the same with fruits and vegetables that have skin. I still do not eat popcorn. Since getting an ostomy I have been able to eat a wider variety of foods than before, but I have heard mushrooms are dangerous and I miss eating them a lot. To thicken output I eat marshmallows, rice, potatoes, and bananas.”
Some foods are known to increase output and gas. Carbonation drinks, chewing gum, and even something as simple as using a straw, can increase your gas ingestion which will need to be expelled. The challenge is, what may increase one person’s output, may not for someone else or vice versa.
Oh, The Places You Will Go…With an Ostomy
Once it’s “safe” to travel post-pandemic (can you even imagine?!), there’s a lot to keep in mind when you’re packing your bags and you have a bag. The first rule of thumb—be overly prepared and always carry-on your supplies in case your suitcase gets lost. Ostomy supplies are needed to be temperature controlled; they are permitted to go through TSA as carry-on.
Be proactive and if you need to cut your wafer, try to cut some before you travel, and pack your favorite scissors in your checked baggage. The consensus among all ostomates I spoke with—pack extra of everything. You don’t know if you’ll have a defective appliance or have any issues arise while you’re away from home.
Natasha Weinstein always considers how long she is traveling and how she is getting to her destination. She says, “I always pack for up to 3 changes a day. If I am flying, I pack a bit more, as air travel seems to affect my adhesive. I seem to do better with car travel. If I am being exposed to extreme temperatures or my itinerary is more active, I take that into account. I do everything I can to alleviate any possible stress about supplies, so I can enjoy my vacation.”
Double and triple check to ensure you have all your supplies and bag changes packed before you head out the door. An ostomy isn’t like a regular prescription; it can be impossible to find when you’re in another city and you’re simply out of luck at that point. Many of the ostomates I talked with recommend organizing your supplies in a travel toiletries holder.
For additional travel—both domestic and international—with an ostomy, check out this helpful article by ostomate, Tina Aswani Omprakash.
Ch-Ch-Ch-Changesss…the ins and outs of changing your ostomy bag
How long a bag will last varies depending on a few different factors: activity level, weather, bathing, sleeping, etc.There isn’t a one size fits all for bags, it takes a while to figure out which appliance and ‘accessories’ work best for you, that can also change over time, even after you think you have found the right one. Skin allergies are common. It’s best to get free samples from several different companies and try them out. Deodorizing & lubricating drops are also helpful.
For any new ostomates, if insurance/payment allows, it’s recommended to have an ostomy home care nurse help you through any trouble shooting with changing your bag at home.
“I don’t know what I would have done without my ostomy nurse, she was an absolute angel. She would come weekly and was able to talk me through problems I was having and give me several new tips. If that’s not available, several people on social media have videos posted. Organizing your supplies is important too so you know your inventory levels and don’t run out. I have a small stocked caddy in my bathroom ready in case I need to do a middle of the night bag change,” says Byrd.
Byrd typically changes her bag every four days, but has gone longer on occasion. Morning bag changes seem to work best for her (before she eats anything) otherwise she says you can wind up with a mess.
Lindsay Dickerson, age 30, of Georgia, was diagnosed with colonic inertia, gastroparesis (digestive tract paralysis) at the age of 17. When it comes to changing her ostomy, she says it’s key to lay out all your supplies prior to making your first move.
“Know you have everything there, so you don’t have to run to your supply closet and risk a spill. I use a grocery bag and tuck it into my waistband to collect any output and trash. When I used the Hollister brand, I had a thousand supplies that went into a bag change. Now that I’ve switched to the Sensura Mio Convex 2-click appliance, I need the wafer, a bag, and skin-tac that helps the bag stay on longer. My Hollister (which I used for 3 ½ years) lasted two days; my Coloplast Sensura Mio lasts at least 5 days.”
Lindsay recommends always having a water bottle with you when you empty. Since output can be sludgy and hard to empty, it enables you to rinse your bag with some water after you’ve dumped it. She says this tip will change your life!
Michel Johnson, 56, of Tennessee, had a temporary ostomy for nine months. He recalls changing his bag every three to four days. At first, he said he would relive the trauma every time he had to change or empty it, but then his perspective shifted.
“I realized my ostomy saved my life. Rather than moping around, I brought a music speaker in the bathroom and created a dance playlist for my bag changes. I looked forward to it! I danced and sang while I changed my bag. Doing this completely reframed how I looked at this process.”
Several ostomates also mentioned showering bag free and what a wonderful feeling it is to not have anything attached to your body. Just remember to keep soaps and shampoos with perfume and moisturizers away from your stoma and peristomal skin, as they can cause irritation.
Jordan Ditty, 27, of California, was diagnosed with Crohn’s at age 11. When it comes to changing her bag in public, she recommends hitting up Starbucks, as they usually have single bathrooms. If you need to change your bag in public, she says it’s also helpful to use the stall with the changing table so you can lay out all your supplies. Jordan always keeps disinfectant wipes in her bag along with extra paper towels to make sure she’s able to clean the surface area and stoma well.
“You can also sample different companies supplies for free. Email them with what you are wanting to try, and they will send you 2-3 of them as well as others so you are able to find what works best for you. In the past year and a half, I have changed my pouching system at least five times if not more to find what works for my skin, activity level, daily life, and stoma.”
Overall, the recommendation—expect the unexpected. You can’t control what the stoma does, so when it’s not cooperating, try your best to go with the flow (literally and figuratively!). And don’t wait too long to change a bag. If your skin is burning underneath, it’s probably leaking, change it. If you think the adhesive is coming off your wafer and may not last sleeping through the night, change it. Overestimate the time you will need and please give yourself grace upon grace.
Stay tuned for Part 3 of “So, You Have An Ostomy…” Monday (September 28th) we’ll cover disclosing you have an ostomy on a date, intimacy, styles of clothing and underwear that work best and the unique names some IBD warriors have for their stomas.
In case you missed it, click here to read Part 1 of “So, You Have an Ostomy”—The Complexity of Coping, which focuses on what it’s like to find out you need an ostomy, the complexity of coping, and adjusting to your new normal.