She was so thankful that an ostomy gifted her 15 years of good living.

My Grandma Mabel had ostomy surgery in 1938 and went home with no supplies.

How did she cope? How did she live with her ostomy? 

Let’s try to imagine 1938… and then imagine living with an ostomy in 1938. This was before the internet, before cellphones, before microwaves, before TV, before plastics. The stock market had crashed in 1929, followed by a decade named The Great Depression. It was a challenging time to live. In parallel, there was a decade of drought and crop-failure in the entire Midwest of North America, appropriately named the “Dirty 30s.” This was before the 2nd World War. This era was also before flanges and pouches or any other ostomy gear was invented. Ostomy patients were sent home after surgery with no collection device. No collection device!?!

How did Mabel live with an ostomy, without ostomy equipment?

Mabel lived on the prairies in Western Canada, where summer temperatures rose to +40 degrees C (+104 F) and winter temperatures dropped to -40 degrees C (-40 F). The only heat in the house was the stove which burned coal, and when they had money, wood. There was no cold running water, it was pumped from a well – winter and summer. There was no hot running water, they heated water in a large pot on the stove. There was no shower, no bathtub.

No bathroom in the house, just an outhouse – a seat perched over a pit, in a small building 50 yards from the house. This outhouse experience, in winter when it was -40 degrees, was the origination of the expression “so cold it would freeze your ass off!” Personal ostomy clean-up was in the outhouse, probably with a pail of cold water. With no collection device supplied, available, or even invented yet, Mabel made do with rags or towels.

Mabel’s husband Walter was a practical and inventive man. He devised a tin-can with a belt-strap to contain the stool. This was leaky and stinky, but a big improvement over the very messy rags. The tin-can had to be strapped tightly around her waist to reduce the leakage (not prevent leakage… just reduce). The edge of the tin-can bit harshly into Mabel’s skin, and left a nasty red compression ring. Walter was a horseman who made his own horse-harnesses, so he built a leather collar to cover the tin-can edging. This was certainly more comfortable and leaked less, but it was difficult to clean the leather collar and the device still smelled.

Mabel considered a glass container which would be easier to clean than the tin-can, but adding a leather collar and attaching a belt would be difficult and the risk of glass breakage would be a big concern. The tin-can with leather-collar strapped around her waist was her best (and only) ostomy equipment. The 4-inch circle around her stoma was constantly covered with stool, and I expect she had many rashes, breakdowns, infections, and damage to her skin. The salves used for harness-burns on horses would've been Mabel’s only relief from these skin problems.

There was no “support group” for Mabel. She never talked about her ostomy. My father, who lived at home for the first six years of Mabel’s surgery was never told about her ostomy and he never saw anything that would indicate she had an ostomy. He never saw a bulge on her dress. While her husband designed and built her ostomy-gear, that would be the last time he participated and the last time they would talk about it. It just wasn’t ever discussed. For 15 years, Mabel lived silently with the inconveniences of an ostomy without proper medical supplies and with no-one to talk to who could relate.

My grandma Mabel was one tough lady. She was the sole steward of a 1-acre vegetable garden. She dug the entire garden with a shovel, planted seeds and hoed weeds. In the fall, she dug out the potatoes and carrots, harvested and preserved corn and peas and beans for each cold winter ahead. For 15 years, from ages 52 to 67, she worked that garden with an ostomy. Mabel was British, Victorian, stoic, and content... and she never complained. She was so thankful that her ostomy gifted her 15 years of good living.

There have been days that I've complained about my colostomy. With the imagination to re-live Mabel’s ostomy experience, I will not complain again. Ever.

Grandma Mabel

Grandma Mabel, 2 years after ostomy surgery living contently without ostomy equipment.

Mabel’s Timeline:

1886 - Born in England

1904 - Age 18, Married Walter

1912 - Age 26, Emigrated to Canada

1938 - Age 52, Ostomy Surgery

1953 - Age 67, Died

Mabel's Medical History: I did considerable sleuthing to locate Mabel's medical records. Not surprisingly, the 76-year-old records have been destroyed. BUT, there was an index card with handwritten notes saying, "Mabel was diagnosed with acute ulcerative colitis and hospitalized from December 18 through to February 13." There was no written record of her type of ostomy. I have so many more questions, but the answers may now be lost in history.

For all these years, I thought the hockey-tough-guy genes came from my father and his father. Mabel was way tougher than either of them. She had such an amazingly positive outlook on life, while quietly hiding the personal horrors of an ostomy.

This post originally appeared on LivingBiggerWithColostomy.com.

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