Lately I’ve been seeing a lot of posts from soon-to-be ostomates in their 20’s who are hopeless and afraid. It’s brought back a lot of personal emotions of how I felt going through my first ostomy surgery 14 years ago when I was 25.
I remember laying in my bed the night before surgery feeling terrified, full of anxiety, and overwhelmed with grief. My dad came in to give me a hug and told me to try and get some rest. My younger sister said to me, “it’s going to be okay.” My mom sat down next to me and intuitively knew how I felt. We prayed together. She kissed my forehead and said she’d wake me up at 5am since we had to be at the hospital by 6:30am.
I didn’t sleep much. I kept looking at my belly, trying to imagine what it would be like to touch my stomach 24-hours from then. I questioned myself a lot that night. I even questioned God. Am I making the right decision? Is everything really going to be okay? What if the surgery failed?! It was all too distressing to think about. I took one last look and did the ugly cried most of the night into my pillow. I still remember how awake I was when my mom came in the next morning.
Feeling weak and exhausted, I got into my parent’s car and we headed to the hospital. The ride there felt like it took forever. Once we arrived I felt sick from being dehydrated, so they rushed me in to start IV fluids. After a bunch of attempts from the nurse staff, a witty EMT finally found a vein, smiled, and told me it was my job to look after the line. Once he left, the room filled up with friends and family. Some even took a sick day or vacation day from their jobs just to support me. My friends brought pillows and blankets to camp out in the waiting room. A sense of peace came over me knowing that if something went wrong in the operating room, they would be there for my mom and dad.
While I was being prepped for surgery, every nurse who came into my room had to ask me the same questions: what procedure are you getting and what’s going to happen. I know it’s their job to ask, but I could see the sorrow on their faces as I tiredly repeated: ileostomy surgery. Each one of them gave me a hug and wiped away the tears from my eyes. The EMT popped back in and told me to please stop crying because I had to conserve fluids... it gave me a good laugh.
The surgical team came in at 7:30am and said, “Catherine it’s time.” The tears in my family’s eyes was so symbolic because I knew from that moment on everything would change. My grandma was there to make sure she kissed her “Catie-did” and told me she’d be waiting to see me in a few short hours. I started to sing the happy birthday song while I was being wheeled into the holding area... and I wasn’t even on any drugs yet!! You can’t sing the happy birthday song without a smile.
When my surgeon walked in, tears filled my eyes again. He promised me all would be okay, and that he’d be with me every step of the way. I met the entire OR staff and they each gave me a hug. Then it was lights out.
I woke up in the recovery room giving myself the most aggressive pat down ever. Then I completely lost it. What did I do to myself?! Then I peeked under the blanket and saw my belly and started sobbing. It was ugly to me. I felt so gross. I couldn’t believe that I actually chose this. What was I thinking? My surgeon quickly came over, grabbed my hand and said, “Cate, you did the right thing. You are very sick. The longer you would’ve waited, the outcome may not have gone as good as it went today.”
My family and friends were waiting for me when I arrived to my room. Everybody told me how proud they were of me and how I made the best choice. I didn’t feel that way. I laid in silence feeling sorry for myself because I was different. They all poop normal and I didn’t. I could feel air pass through into the pouch. The stoma was slimy and bizarre. I just wanted to be left alone.
Getting used to taking care of an ostomy is one thing, but the mental aspect was an entirely different battle for me. The negative thoughts seemed constant, and if I didn't consciously do something to stop them, it could've been life ending. I was heading toward that dark and scary place. Then I remembered a sweet 9-year-old ostomate who inspired me when she shared her story a few weeks prior at my office. She popped in for a visit to check on me, and thank goodness she did. She made me feel normal again and gave me the confidence that I could do this. We laughed about stoma nicknames and all the crazy noises it makes. That conversation was literally lifesaving.
Twenty-five is a tough age in general because it's a time of discovering who we really are. Now throw in the fact there’s a bag attached to my belly, and suddenly I'm over analyzing every aspect of my life. Who’s going to love me like this? Will I ever be married? How will an ostomy affect my career? Maybe this doesn't happen to every ostomate, but it certainly happened to me. So, if you’re facing your biggest fear (or worst nightmare, like me) know that this surgery can come with a roller coaster of emotions.
Today, I see things differently. I live for every moment and appreciate my ostomy, even during times when nothing is going right. It's okay to feel lost and experience the darker side of life, but we all have power to bounce back. This is so much easier said than done, but once you’ve accepted your ostomy, life definitely feels a little more comfortable.