Life-altering surgery hasn't stopped me from traveling the world alone, twice

It is quite simply the best thing I have ever done.
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This post originally appeared on Refinery 29.

Back in May 2015, after working for 25 years in the luxury fashion industry, I realised the only thing I needed to change was absolutely everything. And so I took the bold decision to sell my flat and go travelling in Asia. Travelling was a big decision in itself, but I also had to consider how it would be possible with an ileostomy.

When I was 17, in 1987, I was diagnosed with Crohn's disease. Over the following 12 years, my health massively declined. I spent long periods of time in the hospital undergoing multiple surgeries to remove various parts of my small intestine. At age 29 my large bowel ruptured and after nine hours of lifesaving surgery, I came around to find out I had a stoma. My large bowel was removed and part of the remaining small bowel was brought out through a hole on the right-hand side of my abdomen. Now, waste passes out of my stoma and collects into an ostomy pouch that is stuck to my tummy. So basically I poop in a bag; something that can make using some of those non-Western toilets a whole lot easier! As I have no control over my output, there is an opening at the bottom of the bag which allows me to empty it regularly throughout the day — I’m always aware of where the nearest toilets are. I change the whole appliance every two days and it was this part of the process that required a lot of planning once I had made the decision to travel.

How was I going to get the quantities of ostomy supplies I needed? And how will I manage to bring them with me? I started by visiting my doctor to ask for his help. He didn’t have any concerns with my travelling but, providing the vast quantity of pouches I needed was going to be a challenge. He wanted to help me yet his hands were tied — little did he realise how tenacious I am! I don’t see why my ileostomy should determine how I live my life. After all, I would use the same amount of supplies if I were to stay in the UK. With my doctor’s knowledge, I ended up finally getting the okay and I was given an order for six months' worth.

Next hurdle: how was I going to carry all of my supplies? I contacted various couriers to see if they could send them out to me along the way. Unfortunately, I was told that because of the quantity and the countries I was planning on visiting, I would need an import license or, in some cases, a letter from the Department of Health. If sent without the correct paperwork, they couldn’t guarantee it wouldn’t get stuck in customs — a potentially messy risk I wasn’t willing to take! So, the only way was to bring everything with me. I eventually found a way to pack six months' worth of the stuff I needed. It took about three hours as I needed to unpack everything, then repack the supplies in large vacuum bags but at last, it all fitted in a carry-on case. I'm not one for travelling light but the amount of luggage I have to bring on my trips is a permanent reminder not to judge others; I may look like a high maintenance princess but it’s actually more so my medical needs.

One of the things I did before I left was to write out a list of my fears. It included spiders, snakes, getting food poisoning, ending up in the hospital, supplies getting lost... and the list went on! It was a great exercise as it helped me plan for things and adopt a positive mindset for the unknown. Anyone with a pre-existing medical condition knows how difficult it can be to get travel insurance. I wasn’t actually covered for anything ostomy-related but I made sure I had enough money to get home fast if needed and had good coverage for everything else. Having an ileostomy, I can really struggle in the heat and dehydration can be a massive challenge, so I decided not to put myself under any pressure. If I found I was struggling too much, then I could always come home. The six months' worth of supplies meant I had a little leeway if I decided to stay longer.

I had the most incredible, life-changing time on that first trip exploring the Himalayas, Thailand, Vietnam, and finishing back in southern India. Needless to say, I was having so much fun that the four-month plans turned into six. Towards the end of that trip I realised that if I’d had enough supplies, I would have stayed longer so I decided to go home, get enough for a year and take off again. The problem this time: how I was going to manage a year's worth of supplies? I can’t use a rucksack because of the straps around the stomach so that would mean having two carry-on cases and my suitcase! Fortunately, my wonderful sister agreed that wherever I was at six months, she would join me, bringing one of my carry-on cases. It didn’t take much to persuade her to meet me in Bali.

My second solo adventure took me to Sri Lanka, Singapore, India, Indonesia, and Thailand. There are too many life-affirming moments to mention but some of the best included watching the sunrise over the Taj Mahal, a three-day boat trip around Halong Bay, volunteer teaching, whale watching, earthquakes, erupting volcanoes in Bali, deepening my yoga and meditation practice, seeing Komodo dragons, and sharing time in Indonesia with my sister.

Some of the worries on my list of fears did happen, as did other things I hadn't even thought of but guess what – I dealt with them all and became stronger and more resilient because of them. I still don’t like spiders, but I no longer run from the room. I did have a couple of overnight stays in the hospital for food poisoning. I know the signs and things can go downhill really quickly with an ileostomy due to dehydration, so I couldn’t risk leaving it too long. I got in a taxi, checked into the local hospital and got hooked up to some fluids and antibiotics. Fortunately on both occasions, although still a little weak, I was out and eating again within 24 hours.

I made wonderful friendships during my travels, sharing tears and laughter with incredible humans. But the relationship I’m most grateful for is the one with myself and my bag. These adventures have given me a stronger sense of self and shown me resilience I never realised I had. I have immense gratitude for my body and all we have been through together on this journey of life. My bag hasn’t stopped me from going anywhere or doing anything. I would encourage anyone who has never travelled on their own to step out and try it. It is quite simply the best thing I have ever done.

Article credit: Refinery 29 UK