An ostomy is no barrier for Australian pro surfer Brittani Nicholl

She was born to surf.
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Photo credit: Michael Hayes

Photo credit: Michael Hayes

Brittani Nicholl grew up on the Tweed Coast of Australia, an area well known for its great surfing conditions with over 20 miles of unspoiled coastline. At age 7, she was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, an inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) that affects about five million people worldwide. But living with chronic illness didn’t stop Brittani from doing the one thing she loves. "I started surfing at the age of 12 and haven't looked back since," she said.

For Brittani, living with Crohn’s meant being in and out of hospitals frequently. In 2007, at age 16, doctors informed her that major surgery was inevitable. After her first surgery, there were complications including a near-death experience from major blood loss and hemorrhaging. A month later, she underwent a second operation for an ileostomy to remove part of her colon. This was going to be temporary, allowing her remaining bowel to heal, but her doctors couldn’t say how long she’d have to live with an ostomy.

“Living with an ileostomy was hard enough to get my head around. But surfing with an ileostomy… that was a challenge.”

Brittani adapted to the situation by learning how her body reacted to different food and what was best to wear while surfing. She figured out that wearing a one-piece swimsuit was better than a two-piece, and sometimes she'd wear a wetsuit to keep the ostomy bag secure on her stomach. Brittani continued to travel and accomplish a lot with surfing and in 2009 won her first Open Women’s New South Wales (NSW) State Title. She went on to create history by winning the Open Women’s NSW State Title three years in a row, from 2009 to 2011. Later that same year, she broke her ankle in two places which required more surgery. While this was another setback, her surgeon suggested the idea of reversal surgery for the ileostomy since she’d need five months out of the water to heal her ankle. So, after almost three years of living with a stoma and ostomy bag, a surgery was performed in early 2010. Looking back on the experience she said, “It was a daunting feeling because the bag had been the best thing for me and my health. I wouldn’t be here without it.”

In late 2012, a follow-up colonoscopy brought more exciting news. For the first time in 16 years, it was determined that Brittani was in remission from Crohn’s disease. She finished up the 2013 surf season ranking 24th in the World. Even though things seemed to be going well, she never had the chance to fully recover as the illness returned and landed her back in the hospital. Some IBD patients experience unpredictable relapses, and so was the case with Brittani. 2015 was an extremely difficult year healthwise getting another ostomy, a path she never thought she’d go down again. “I knew an ileostomy was my only option in regaining my health and getting back to living my life,” she said. In October 2015, after months of hospital visits, she endured a three-hour operation, where the surgeons removed 20cm of small bowel and also reversed her ileostomy for a second time. All went well and she continues medical treatment at home.

After a terrible year, Brittani has started 2016 fresh and she's back in the water surfing and starting to enjoy everyday life again. She also became a National Ambassador for Crohn’s & Colitis Australia, speaking at charity events and youth camps. It's estimated that over two million people worldwide are living with an ostomy. “I’d like people to have a better understanding of inflammatory bowel disease and my wish as an ambassador is to promote this disease more openly," she said. An ostomy can be a lifesaving surgery for many, and thankfully more athletes like Brittani are sharing their success stories to educate, empower, and inspire others.