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My Grandma Mabel had ostomy surgery in 1938 and went home with no medical 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 cell phones, before microwaves, before TV, before plastics. The stock market crashed in 1929, followed by a decade of economic downfall called "The Great Depression." Severe dust storms had caused major agricultural damage and drought throughout Northern America and Canada (appropriately named "Dirty Thirties") — it was a challenging time to live. This was also before the 2nd World War. It was an era before flanges and pouches or any other ostomy appliances were invented. Ostomates were sent home after surgery with no collection device.


How did Mabel live with an ostomy without medical supplies?

Mabel lived on the prairies in Western Canada, where summer temperatures rose to +104°f and winter temperatures dropped to -40°f. The only heat in the house was the stove which burned coal, and when they had the money, wood. There was no cold running water, it was pumped from a well during winter and summer. There was no hot running water, they heated water in a large pot over the stove. There was no shower. No bathtub. No bathroom inside the house, just an outhouse — a seat perched over a pit in a small shed about 50 yards away.

This outhouse experience during winter, when it felt negative 40 degrees, was the origin of the expression “so cold it would freeze your ass off!” Her stoma clean-up was probably in the outhouse. Mabel made do with rags, towels, and a pail of cold water.

Outhouse I used for over a month on a trek in Nepal, 2012.

Outhouse I used for over a month on a trek in Nepal, 2012.

Her 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 using messy rags. The tin can would have to be strapped tightly around her waist to reduce the leakage (not prevent leakage… just reduce). The edge of the tin bit harshly into Mabel’s skin, leaving 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, 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 one. 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 and with many inconveniences. She never wore proper supplies and had nobody 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. She never complained. She was thankful that her ostomy gifted her 15 more years of good living.

There have been days where I've complained about my colostomy. With the imagination of reliving Mabel’s ostomy experience, I will not complain again. Ever.

Grandma Mabel

Grandma Mabel, 2 years after ostomy surgery.

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

I did considerable sleuthing to locate Mabel's medical history. Not surprisingly, the 76-year-old records have sadly been destroyed. I have so many more questions. BUT, there was an index card with handwritten notes stating: "Mabel was diagnosed with acute ulcerative colitis and hospitalized from December 18 through to February 13." There was no written record of her ostomy type, so the answers are 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 and had an amazingly positive outlook on life with an ostomy.