Brittani Nicholl Is Riding The Waves With An Ostomy

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Connecting with Australian Surfer Brittani Nicholl

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 and subtropical climate. At the young age of seven she was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, a type of Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) that affects about five million people worldwide. Despite living with a chronic illness, this didn’t stop her from doing the one thing she loved - surfing. “I started surfing at the age of 12 and haven’t looked back since,” says Brittani.

brittani nicholl surfer

Accepting Ostomy Surgery

For Brittani, living with Crohn’s meant being in and out of hospitals. In 2007, at age 16, she was informed by her doctors that major surgery was inevitable. Her first surgery produced several complications, including a near death experience due to blood loss and hemorrhaging. One month later Brittani underwent a second surgery, which meant living with an ileostomy. This temporary treatment would allow her remaining bowel to heal, but her doctors couldn’t say how long she’d have an ostomy.

Living with an ileostomy was hard enough to get my head around, but surfing with an ileostomy… that was a challenge,” said Brittani.

She adapted to the situation by learning not to eat at least 1-2 hours prior to surfing and figured out that wearing a one-piece swimsuit was better than a two-piece. Sometimes she would 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 surgery and a screw. While this was an obvious setback, her surgeon suggested the idea of reversing the ileostomy since she’d need five months out of the water to heal her ankle.

After almost three years of living with a stoma and ostomy bag, a reversal surgery was performed in early 2010. Looking back on the experience she says, “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.

Then in late 2012, a follow up colonoscopy brought more exciting news. For the first time in 16 years, it was determined that she was now in remission from Crohn’s disease. Brittani finished up the 2013 surf season ranking 24th in the World. Some IBD patients experience unpredictable relapses, and so was the case with Brittani. 2015 has been an extremely difficult year health-wise, having another ostomy bag - 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.

brittani nicholl

Even though ostomy surgery went well, she never had the chance to fully recover as the illness returned and landed her back in the hospital. She also learned that Crohn’s had entered into her small bowel, but after 5 weeks of treatment her doctors examined the colon and large bowel and thankfully everything looked relatively good… unfortunately this was short-lived.

In October 2015, after months of hospital visits and numerous bleeds she endured a three-hour operation, where the surgeons removed 20cm of small bowel and also reversed her ileostomy. All went well and she continues her treatment at home. After a terrible year, Brittani has started 2016 fresh! She’s back in the water surfing and starting to enjoy every day life again.

Giving Back to the Community

In 2011, Brittani became the National Ambassador for Crohn’s & Colitis Australia, speaking at charity events, luncheons, and youth camps. She’s also a certified surfing coach, and works with people of all ages and abilities.

“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.” - Brittani Nicholl

It's estimated that over two million people worldwide are living with an ostomy. This is lifesaving surgery for many and thankfully more brave individuals like Brittani Nicholl are sharing their success stories to educate, empower and enlighten others.

Photo credit: Michael Hayes