Wednesday, March 18, 2009

My ostomy

My big surgery in December was prompted by a tumor growing in my rectum and threatening to block the passage of stool. When the doctor removed the tumor he had to remove the rest of my rectum too. The rectum normally sits between the end of the colon and the anus, acting as a warehouse for poop.

With the rectum removed I was left with a short anal stump and the loose end of the colon was redirected to a hole in my abdominal wall (called a stoma). There the stool exits and is collected in a plastic bag taped to my belly. Without a rectum or anus to limit movement through the stoma, gas and stool exit whenever the colon becomes active. That can happen at any time of day or night but is most likely after starting to eat.

My ostomy bag is a two-piece Hollister New Image system. It has an adhesive flange which I tape to my belly and a hole in the center for the stoma to protrude through. On top of that flange I place a special opaque plastic bag to collect stool. It has a charcoal filter to let gasses vent without odor and a clipped opening to allow collected stool to be emptied into a toilet. I replace the bag every two days for freshness and change the flange about once a week to clean the skin underneath and restore adhesion.

My stoma is up to two inches long, depending on whether my colon is in a relaxed or contracted state. It sits upon a crowned region of my belly due to the rearrangement of intestines beneath. So the whole appliance, with the crown, stoma, bag, and contents included protrudes two or three inches compared to the other side of my belly.

I check on the bare stoma when I change a bag or remove the flange and clean the whole area. It's a soft, pink tube that weeps moisture and bleeds easily if touched. It does not have nerves to feel touch but does give a sensation of pressure as stool passes.

It's hard for me to accept having this new body part and associated medical appliance constantly on my body. I'm not eager to go shirtless in front of anybody – no more beaches, pools, or bare backed work in the sun. The lack of control, feeling, and muffling means that I can let out a big fart sound at any time without warning – quiet meeting rooms make me anxious. The appliance takes more time to dry or change after a shower, so it's impossible to jump in for a quick shower.

The protrusion of the stoma makes me uncomfortable trying to lay on my belly in bed. It's not that the stoma hurts from the weight, but I worry that it will be harmed or get stuck trying to pass something out. Likewise, sexual relations are more inhibited. First, I don't feel very sexy with this big bandage-looking thing on my belly. Second, the flap of the bag hangs down right into the area where business gets done. I haven't found a comfortable way to fasten it out of the way. And third, the stoma and any contents of the bag make it uncomfortable to lie belly to belly with another person.

The biggest discouragement to me now is that: the ostomy interferes with intimacy and affection. The second biggest annoyance is with clothing. Now, in the winter, I can cover up the appearance of the appliance with layers of heavy clothes. But still it sometimes looks like I have something hidden under my shirt or that I have a strikingly large beer belly in comparison to my otherwise thin frame. This problem is likely to get worse as the weather warms.

My strategy for now is to get more comfortable with my own body and worry less about how it appears. But I am a person who likes to dress sharp in public, so having half my wardrobe not function and appearing less fit than I am is embarrassing.

I don't want to complain too much. Having the ostomy saves me from the poor function I had before the surgery: unpredictable bowel movements up to twenty times a day, pain, and an impending blockage. I feel lucky that I haven't had to endure worse medical augmentation. And I look forward to taking advantage of the greater freedom for travel and activities.