I talk a lot about living with ankylosing spondylitis, but I don’t talk much about my history with ulcerative colitis. Of course, I write about it at length in my book, but here, not so much. It’s coming up to 14 years since this aggressive, monstrous disease almost killed me, 16 years since my diagnosis, and given that I’m having bother with what’s left of my insides after years of thinking ‘I’m mended!’, it’s making me think, ‘when?’ rather than ‘if’ I will have to endure more surgery. I can’t bear to think about it, yet when I stop thinking about other things, it’s all I think about.
I had kept my colitis under control with steroids and by self-managing my diet and nutrition for almost two years, since diagnosis in 1999. However, because I was crippled with hip and back pain and unable to walk, my GP put me on anti-inflammatories. They certainly helped me to walk again, but the downside was that they exacerbated the colitis and I basically started bleeding to death within three days of taking the pills, barely conscious half the time, crawling from the sofa to the toilet 30 times a day. My GP seemed a bit concerned. I was a bit concerned. By the time I couldn’t lift my head off the pillow I reached for my mobile, rang my parents and said, ‘Er, I’m pretty sure I need to go to hospital’.
Once in hospital, things didn’t get any better; on day five it was announced that I’d be having emergency surgery to remove my entire large bowel in what’s know as a total colectomy. My parents were told to ‘prepare themselves’ as I ‘might not make it through the night’. My body was shutting down and I sure as hell didn’t have the ability to do anything about it. To prepare myself I asked for extra morphine and a Diazepam, waved goodbye to my parents with a fake smile on my face which of course, they saw right through, then cried myself to sleep.
Surgery was traumatic; I lost so much blood and was so gravely ill I had to be put back together in a real hurry. My bowel had disintegrated. The surgeon described it as having the consistency of blotting paper. If you’re wondering how an emergency total colectomy is performed, it goes something like this:
Slice open patient, right down the middle. Burn and cut large bowel from muscles and internal organs. Form ileostomy from small intestine. Lift out large bowel, which is falling apart and mainly just ulcers and blood. Dump on table. Panic about patient losing tonnes of blood. Wipe brow with back of arm. Turn up Vivaldi on the stereo. Pump blood into patient. Massage their heart when they go into shock. Staple patient’s torso back together sharpish. Hope for the best.
Things changed forever that day; not least because half my hair went white overnight when my body shut down, but because I’d suddenly acquired a loop ileostomy (stoma) for which I was totally unprepared for. I had also lost so much weight whilst slowly dying in hospital that bright red lump of flesh, which moved of its own accord, this monstrosity which was like a giant STOP button made of jelly, seemed to take over my body. I was so thin (I weighed 40 kilos, having lost 10 kilos from my regular weight) that it stuck out two inches from my stomach. I lost my mind in hospital; when I was diagnosed with post-traumatic depression I was promised some help, but it never came. Once I was able to eat real food (I say that in the loosest terms possible; this was a hospital, remember) and change my stoma bag myself (albeit crying, shaking and gagging the whole way through) I was released back into the wild, left to my own devices; somehow I was meant to pick up the pieces of my shattered life, a life which would never be the same again.
The thing is, up until the week of my almost dying I had never had the need to rush to the toilet, despite my colitis being diagnosed as ‘severe’ in the sense that the disease was right the way around my colon, rather than affecting part of it. I had never had stomach pains, never thrown up, didn’t have any of the symptoms which make people grateful for ending up with a stoma. To that end, I was utterly horrified at what had become of me, and while that feeling subsided a little after the first couple of months, it never truly went away. People would say, ‘Oh good, you’re better now’ and I’d say ‘No, I’m not better, I’m just not dead’. I couldn’t read a book, watch TV or listen to music for weeks. I was in a total state of shock; I barely uttered a word to my parents for a fortnight after leaving hospital, just saying ‘yes’, ‘no’ or ‘I don’t know’ on a loop.
I shook with anxiety the whole time. I was so weak from surgery and the dramatic weight loss, so sore from having my guts yanked out that just taking a shower exhausted me. I cried each time I had to change my bag, putting it off until midnight some days, simply because I couldn’t bear to look at it. I had such sore skin around it because I was allergic to the glue on the bag that blisters formed in two-inch deep circle all around the stoma. The spray I was given to help shift the glue from the bag stung as if someone was pouring acid onto my stomach. Let’s just say I couldn’t wait to get rid of it, and when my surgeon suggested J-pouch surgery which would rid of me of the stoma… well, I all over that idea.
Nine months later: I’m not going to lie, I actually had a worse time in hospital after that than I did when I was being fed through my veins and had a mouth full of bleeding ulcers. I lost a lot of blood again during surgery and fell into a critical condition, so I was sewn up in a hurry once more with only half the work done. Me and general anaesthetic are not friends.
I woke up with what’s known as an end ileostomy. Rather than it sticking out of my side like a big jelly button, it lay flat against my skin, more like a bullet wound. I won’t even tell you how I felt to wake up after surgery and be told that I still had my insides on my outside. There are none to convey the despair I felt. So what happened after that? Well, those of you who’ve read my book will know the answer to that. I had tubes going into every orifice possible; up my nose and down my throat, up my backside, into my groin, in both hands, in the crook of my arm, the epidural in my spine. It was utterly unbearable. Unless you’ve been there, you can’t possibly imagine what that’s like; all the while with burning pain, non-stop sweats, the inability to do anything for yourself.
I was let out after a couple of weeks, breaking all attendance records in desperation to get out. I actually leaving with an infection which the nursing staff missed. I knew something was wrong when I had a migraine, scorching hot skin and was throwing up, but I couldn’t stand another night on the ward next to old ladies with prolapsed bowels and dementia, so I said, ‘I feel OK’ and that was it, they let me go. I’d already called my parents that morning to say I was allowed home before the staff had even seen me. I’d made my mind up that I would just walk out of there if I wasn’t officially discharged. The stench on that ward was sickening; it’s no wonder I got even more sick from being there. I mean, who puts a patient who’s just had major surgery and almost died AGAIN, and therefore has huge wounds that need to heal right back on the ward where everyone else is sick? The billions of bacteria floating about in that hot, disgusting room, the room where the heating was on permanently, with no windows open and no air didn’t bear thinking about.
Things didn’t go smoothly; a couple of hours after arriving home from the hospital, my bag began to leak. I felt the hot, wet burning sensation (pure stomach acid with a little breakfast) trickle into my lap and asked my mum to help me to the toilet (I was so weak and so sore I could barely shuffle to the toilet at this stage). I couldn’t figure out what was wrong. My mum rang the hospital, and they said, ‘Oh right, we must have sent her home with the wrong bag, sorry about that.’ Brilliant. The stoma nurse had applied a bag suitable for the loop ileostomy, not the end ileostomy. I had a box full of the wrong bags, and here I was, sitting naked in the shower, stomach acid and the remains of my toast dripping down my legs, in floods of tears and complete panic.
The hospital said they would send a district nurse around the next day with the correct bags. I spent the night with an old towel wrapped around my middle, on top of two more towels, on top of my bed, with a blanket on top of me, in terrible pain, exhausted and completely bewildered. I wanted to die. I had nothing left. I was so tired.
Meanwhile, the infection I picked up in hospital was serious enough for my GP to insist I went back in. I insisted that seeing as I got the infection from there in the first place, there was no way I was going back to be exposed to more shit (both in the literal and metaphorical terms). I was instructed to go to the local hospital in that case, where I was born. I said, ‘Won’t it be funny if I die there as well?’ which wasn’t funny at all. I refused to go. I was prescribed super-strong antibiotics and managed to ride it out over the next few days. My poor parents went to bed each night wondering if I’d still be alive the next morning. I didn’t like to tell them that I was wondering the same.
Moving on: six weeks down the line and I’d got a handle on the new stoma – I still hated it and was still covered in blisters and sores, don’t get me wrong – and I’m walking along a leafy London street on a hot summer’s day to meet my boyfriend (said boyfriend is an ex-boyfriend who came back into my life just at the right time). I thought him pretty brave to pick up the pieces; he simply loved me the same as he always had; maybe even a bit more because I was kind of vulnerable and needed taking care of, something completely alien to me before this point. So, I’m walking. I’m wearing a knee-length denim skirt, vest top, wedges, sunglasses. All is as well as it can be, I thought.
Well, that was a BIG f*cking mistake.
Hot liquid ran down my leg. Hot, dark green liquid. A man was walking towards me; I put my hands over my stoma and stood still, squashing my legs together, hoping he’d pass quickly. He smiled, I smiled, he didn’t notice. I was alone again. I hurried, taking my phone out of my bag and calling my boyfriend who was just leaving work to meet me at his flat.
‘It’s me,’ I said, walking so fast now I was afraid I was going to trip up, ‘My bag is leaking, it’s leaking everywhere. I’m in the street and it’s all running down my leg. Please come and get me.’
I carried on walking, clutching my stomach, trying desperately to stem the flow of stomach acid and breakfast. I had no tissues on me (seriously). I was spending the weekend at his place so had brought along another bag so I could change it, but it hadn’t crossed my mind to bring a spare disc (the hard plastic bit which goes against your skin before the bag goes on top), nor had I brought a full change of clothes, other than underwear and another vest top. My skirt was all I had, and that was fast becoming a hot mess.
My boyfriend met me at the end of the street. I was in tears, utterly embarrassed and ashamed. His flat mates were at work, thank God. I shut myself in the bathroom and stripped my clothes off, throwing them into the bath. I showered myself off. The stoma went quiet, finally. My boyfriend, by now, was driving around London on his moped desperately trying to find a chemist who had some stoma kits in stock. Meanwhile, I was sitting on the loo clutching kitchen roll to my stomach, exhausted and panicking.
It turns out the chemists don’t stock stoma kits. I hadn’t known that. He tried four places before ringing me, and now he was in a panic. His next stop was the hospital (this was all in London’s rush-hour traffic, by the way, so an hour had already passed) who said they didn’t give out stoma kits either. He stressed that this was an emergency, but they were having none of it. Their answer was that I had to go home and ask my GP for a prescription. ‘She can’t go home, she’s leaking everywhere and she lives in Kent, not London!’ he exclaimed, exasperated by now. He went back to the chemist and bought what appeared to be the entire stock of bandages and tape.
While I patched myself up as best as I could he put my clothes in the washing machine and made me a cup of tea.
I wore one of his t-shirts and stayed in the bathroom in case it leaked again.
It leaked again.
I was hungry now, but afraid to eat because that would set the stoma off again. In the end we went for dinner around the corner, me in my freshly-laundered clothes, covered in tape and bandages. I also had tissue stuffed around my knickers in case it all kicked off again. We ate, we went back to the flat, I toyed with the idea of going home but I was too exhausted, and it was too far. Our whole weekend was ruined. I’d ruined it.
I spent the night lying next to my poor boyfriend, flat on my back, only now with a layer of Clingfilm over the bandages along with a towel on top of me, and one underneath me. I didn’t sleep a wink. I went home the next morning, praying that I’d make it through the train journey without another incident.
At the time, there was no social media, no Facebook, no support other than traditional newsletters and a helpline I never took advantage of. I never saw anyone else with disfiguring scars, with a bag, never read about it, nothing. If this happened now, I’d probably stop to take a photo of me sitting on the loo with bandages all over the place; I’d probably have taken a photo of my stoma, or asked my parents to document my decline in hospital. I have nothing to show for the horror I endured, apart from some very well healed scars. The long scar is actually two scars, one from each operation, very close together. It goes an inch above what you can see, and an inch below. Kim Kardashian would have a field day on Instagram with this shit; me, I just put my clothes on and don’t think about it.
At that point I vowed NEVER to leave the house without a spare disc, bag, wipes and change of underwear. That’s something everyone with IBD learns; sometimes the hard way. Since I had J-pouch surgery, I’ve not had to worry so much, but now that I’m not well again, it’s back to tissues, wipes, other stuff every time I leave the house. So, the moral of the story for anyone who’s just had stoma surgery is this: dudes, be prepared.
As Clarence says in True Romance, ‘It’s better to have a gun and not need it than to need a gun and not have it.’