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5 lessons in 5 years from rocking the bag

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I just celebrated my 5-year anniversary of having a colectomy. My colon was removed due to severe ulcerous colitis (UC). In addition to the removal of my colon, I also had an ileostomy, which is a surgery to make a temporary or permanent opening called a “stoma.” A stoma (I call my stoma “Steve”) is a pathway from the lowest part of the small intestine, the ileum, to the outside of the abdomen.

I had just turned 50 years old in 2016 and I was rushed to the hospital due to a severe flare-up of my UC. I awoke in Singapore General Hospital (SGH) after a 9-hour operation. Coming out of a morphine haze, I looked down at my abdomen to notice a large bag. The doctors had told me about it beforehand, so it wasn’t a complete surprise, but to see it hanging there like a wet rag was rather disturbing.

In truth, my stoma “Steve” was the least of my problems. I had lung infections and pneumonia to deal with, not to mention I was vomiting copious amounts of blood. It took 5 grueling months, but eventually, I skipped well wheeled out of Singapore General.

Here are five things that I have learned since I started rocking the bag.

  1. The human body is amazing in the ways it can adjust. My weight had slipped down to 30 kilograms and I was unable to speak, walk, or eat. In a relatively short period of time (12 months), I almost completely recovered. I was walking, talking miracle. Modern medicine really is marvelous. In an earlier time in history, I likely wouldn’t be alive, and I certainly wouldn’t have the quality of life that I enjoy now thanks to wonderful companies like Convatec and Hollister
  2. Where the mind goes, the body will follow. That’s why so many people recommend focusing on positive things like inspirational stories, meditation, life coaches, laughter, bag jokes–just a general celebration of life. The body soon catches up to a great attitude. Like the saying goes: “It’s not what happens to you, it’s how you respond.”
  3. Nothing is as bad as it seems. I thought my life would be over after getting my colostomy bag. I thought I’d be unable to travel or swim, that I wouldn’t have fun anymore, that my company would close, and, worst of all, that people would stare at me everywhere I went. I constantly ruminated over what I might do in different situations—wouldn’t the bag destroy my life? No. In fact, the bag gave me life. My fears about wearing a colostomy bag never came to pass and now I get to use a disabled toilet, guilt-free.
  4. Focus on the benefits not for the negatives. Ironically, I am healthier now than I have been in the past 30 years. Living with UC is no picnic, and after suffering from this debilitating disease for 15 years, I can honestly say that I am celebrating every day.
  5. Practice deep love and deep gratitude. Sometimes when I bend over and tie my shoes, get up from a chair, or lie in bed I become overwhelmed with love and gratitude that I can still do the simple things in life. Now when I get stressed or worried, I simply stop and remember those 5 months at SGH, and that puts everything into perspective.

I thought my life was over but in fact it was a new beginning!

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