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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Shedding a light on ostomy

Bodily waste elimination tough to talk about, but impossible to ignore

It’s something most people don’t want to talk about or even think about. The squeamish blanch at the details; for others the subject is just too intimate to discuss. But the 700,000 people in the U.S. living with a permanent ostomy don’t have the luxury of ignoring the subject of bodily waste elimination.

Simply put, an ostomy is a surgical procedure that creates an artificial opening for the elimination of bodily wastes. The waste is collected in bags or pouches. There are three types of ostomies – colostomy (descending colon), ileostomy (ascending colon), and a urostomy (bladder). Some people need to wear two bags – one for urine and another for solid waste.

Oct. 6 is International Ostomy Awareness Day. This year’s theme is “Let’s be heard,” and Cheney resident John (Gus) Hall isn’t shy about discussing his surgery.

In 1996, Hall was diagnosed with colon cancer. “I’d had trouble with bowel movements,” he said. “I went to the doctor and they found a growth in my colon.”

The growth was cancerous and Hall, who had a hunting trip scheduled, opted for immediate surgery. He knew better than most what this diagnosis could mean. His father-in-law spent three years battling colon cancer before succumbing to it.

Hall has always been an active man. While in college in 1948, he trained for the Olympic cross-country and ski-jump teams. A car accident, in which his leg was severely injured, ended his quest for Olympic glory. “Talk about being fortunate,” said Hall. “They were able to rebuild my leg and I went right back to skiing.”

He faced this latest health challenge with the same grit – determined that it wouldn’t slow him down. His surgeon gave him two options: “He said you can have a bag or you can have a diaper,” Hall said.

He shrugged. “I said, ‘Give me the bag. How quick can you do it? I want to go hunting.’”

That was 16 years ago, he hasn’t slowed down much. He finally retired from the insurance business at age 78. “I didn’t want to,” he said. “But my daughter told me, ‘It’s time for you to stop working and take good care of mother.’”

Hall and wife Pat have been married for 61 years.

And while he’s maintained an active lifestyle despite the occasional annoyances of living with colostomy bag – cancer wasn’t done with the Hall family.

“Our youngest son Rich was diagnosed with colon cancer at age 42,” said Hall. He grew quiet, and then took a deep breath. “He died in 2010. He was 45 and left two sons.”

The year before Rich’s death, infection and cancerous cells caused Hall to lose the leg injured in that long ago accident. But neither grief, nor being an amputee slowed him down for long. He’s spent his past two birthdays waterskiing with a group from St. Luke’s Rehabilitation Institute.

Connecting with other ostomy patients proved vital to Hall and his wife. They attend a monthly ostomy support group at Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center. “We also go to an amputee group,” Hall said. He grinned. “You get enough support groups and you’ve got a social life!”

Susie Leonard Weller, who facilitates the ostomy group said, “At the monthly meeting we typically have an ostomy nurse who provides technical support.”

In addition, Rich Judd, Eastern Washington representative for Byram Health Care, has been attending the monthly meetings for 20-plus years. He provides information about what’s new with ostomy supplies and the various vendors, as well as insurance information.

Weller said the group focuses on topics such as nutrition, travel tips, humor, grief, impact on relationships and sexuality.

She’s written a free eBook “From Grieving to Thriving: 8 Tools to Enjoy Greater Aliveness,” detailing her own ostomy journey. She said, “One of the reasons I wrote the eBook is to promote International Ostomy Awareness Day. In addition to raising awareness about the 700,000 people in the United States who live with a permanent ostomy, the promotion also provides resources for the 100,000 who receive surgery each year – including those who get a temporary ostomy. New breakthroughs with life-saving surgeries and medical technology make it possible to live an active and rewarding life.”

Hall agreed. “It’s not a big deal. You gotta poop in a bag. What’s so bad about that?” He looked at his wife and smiled. “I think I’m the luckiest person in the world.”