How much do you know about stomas and colostomy bags? Even for those with digestive problems, the answer is often ‘not much’. For author, podcaster and vlogger Hannah Witton, who’s had ulcerative colitis since she was a child, things were no different. But when she had to get an ileostomy, there was a whole new world of toilet habits and body functions to get used to, and now she has a new best friend – Mona the stoma
Most people seem to have some understanding of colostomy bags. It’s where you poo into a bag, right? That was also the extent of my knowledge, even though I’d been living with ulcerative colitis (UC) since I was seven years old.
Well, my mum says I had dodgy poo since I was a baby, but I was diagnosed with UC, a form of inflammatory bowel disease (same family as Crohn’s), when I was seven. I went through a whole bunch of flare-ups, usually affecting me every two years, and then 10 years of nothing – until 2017.
My colitis had come back after 10 years of leaving me alone, and it came back hard. I was so ill over Christmas that I spent the whole day in bed and couldn’t eat anything. I spent New Year’s Eve on a hospital ward, and I stayed there for four weeks. On Sunday 14 January 2018, I had emergency surgery to have my colon (large intestine) removed. And now I live with an ileostomy. Not a colostomy. Wait, what? There’s different types of poo bags?
And so began my journey of learning all about ostomies, AKA stomas. How to put on and take off a bag, how to care for it, clean it, what to eat and what not to eat (sweetcorn is a no no). There’s not a lot of information out there (unless you’re specifically looking for it) about stomas, even though a lot of people live with them. My own knowledge was incredibly limited even though I had ulcerative colitis! So I want to shine light on the reality of living with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) and a stoma. There’s a lot of stigma and shame around it. People with stomas often feel too ashamed to talk about it, and others are curious and want to ask questions but don’t know how, or maybe have some misconceptions.
First of all, what the heck is a stoma? Well, a stoma is an artificial opening in the body. Depending on where on the body the stoma is, something different comes out. A colostomy comes from part of the colon, an ileostomy (what I have) comes from the ileum (part of your small intestine), and a urostomy is for urine. Mine is red, moist, fleshy and comes out of my right side. You stick a bag to your body to cover the stoma and collect the output – yes, it’s called ‘output’.
The biggest misconception I see floating around is about hygiene and smell. Fair enough, it is poo we’re talking about here. But to be honest, I more thoroughly clean my stoma than I ever did my butthole. The bag itself doesn’t smell – there are filters to help with that. The only time you’ll smell my stoma output is if you go to the toilet after me; it’s something I’ve just had to suck up and deal with when using public toilets. I’m never going to see those people again!
So, yes it was me who stank up the toilet – but it absolutely wasn’t me who did that horrifically smelling fart! Yes, I can still fart (out of the stoma though). You can sometimes hear it, and I can feel it too. I like to put my hand over the bag as it’s popping off a bunch of farts – very satisfying. But you will never smell my farts, because they’re protected in the bag. So it wasn’t me.
Read the full piece in the February issue of Happiful, available in supermarkets and online from Thursday 17 January.
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Find Hannah on Instagram and Twitter @HannahWitton, online at hannahwitton.com, or check out her YouTube channel. To learn more about stomas, ulcerative colitis, and inflammatory bowel disease, visit crohnsandcolitis.org.uk. To learn more about how a nutrition professional could support you after diagnosis, visit nutritionist-resource.org.uk.