Exams are a stressful time for any student. Jam-packed schedules, constant reminders on efficient studying, long nights bent over books and a persistent chatter about grades in the cafeteria. The whole ‘exam-time’ atmosphere takes its toll on everyone but to face this while trying to manage a chronic autoimmune disease, exacerbates the feeling of being in over your head.
This was the situation I found myself in when preparing for my GCSE’s in the latter half of 2018. I had undergone a full colectomy in 2017 and from the very beginning, I battled to keep food down, was constantly nauseous and bloated and battled with inconsistent stoma output. Not the best preparation!
Initially, I assumed that this was simply due to having a stoma (whom I have christened, Boris) but it was only in the summer of 2019, after several A&E visits and hospital admissions, that an X-ray scan revealed an adhesion or ‘kink’ in the bowel from my surgery, which inhibited my ability to digest any portion of food or liquid.
The most crucial advice that any stoma nurse or doctor will give, is the importance of getting enough salt to avoid dehydration. Many people make the mistake of believing that drinking water keeps you hydrated, whereas with a stoma, it actually dilutes your electrolytes and has the reverse effect.
With chronic vomiting in addition to increased stoma output, I was almost always dehydrated - sunken eyes, hollowed cheeks, split lips and the inability to maintain focus on anything… least of all simultaneous equations and the application of the quadratic formula for my upcoming GCSE’s!
Academics have always been one of my priorities and the fear of falling behind with schoolwork and adhering to the proposed study timetables was a major issue for me. Every other week I was sporting my polka-dot hospital gown whilst navigating my way around scrawling out school notes with a saline drip. For me to say that I coped with the difficulties of a stoma and the post-op complications would be a massive lie. It has only been in the past year that I have been able to regain confidence with my body and prepare rather than react.
To achieve my targeted grades, I threw myself into schoolwork to avoid falling behind my peers and studied whenever I was able to stay awake. Adhering to a set timetable was simply unachievable because of the drastic fluctuations in my energy levels. Despite incorporating as much salt and rehydration sachets into my diet as possible, it just never seemed to be enough to get me through a full day.
So, I adapted. Getting home from school, I would head straight to bed for a few hours and then slot in some studying.
Although this is a worst-case scenario for stoma cases and was due purely to the complication with my bowel adhesion, getting enough salt throughout the day is crucial for focus, energy and general wellbeing. Proof, if it was needed, that our doctors are telling the truth.
Come exam month, I was as prepared and confident as I could be under the circumstances. Relieved that with each completed exam, I could finally get home without the worry of having to cram in science formulas or memorise history dates at 1am - after spending the evening either vomiting or sleeping.
During my English exam however, Boris decided that it was time to purge my system and within an hour of delving into a question about the ‘presentation of Ebenezer Scrooge’, my bag had leaked and my breakfast was running down my leg. An absolute nightmare at any time but magnified when you’re sitting in a hushed hall with 200 other anxious kids.
This incident fuelled me to find a reliable bag which could allow me to continue with my day even when Boris was being a bit bolder… thank heavens for ConvaTec!
In spite of a rough transition period, I managed to supersede my academic goals and hilariously achieved a 9 in my English (amazing what a bit of added pressure can do!).
I had corrective surgery, which thankfully was completely successful, meaning no more projectile vomiting or stoma blockages. Since then, I have enrolled at Westcliff High School for Boys where I am focused on A-levels without the stress of my body and bag failing me.
Although 2020 has been a dreadful year worldwide, it marks the first period where I have been able to establish some normality.
Inevitably, there will always be a couple bumps in the road – from emergency bag changes at school to the worry that Boris will let out a couple of toots in an assembly on county lines - but living with a stoma is a case of trial and error. It is not, however, a deal breaker.
My working stoma means I don’t have to worry about chronic pain or getting caught short in a middle of the night bathroom sprint. Now, I can finally focus on my studies, free from the fear that Colitis or Boris will cause havoc in my exam performance.
My bag gives me freedom, whether it’s running or skating on the promenade or stand-up boarding along the seafront.
More than anything else, I have peace of mind. I control what I want to do with my life, not my gut.
To those who are faced with the prospect of having a stoma, take everything that I have said with a pinch of salt (pun intended). Everyone has their own journey. Mine was made more difficult because of unforeseen complications, but in most cases the recovery process should be much more straightforward, getting you quickly back into the swing of life.
Be prepared and you can take each obstacle in your stride. It’s a winding journey with detours and lessons along the way. But you’ll soon learn what works for you.
Slaide's bag of choice is Esteem+™ Soft Convex. Available in closed, drainable and urostomy options and suitable for different stoma shapes and sizes.