Visiting a Patient with a Temporary Ostomy - A Personal Reflection
As a certified visitor with the local ostomy chapter, I have had many occasions over the years to visit patients who have just undergone surgery that left them with a temporary ostomy. Usually a temporary ostomy is done on an emergency basis, as the result of a blockage or obstruction in the colon. This may be the result of diverticulitis, colon cancer, inflammatory bowel disease or Crohn's disease, and the result is a temporary ostomy to allow the bowel to heal. The intent is to reconnect the bowel at a later time, and many patients are told by the attending physician to expect to have an ostomy for anywhere from three to nine months.
My first thought as I headed off to visit a patient with a temporary ostomy was that this would be a piece of cake, and the visit would involve lots of questions about management of the ostomy. I also figured that the patient would be greatly relieved knowing they would not have to deal with an ostomy on a permanent basis. Boy, was I wrong!
This particular patient was angry beyond all belief, upset with what had happened to her and definitely not prepared to deal with anything as disfiguring as a colostomy. To be sure, she wasn't angry with me, but the medical profession as a whole suffered her wrath and it was quite evident that the nursing staff gave her a wide berth. She was NOT going to like this ostomy thing! Not having encountered this kind of reaction before, I wasn't exactly sure how to proceed, but I found myself listening to her frustrations and empathizing with her situation. This calmed her somewhat and she told me that I was the first person who had not treated lightly her fears about the ostomy. She felt people did not take her seriously because hers was only a temporary situation.
The visit actually went fairly well after that and although she was still angry with many things, I left feeling that she would manage her colostomy quite well in the short period of time she would have it. It impressed upon me that people with temporary ostomies struggle with the same fears and anxieties that all of us who have permanent ostomies do. In addition to this, because the surgery is done on an emergency basis, they have absolutely no time to prepare themselves for the eventual outcome, the ostomy.
Do I sound like an all-knowing and understanding saint?? Well, I don't feel like one on some of these visits. In general, I find most persons who have just had surgery resulting in a temporary ostomy to be very upset and unusually angry. They just hadn't expected this! I am sympathetic, as mentioned before, but the thought also crosses my mind, "Deal with it!" Recently, I paid a visit to a woman who, after her emergency surgery, asked me how I could tolerate having a permanent ostomy! At that moment it seemed bizarre that I should be counseling her when I am the one who has to live with this thing on a full-time basis. She could look forward to a reversal. On the other hand, hard as it may sound, her comment actually helped me and I didn't have to hesitate a second for the answer. I know I cope with it because I wouldn't be here if it weren't for my surgery for colorectal cancer. I was 37 at the time and I suppose I had every reason to be angry but I wanted so desperately to live. The surgery and colostomy gave me a second chance at life, for which I am grateful.
I would like to be able to remind some of the people who have to live with temporary ostomies that their surgery likely saved their lives too, and that a few months is really not such a long time to live with an ostomy. But I also have to remember how very frightening this surgery is and how it is still considered such an awful thing to have an ostomy. Despite our attempts to educate the public about the normal lives we lead, who among us wouldn't choose not to have an ostomy? So I internalize my thoughts and sympathize and try to make the patient feel better about coping with their new situation. But a question still lingers: Why do some people marvel at their good fortune while others retreat into anger and disgust? We humans are a complex lot.
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Content last revised 2003-05-11