Having a stoma saved my life
by Keith Thomas
As part of #stomaweek, Keith Thomas, 59 from Llanelli shares his story on how his stoma ‘Homer’ gave him a new lease of life and how he’s never been happier since his diagnosis of Ulcerative Colitis. We’d like to thank Keith for sharing his story with us, and helping others with their own journey.
My name is Keith Thomas; I am a 59-year-old bus driver from Swansea in South Wales and I now live in Llanelli. I was diagnosed with Ulcerative Colitis in 2008 after many years of illness.
My bowel finally gave up on me in 2012 and I had to have a total colectomy. Prior to this, my working life had become increasingly difficult. All through my illness, I worked as a Quality Control Inspector and then a Purchaser for a bus seat manufacturer. This was a very difficult time for me as I ended up with one of the worst sickness records ever. I would always try to get to work but when you get a hundred yards up the road on your journey to the factory and then, due to colitis, you soil yourself, you must make the decision – do you shower and try again or just phone in sick? Unfortunately, the phone call usually won. On days like this I felt so ill and depressed, I didn’t know if going back to work would ever be an option. Well I can tell you now that getting back to work really is an option. After my life changing operation, I was back in work after six weeks, although I had to be very careful not to lift anything too heavy; a hernia was a real threat due to the opening in my stomach wall to accommodate my stoma, leaving it considerably weaker than before.
Although I was pleased to be back in work full-time, I was missing my previous life as a coach driver. I had spent ten really enjoyable years doing this but had to give up partly because my illness was making it difficult to accommodate this kind of job. I happened to see in the paper that First Cymru were advertising for drivers, I made the decision to apply for a position and I can honestly say it is one of the best decisions I have ever made. I was totally open and honest about my illness and operation and how my life had changed for the better since gaining my stoma. I work forty hours a week as a bus driver so having an ostomy has, in reality, meant that I have been able to return to a pretty normal life. Having an ostomy and being able to work is very important to me and I have made sure that working is no longer the obstacle it used to be.
Life feels amazing; illness is a dark old place and realising that you came so close to losing your life really makes you appreciate it on a completely different level. I want to tell whoever will listen that I have a stoma called ‘Homer’ and that he saved my life. I want to show others that there is life after illness and doing a full-time job is possible. I work with a lot of people and I would say 90% of them know about my stoma. I am treated no differently by my colleagues or management because I have a disability, albeit a hidden disability. I choose to use disabled toilets whenever possible as they provide more room to empty my bag, but I have had no problem emptying it in a train toilet and even an aeroplane toilet. Being an ostomate just means a different toilet routine and it is up to the individual how they approach these challenges. Personally, I tackle it head on and it works for me. I can safely say that six years later I have an amazing life. I know I am one of the lucky ones having a totally positive ostomy experience so far with no problems or leaks to talk about.
It can be something that preys on your mind though. A while ago, I was driving my bus between Llanelli and Swansea, a journey that takes about an hour, when I noticed a strong smell of poo in my driver’s cab, my first reaction was, “Damn- I have a leak in my bag.” I looked down at my shirt and saw nothing but the further I drove, the stronger the smell got. This was very confusing and a little worrying. When I reached my destination, the mystery was solved. A lady got off with her baby in a pushchair and said:
“Sorry for the smell driver, he has filled his nappy.” Phew what a relief that was!
After my operation, I decided to expand my social media presence and use it to share my experiences and offer advice and support to others. It took off and started to grow rapidly, mainly due to my Twitter account. This in turn led to a lot of other things: a few blogs, a swimwear photo shoot for ostomy wear, charity fundraising, I even managed to appear in a 2017 calendar. I take great pleasure in talking to other people about my ostomy and if it helps just one person to cope a little better, then job done. I am now a regular blogger, plus I have posted quite a few videos about my ostomy on my YouTube channel and on social media. In fact over the lockdown I have discovered TikTok so ‘dad dancing’ has now become a regular feature. Very importantly, I make sure I exercise by walking regularly. In 2018 I completed a year- long challenge which involved walking 5km once a week for 52 weeks. In doing this, I raised over £1,300 for Crohn’s and Colitis UK.
When asked why I am so positive considering what I have been through, I reply I have lost so many people to so many illnesses, but I am still alive and will not waste my life being negative. Please join me on my positive journey as we have one life, we should make the most of it. IBD is a horrible illness that so many have to live with, I am glad to say from my experience, living with a stoma is not the horrific thing some people think and I would choose it over illness every time.
Keith is supporting Bladder and Bowel Community’s #stomaweek where we want to highlight to stoma patients how Bladder and Bowel Community can help. You can apply for a free ‘Just Can’t Wait’ card, which can help you to discreetly indicate whilst you’re out that you urgently need the toilet.