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3 Ways I Respond When My Stoma Makes 'Those' Noises

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We all carry around extra baggage. Perhaps you were bullied as a kid, endured a painful childhood, never felt secure with your appearance, or struggle with assertiveness. But enough about me! In truth, everyone has something they’d rather not own up to in public. Especially, when it comes to farts…

“Ew… someone just farted!”

As a seasoned elementary school teacher, I am no stranger to this familiar proclamation. The problem for me is that I’m often the one responsible for the farting noises. As a reading specialist, I work with small groups of students in a tiny room — not the ideal setting to muffle the noises my body involuntarily generates. The sounds that come out of me could put any whoopie cushion to shame. What’s worse is that I’m not really farting. It is physiologically impossible for me to pass gas. Try explaining that to a group of giggling fifth graders.

Like hundreds of thousands of Americans, I live with an ostomy bag. Before May 2006, I had never heard of a colectomy. Imagine my shock when I woke up from emergency surgery to learn that my colon had been removed and I was involuntarily pooping into a plastic bag attached to my abdomen.

It wasn’t until a year later, at age 32, when I really began to wrap my head around the fact that I was going to deal with a “poopy bag” for the rest of my life. This meant living with a constant and very noisy companion that screams for attention at the most inopportune moments. Basically, my stoma (the tiny part of my intestine that protrudes outside of my abdomen) drains liquid poop into a plastic pouch any time it feels like it. This can produce flatulent noises that are very difficult to ignore for even the most polite adult. Other times, my stoma generates loud gurgling noises akin to a drain that’s just been unclogged. When these embarrassing sounds escape, I have a menu of canned responses I can select from:

Option #1 (tell a lie): “Oh, excuse me, my stomach is growling, I forgot to eat breakfast this morning.” This is typically met with a weak smile that’s betraying the person’s body language which reads: Uh huh, sure.

Option #2 (tell the truth): “Sorry, my stomach makes weird noises because I don’t have a colon. The good news is, I’m not really farting, so no need to anticipate a foul odor.” I only say this to people who already know about my surgery, as this would be an odd thing to say to a stranger or acquaintance and I already feel like I come off weird enough.

 Option #3: Ignore the fact that I’m a human fart noise machine and just pretend I didn’t notice.

The reality is, none of these choices are ideal and it sucks to feel so out of control. It also sucks to walk around “farting” into a plastic bag, always worrying I smell because my ostomy bag might leak, or looking as if I’m pregnant (but only on my right side) when my ostomy bag fills up with air. But you know what sucks more? Dying.

If doctors hadn’t performed my emergency colectomy, I would have died at age 31, leaving behind my newborn daughter and 3-year-old son. When a nurse came in a few days after my surgery and said, “Lisa, a portion of your colon, the stoma, protrudes on the outside wall of the right side of your abdomen and drains output into your ostomy appliance.”

All I could think was:

Oh my God, my colon is sticking out of my stomach? And why is this woman speaking in euphemisms? “Output will drain into your ostomy appliance?” Why can’t she just say, “Liquid poop is going to involuntarily spill into this giant bag of poop that will be attached to your stomach with a sticky wafer?” What kind of voodoo quack sadist doctor developed this procedure? Did one day someone say, “Hey, how about we slice out peoples’ major organs and attach a bag to their bellies so liquid crap can empty into a nifty plastic bag.”

Ten years later, I’ve accepted my ostomy bag as my constant, noisy, life-saving companion. Many people who face a colectomy (whether it be due to colon cancer, Crohn’s disease or other medical conditions), say they would rather die than live with an ostomy bag. My surgery was an emergency, so I wasn’t given that choice. But if I had been faced with the decision, I know I would have chosen a bag over a burial.

Sure, it’s embarrassing to walk around sounding like a seventh grade boy who’s winning an armpit farting contest. Yes, it stinks to wear granny panties and select clothing that best conceals my bag. No, I don’t enjoy being stopped in every airport security line because my bag shows up on the X-ray machine and I’m suspected of being a drug smuggler. Still, even on my worst days, living with a bag sure as hell beats dying without one.

Originally published: August 19, 2016
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