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Life Without a Colon

Fifteen years ago, I wanted a BIG present to celebrate my birthday and graduation from high school; it cost more than both of their cars put together.

I was asking…pleading for a colectomy. Every year at this time, I think about this surgery, which for me, happened to be my cure from ulcerative colitis.

I am so lucky. Lucky, lucky, lucky.

Over the past 4 or 5 years, I’ve realized that now, I have lots of peers and dear friends who are far wiser than I–their struggles make this event 15 years ago look like a trip to Disneyland. That smug wisdom I had at 18 is over.

But, for a few years, that illness made me wiser than many of my peers. I learned about mortality. I knew, as only a select group of teenagers ever know, that sometimes, no matter how badly you want to live, your body won’t cooperate. You’ll keep bleeding, loosing weight, getting weaker.

No matter your positive thoughts.
No matter your prayers.

And, I learned that sometimes, for whatever arbitrary reason (because the older I get, unfortunately I realize that who stays and who goes feels terribly arbitrary), healing can happen, though it’s often not in the form I originally thought it would come in.

Instead of the miraculous healing I prayed for, the one where my symptoms disapper, and I walk out of the hospital, leaving doctors scratching their heads… I ended up with a different result, one without a colon and a few adjustments to my life, but a healing just as miraculous because of the many lessons it taught me.

If I hadn’t gotten so sick that summer, I think the life I led would have been very different. There are dear friends I would have never met.

I think it even had a profound affect on the person I chose to marry.  We didn’t (don’t) seem to have much in common on the surface, but 1995 was a rough year for both of us. And the things we learned that year (though such knowledge came under very different circumstances) formed part of our immediate bond when we got reacquainted in college and still frames our lives today, carrying us through difficult times.  

I wouldn’t have gone into religious studies or found hospital chaplaincy. I don’t think I would have applied to the graduate schools that I applied to and certainly wouldn’t have had the courage to go to the one I ended up going to. In fact, my mantra for five years post-surgery was, “I can do that. I’ve gone without food or water for 40 days, I’ve been in the hospital for 2 months, and I’ve lost a colon. This is nothing.”

That last flare-up taught me more about God and charity (and how God uses others to show love, do God’s work, and comfort us) than I have learned before or since. It also taught me a reliance on God that I don’t know if I could have learned any other way. I learned that when it’s 3 am, and I had to wait 2 more hours before my next doses of anti-nausea medication and/or pain medication, well, there wasn’t anyone else who was able to sit in that room and wait with me quite like Jesus did (though my mom was a close second).

The memory of that very real presence in my hospital room on more than a few hard nights in the hospital sustains me when my faith waivers even today.  So much knowledge was gained in such a short time that I sometimes wonder if I’ve learned anything since that illness or am I just constantly reframing that experience, trying to glean more from such a difficult time.

A couple years ago, I had an ob/gyn give me an exam. She looked at my stomach 14 inch vertical scar and the 6 inch horizontal scar. She said (as most people do), “Oh my gosh! What happened?!”

I explained I had a colectomy. She said, “You know, they only make about a 4 inch incision now for the whole surgery.”

But, I’m happy with my scars because a 5 inch incision just wouldn’t do justice to the illness or the healing. As I’ve reflected all month on where I was 15 years ago (yes, I’m a little embarrassed that I have thought about June 1995 this much), I wish I could show that 18 year old Emily my stomach today, pregnant with Baby #3, with the faded scars and most importantly, I’d have her notice that there aren’t any new scars. She never had another flare-up that would necessitate more scarring, she even got pregnant and that trusty pseudo-colon made it unnecessary for the Cesearans the doctors promised she’d need.

That ugly stomach would show her that she did what she feared she’d never be able to do when she got out of the hospital–grow up, move out, and move on.

EmilyCC

EmilyCC works for a national non-profit and lives in Phoenix, Arizona with her spouse and three children. She is a former editor of Exponent II and a founding blogger at The Exponent.

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18 Responses

  1. Reese Dixon says:

    I love this Emily. I’ve lost years of my life to chronic illness, and while I’m occasionally bitter at the lost time, there are lessons that I just would not have heard any other way. I am acquainted with God in my marrow, whether I wanted to be or not.

  2. Corktree says:

    What an amazing way to look at your experience Emily. I’ve spent my life with a body that constantly confuses me (and doctors) and yet amazes me. I definitely would not see things the way I do without my own small struggles and medical history, even with the worst of it being in my childhood.

    Thanks for sharing what you’ve learned. Great post.

  3. Stephanie says:

    This is exactly what I needed to hear today. Thank you for sharing.

  4. But, I’m happy with my scars because a 5 inch incision just wouldn’t do justice to the illness or the healing.

    Isn’t that the truth.

  5. Dora says:

    Emily, this is beautiful.

    We each have our own crucibles, don’t we. Sometimes I get very myopic, thinking that another’s trials and pains can’t compare with mine; so sure that no one else’s life is as hard as mine. Everyone else looks so happy and shiny, they must not have troubles comparable with mine, right?

    But when I pause, and exert a little effort to see beyond the exterior, feel empathy and find the ties that bind, we all have our trials and pains. Mourning with those who mourn. Comforting those who stand in need of comfort. Serving. Trying to expand my vision of love and humanity to match that of Christ’s. Learning charity and forging ties with those on earth and those above.

    I do think that weakness and humility are great teachers, if we let them be. Thanks for sharing this part of your life.

  6. kmillecam says:

    Emily, I love this post and how willing you are to share this part of your life with all of us. Chronic illness is such an interesting puzzle. Our bodies are so complex. I am glad that you can look back on your anniversary seeing how far you’ve come.

  7. suzann werner says:

    Emily,

    Now I understand why you come from a place of spiritually deep waters. Spiritual maturity is never easily earned, we all must pay a price. Thank you for being willing to share your personal journey with your colon. I am sitting her with my left thumb dug deeply into my colon, trying to make it stop cramping.

    So Emily, I am wondering if your eating instructions may help me. I do not know where to turn next. I am hungry, and afraid to eat.

    Suz

  8. I can’t wait to be looking back at my current issues. But I’m sure by then I’ll have different ones. But your words touched me.

  9. EmilyCC says:

    Reese, an excellent point! I think of how much I learned in my 6 years of chronic illness; I can’t imagine the growth of people who battle chronic illness for years and years.

    Corktree, it sounds like you have another good story to tell (apart from your impending birth story). We’ll just keep adding to your list of stories to send us 🙂

    Stephanie, I’m so glad. Thanks!

    Stephen M, coming from someone with his own battle scars, your comment means a lot.

  10. EmilyCC says:

    Dora, I couldn’t agree more with what you’ve said. My illness taught me the trials everyone often silently endures. Now, if I can just remember that in my day-to-day interactions and remember that lovely scripture in Mosiah 🙂

    kmillecam, thanks! I almost didn’t post this because it felt so personal.

    Suzann, I’m so sorry you’re still hurting…it’s been a long road for you, my friend! I remember jello, chicken broth, and eggs being the most soothing foods, but golly, it is so different for everyone. Keeping you in my prayers.

    Michelle, what perspective you have! I wish I could think that way more often. Good luck in your current journey.

  11. Ziff says:

    Wow, Emily, thanks for posting this! As a gigantic wimp, I think it’s wonderful how you’ve turned such suffering to your good, that you have such perspective on it rather than being bitter about it.

  12. Caroline says:

    This is just beautiful, Emily. I had no idea you had gone through this… thank you for sharing

  13. Tammy says:

    I am going to bookmark this post. I have had 2/3’s of my colon removed and it has honestly been one of my greatest fears that I will someday lose the rest. But seeing how you’ve come out of it, knowing that you have had 3 children, and that your life has gone on, makes me a little less fearful.

  14. Michelle says:

    I needed this today. It’s hard in the midst of the suffering to have this perspective, but it’s precisely this perspective of how trials can shape us that makes my challenges less heavy.

    Chronic illness is hard stuff, but it can be instructive, even when healing doesn’t come as we want — or may not come at all. At least not physically.

  15. EmilyCC says:

    Thanks, Ziff and Caroline!

    Honestly, Tammy, I am MUCH better off without my colon. My life is hardly affected by it; I just have to be more careful about drinking enough water and well, some other changes that is probably TMI for a non-medical blog 🙂 Wishing you good health on your journey!

    Michelle, I’m so glad you found this helpful. I had a friend once say, “Suffering makes us better people, but who wants to be a better person?!” In the midst of these trials, I couldn’t agree more. I hope you find healing with your illness; it can be so hard!

  16. Aimee says:

    Such a beautiful, brave and generous post, my dear. In all our conversations you’ve only ever alluded to this episode in your life in passing. Reading it here now only reconfirms for me what a powerful soul you are. Thank you so much for this.

  17. Heather says:

    How selfish of me! But if you’d never lost a colon, you’d have been off to college somewhere and I might never have met you that summer. Love love love you.

  18. Marty says:

    I have had Ulcerative Colitis for most of my life. Ever since I was young. I have had 4 Major surgeries starting in 1998. I suffer every single day of my Life with a multitude of physical symtoms. I really could use some relief & help if anyone can recommend anything that isn’t too time consuming, expensive or complicated. Thanxz in advance!

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