Stoma bag doesn't slow James down
James Whitford recalls the moment it sunk in that part of his bowel had been removed, and he would spend the rest of his life using an ileostomy bag.
"It felt like the end of the world," says the 45-year-old, as he relaxes in the bar of The Armoury pub in Shrewsbury.
"It was a huge shock. I was a climber and mountaineer, I enjoyed mountain biking. I'm a geologist by trade, and spent time working in Africa and China. I went on holiday in Africa, I did that sort of thing all the time.
"I thought how was I going to do that with a bag stuck on my side?"
Fourteen years on, James still enjoys all of these activities, and has added deep-sea diving to his list of pastimes.
He says it was seeing the other patients around him in hospital with conditions more serious than his that convinced him he could lead a full and active side if he set his mind to it.
"I was in a ward with seven other people who had their legs amputated, and I thought 'what have I got to worry about?'"
James, a patient with Birmingham-based Salts healthcare which produces specialist stoma bags, had seen his weight plummet from an already slim 11st to just 7st 7lbs over the six months before. But matters came to a head when he went to stay with his parents in Scotland to recuperate.
"I kind of ignored it, I thought it was one of those things, but six months after that I got very poorly very quickly," says James, who works in Hadnall, near Shrewsbury.
"I was rushed to hospital in Inverness, they thought I had a heart attack.
"Fortunately there was a gastro guy in A&E, and he said he knew what it was straight away.
"They couldn't do anything to save the bowel, I had a toxic megacolon, and three days later they removed part of my bowel."
James's illness was the result of a combination of ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease.
His situation is more common than you might think. There are 130,000 ostomates – people who use either colostomy or ileostomy bags following major surgery to their digestive system – in the UK, accounting for one in every 500 people. And in the run up to World Ostomy Day on Saturday, he is telling his story that having such surgery is no bar to enjoying a fulfilling life.
He is also keen to dispel the myth that these conditions are the preserve of the elderly, pointing out that there are many babies and teenagers who require the surgery as well. To raise the profile of the condition, the organisation Stomawise has also taken to producing calendars featuring people of all ages and backgrounds showing their bags while carrying out a variety of activities.
James, who lives in Rugeley, says the speed of his diagnosis, and the urgency of his condition meant he had little time to dwell on the implications of his surgery, which with hindsight was probably a good thing.
"I think if I had time to think about it I would have put it off, but I was told 'you have got to have this operation now or you will die'," he says.
His surgery involved bringing the end of small intestine out onto the surface of the skin, allowing intestinal waste to pass out and be collected into an artificial external bag which is adhered to the skin. James says the products available today means that he can do pretty much anything today that he could do before the operation.
Shortly after the operation he met his wife Cat, and this soon led to him overcoming another challenge.
"We had just got together and she said 'I have booked a deep-sea diving holiday in Egypt for Christmas," he says.
"I had just had my bag in August, and I was going diving in December. I asked my specialist if there was any reason why I couldn't dive. He said it was no problem, and at that point I felt I had something to prove, if only to myself, that I could do it."
James says he would probably have never taken up diving in the first place if it were not for his desire to overcome the challenges of his condition.
He continues to travel the world, both for work and leisure, and continues to ride both his mountain bike and motorcycle.
"In April this year I spent three weeks in Botswana, driving a four-wheel-drive across the Kalahari Desert, it didn't stop me doing any of that," he says.
"I have to plan a certain amount, with my medical supplies, if I'm away for three weeks, I have to get 21 bags ready."
He says occasionally this can lead to questions being asked at the airport, although it is usually the security staff who are more embarrassed than he is.
"They are usually very apologetic when they see the bag," he says.
At the moment he is preparing for the 24-hour Mountain Mayhem cycling endurance challenge which takes place in Northampton in June next year, and as part of his preparations he regularly cycles 39 miles each way to and from work.
"My message to anybody who finds themselves in my situation is don't be afraid to try things," he says.
"It hasn't stopped me doing anything, and there are plenty of products out there to help you. There's no reason why you should stop doing anything."