I sit in a padded teal reclining chair inside Mount Sinai Hospital. My father stands beside me, clutching a reusable bag that contains a container of nuts and cookies, a can of Coke, and the May 9, 2013 edition of the Toronto Star. The items will keep him busy as I undergo a four-hour operation to have my colon removed. As we wait for my surgeon to arrive, I silently tell myself that I want to be the poster boy for J-pouch surgery. I want to recover and go on to live a valuable life where I can contribute to the world. A life where I can run and hike and be a decent human being. A life that offers some hope to others who may have to face the same surgery.
My surgeon arrives to greet my father and me, and give us some last-minute information before the surgery. I rise from the chair and give my father a hug, then follow a nurse out of the waiting area and towards the operating room. The floor feels cold through the stretchy paper booties on my feet. I lie on an even colder steel operating table and more nurses get to work running IVs and taking my vitals.
“Are you a runner?” one of the nurses asks.
“Yes,” I reply.
“I could tell by your heart rate.”
The little exchange gives me hope that I can indeed recover from this surgery, and the second that is to follow in a few months’ time, and go on to live well with my J-pouch. Yes. I will be running again soon.
I count backwards from 100 as the anesthetic takes hold and the white light above me fades to black.
~ ~ ~
I was a fat kid. Multiple cans of pop and greasy cafeteria pizza every day for lunch will do that to you. I was fat through middle school and into high school. I knew I was in crummy shape, but it only really struck me one afternoon in high school when I went out to play football at lunch and one of the other students asked, “Who invited the fat kid?”
Fed up with my flabby, ugly, impossible-to-attract-a-girl-with body, I started running. I usually went at night when the temperature was a little cooler, and when the darkness could at least partially hide my shameful strides. The first few times I went out, I could barely make it to the end of my block before needing to slow back down to a walk. But my stamina increased over time, and as it did, my weight dropped. By the time I started college two years later, I had shed 6 inches from my waistline and 60 pounds from my overall frame. In that span, I graduated from running in basketball shoes to actual running shoes – my first pair were Nike Shox Turbos in a stellar black and gold colourway – and ran my first 10K race.
The activity I undertook to lose weight became something I just loved to do. Running gave me time to escape from the shitty moments and the shitty thoughts in my life. It gave me goals to aim for – longer distances, shorter times – and it kept me from ballooning up again to that fat kid I left in my dust.
I kept running through college. I kept running after I landed my first job. I kept running when I moved to Halifax, where I completed the Bluenose Marathon’s 10K event in 2006. I finished the race in the morning, and went out later that afternoon to play basketball at Halifax Common. The fact I was able to do so, then get up at 4 a.m. the next day and go to work feeling no worse for wear, got me thinking that running a half-marathon was something I could do.
So in early 2007, I signed up for the Bluenose Marathon again, checking off the half-marathon option on the online registration form. I kept adding kilometers to my runs, and everything was going well until April, when I couldn’t stop shitting bloody diarrhea.
The diarrhea came on with such urgency that I often couldn’t make it to a bathroom in time. I lost so much blood that I became light headed one morning, passed out, and smacked my head on my dresser. With a golf ball-sized bump on my forehead, I still went in to work.
I pulled out of the half-marathon, and moved out of Halifax that fall to go back to school in Toronto.
~ ~ ~
It wasn’t until late 2008 that I received an official diagnosis of ulcerative colitis to explain the diarrhea, the urgency, the accidents, and all those terrifying moments when I’d see bright red water in the toilet bowl. During stretches when medication kept the disease in remission, I ran. When it flared up, I stopped.
I remember one fall morning in 2011, after I just made it to the toilet on time to let out more bloody diarrhea, I looked longingly out my bedroom window at a runner chugging along the concrete sidewalk. As was typical of my flares, I needed corticosteroids to quell my symptoms. When I thought I was getting a handle on the flare up, I was be tempted to run again. So I did.
The urge to shit came on less than a kilometer from my house. I was left with two options: knock on a stranger’s door and ask to use their bathroom, or duck into a wooded area and shit in the bushes. I chose the latter. Even so, my underwear did not escape unscathed. I used leaves to wipe my backside and walked home, crying, in sloppy, soggy underwear and shorts. Why I chose to run in white shorts that day I’ll never know.
As one treatment after another failed, I opted for a two-part procedure to remove my diseased colon, replace it with a pelvic pouch, and hopefully get on with my life.
~ ~ ~
In May 2016, I ran my first race since my surgeries, a 10K event that was part of the Mississauga Marathon race weekend. I finished in under 50 minutes and felt horribly sore the next day. I ran with a team called Guts to Run that raises money for inflammatory bowel disease research. They decided to use one of my race photos for their 2017 poster.
Last year’s race reminded me that there was indeed life after large intestine removal, and that maybe, just maybe, I’d be able to build myself up to my pre-ulcerative colitis running capability. But life then, and life now, isn’t just about running. It’s about going to work for a charity that helps people with Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. It’s about participating in advisory boards to shape future colitis care standards. It’s about being able to live independently in a pedestrian apartment that I love. It’s about being able to go on dates and meet new people. It’s about being with friends who make you laugh and make you think. It’s about enjoying life, not enduring it. I’m lucky enough to be in that state now because of this wondrous creation known as a J-pouch.
When the Mississauga Marathon online registrations opened for 2017, I stared at the categories for a while, selected half-marathon, clicked on submit, and let out nervous laugh. Would I be setting myself up for another failure? Would my inflammatory bowel disease perk up again with weeks to go before race day? Would my body even be able to handle the rigours of a longer distance?
Race day in Sunday, May 7, and barring another blindsided hit from life’s wrecking ball, I will take part in the half-marathon. It’s a race ten years in the making. An act of revenge on ulcerative colitis ten years in the making. I just hope I can get there. But whatever happens, at this moment, I feel like I’ve done my pelvic pouch, and the team at Mount Sinai Hospital, proud.
If you can chip in a few bucks to support the Guts to Run team, please make a donation here.