Yesterday marked the 1 year anniversary of my life sans colon.  On April 11, 2011, I had a laparoscopic total abdominal colectomy: a 4-5 hour surgery that involved five tiny abdominal incisions and the removal of my entire colon.  Why am I sharing this information, you might ask?

I don’t know.

I spent the day wondering how I was supposed to be commemorating this life changing event.  Was I supposed to be happy or sad?  Should I be grieving or celebrating? I couldn’t decide if I should be lighting a candle for my deceased organ or making balloon hats in the shape of the large intestine.

One year later, I am still wrapping my brain around the fact that 8-10 feet of me is now gone. Is this a good thing or a bad thing?  Most of the time, I choose to see it as a gift rather than a curse.  At the very least, it makes for interesting cocktail party conversation.  Most people, whether they admit it or not, love to talk about poop. It’s a universal fascination.  When someone learns about my surgery, I become the poster child for fecal elimination.

So I have comprised a list of FAQs…just in case you are curious.

“Did you have cancer?”

No, thank God.  After a series of bizarre GI tests that defy description (can you expel a balloon inflated in your ass in less than 3 minutes?  Because I can!), I was diagnosed with a nerve defect called hypoganglionosis, which is a scarcity of ganglian nerve cells throughout my entire colon. My surgeon originally thought I had Hirschsprung’s disease, which is an absence of the same ganglian cells in one small section of the colon.  However a rectal biopsy and neuropathology study revealed the paucity of nerve cells throughout the whole enchilada. So, instead of removing a small section of the colon, my surgeon had to take out the whole thing, soup to nuts. Hypoganglionosis is pretty rare; it accounts for only 5% of all intestinal neuronal malformations.  According to the Journal of Medical Case Reports, only 92 cases of hypoganglionosis were reported from 1978-2009, and a bunch of those people were already dead.

While I was recovering in the hospital, the med students started conducting guided tours to my room.  I felt like the elephant man.  The fact that I am a medical rarity is not shocking to me…nor is it the first time. I had a mysterious bout with pancreatitis at age 17, and later that same year I had a tree crash through the windshield of my car while driving 45 mph on a perfectly sunny day.  I still play the lottery though, because hey, you never know!

“What is the difference between your colon and large intestine?”

There isn’t.  They are the same thing, but colon is the more “medical” term for the large intestine.  More specifically, the colon is divided into four sections: the ascending colon, transverse colon, descending colon, and sigmoid colon.  In normal people I am pretty sure the colon is about 6-8 feet long.  I never received the exact measurement, but my surgeon said: “I have no idea how that anaconda fit in your body.”  So I am guessing mine was pretty long.

“You can live without your colon?”

This is one of my favorite FAQs, considering I am standing there talking to the person.  Do they think I am a ghost?  So yes, obviously you can live without your colon/large intestine.  Small intestine, no such luck – so you want to hang on to that bad boy. Digestion is completed and nutrients are absorbed in your small intestine.  The job of the colon is to absorb water, sodium, and fat soluble vitamins.  When food enters your colon, it is still liquid form.  As it travels through, the colon absorbs the water from the waste, and voila!  A poop is formed and then exits via your rectum.  So my biggest challenge now is hydration.  One hot yoga class without proper hydration can (and has) landed me in the ER.

“Where does your poop come out?”

Because I still have my rectum, my poop comes out the same place as yours.  For people suffering from rectal cancer or Crohn’s Disease, many times the rectum needs to be removed.  A stoma (“mouth” or “opening”) is created in the side of the abdomen for waste to exit into the attached ostomy bag.  (At least this is my limited understanding of it).  I am very grateful for my rectum, as losing it poses a whole bunch of new challenges.  A girl I know from high school suffered from Crohn’s Disease and actually started her own line of underwear called Ostomy Secrets.  She kicks ass.  Pun intended.

“What can/do you eat?”

This is still a bit of trial and error. At first it was all toast and mashed potatoes, but now I would say my diet is fairly normal.  Over time, my system is supposed to acclimate as other organs pick up the slack, but I think it takes a while.  I think of my small intestine as the jilted wife whose husband moved out: she wasn’t sad to see the lazy bastard of a colon leave, but she’s pissed that now she has to cook, clean, AND mow the lawn.

I can say with some certainty that brussel sprouts are off the menu.  Permanently. Just sayin.

“So are you back to normal now?”

Is that a trick question?  Because if you ask those closest to me, I am pretty sure they would say I wasn’t normal in the first place. Is my life the same? No.  Before the surgery, I tried to Jedi mind trick myself into thinking this was going to be the best thing that ever happened to me. Maybe having my colon removed would make me smarter and better looking!  Maybe the removal of my clunky, shit-filled large intestine would clear my clouded thinking and lead to enlightenment!

Ahh, if only life were that simple.  Physically I am different, and many ways this is a good thing; I now poop a few times a day versus a few times a month.  However removing a major organ is not without its complications…I learned yesterday that another (lesser) surgery is in my future.  I have become really anemic since the surgery and have had one blood transfusion and 12 iron infusions since January. My body is still trying to figure things out…to find a new normal.  It’s hard to believe that last year I ran a marathon and now running 3 miles feels like a minor miracle.

That being said, I am abundantly more grateful for those 3 miles than I was upon completing 26.2.  I take a lot less for granted.  I am forced to move through life at a slower pace, and this is a good thing, because I catch a lot of little moments that I would have missed before.  I can’t stay angry at my husband, because the man deserves a medal for assisting his wife with many tasks not covered in the Good Husband Handbook. How can you be stay mad at a man who straight catheterized you for 10 days?  Phil could find my urethra blind-folded and six beers deep.

I let things go.

Because, unlike my colon, life is short.




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