Health

Halifax support groups aid those living with an ostomy

'People think it’s the end of their lives, but it’s really the beginning'

Elaine Jeffery (left) at the Stoma Stroll, which raised almost $10,000 for medical supplies and counselling programs.
Elaine Jeffery (left) at the Stoma Stroll Awareness Walk, which raised almost $10,000 for medical supplies and counselling programs.   Regina Peters

Three and a half years ago, Elaine Jeffery was diagnosed with cancer of the bladder. It could have killed her.

Instead, the organ was surgically removed in a procedure called an ostomy, leaving an opening called a stoma that redirects waste into a bag outside the body.

“In the early days, it was very hard,” she says.“When you don’t know what you’re doing, there are a lot of leaks.”

She says it took six months for “everything to settle”.

Today, Jeffery is president of Ostomy Halifax, the local branch of a nationwide support group for people living with her condition. Their mission, says the website, is to help people with ostomies “live life to the fullest through support, education, collaboration and advocacy.”

Ostomy Halifax was founded in 1976. Its achievements include running a summer camp for children with ostomies and helping to create a permanent position for an enterostomal therapy nurse at the IWK Health Centre.

They also run a volunteer program in which more experienced ostomates visit newer ones in the hospital and help them cope.

Betty Woolridge, the membership coordinator, arranges for new group members to get a 15% discount on bags and other supplies from Lawton Drugs and other participating companies. Her husband, Michael Woolridge, had an ostomy 24 years ago.

Sixteen years ago, Betty Woolridge founded SASO, Spouses And Significant Others, a support group for the caregivers of ostomates.

“Can [ostomates] travel, and can [they] play golf?” are the most common questions spouses ask, she says. The answer to both is yes.

“We have truck drivers, we have pilots, we have doctors and lawyers. They come from all walks of life.”

“The only thing you’re restricted in is lifting weights,” says Mike Woolridge, who travelled often as a salesperson for his company before he retired.

“Our lives have changed because of old age, not because of the ostomy.”

Mike Woolridge nicknames his stoma and bag “The Package”. His wife says many patients do this, in order to lighten their situation with humor.

“One lady calls hers Rosie, someone else calls it Willy.”

“It’s not the kind of situation where you’d say, “Pick me!”” says Jeffery, smiling.

“But if I hadn’t had the surgery, I wouldn’t be here. People think it’s the end of their lives, but it’s really the beginning.”