Kathleen Cuerdon-Kahn had stage 3b rectal cancer. Treatment was 28 days of chemoradiation, nine hours of surgery including a colostomy and perineal reconstruction, and six rounds of chemo with the consolation prize of minimal hair loss and the gift of neuropathy that keeps on giving. She's a retired attorney and forever aspiring writer with unfinished pieces stashed in Scrivener including a memoir and a novel. She has been married forever to the most patient man on earth. Her son is almost a lawyer and waiting for the bar results. Her family took up pandemic gardening that produced an alarming surplus of cucumbers and eggplant which led to an oversupply of pickles and ratatouille.
The unsmiling surgical resident with the do-rag stood near the foot of my bed. He looked worried and sleep-deprived. It was day two post-surgery. The anesthesia that plunged me into despair had worn off. I was considering that life might be worth living.
What I had feared most going into surgery wasn't dying during the operation.What I feared was infection and blood clots afterwards, the second wave of danger. Whether my stoma would work hadn’t entered my mind.
What made me saddest before the surgery was the permanent colostomy that my colorectal cancer surgeon would create after removing my rectum and sigmoid colon. His stoma nurse had placed a large black dot on my abdomen after checking where my body creased and bulged, a smooth stretch of skin in the upper left where the flange with a hole in the middle for the stoma would stick to my skin and provide the base for the bag. I had heard horror stories when I attended a colorectal cancer support group the month before surgery. They warned me to always have a change of clothes in the trunk of the car, always have supplies in case of an accident. The future looked bleak and downright shitty.
"Nothing yet," I said. I was sorry to disappoint him and concerned that something wasn't working right.
"But the bag is blown up like a balloon," I added.
“Gas! That's great!”
It might have been the anesthesia hangover, but I swear I saw his feet leave the floor like he was jumping for joy. I wrestled my hospital gown out of the way to show him the bag of gas. His face relaxed.
"You can let the gas out by burping the bag," he said as he carefully pulled the rim of the bag away from the flange. The bag deflated as the pungent aroma of poop escaped.It hadn’t occurred to me that I could fart in my own face.
Colostomy care rule No. 1: Don't lean over the bag when you open it.
I was appalled that the stoma was bigger around than I had expected and longer. It reminded me of the movie alien. I'd been told it would get smaller with time. I hoped that was true.
Getting a stoma is a bit like acquiring a new appendage, I suppose, if humans grew extra parts.There it is, all round and rosy, sticking out where nothing but smooth skin had been, quite astonishing to see even now 21 months later. It wasn’t new to my body, but it had been relocated and exposed making it vulnerable and in need of care and attention like a baby.It gurgled and pooped as unpredictably, too.
After the resident left, my addled brain put the words Gassy and Gus together. It sounded familiar. Is that what we called babies in my family when they farted?I decided it would be my stoma's name. Until that moment the idea of naming it hadn't occurred to me. It amused me, and I really needed a laugh.
I created a story for Gus about being pulled out of the warm, dark place he'd always lived into the harsh white light of the cold operating room and having to adjust to his new role blowing farts and dumping into a poop bag. I told the story to a nurse as she walked me through the halls. She thought it would make a good children’s book. I quickly developed affection for him which helped me adjust to having a colostomy. I dropped the gassy part of his name, and he became Gus, my BFF.
The ostomy bags in the hospital were clear. I didn’t like looking at my shit. One night a tech told me you can find ostomy bag covers online. When he’d finished recording my vitals, he did a Google search. The variety was amazing from superheroes for the kids to beautiful patterned fabrics to snarky comments like “I’d like to buy a bowel” and “Beats Being Dead.” It was another spot of comic relief that helped ease my way into acceptance.
A few months after surgery, my husband found Facebook groups for ostomates. When I joined I knew I’d found my people. I’m not the only one to name my stoma. It seems fairly common. Periodically, someone asks for a roll call. Best names I’ve seen so far are: Semicolon, Betty Poop, and Lady CaCa. Gus fits right in.