After nearly 1,500 colostomy bags, Elizabeth Clark, 36, was preparing her final one – as she was about to have surgery that would mean she wouldn’t need them again.
To thank the doctors who were going to carry out the operation, she wrote an emotional note explaining how much it meant to her.
The message said: ‘Dear Surgical Team, This should be the very last bag I ever wear, for this…I am so grateful.
‘Thank you for looking after me. Take care, thank you for doing an amazing job. Elizabeth :)’
The 36-year-old, High Wycombe, had ulcerative colitis – a form of inflammatory bowel disease which causes inflammation and ulcers in the colon and rectum.
When the condition got very bad in May 2019, she had to have part of her colon removed, a stoma created and started using the bags to collect waste.
But over a year later, she was having life-changing J-pouch surgery, where the small intestine is restructured to allow stools to pass through the body without need for a colostomy bag.
The RAF safety engineer said: ‘I had spent a year of my life with tissues up my sleeves, a spare change of clothes for instances that I regularly had accidents, or being curled up on various bathroom floors.
‘I genuinely don’t think that words can explain to you how my life has been lifted. I literally have a new lease of life.’
She wrote the message the night before as she prepared her hospital bag.
Elizabeth added: ‘It was a bittersweet moment as I would always have to pack lots of colostomy bags.
‘This time I only had to pack one – my last one. And maybe a few spares in case of accidents!
‘I knew that the surgical team would prepare me for surgery after I was under the anaesthetic.
‘I also knew that they would see and remove the bag and then therefore be able to take a minute to read the message.
‘Prior to surgery you never meet the people who save your life, apart from the consultant and the anaesthetist of course.
‘But the surgical team and indeed the IBD team spread far wider. I really just wanted to reach out and say thank you to everyone.’
In January 2018, she started to notice blood when she went to the toilet.
She said: ‘I didn’t know what was wrong as I felt completely normal initially.
‘I was still working and felt absolutely fine, but deep down I knew I wasn’t.’
She started getting excruciating cramps and losing weight as a result of losing control of her bowel movements, but was so embarrassed by her symptoms that she didn’t know what to do.
Eventually it got so bad she was forced to go to A&E with a partially prolapsed rectum from straining, where she had a colonoscopy and was diagnosed immediately with ulcerative colitis.
Doctors prescribed steroids to help manage the condition.
Elizabeth said: ‘I was ok for a while, I took the steroids as prescribed. But then I started to get worse.
‘I was exhausted, sore all the time, experienced inflammation in my joints where I could hardly walk or pick things up, vomiting and visiting the toilet ten to 15 times a day.’
Over the next few months, Elizabeth was in and out of Shrewsbury and Telford hospitals trying different drugs to help stabilize her as she was visiting the toilet up to 30 times a day and losing a lot of blood.
She said: ‘I had stopped socialising at this point as I would have accidents and was so embarrassed.
‘I wouldn’t eat during the day for fear of making the symptoms worse and refused to stop working.’
Then, in May 2019, while on a work trip in the Shetland Islands, Elizabeth recalls ‘thinking my time was up’.
‘I was exhausted, I was being sick, I had no control over my bowels and there was constant blood coming from my rectum.
‘My joints were so inflamed that I didn’t have the energy to get up of the floor.’
She flew back to the mainland and was taken in for surgery to have part of her colon removed and a colostomy bag fitted.
This means her large intestine was brought out through the abdominal wall and an opening known as a stoma was created, where she could attach the bags to collect waste.
Elizabeth said: ‘I would love to say it was OK, and initially it was. I accepted it and got on with life.
‘I struggled emotionally seeing it on my tummy and some days I would just cry and cry and cry.
‘I hated my body in a physical and emotional sense. Firstly, because it had failed me and secondly because I was repulsed by having an alien sticking out of me that I had to cover with a horrid bag.
‘Unfortunately for me, having the bag really effected my sexual confidence. I was repulsed, hated my body and that’s no good for anyone’s sex drive!’
But on November 3, 2020, she was finally had the J-pouch surgery, which meant an end to the colostomy bag.
The surgery was a success, and Elizabeth has since grabbed life by the horns – found a job she loves, fulfilled a lifelong dream of owning a horse and got engaged to James Nelmes, 37, who was her boyfriend 18 years before.
She said: ‘I have confidence in my body again and I’m slowly getting back to being as active as I once was.
‘I have always been quite positive and upbeat, but I have really acknowledged and understood the importance of living since being poorly.
‘It may sound rather corny and a little cliché, but I always said to myself don’t worry, this time will pass and there are better times ahead, just be patient and kind to yourself.’
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