MEET JEMMA. She's 27 years old. She had served 7 years in the Australian army when she was diagnosed with acute ulcerative colitis 2 years ago. Within 8 weeks of her diagnosis, she had to undergo emergency surgery for a total colectomy and ileostomy. Jemma was medically discharged from the army because of her illness and lost her career.
Q: Have you always been open about the fact that you have a jpouch? If not, what was it that flipped the switch?
A: Not at all, my closest family members and friends knew at the start and that was it. I used to be so embarrassed about it. I guess the longer you go through it, the more time you have to adapt and the less self-conscious you get. What flipped my switch was time and also meeting others like me. Time heals everything and over time I accepted it, and couldn't change what happened so I started embracing it. Meeting people with a jpouch and ileostomy has made me a lot more accepting, and helped me feel less alone.
Q: What’s the weirdest question you’ve been asked?
A: When I had my reversal, I actually had someone say to me, "Oh, so your ileostomy bag is now inside your stomach which is called your pouch?"
I have also been doubted by nurses who have asked, "Are you sure you don't have large intestines? You do realise what that entails?"
Q: Tell me about your passion for fitness.
A: Being in the army, it was part of daily routine to start work with exercise. But it's when I deployed overseas to the Middle East in 2012/13, that's when I started lifting weights. I used to only do cardio as I loved running, but after having 4 ankle surgeries including a reconstruction I started weights training instead of cardio. After my diagnosis and all of my surgeries I lost all my strength and 20% of my body weight, I couldn't even walk around a grocery shop without pain or fatigue. My husband and I were constantly putting things on hold in life because I was so weak. That's when I realised, "This has to change, I can't live like this."
My motivation was my partner, and I booked in a wedding date. He joined me and helped me gain back my strength and determination to get my body back to being strong enough to carry myself. Before I started my fitness journey with my jpouch I use to nap 1-2 times daily. Fatigue was an issue and obviously so were the copious toilet trips. I booked myself in with a highly experienced personal trainer after my wedding and since working with him I have seen a tremendous amount of change in not only my body but my mental health too.
I realised that with a jpouch you actually have to eat more frequently and smaller meals throughout the day. My toilet trips dropped from 12 down to 4-6 per day immediately after doing this. The stronger and fitter i started becoming, the less fatigued I got and the more I was able to do. For example, cleaning the house was no longer an effort. I still have my 'bad days' and I struggled with pouchitis for 6 months. But I have improved immensely.
Q: What advice do you have for those about to undergo this kind of surgery?
A: It does takes time for your jpouch to adapt to your body, patience is the key. But the way I look at it is, what's 6-12months recovery for the rest of your life? Going in with a positive mindset will only benefit your recovery. Your life doesn't stop after a jpouch, it's just a new beginning and a new way of life. I can now go hiking, swimming, long road trips, lift weights, travel, everything I was doing before, I can now do again.