Karen Hawkins’ journey from purgatory to pouch took three years and at times the going was extraordinarily tough. She can hardly believe her luck now that she has a healthy pouch and a baby too.
How life can change. Three years ago I had been struggling with ulcerative colitis for six years. I never felt well and I used all the strength I had to work. I had not believed for sometime that I would live to be thirty. This was something I would occasionally mention when I was particularly low and it did not help my husband one bit.
Surgery was suggested whenever I had a short remission, but I told myself, if I could have a remission, I should get better.
A holiday of a lifetime was planned, Jeff thought the rest and relaxation would be of benefit. We flew to Barbados. A beautiful country, but all I could think of was the flight, how would I manage? A couple of weeks before we were to leave the colitis flared up with a vengeance. Up went the steroids and the whole regime began again. Whether it was the pressure of the holiday or just bad luck, this time I could not kick the colitis to touch.
I had been in this situation four years before. The theatre was booked for my ileostomy. My colon was swelling out of control, I was X-rayed every day. Someone was looking after me, the day they were to operate I had a reprieve. The doctors could see an improvement.
It was considered that the holiday would let me rest and I might improve. I was to fly. I don’t remember much of Barbados except the bathroom and bedroom and the recurring nightmare that the ‘witch doctors’ would get me. I could not eat or drink, I was dehydrating fast in the humidity. I was distressed that my husband was having such a poor holiday that should have been such fun. I did not think I would get home. How I wanted to embrace the NHS.
Laying in the hotel bed I knew I could fight no longer. The diseased rat inside me had won: it had to go. I would have to have an ileostomy. It had previously been discussed on many occasions that I might like to have pouch surgery. A fine idea in theory, but what if it went wrong? What if I could not cope? What if I were incontinent? Well I was worse than incontinent now and I had blown it. There was no way I would get elective surgery now, I knew I was an emergency. I was taking 65 mg of prednisolone; it was 55 mg before I left home, but everything was leaving me so fast I just wanted some of the steroids to get me home.
The flight home lasted a gruelling 10 hours with a change at Tobago. My memory of the whole journey is a blur. I just gritted my teeth and closed my eyes. Please God get me home.
We returned Sunday afternoon. I was so exhausted. First thing Monday morning I was calling my consultant. ‘I am so sorry, you’re right: I need the operation’. They knew I must be really bad to ask for surgery. I was admitted that day and put on intravenous steroids and saline drips.
My skin was blistered, not from the sun, but from the high dose of steroids I had been taking. I was too unwell to have an operation. Not only the NHS but someone else was looking after me.
For the next two weeks the physicians cared for me, getting me strong enough for surgery. I needed nourishment to repair, I had not eaten for two weeks. I was transferred to St Mark’s. I was sure the surgeons would turn me down for any elective surgery as I had let myself deteriorate so badly. They held no promises. I had to have a colectomy, that was in no doubt, but what they could do, they could not say until they got in there. With all things considered like the high doses of steroids, my poor condition, who could say? I woke from the surgery. I don’t care, I’m still here. What did they do?
They had made me an ileo-anal pouch in one go. My God, I’m going to have to look after this, someone’s looking after me.
I made my recovery very carefully and strategically, careful consideration was made about everything I did. This chance was not going to be taken away from me. I did not want to crumble, so I took it easy.
I did not want the pouch not to work, so as hard as it was after so long, and as scary as it was, I began to drink when allowed, and gave myself very simple foods to start.
Within a few months I was swimming 60 lengths a day in an effort to build up my strength. I noticed I had a life already. The pain of the surgery was negligible in comparison to the colitis.
I was well, I was cured. I wish I had done it sooner. In September 1996 Jeff and I had our very first child, a precious baby daughter, Ellie. We never thought we could be this lucky, we were told for so many years I was just too ill to consider children. If I had carried a child full term, would I have been well enough to look after it?
The fact was that I was so well during my pregnancy that my friends and neighbours did not know I was pregnant, I just got on with life. I appeared so well. When the baby was born – by caesarean – I was asked ‘whose baby?’. When I said she was mine, neighbours said, ‘But I saw you working the other day, I saw you down the road and thought you looked so well’. I am now 32 years old, I had just one operation. I am well and we have our family that I can care for. Someone is looking after me.