Sandy Hyams has some good advice for those whose attitude is “have pouch, will travel”.

However many times I travel abroad, I still get a kick out of it. I love the atmosphere at airports and the experience of flying. I think it must be in my blood; my father was in the RAF when I was born. So when I had to cope with an ileostomy for a year, I vowed it would not spoil my holiday plans. And it didn’t. With a brand new pouch for a travelling companion, I didn’t foresee any problems.

I have christened my pouch Rita Reservoir. My ileostomy was known as Stromboli Stoma because he was always erupting. So it only seemed right to give my pouch a name, too. And because my system had to adjust and my dietary habits be re-educated, Rita was born.

My husband Eddie and I had enjoyed a few days in the sun over the Christmas period, which passed, unbelievably, with no complications. The flight was short and the hotel a high standard (that is, first-rate hygiene in the kitchens). I was extremely careful what I ate and drank, perhaps erring on the conservative side. I didn’t want to upset Rita at this early stage of our relationship.

So when we were preparing for an extended trip earlier this year, island-hopping in the Canaries, I was confident that nothing could go wrong. Rita was six months old and I thought she had cleared all the hurdles by then. Looking back, I realise how over-optimistic and complacent I was.

The first inkling I had that perhaps things would not go as smoothly as I hoped was when I had three “accidents” during the night in the space of a week just prior to leaving. My surgeon put it down to stress and anxiety and advised me to increase my dosage of medication. Until then I was taking six Loperamide and four Codeine Phosphate daily – which gave me a gratifying average of five or six trips to the loo each 24 hours.

I am one of those people who make lists of lists. Not that I’m a worrier, just conscientious. Packing and organising my life, especially for a trip of nearly six weeks, always throws me into a state of panic, not to mention paranoia and confusion. It was no wonder I was under stress.

As I am still prone to leakage I had to find room in my case for bulky items like sanitary towels. I never thought I would be wearing them again! I also took a few Incopads to protect the mattress – extra reassurance in case of humiliating accidents in strange beds. (Sleeping on top of a towel is a good substitute if you have this problem.) But I carried all medication in my hand luggage. To lose a suitcase containing all my “stoppers” when I don’t know whether I can get to a chemist doesn’t bear thinking about! I had also taken the precaution of getting a prescription for Metronidazole should pouchitis strike. (Thankfully not needed!) Another useful remedy to pack is an oral rehydration product such as Dioralyte that quickly replaces lost body salts if you get diarrhoea.

I always keep an emergency kit with me, tucked into my handbag. (I realise this could present difficulties for male pouch people!) There’s a slimline ST, sachets of disposable cleansing tissues and a tiny plastic box which I’ve filled with the soothing cream I use. Away from the comforts of home – or hotel – I have found the kit indispensable, especially if I’m out for a meal.

As we pouch (and ileostomists) need to drink plenty of liquid at all times, a small plastic bottle of water goes with me on long car journeys. This also means I can take my tablets on time wherever I am. From where we live out in the sticks in Norfolk, getting to Heathrow or Gatwick can be a three- or four-hour drive, and it is often not convenient or possible to find somewhere to stop for refreshments.

At least we had pre-booked seats near to the loo (just in case) on all our flights. The longest leg was the first one, to Las Palmas on Gran Canaria. I must admit I had a couple of glasses of wine with my meal, which probably accounted for “using the facilities” three times during the journey! If you advise the flight crew of your predicament and that you’re likely to take longer than the average person (especially if you have to wash and cream yourself), I have found them all sympathetic and willing to help.

Am I just unlucky or have other people come across the “knock on the door” syndrome? This happened to me not only on aircraft but in hotels, restaurants and public conveniences too. When I finally emerged, I would just apologise and explain I had a medical problem. Most people were understanding. I also get embarrassed by what I call the noise factor. Sometimes it’s more explosive than others – but there isn’t much you can do about it. Sing loudly? Have a phoney coughing fit? Continually flush the loo?

I don’t know if it was the fact that I was eating less cautiously, drinking more coffee or having wine every day – or a combination of all three – that took my daily count up to seven, eight or even nine. I decided to relax and hope it would improve. In fact, it didn’t settle down to six or under until we were back home a while.

Something I have learnt, to my cost, is that red wine makes my output extremely watery. However, one tip that I picked up during the ileostomy days works equally well for pouch people. I just chew a few marshmallows which almost immediately thickens up and slows down your output. I always take a bag of these sweets for just such occasions.

Another thing to remember in hotter climates is to drink plenty of liquids (and I don’t mean wine or beer!) to stop you dehydrating. Too many sweet, fizzy drinks are not a good idea either, so I consume vast quantities of still bottled water.
The extra visits to the loo were more of an inconvenience than anything else. It meant we daren’t chance a long hike through the spectacular scenery of La Gomera, one of the smallest and least spoilt of the Canary Islands. We had to plan our days around the times I was likely to be taken short so that I was in reach of a clean loo. And it meant we couldn’t watch the Holy Week processions in Seville where we stayed a few days to break our journey on the way home. Imagine a football crowd, treble it, and think of finding a toilet on the streets of the city!

However, I would not let any of it mar my enjoyment. When in Spain, we do as the Spaniards do and eat late in the evening – at 9.30 or 10 o’clock. I worried needlessly that it would cause problems getting up in the night. In fact, dining later seemed to have the opposite effect and I was able to sleep through and often didn’t need to empty my pouch until 10 or 11 the following morning.

One thing I was able to do that I never dreamt would happen again: I wore a bikini for sunbathing! I have heard of women who are too embarrassed to show their war wounds, particularly if they have “tram lines” down their middle. Fortunately my surgeon had followed the same cut for the second operation and I was left with a neat furrow and what now looks like an old-time vaccination mark where the stoma was. Maybe I’m a good healer but, with gradual exposure to the sun, the scars have grown fainter. I would not advise this for people who don’t tan easily, though. After all, it is new skin that is growing.

I have compiled my own list of Do’s and Don’ts when travelling abroad, most of which are just good common sense:

  • DO take sufficient supplies of medication and carry them in your hand luggage
  • DON’T drink tap water or washed salads (unless you know it’s safe)
  • DON’T put ice cubes in your drinks (ditto)
  • DO peel fruit before eating
  • DON’T experiment with exotic new foods on holiday – you don’t want a tummy upset
  • DO drink more liquids than usual in hot climates to stop dehydration
  • DO have fun – after all you deserve it

One of the main differences between having an ileostomy bag and an internal pouch is that you can nearly always calculate when you will need to empty a bag and plan accordingly. With a pouch, in my limited experience, you never know when one might come. “They” tell me things will improve, even up to five years after the operation. I hope “they” are right. But there is no doubt whatever – Rita is going to be a very well-travelled reservoir.


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