It was just about 30 years ago when I was first diagnosed with ulcerative colitis. It was a very difficult time for me because I was 23 years old and in my second season as a professional football player. I had always been healthy, perhaps taking my health for granted, and things like that just weren’t supposed to happen…at least that was my thinking at the time.
I was devastated when after a year of fighting my illness I needed emergency ostomy surgery. I woke up weighing 120 pounds with two bags on my side convinced I would never play football again and wondering if life was even worth fighting for.
Unfortunately, my story is not unique. Of the thousands of ostomy surgeries performed every year, each is life-changing for the patient and for his or her family, and each of us goes through the same feelings of anger, self-doubt, frustration and fear about the future. It’s natural to ask “why me?” Of course, there is no good answer to that question. Eventually though, we move on to “what now?” It’s not an easy transition to make, but if we are to overcome what we have been faced with, it is a direction we must move towards.
The good news is that when we get there something truly amazing can happen and opportunities start to open up. We discover the indomitable spirit that lives inside each one of us. We quickly realize that we have a greater ability to cope, more courage than we thought we possessed, and that the only limitations to life with an ostomy are the ones that we impose on ourselves. I discovered that firsthand when I was given an opportunity to compete for my job as the place kicker for the San Diego Chargers and play for seven more years.
Since then, it has been my privilege to chair Great Comebacks®, a program designed to encourage other ostomy patients by sharing stories and offering hope. For the last 25 years, we have uncovered remarkable testimonies of courage, perseverance and commitment from ordinary people who have made that same decision to ask “what now?” and answered with their many achievements.
Despite all that we have accomplished, the need continues. The stigma still exits. Every year people face ostomy surgery and ask themselves the same questions. Is life worth living? Will I ever be able to travel or swim or play sports? Can I have kids? Will anybody ever love me and can I really return to the things I love to do?
The answer to these questions is an overwhelming Yes! Yes, you can do all of these things and more. As we kick off our 25th Anniversary, I want to thank all of you for continuing to share your stories through Great Comebacks® and in the process, inspiring everyone who hears them to understand that ostomy surgery is a second chance at life – a gift and an opportunity to pursue your dreams.