How I Overcame My Fear of Surgery and Pursued My Dream Job
By Renata Nicmans
As a commercially rated pilot, based on the west coast of Canada, I am fortunate to witness some of the most beautiful natural landscapes this world has to offer. Soaring at altitude, with the mountains and oceans below, I am constantly in awe of the natural environment I call home. All of three years ago, flying in a small plane for hours, without a washroom, would have been a living nightmare, not the source of freedom and adventure it is today.
Rewind 12 years ago, after a painful scope confirmed the cause of my bleeding bowls, I was handed a one-page informational pamphlet on Ulcerative Colitis (UC), along with a prescription for oral steroids and a 5-ASA medication. Walking out of the clinic that day, I had no idea how this diagnosis would inform the rest of my life. I was twenty, in my second year of university and had moved across the country from Vancouver to Toronto, Canada. I was extremely A - type and had never dealt with health issues. My focus was on getting top marks, gaining valuable work experience, and eventually going to graduate school (likely to study law or obtain an MBA). I was career driven. Being sick and managing a chronic illness was absolutely not in the plan. I was determined to persevere and keep moving forward with unaltered plans. This illness would not get in my way. I endured yearly flares and hospital visits, graduating top of my class. I mention this not for praise but to demonstrate my single-track mind. I might have a disease, but I was determined to find a way to make it fit into my life – or so I thought.
The Road to Surgery
Fast forward eight years from diagnosis, countless medications, dietary changes, alternative medicine options, nothing seemed to be working and my body (physically and mentally) could no longer persevere. I was having flareups almost every 6 months and couldn’t build a life for myself. I was in and out of hospital, unable to focus on my career or the typical goals of a twenty-something adult. It was the spring of 2017, I weighed in at 97lbs at 5’6” and was absolutely at my lowest point. I was forced to move back home and live with my parents. My world was getting smaller and smaller. I certainly wasn’t reaching my career goals and had no quality of life. My biggest fear was now an almost certainty and I viewed this as a complete failure… surgery. IBD can be an insidious condition that slowly eats away at you until your life is so small, it is you, your bedroom, the bathroom, and your family (if you are fortunate enough). I realize now that I was in survival mode prior to surgery. In the years before, life become very small. I had been living in London, England, attending business school at my dream university and now my goal was to be healthy enough to leave the house for a walk. A trip to the local tulip festival seemed like a pipe dream, out of reach. Traveling on a plane was unimaginable.
Why had I not been able to manage my disease? Was there an IBD diet I didn’t try? A stress management technique that I had overlooked? Should I have stopped pursuing my academic/career ambitions and lived a ‘quieter’ life after diagnosis? These were a few of the questions I asked myself, after my GI doctor uttered the words: “Renata it is time for you to have surgery, we have exhausted all other options”. To me surgery was something that may happen to other people, but I was going to do everything, explore every option, to make sure I wouldn’t get to that point. I had built up surgery to be this nightmare, an indication of failure. In reality, surgery ultimately gave me my life back, and helped me become a much stronger person with, what I feel is, a better outlook on life.
Between April 2017 - February 2018, I had three step J-pouch surgery. The ostomy I had long feared proved to be the very thing that gave me my life back. It wasn’t an easy adjustment but being pain free and able to live beyond my bedroom, quickly made me appreciate ‘the bag’. I was able to do things that a few weeks prior had been far out of reach. I spent the summer going on hikes and taking in all the small things most of us take for granted. Being able to enjoy food again without suffering crippling pain, was the most liberating feeling.
By the time my final surgery date came around and it was time for my ostomy to be closed, I was honestly scared to give it up… I never thought for one second that I would be in a position where I felt at ease with an ostomy bag, but I was. We are much more adaptable than we realize. My final surgery went smoothy and I have been very fortunate to be drug free three years out. I live by most standards a normal life. While I was at my lowest point, I vowed to never take life for granted again, and to focus on the basic, most important things in life. I promised myself I would set aside external notions of success and go after what I truly want. Most importantly not let fear stop me. I had overcome the biggest hurdle in my life, J-pouch surgery, and somehow it set me free to go after what I truly wanted. On paper I may have been far behind; 28 years old living at home with my parents, no solid career, but in fact I was in many ways further ahead than I would have ever been, without my Ulcerative Colitis diagnosis. As cliché as it is, our lowest moments force us to take stock of what really matters. If you take the time to listen, a whole new path can emerge.
Life After Surgery
Two months after my final surgery I enrolled in flight training. Two years later I became a commercially licensed pilot with instrument and multi-engine ratings. Overcoming my greatest fear, undergoing surgery for my UC, unlocked a confidence in myself that allowed me to pursue pilot training; an undertaking I am certain I would not have had the conviction to do otherwise. Today, I am healthy enough to hold a commercial aviation medical and fly for hours in a small bathroom-less plane. It is hard to summarize the lessons my journey with Ulcerative Colitis has bestowed and I acknowledge that my journey is on-going. The key takeaway I would like to emphasize is this: An IBD diagnosis will take you to places you never want to go, will challenge you in ways you never wanted to be tested, but it will also provide you with the chance to dig deep and show yourself how strong you are and what you are truly capable of achieving. IBD may take you down a different path but that path may very well lead you to a more rewarding and meaningful destination.
About the Author
Renata lives outside of Vancouver, Canada. She has done volunteer work with the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of Canada for their All that Glitters gala in Toronto, as well as served on the organizing committee for the Toronto Gutsy Walk. She does one-on-one chats with newly diagnosed IBD patients to share her journey with Ulcerative Colitis. You can find her flying her family’s small Cessna around the west coast of British Columbia. Renata is proud to have recently secured her first paid flying position. You can follow Renata on Instagram @therenagade.
This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding your condition.