Extended overseas travel with an ostomy

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by Helen Bracey

In 2007/2008 I went abroad for 3 ½ months. At this point I’d had my ileostomy for 3 or 4 years. The trip was a celebration of my return to health after acute inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) and 5 major surgeries. We planned to spend 4 weeks in New Zealand before flying to Panama and working our way up to Mexico through Central America, taking in Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Honduras and Belize on the way. At the time I was still taking immuno-suppressants as part of my IBD treatment, which raised a few concerns when it came to us having out yellow fever shots, which is a live vaccine. As it turned out I was absolutely fine while my husband was floored by it for 2 days. I am tougher than him, you see. I was also using codeine phosphate from time to time to manage the output from my ileostomy. As this is a controlled drug in some countries I carried a letter from my doctor explaining my reason for having it. That letter didn’t leave the envelope the whole time we were away.

The main challenge I faced with regards travelling for that length of time with an ostomy was the number of bags I needed to take. I use a two-piece system and worked out that I would need 50 base plates (working on average wear time of 2 days; although I usually get more like 3-5 days from a base plate I wanted to err on the side of caution) and 30 drainable bags – assuming I could reuse the same bag on a new base plate. I didn’t bother taking any adhesive remover or disposal bags to save space. Looking back from the comfort of my well-stocked bathroom supply box, I’m amazed how light I travelled, ostomy-wise. As it turned out I was a little over-optimistic. After a couple of weeks in New Zealand using the same bag for days on end I concluded that they just aren’t really built to last quite as long as I was asking of them and so I put in a request for my delivery company to ship an extra box out to an address in New Zealand. Which was a prudent move. 

Helen Advocate travel blog surfing in Nicaragua

On the whole my ileostomy behaved itself well during my travels. We went trekking, snorkelling, camping, surfing, caving, exploring and cavorting without incident. I think I ate a dodgy prawn in Costa Rica and got a nasty bout of gastroenteritis which sent my ostomy into overdrive and landed me in a hospital in San Jose. The hospital was amazing, my doctor was wonderful and in less time than it takes to say ‘living la vida loca’ I was hooked up to saline drip to replace lost fluids and being given antibiotics to treat the bug. A few hours later I was allowed to retreat to our hostel to rest for the night on the proviso that I return the next day to reassure the doctor that I was once again fit for travel. Being tough (did I mention that?) I recovered quickly and it was business as usual ticking off temples and jungles and temples in jungles, after putting in a quick call to our travel insurance company who were happy to cover the cost of my treatment. Naturally I had discussed my pre-existing condition with them when we were planning the trip. Smart as well as tough, see?

Helen Advocate travel blog Mexico

Towards the end of the trip I got pretty low on supplies. Every other place we stayed I would pull out all my supplies from their various nesting places between guide books, flip flops and Mayan handicraft souvenirs, and do a recount. In Mexico City, our final Central American exploration point before a few days chilling in LA between flights, I decided to enquire in a local pharmacy if it was possible to purchase ostomy bags, you know, just in case. The lady behind the counter looked a bit puzzled and said, words to the effect of, ‘yes, of course you crazy gringo, people in Mexico have stomas too you know’. Of course they do. And of course it was possible to buy bags, although I didn’t end up needing to, but it was reassuring to know the option was there. Which left me happy to go and enjoy the lucha libre (google it, please), mescal and salsa picante in our last few days.