I’ve spent most of my life learning how to get back up after being knocked down. I was homeless for the better part of four years as a teenager, literally living on the streets. During this period, I developed ulcerative colitis, a disease of the colon, which causes severe abdominal pain and bloody diarrhea. Despite these circumstances, I fought my way off the streets and into Eastern Michigan University where I became a Goldwater Scholar, graduating with honors in theoretical physics and mathematics. The ulcerative colitis had grown life threatening, though, and days after graduation my colon was removed leaving me with a temporary colostomy. The months I lived with the ostomy were traumatic, filled with painful skin breakdown, repeated leaks and humiliation. By the time it was finally removed that fall, I swore that I would never accept having an ostomy again. Nonetheless, although physically and mentally exhausted, I was excited to be starting the graduate program in physics at Cornell University.
While at Cornell, I had time to reflect on what I had been through and decided on a new direction. I wanted to help those who society had given up on as it had given up on me as a homeless teen. I went to Harvard Law School to become a champion for the citizen accused against the power of the state. As a lawyer, I earned an international reputation as a crusader, fighting to prevent the misuse of science from wrongfully depriving citizens of their liberty. While courtroom battles raged on, though, I developed Crohn’s disease. Crohn’s disease is even nastier than ulcerative colitis. The pain that accompanied it was so debilitating that I often curled up in the fetal position and simply cried. After years of suffering and a cascade of drug therapies, the disease got the upper hand. Scar tissue stopped food from passing through my digestive system, and I was unable to eat. Absent surgery and an ostomy, I would die.
Given my earlier experiences, I would rather have died than have an ostomy again. Only my wife, Kris, gave me the courage to do what needed to be done. In May 2012, I had a few feet of my small intestine removed, leaving me with an ileostomy. Upon my return home I looked like a concentration camp survivor. I was so weak that my legs trembled when I stood. I went to sleep every night feeling hopeless and scared. I had a choice, though. I could live the rest of my life as if it were a prison sentence, or I could be thankful that the ostomy had saved my life, and seize the chance that I had been given.
The road back began by using what little strength I had to walk the 50 yards down the sidewalk in front of my house. Each day I went a little further until 6 months after my surgery, I ran two half-marathons on back-to-back weekends for the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of America. Since then, I have achieved things that I never had before. Being published in a peer reviewed journal on forensic science; having my first scientific textbook published; traveling to France, the Netherlands and the U.K. to deliver presentations on the use of scientific evidence in the courtroom; and in 2015, competing in my first triathlon, IRONMAN 70.3 Victoria. Without the ostomy, I never would have done these things… I would have been dead. Today, I’m healthier and happier than I have been in over a decade.
Since having my surgery four years ago, I have seen that many others with ostomies feel as I initially had: hopeless, humiliated and somehow less than human. Since I had conquered those same feelings, I wanted to do something to help those who were still struggling. As a result, while training for Victoria last year, I created Ostomy United. Ostomy United is a triathlon team made up of those with ostomies, their friends and supporters. Its mission is to help inspire and empower others still struggling to live with their ostomies. The team’s first official event was the Lake Meridian Triathlon in August of 2015. Ostomy United took the medal podium three times that day, inspiring all in attendance and living up to the team’s motto, “There is nothing we can’t do!”
It’s okay to be afraid. After all, there is no courage without fear. With that courage, you can take back and determine the course of your life. Events may knock you down, but failure is not the result of being knocked down… It’s a consequence of not getting back up. The secret to overcoming the obstacles before us, to living the life that we dream, is to never quit!
This year, with the help of the United Ostomy Associations of America, Ostomy United has grown from a local team in Washington State to having triathletes in five states nationwide. Each of our tri-osto-letes is an example of courage and of how to overcome the odds. And on September 11, I will be going for another personal first, taking on the full IRONMAN in Wisconsin. My goal… To inspire and give hope to those living with ostomies by showing them that “There is nothing we can’t do!”
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