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Life with an ileostomy – Returning to work post operation

After you’ve had surgery for an ileostomy, be it for Crohns, Ulcerative Colitis or bowel cancer, you will find that you’re constantly feeling very tired, which will be something that most of you will be very familiar with due to previous illness. Many people question whether this is normal. Well, unfortunately after having a general anaesthetic you are bound to feel very fatigued. Your body has just received very powerful drugs along with drugs for the pain relief which can quite often involve morphine, therefore it is going to take a good few months, perhaps even a year for them to completely clear your body. I was especially guilty of doing too much too soon after I was first given my stoma.

I personally advise those of you who have recently had your ileostomy sited to return to work when YOU feel ready to do so. Doctors and Surgeons will usually tell you the same thing.  Nobody can tell you when you should return, only you can decide when. My advice is to listen to what your body is telling you. If you are still feeling very fatigued, unwell and sore from the operation then make sure you take your time recovering. Remember resting up after your operation is vital to recovery further down the line. If you don’t rest up for a few weeks post op then months down the line this can come back to bite you as it did me – I didn’t listen to my body and did too much too soon.

Usually your GP or surgeon will arrange an appointment with you 4-6 weeks post op to see how you are getting on. They usually then assess whether they feel that you are fit to return to work. This will depend on what type of work you do. It is most advisable to discuss this with your GP or surgeon at your post-operative check-up. Usually it’s recommended to consider a gradual return to work. If your work involves heavy lifting, you should wait until after 12 weeks due to the fact that this can do major damage to your ileostomy and stomach area. The last thing you want after major surgery is to give yourself a hernia. Also consider wearing a support garment or belt as this will help reduce the effects of getting a hernia, I personally found wearing BIG pants otherwise known as Bridget Jones style pants as these helped keep my stoma bag in one place during the day and it felt secure against me, although this is different for everyone. A company called ‘Vanilla Blush’ do some brilliant support wear for both men and women. They also specialise in swimwear along with underwear for osteomates. Make sure you keep in contact as regularly as you can with your employer, this way you can keep them updated on your situation and check in with them. Don’t let them pressure you into returning to work, remember it’s only when you feel ready to start working again and slow and steady wins the race, please don’t force yourself back too soon.

Once you feel ready to return to work, make sure you speak to your employer about undertaking lighter duties and fewer hours. If you have any further questions about returning to your normal activities, don’t hesitate to contact your stoma nurse or your Surgeon for some advice. Ensure that they give you an updated ‘Fitness to work certificate’ otherwise known as a Doctor’s Note. Your GP can do this for you or your surgeon can. Make sure you have regular appointments with a member of your medical team after the first three months. This way you can discuss any issues with them and they can see how you are progressing and address any concerns that you may have. Although you’ll most likely find a massive positive change in your health remember that weeks and months down the line are still ‘early days’.

Always remember it is ok to feel tired after doing. Even the smallest of activities such as taking a shower in the early days of my operation made me exhausted. However it is all part of the healing process. You are not lazy, you are still technically sick and recovering.

Months down the line once your back in a work routine be it reduced hours or fulltime you are bound to come home from work and feel like a nap and make sure you do take your rest whether it’s a brief afternoon nap or a little sit down – this is your bodies way of telling you that it is still in recovery mode and its vital to a full recovery. Never feel guilty for taking some time out, do a little and then rest a little.

I personally returned to work 8 weeks after my ileostomy operation took place and this was far too soon as I knew I still wasn’t 100% but I put pressure on myself and forced myself back into the office which unfortunately did me no favours in the long run. I wish someone had told me to rest up and think about what I was doing, I was getting too worked up about having lots of work to return too and also worried that colleagues would be getting frustrated at me for having too much time off – this was all in my head and wasn’t actually the case or a problem it was all down to my thinking.

I began feeling guilty for letting other colleagues down, but you shouldn’t feel that way. If your employer is understanding then they will make sure that you don’t return to your job until your well enough. Remember you have to be signed on by your GP to prove that you are ‘Fit to work’. Your return to work form needs to be given to your employer on your first day back, this is for them to see whether you need to participate in lighter duties, reduced hours etc. it is always best to have a return to work interview with your line manager on your first day back they should make sure you’re doing the correct hours that are suited to you and your condition at the present time, ensure that you have easily accessible use of a bathroom and whether it needs to be a disabled toilet in this case you need to ask your employer for access as this will help if you need to change your ileostomy while at work, it might also be useful to ask your employer if you can leave some spare ostomy supplies and uniform in a safe place at work in case of any future emergencies.

Any further issues can usually be addressed by an occupational health team many companies have these, if they don’t you can usually pay for a medical assessment externally through your employer.

Remember your health is always the most important thing in life, don’t let anyone else tell you different only you know your own body and only you can decide what you are or aren’t capable of especially in the earlier days of your operation or operations.

Date: 16th February 2015  
Author: Charlotte Guinea (23)
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