A mum who battled Crohn’s disease so severe that she was left reliant on adult nappies says she has finally accepted her condition.
Ashley Strickland has now had surgery to remove several major digestive organs, leaving her with a “Barbie bum.”
The 34-year-old had enjoyed robust health when she was suddenly struck down by severe stomach pain in late 2010, which tests showed was ulcerative colitis – a long-term condition where the bowel becomes inflamed.
Her symptoms disappeared within weeks, without medical help, but returned with a vengeance in December 2015, leading to uncontrollable diarrhoea, which saw her rushing to the toilet 20 times a day and twice landed her in intensive care.
Ashley is a a network marketer in the health sector and lives in Surf City, North Carolina, USA, with her husband Jake, 34, a retired Army solider, and their sons Cash, seven, and Cage, five.
She said: “It was really scary. I was in so much pain and so weak. It felt like I was going to die.”
Diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, a painful and lifelong condition affecting the digestive system, in October 2016, Ashley had ileostomy surgery to divert her bowel through an opening in her abdomen called a stoma, where a special bag was attached to collect waste.
Failing to accept her new way of life, she then had J-Pouch surgery to remove her colon and rectum and create a pouch connecting the small intestine to the anus, eliminating the need for a permanent stoma.
Sadly, it did not suit her and, in May this year, she made the drastic decision to return to using a bag – having surgery to completely remove her anus and close her buttocks.
She said: “At first, I couldn’t accept having an ileostomy bag. I felt like it was robbing me of my entire life.
“But when I realised a J-Pouch wasn’t working for me either because of all the leaking I knew I had to go back to having a bag because I knew my quality of life with the bag would be so much better.”
She continued: “I’ve had most of my colon, rectum, and anus removed, so doctors thought it was best to surgically close my buttocks. I look the same as everyone else, but there’s just no hole there anymore – it’s just like a Barbie bum.
“It’s completely transformed my life. Now, I want to be a positive influence and show that ileostomy bags shouldn’t be taboo.”
Ashley’s nightmare began back in 2010, when she was suddenly struck down by stomach ache and diarrhoea.
Initially, she thought she had a simple bug, but her GP examined her and took a blood test, which showed she had ulcerative colitis – a condition which usually manifests itself as sudden flare ups and is thought by the NHS to be autoimmune, meaning it occurs when the body mistakenly attacks itself.
After a few weeks, Ashley’s symptoms disappeared without any treatment, making her assume she had a very mild case.
But then, in December 2015, shortly after giving birth to her second son Cage, everything changed.
She said: “My symptoms hit me like a tonne of bricks. All of a sudden, I was rushing to the bathroom 20 times a day.”
Returning to the doctors, she had a colonoscopy – an examination used to detect abnormalities in the colon and rectum – which revealed severe inflammation, leaving medics suspecting she was experiencing an ulcerative colitis flare-up.
She continued: “”Because the symptoms of ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s are so similar, doctors didn’t examine me any further at that stage. They thought I was just having a very bad flare-up.”
She added: “I assumed that stress was the trigger. Being in the military, my husband was away at lot with work. I was at home alone, with two babies, while my family were a 20-hour drive away. It was tough.”
Ashley was then prescribed a course of steroids which made little difference.
“I was so sick all the time and couldn’t stop going to the toilet,” she said. “One time, we were on a family road trip and I ended up using one of the children’s nappies as I needed to go so suddenly.”
Over the next 10 months, Ashley lost 20 pounds in weight, became increasingly fatigued and even ended up in intensive care twice, when her blood pressure dropped to a dangerously low level because her body was unable to retain adequate fluids and nutrients.
With her health rapidly deteriorating, she had no choice but to have five-hour long ileostomy surgery at the University of Tennessee Medical Centre, near to where she and her family were living at the time, leaving her with a bag attached to her stoma.
“I hated the bag as soon as I saw it. I didn’t want to be reliant on it for the rest of my life,” she said.
Following her operation, Ashley’s colon was biopsied, and it was confirmed that she had Crohn’s disease, in addition to ulcerative colitis.
Devastated by the diagnosis, she struggled to adapt to her new normal.
“I was really low and felt ill all the time,” she said.
So in July in 2017, Ashley decided to have her bag replaced with a J-Pouch – a common alternative that preserves the anus and sphincter muscles, meaning people are able to go to the toilet normally, without needing a waste bag.
But as the operation had involved removing her rectum – the part of the digestive system that lets the body know there is waste needing to be passed – she was soon hit by a new string of side effects.
“Sometimes, during the night I would start leaking,” she said. “My husband was brilliant. He’d scoop me up, put me in the shower and change the bed sheets, but I hated it and felt so embarrassed. I had to wear adult nappies and couldn’t do any exercise.”
She added: “It was really painful. I felt like a sick mummy. I wasn’t able to play with my children for fear of having an accident.
“But despite me having such low confidence, it actually made my relationship with my husband stronger.
“He was phenomenal. He was always there to take care of me. Without him, I don’t know what I would’ve done.”
With her self-esteem in tatters, Ashley eventually decided to return to having an ileostomy bag.
Luckily, medics were able to remove the pouch that had been created using her small intestine and instead divert it out of the body via a new opening in her stomach.
During the operation on May 5 this year, Ashley’s anus was also removed, and her buttocks surgically closed up.
“Doctors realised there was no healthy tissue left so decided to surgically close the hole,” she said.
And her latest operation has left her feeling more confident than ever.
“Getting a bag for a second time actually made me feel empowered. This time, I’d chosen to have it, it wasn’t something that was just thrust upon me,” she said.
Ashley has been bravely posting snaps showing her bag on social media, where her posts about her journey have attracted hundreds of followers.
Now, by sharing her story, she hopes to encourage people to celebrate their differences.
She said: “Social media can be so fake. It’s just a highlight reel of people’s lives, but I want to use Instagram to show people how to embrace themselves, and how to pick themselves up and carry on.”
She added: “I feel so empowered these days. My bag is as much a part of me as my arms and legs.
“Someone once told me, ‘No one wants to see a bag people poo in,’ and I think that’s really wrong. My bag that I poo in has changed my life, so why shouldn’t I embrace it?
“It’s not a taboo, it’s a lifesaver – and you should never be ashamed of that.”