A high-flying professional who has travelled the world wearing a stoma bag says she has enjoyed everything from paragliding to sex since surgery gave her a fulfilling life back.
Diagnosed with Crohn’s disease in 2010 after finding blood in the toilet a few months earlier, Laura Zappulla, 41, who works in HR, endured three years of hell trying to medicate the inflammatory bowel condition without success.
When she finally had a proctocolectomy in September 2013 to remove her colon and rectum and had her small intestine fed through a hole in her stomach into a permanent stoma bag collecting her waste, she said she was “given her life back”.
Speaking out to mark World Ostomy Day on October 2, celebrating life with a stoma, Laura, who lives in Bow, east London, with her IT expert husband Michael, 43, said: “Within a few months of having surgery I was feeling back to my old self.
“We were living in Australia, where we come from, but we’d discussed moving to England before I was ill, as my mother-in-law is British, and my husband has a UK passport.
“We hadn’t left Australia for about five years because of my condition so, in 2014, we quit our jobs and travelled around the world for a year – to Africa and Europe and got married in Thailand on the way home in January 2015.”
She continued: “The highlights of the trip were hot air ballooning in Turkey. In South Africa, I went paragliding from one of the big famous areas in Cape Town.
“And we’re big fans of Pearl Jam, who were doing a European tour, so we saw them a few times live.”
Laura says there is nothing she has not done since having her stoma.
She said: “You definitely, in terms of sex, wouldn’t not wear the bag in the bedroom.
“But there is lots of sexy ostomy underwear now and little black lacy covers for stoma bags that make you feel a bit sexier, too.
“You can get support belts and things you can wear around your abdomen when you are exercising to avoid getting injuries.”
She added: “And, in terms of swimming and bathing, there’s nothing to hold you back.
“It’s just that people are self-conscious about displaying the bag in public, but you can get it wet, so you can shower with it on, which I tend to do.
“Some people have a humungous problem with self-image. But Michael and I have been together for 24 years, so we felt the most important thing after surgery was that I had my health back and we could live our lives again.”
She said: “He’s been incredibly supportive, and I do realise that things could have been very different if I’d been a lot younger or single.”
Laura’s problems started in 2009 when she found blood in the toilet.
Initially prescribed probiotics by her GP, when they did nothing, she was referred to a colorectal doctor in Sydney, where she was living, who performed various tests and sent her for a procedure, believing she had piles.
That was near the start of 2010 and, realising piles was not the cause, surgeons performed tests and biopsies and diagnosed Crohn’s, an inflammatory bowel disease that, while it cannot be cured, can go into remission – leaving many sufferers symptom-free if they respond to medication.
Sadly, Laura’s case was not responsive, and, at its worst, she was rushing to the toilet up to 30 times a day and had “accidents” if she could not find a loo in time.
Anxious about going out in case she was caught short, she also had pain when passing waste and felt sick and like “things were moving around” inside her most of the time.
Eventually, in May 2013, she had surgery to divert waste into a temporary stoma, in the hope that her bowel would recover, and the inflammation would heal.
But, after four or five months, her problems returned, and she was still passing blood and experiencing intense discomfort.
She said: “By then, I realised I had tried everything.”
She continued: “No one would have a permanent stoma without careful consideration, but I had tried all the medication, and nothing worked, now this wasn’t working either and I felt it was the best option for me.
“We hadn’t left Australia for about five years, when we love travelling, as I was so nervous about not being near a toilet and I really wanted my life back.”
In September 2014, Laura had an eight hour proctocolectomy operation and has not looked back.
She said: “Having the temporary stoma meant I knew what to expect and that I would cope.
“I was very nervous about making it permanent. It was an emotional decision, as after this there are no other options.
“But once I’d made it, I just wanted the surgery to be done as quickly as possible, as I’d reached the stage where I could no longer live a normal life.”
She continued: “I’d had lots of discussions with my medical team, and I’d joined a support group, so I knew what I was doing.”
And as soon as she had recovered from surgery, she and Michael celebrated with their year long trip.
She said: “It was a bit of a challenge travelling with a stoma.”
She continued: “I had a whole extra carry on bag, as I didn’t trust checking in my ostomy supplies in case they went missing.
“I was also still on meds and had to have regular blood tests because of that, but I managed it.
“I was a bit worried about eating the food in different countries, too, but I only had one bad bout of upset tummy in Thailand.”
She added: “And it wasn’t too bad. I just changed my bag more regularly.
“We were so happy to be travelling again and that outweighed any difficulties we had.”
Laura will never forget the moment when the positive change her stoma had brought hit her.
She said: “I’d never have gone to a concert before, as I would have been terrified of not being able to get to the loo in time.
“So, when we got front row seats for our first Pearl Jam gig in Amsterdam, Holland, when the band came on stage, I just burst into tears.
“It suddenly hit me how wonderful it felt to be there and how liberated I felt.”
Once they were back in Australia, still bitten by the travel bug, the couple then saved for 18 months and moved to London in November 2016.
Laura said: “We really love London, and, during the pandemic, we’ve taken the opportunity to travel around Britain, which is just so beautiful.
“For anyone living with chronic Crohn’s like I have, I just want them to know that a stoma need not be the end of anything – everything from travel to sex is still possible and it’s given me back my life.”
* For more information, support, and resources visit the Crohn’s & Colitis UK website www.crohnsandcolitis.org.uk or call the Helpline on 0300 222 5700.
* To learn more about Laura’s journey, visit her Stomalicious blog at https://stomalicious.wordpress.com/ or follow her on Instagram at https://www.instagram.com/stoma_licious/ or Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/stomalicious