Wednesday, June 20, 2012

1938: Mabel’s Ostomy

My Grandma Mabel had ostomy surgery in 1938, and was sent home with no ostomy equipment.  
How did she cope?  How did she live with her ostomy?    I have tried to re-create her experience.
Grandma Mabel, 2 years after ostomy surgery
Living Contently, Without Ostomy equipment

Lets try to imagine 1938,
… and imagine living with an ostomy in 1938.

This was before the internet, before cellphones, before microwaves, before TV, before plastics.  The stock market had crashed in 1929, followed by a decade named the Great Depression. In parallel, there was a decade of drought and crop-failure in the entire Midwest of North America, aptly named the Dirty 30s.  This was before the 2nd World War!  

It was a challenging time to live.
This was also before Flanges and Pouches
and any other Ostomy gear was invented. 

Ostomy patients were sent home after surgery, 
with no collection device.

       No collection device !?!!

How did Mabel live with an ostomy, without ostomy equipment?

Mabel lived on the prairies in Western Canada, where summer temperatures rose to +40 degrees C (+104 F) and winter temperatures dropped to -40 degrees C (-40 F).  The only heat in the house was the stove, which burned coal when they had money, wood when they could scrounge, and buffalo-chips (dried cow manure) when there was nothing else.

There was no cold running water.  Water was pumped from a well – winter and summer.
There was no hot running water.  They heated water in a large pot on the stove.
There was no shower.
There was no bathtub.

There was no bathroom in the house.  There was just an outhouse – a seat perched over a pit, in a small building 50 yards from the house.  This outhouse experience, in winter when it was -40 degrees, was the origination of the expression “so cold it would freeze your ass off!”

With no collection device supplied, available, or even invented yet, Mabel made do with rags and towels [try to imagine her angst].  
Mabel’s husband Walter was a practical and inventive man, and soon devised a tin-can with a belt-strap, to contain the stool.  This was leaky and stinky, but a big improvement over the very messy rags.  
Personal ostomy cleanup was in the outhouse, 
probably with a pail of cold water.  Summer and winter.

The tin-can had to be strapped tightly around her waist to reduce the leakage. (not prevent leakage … just reduce leakage).  The edge of the tin-can bit harshly into Mabel’s skin, and left a nasty red compression ring on her skin.  Walter was a horseman who made his own horse-harnesses, so he built a leather collar to cover the tin-can edging.  This was certainly more comfortable and leaked less.  But it was difficult to clean the leather collar, and the device was still stinky.  

Mabel considered a glass container which would be easier to clean than the tin-can.  But adding a leather collar and attaching a belt would be difficult.  And the risk of glass breakage and serious cuts to her stoma would be a big concern.  The tin-can with leather-collar, strapped around her waist, was Mabel's best-and-only ostomy equipment.

The 4 inch circle around her stoma was constantly covered with stool, and I expect she had many rashes, breakdowns, infections, and damages to her skin.  The salves used for harness-burns on horses would have been Mabel’s only relief from these skin problems. 
There was no real ostomy equipment for Mabel.
There was no ‘support group’ for Mabel. 
Mabel never talked about her ostomy.  My father, who lived at home for the first 6 years of Mabel’s ostomy, was never told about her ostomy, never saw anything that would indicate an ostomy, never saw a bulge on her dress.  While her husband designed and built her ostomy-gear, that would be the last time he participated and the last time they would talk about it. It just wasn’t ever discussed. 
For 15 years, Mabel lived silently
with the inconveniences of an ostomy without ostomy-gear
with no-one to talk to.
Mabel was the sole steward of a 1-acre vegetable garden.  She dug the entire garden with a shovel, planted seeds, and hoed weeds.  In the fall, she dug out the potatoes and carrots, harvested and preserved corn and peas and beans for each cold winter ahead.  For 15 years, from age 52 to age 67, she worked that garden, and she lived with an ostomy.  And she lived without ostomy equipment as we know it today.
How did Mabel keep herself physically clean, mentally content, and spiritually thankful, 
with such crude ostomy equipment, and under such harsh conditions?

My grandma Mabel was one tough lady. 
Mabel was British, Victorian, stoic, and content ... and she never complained.
And she was so thankful that her ostomy gifted her 15 years of good living.

There have been days I have complained about my colostomy.
With the imagination to re-live Mabel’s ostomy experience,
I will not complain again.  Ever.

Mabel’s Timeline
1886       -                    Born in England          128 years ago
1904    Age 18             Married Walter            110 years ago
1912    Age 26             Emigrated to Canada  102 years ago
1938    Age 52             Ostomy Surgery           76 years ago
1953    Age 67             Died                               61 years ago

Mabel's Medical History

I did considerable sleuthing to locate Mabel's medical records.  Not surprisingly, these 76-year-old records have been destroyed.  BUT, there was an index card, with handwritten notes, saying

Mabel was diagnosed with Acute Ulcerative Colitis
and hospitalized from December 18 through to February 13. 

There was no written record of her type of ostomy.  I have so many more questions, but the answers may now be lost in history. 


  1. what an inspirition, thanks for writing this!

  2. Thanks Joye - Mabel was an amazing lady and an inspiration to all of us. It was just in the past few weeks that I learned about Mabel's ostomy. For all these years, I thought the hockey-tough-guy genes came from my father and his father. Mabel was way tougher than either of them. She had such an amazingly positive outlook on life, while quietly hiding the personal horrors of an ostomy.

    1. What an amazing lady. I will think of her if I have a feel sorry for myself kinda day. Thank you so much for sharing this xx


  3. Thank you for writing about your wonderful Gran - we can never taking LIVING for granted.

  4. This was a wonderful and inspiring story - thank you so much for sharing! Do you mind if I print this out to share with fellow ostomates (I will include the link to your blog site with credit to you of course!)
    Thank you again!

    1. I would be happy for you to share Mabel's story - print it, share it on facebook, anyway you want to share it. Her life and attitude is such a sobering yet inspirational reminder to all of us ... an ostomy may not be as good as the orginal equipment, but we get to live. And living is everything.

  5. All I can say is wow!!! What a courageous woman and an inspiring story. Thank you for sharing.

    Mark in Nova Scotia

  6. Mabel's story impacts most people that read it. Within just 12 hours of posting, Mabel has become the most popular of all posts/stories I have written. I started with facebook and a blog only 3 months ago, so don't really reach many people. If you think Mabel's story would help/inspire others, then please SHARE THIS with your friends.

  7. wow...thank you for writing this post...makes me how I should stop moaning! What an amazing lady...would it be ok to share this link on my blog. :)

    1. Laura - I would be pleased if you would share Mabel's 1938 Ostomy on your blog. Mabel's story is appreciated by most who read it. I am new at facebook and blogging and don't have much reach, so am always appreciative of others who can extend that reach. And feel free to add LivingBiggerWithColstomy to your 'Blogs I Follow' links.

  8. This was truly inspirational. You are a good writer, Paul! I know you are I also know where it came from! Keep bringing the good stuff.

    1. Thanks WhomeverYouAre - Yes, Mabel was an amazing lady and an inspiration to me (and now apparently to many others). It was just in the past few weeks that I learned about Mabel's ostomy. For all these years, I thought the hockey-tough-guy genes came from my father and his father. Mabel was way tougher than either of them, and in a quiet powerful way. She had such a remarkably positive outlook on life, while quietly hiding the personal 'inconveniences' of an ostomy without the luxury of ostomy gear and amenities we have today.

  9. I can't even imagine!! how in the heck did they even do those surgeries back then?? and what did she need the ostomy surgery for?? i have so many more questions now! thanks for this though. what a whiney butt i feel like now.

  10. Just think of the surgery!! My God, what did they use for anesthesia during surgery and how did they control her pain afterward??? No antibiotics for abdominal infection. My mind just boggles at the whole thing. And how did they even have the means to diagnose her disease??

  11. How moving and inspirational. We need to be reminded of how strong our ancestors were, what they coped with, the values and strength they displayed. I think so many of us expect an easy life of fun and health but that's not what people knew or expected from life not that long ago (two generations). You must be so proud of your grandmother!

  12. Great story. Do you know if she had a colostomy or an ileostomy?

    1. I am THINKING (and hoping for her sake) that it was a colostomy. I am actively pursuing her medical records, but its not yet clear if these medical records exist, nor whether they will be available. Curious also to know the reason for the ostomy, any subsequent surgeries, any followup etc. I will certainly be posting if I do get Mabel's medical records.

    2. I thought this type of surgery wasn't done until the 1960' did they diagnose? how did they do surgery without the proper equipment? antibiotics? I had no idea! my how she must have suffered!

    3. Not true. This type of surgery was done in WWII -- mostly for injuries sustained in combat. And believe it or not, the recommended field dressing for ostomies was tin cans. If you Google it, you can find out some amazing stuff about the early war ostomies.

    4. Thanks for this Michele. We often associate ostomies with IBD and Cancer. But certainly injuries such as those inflicted in wars, have caused many ostomies.

  13. Mabel story is unbelievable. It must have taken lot of courage, conviction and determination to pursue with life and attend to her personal needs. She is a source of inspiration to all of us who are ostomates!

    Antonio Diniz

  14. Thank you for sharing your Grandma story - I will never complain again - the why me question is gone for ever! - She was such an extraordinary woman ! What a Strong WOMAN !



  15. Really inspiring...she sounds like my stomas but strokes and fought back and worked into their nineties

    And yes I think you do take after Mabel!

  16. not only do you take after mabel, you show alot of people if you can achive your aim then so can we. all i can say paul is a big thank you, for making us stronge and cope like you x

  17. Thank you for sharing, I fell quite humbled.