This is Keith Thomas’s story. He is a 60-year-old bus driver from Swansea in South Wales who now lives in Llanelli. He was diagnosed in 2008 with Ulcerative Colitis. After many years of illness, his bowel finally gave up on him in 2012 and he had to undergo a total colectomy.
Before this, his working life had become increasingly difficult. All through his illness, he worked as a Quality Control Inspector and then as a Purchaser in a bus seat manufacturer. That was a very difficult time for him because he had one of the worse sickness records ever.
I would always try to get to work but when you get a hundred yards up the road on your journey to the factory and then, due to the colitis, you soil yourself, you must make the decision: do you shower and try again or just phone in sick? Unfortunately, the phone call usually won.
On days like this, he felt so ill and depressed and he didn’t know if going back to work would ever be an option for him.
Well, I can tell you now that getting back to work really is an option. After my life-changing operation, I was back at work after six weeks, although I had to be very careful not to lift anything too heavy; a hernia was a real threat due to the opening in my stomach wall to accommodate my stoma, leaving it considerably weaker than before.
Although he was pleased to be back to work full-time, somehow he was missing his previous life as a coach driver. He had spent ten really enjoyable years doing this but had to give up – partly because his illness was making it difficult to accommodate this kind of job.
I happened to see in the paper, First Cymru was advertising for drivers. I decided to apply for a position and I can honestly say it is one of the best decisions I have ever made.
He was completely open and honest about his illness and operation and how his life had changed for the better since gaining his stoma. He now works forty hours a week as a bus driver. So, having an ostomy has, in reality, meant that he has been able to return to a pretty normal life.
Having an ostomy and being able to work is very important to me and I have made sure that working is no longer the obstacle it used to be.
Life feels amazing; illness is a dark old place and realizing that you came so close to losing your life really makes you appreciate it on a completely different level. I want to tell whoever will listen that I have a stoma called Homer and that he saved my life.
Keith wants to show others that there is a life after illness and doing a full-time job is possible. He works with a lot of people and says that 90% of them know about his stoma.
I am treated no differently by my colleagues or management because I have a disability, albeit a hidden disability.
He chooses to use disabled toilets whenever possible as they provide more room to empty his bag, but he has had no problem
emptying it in a train toilet and even an aeroplane toilet.
Being an ostomate just means a different toilet routine and it is up to the individual how they approach these challenges. Personally, I tackle it head-on – and it works for me. I can safely say that six years later I have an amazing life. I know I am one of the lucky ones having a totally positive ostomy experience so far with no problems or leaks to talk about. It can be something that preys on your mind though.
A while ago, he was driving his bus between Llanelli and Swansea, a journey that takes about an hour, when he noticed a strong smell of poo in his driver’s cab. His first reaction was, Damn- I have a leak in my bag. He looked down at his shirt and saw nothing. But the further he drove, the stronger the smell got. This was very confusing and a little worrying for him. When he reached the destination, the mystery was solved. A lady got off with her baby in a pushchair and said, Sorry for the smell, driver. He has filled his nappy.
Phew, what a relief that was!
After his operation, he decided to expand his social media presence and use it to share his experiences and offer advice and support to others. It took off and started to grow rapidly, mainly due to his Twitter account. This in turn led to a lot of other things: a few blogs, a swimwear photoshoot for ostomy wear, charity fundraising, guest speaking at an event for Respond Healthcare about his life after illness. He even managed to appear in a 2017 calendar published by Stomawise.
I take great pleasure in talking to other people about my ostomy and if it helps just one person to cope a little better, then job done.
He is now a regular blogger, plus he posted quite a few videos about his ostomy on his YouTube channel and on social media- in fact over the lockdown he has discovered TikTok so Dad Dancing has now become a regular feature. Very importantly, he makes sure he exercises by walking regularly.
In 2018 he completed a year-long challenge that involved walking 5 km once a week for 52 weeks. In doing this, he raised over £1,300 for Crohn & Colitis UK. Just before the Covid, he was asked to be part of the BeTheChange campaign where a working party of ostomates is speaking out to get people’s perceptions and toilet signage changed relating to the use of public Disabled toilets.
When asked why I am so positive considering what I have been through, I reply I have lost so many people to so many illnesses, but I am still alive and will not waste my life being negative. Please join me on my positive journey as we have one life,
we should make the most of it. IBD is a horrible illness that so many have to live with, I am glad to say from my experience, living with a stoma is not the horrific thing some people think, and I would choose it over illness every time.