Living with an Ostomy in 1938

The Grandmother of Paul Riome had ostomy surgery in 1938, and was sent home with no ostomy equipment.

How did she cope?
How did she live with her ostomy?
Paul has tried to re-create her experience.

Let’s try to imagine 1938,
…and imagine living with an ostomy in 1938.

This was before the internet, before cell phones, 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!, and a challenging time to live.

This was also before Flanges and Pouches
and any other Ostomy devices were invented.

Ostomy patients were sent home after surgery, without any type of collection device.

No collection device !!!

How did Mabel live with an ostomy, and without any 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 running water, water had to be pumped from a well – winter and summer, hot water had to be heated in a large pot on the stove, and no shower or bath tub.

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.

A 4” 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. It just wasn’t ever discussed.

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, but 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?

Mabel was one tough lady.
Mabel was British, Victorian, stoic, and content … and she never complained, and 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 never complain again.

For 15 years, Mabel lived silently
with the inconveniences of an ostomy and without ostomy supplies
or anybody to talk to.

Mabel’s Timeline.

1886 – Born in England 126 years ago
1904 Age 18 Married Walter 108 years ago
1912 Age 26 Emigrated to Canada 100 years ago
1938 Age 52 Ostomy Surgery 74 years ago
1953 Age 67 Died 59 years ago

This story is true and with thanks to Paul Riome if you would like to read more from Paul checkout his website.