Mon 05, Dec 2022 , Bridge Magazine
By Nicole Torrington, Senior Marketing Officer
Leanne has always been a traveller at heart, having visited 30 countries before she turned 30. She had met her husband in Ireland, spent time in London and regularly went to visit her best friend who lived in Germany.
Leanne’s travel plans all came to a sudden halt after the birth of her second child in 2011. During childbirth Leanne was injured, experiencing a fourth-degree tear of her vagina (the most severe tear) which left her totally incontinent with no faecal control. For six months she waited for a surgeon to perform reparative surgery, during which time she had to wear continence pads, alongside her new baby and toddler who were both in nappies.
Unable to make it from the lounge to ensuite without having an accident, Leanne couldn’t leave the house, go to the shops, or visit the office. She was completely housebound and isolated. Alongside managing the physical symptoms, her mental health also took a toll. Leanne admits to feeling disgusted, ashamed, guilty and totally alone, with recurring post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms that resulted in panic attacks (sometimes up to 30 per day) and faecal incontinence. “You can’t even make it up – I felt it was the worst thing that could have happened,” she says.
Half a year passed, and finally Leanne was scheduled to have surgery. She had six operations over the following six months, resulting in over 50 days in hospital, with her husband Patrick taking time off to care for her and look after the children. She was fitted with a temporary ileostomy requiring stoma bags for four months, which was then reversed. Again, Leanne found herself totally incontinent, looking after a toddler, breastfeeding her new daughter, and struggling more than ever. There were days of excruciating pain and regular toileting accidents. Leanne admits her young son was toilet trained before she was.
Leanne underwent lifestyle changes to try and get back to life as she knew it. She cut out all alcohol and gas causing vegetables and religiously drank water. She had two coffees every morning first thing, to make sure she went to the toilet, and only then, could she start her day.
Despite her symptoms being better managed, at the five-year mark Leanne’s anxiety returned as she remembered the surgeon saying her repair surgery would last about 5-20 years. She began to be all-consumed by this timeline, and every time she went to the toilet would check for signs of the wound breaking down. She was exhausted and stressed.
That was until she experienced a self-confessed ‘light bulb moment’ whilst watching Kung Fu Panda 2 with her children. During the movie, there was a scene with the quote “you’ve got to let go of that stuff from the past as it just doesn’t matter…the only thing that matters is what you choose to be now.”
From then on, Leanne looked at everything differently. She decided that she and her family needed to “reclaim” themselves and go back to doing what they loved most. For Leanne and Patrick, this was travel.
The initial goal was to return to Ireland to see family, before taking the kids to Disneyland Paris. The thought of travel brought about its own unique set of challenges – the long plane trip, the airport queues, the tedious security checks, the walking, the different food, being unable to find a toilet, all of it. But Leanne was determined to persevere. “What’s the worst that can happen?” she asked herself. “A few very unpleasant moments cannot ruin seeing the Eiffel Tower at night, being on a gondola in Venice, seeing friends and family…no matter what, that is priceless.”
So, Leanne and her family set off on their journey overseas. She stuck to her routine and for all her worrying, she never actually had an accident. She had proven to herself that she could manage her symptoms, and that gave her the confidence to pursue other adventures. Since that initial trip, she has returned to England (including Harry Potter World), Germany (once alone for a wedding, then as a family whilst visiting friends), Italy (for her 10-year wedding anniversary) and stop overs in Dubai and Doha.
For those who experience incontinence and want to travel, Leanne’s advice is “feel the fear, accept it, be prepared as best you can and GO ANYWAY!” Yes, while she has had accidents and it can feel nerve wracking, the reward of travelling far outweighs anything that can happen. She recommends building up your confidence – “start with overnight stays in your hometown. Push out to a week away. Then bite the bullet and declare that you are entitled to live a wonderful and fulfilling life and do it,” says Leanne.
Leanne’s top tips for travelling with incontinence
Tip #1: Be prepared
Make a checklist to ensure you have all the essentials ready to go. This includes all your creams, medicines, wipes (including antiseptic wipes for the plane/train/bus/toilet seats), two changes of clothes in your hand luggage (and one in your day pack while touring around), several spare pairs of undies, nappy bags for disposing of soiled undies and any other portable tools you need to make you feel confident and secure.
Tip #2: Be strict with your diet
As tempting as it is, try not to eat street food. Be mindful of chili and spices and choose plain meals wherever possible. Coffee strength also differs around the world, so if you’re not sure, just bring your own from home! One tummy upset could leave you room-ridden for days. It’s just not worth it.
Tip #3: Plan for the plane trip
We all know plane food can be a bit hit-and-miss, so try to take some of your own food wherever possible. I bring my own cucumber, carrot and apple cut up in snack bags so I can ensure I’m having enough fibre for long haul travel. I also avoid gassy drinks (juice or water only) and don’t have any alcohol. I also bring a laxative just in case, as you can feel uncomfortable from all that sitting and that can impact your toilet routine too.
Tip #4: Have a coin purse for European toilets!
It’s easy to get caught out in Europe where there is often coin entry for public toilets. Don’t be left stranded. Make sure you always have coins allocated for your next visit to the loo.
Tip #5: Use the National Public Toilet Map
When you’re travelling within Australia, use the National Public Toilet Map to help plan your trip. It’s a free App that allows you to search for the closest public toilet and comes in handy if you’re visiting new places or going on a road trip. You can access the National Public Toilet Map at continence.org.au/national-public-toilet-map
Leanne is a Counsellor at Blue Hearts Counselling and the author of a children’s book “When Mummy went to hospital” which her own children Connor and Molly illustrated.
What is an Ileostomy?
An ileostomy is performed to help direct digestive waste out of the body, often due to a bowel condition such as bowel cancer, inflammatory bowel disease (e.g. Crohn’s Disease) or bowel trauma. This involves surgically making an opening that connects the small intestine to the outside of the abdomen. For some people, this surgery is temporary, often to allow the large bowel or anus to recover and can be reversed once the body has healed.
What is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)?
PTSD is an anxiety disorder that can occur in people as a result of experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event involving themselves or others. Those with PTSD often feel intense emotional stress and disturbing thoughts about the traumatic event or events, which can interfere with day-to-day life and relationships.