GUTSY APPROACH

Photo by Renee Beasley Jones, Messenger-Inquirer rbeasleyjones@messenger-inquirer.com. Gaynelle Austin of Owensboro shares the story of her medical journey to encourage others who suffer from chronic illnesses. Austin was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease 20 years ago and opted to have part of her colon removed earlier this year.

Twenty years ago this month, Gaynelle Austin was diagnosed with Crohn's disease, a chronic inflammatory bowel disease.

During that time, Austin has had 12 Crohn's-related surgeries. She's scheduled to have another next month.

Through the years, surgeons have removed about 18 inches of her small intestine and a similar amount of her colon.

For two decades, Crohn's ruled her life.

For example, Austin timed everything around her bowel. She couldn't eat the day before vacation. Worse yet, she shied away from food until her family arrived at their destination the following day because eating meant needing a restroom at a moment's notice.

Austin went through bouts where she felt too tired to plant flowers and play with her children. At one point, she felt Crohn's was affecting her ability to work and considered applying for disability payments.

Instead, this gutsy 48-year-old fought back.

Earlier this year, Austin took a more radical treatment approach.

She requested a diverted colostomy. During the procedure, the surgeon pulled part of her intestine through her stomach and diverted her bowel into a bag on her abdomen.

Her gastroenterologist, Dr. Karen Canlas in Evansville, said Austin was only her third patient to request the surgery.

Austin recently posted a series of selfies on Facebook. In one, she was fully clothed. By the third frame, she shows the world her midsection with her ostomy, or the waste bag attached to her abdomen.

"... I chose this to get my life back," she wrote in the post. "It hit me all of a sudden that this is really the rest of my life.

"Then, the one thing I did it for, I wasn't doing. I wasn't really LIVING my life."

Although she made the decision to have surgery and an ostomy, she confessed there were moments she felt like damaged goods and would, at times, sink into a funk -- feelings totally unfamiliar to her until the surgery.

"I wasn't dressing like me," she wrote. "I wasn't even really trying to take care of my body anymore. Who am I? That's what I was feeling."

Feeling down at times is acceptable, she wrote. "... You just have to make sure to pick yourself right back up and get on with it."

Unless Austin confides to someone, it's impossible to tell she wears an ostomy bag.

She recently showed up at Smothers Park looking more like a runway model than a grandma with a chronic disease. She wore a long-sleeved black blouse, tight-fitting jeans and tan stiletto pumps that matched her hoop earrings.

She refuses to let her surgical scars, ostomy bag or Crohn's define her.

It's all about attitude, she said.

Austin has that in spades.

"You're different. That's OK," she said. "You just have a bag on your belly."

Besides, the ostomy makes her the queen of multitasking, she teased. "I can work and go to the bathroom at the same time."

Instead of feeling sorry for herself, she uses her medical history to encourage others who are fighting emotional or physical battles. It's the main reason she took selfies and posted pictures of her new reality.

Some women with ostomies don't feel sexy or beautiful anymore, she lamented. Austin knows of marriages that ended after the surgery.

She feels fortunate. Her husband of 25 years, John Austin, doesn't treat her any differently than he ever did. His main concern, she said, is her health and happiness.

Since opting for surgery, Austin feels better than she has for 20 years. "I can go places and go out to eat without having to stop 10 times."

In the past, she couldn't try the keto diet, a high-fat, low-carb plan, because it aggravated her gut too much. She's on the keto diet now and credits it for reducing belly cramping and joint pain.

Her surgeon, Dr. Santiago Arruffat of Evansville, performed her colostomy in a way it could be reversed in the future, but Austin plans to make it final. She wants the rest of her colon removed in the next year or so, which will make her ostomy a final fixture on her body.

She will still have Crohn's in her small intestines, so there are no guarantees.

Austin never asks: Why me?

It's fruitless and negative. That attitude never pays, she said.

"Why do certain people get cancer or ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis)? That's just the life you were given," she said.

For Austin, part of the key to living at peace with Crohn's is to share her medical journey.

"God can use me to help others," she said.

Renee Beasley Jones, 270-228-2835, rbeasleyjones@messenger-inquirer.com

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