‘I dreaded leaving the house because I needed to go to the toilet up to 16 times a day’


A young veterinary surgeon forced to have a stoma bag fitted at the age of just 25 because of an agonising bowel condition says the surgery she dreaded has given her back her life. Emma Huntley underwent the procedure in May 2022 after battling ulcerative colitis – which left her with debilitating symptoms including passing blood and vomiting, and eventually perforated part of her bowel.

Before the operation she feared how wearing a bag on the outside of her stomach to collect faeces, bypassing her damaged colon, would change the way she looked forever. But now Emma, 25, who lives in Carmarthen, and has a partner, Will, 24, a mechanical engineer, wants to raise awareness that stoma bags can positively transform people’s lives.

Emma said: “Having been diagnosed back in 2018, I knew a stoma bag was something I would likely have to face eventually, but I never expected to be so young. I had thought I would be in my 30s or 40s by the time I had the procedure, so to be 25 was a shock. I dreaded the surgery.”

But instead, the bag has set her free. “The stoma changed my life for the better and gave me a completely new lease of life,” she said. “Before, I was going to the loo up to 16 times a day, experienced severe abdominal pain and started passing blood.

“I was so limited and scared to leave the house in case I needed to go to the loo. Now, I’m back at work and feel like I have my normal life back again. It’s incredible.”

While Emma was diagnosed in July 2018 with ulcerative colitis, a lifelong condition where parts of the gut become swollen, inflamed, and ulcerated, she believes she has experienced symptoms since she was 12.

She said: “For a long time, I passed off the symptoms as nothing serious, just a bit of IBS (irritable bowel syndrome), but as the years went on and I got older, the effects got worse. I was running to the toilet up to 16 times a day which led to weight loss and nausea.”

As the symptoms progressed, Emma says that it began to restrict her life.

She said: “I’ve always been really into fitness and I love running, but I found that I couldn’t risk venturing out for a run in case I realised I suddenly needed the toilet while being five miles from home. It meant I couldn’t do the things I enjoyed any longer.”

Hospitalised for two weeks in 2018 following a flare-up, when she was 21 and studying at the University of Surrey in Guildford, Emma says she also feared the condition would affect her new relationship with Will, a fellow student.

She said: “I started dating Will just three or four months before I was diagnosed, and I worried that it would put him off seeing me. But he has never treated me any differently. He’s been my absolute rock throughout all of this. He was one of the first people I told about the symptoms I was experiencing and he’s been absolutely brilliant from the start.”

After her spell in hospital, Emma was put on infliximab, a medicine commonly used to treat Colitis and Crohn’s and this helped her through the next few years, as she graduated from university, moved to Carmarthen and started her first job as a small animal vet.

She said: “The medication helped to alleviate my symptoms for three years but this year, things started to get bad again. I was in so much pain, my colon perforated in May, which led to symptoms of sepsis, and my doctor advised that it was only a matter of time before I would have no choice but to have a stoma fitted.”

Emma was unable to work for three months and Will, who was still in Guildford, was worried about her. “He was driving three hours to Wales every weekend just to make sure I was okay,” Emma said.

But she admits she had reservations about the procedure.

She said: “It’s a scary thought to know that your body is going to change, I had mixed emotions. It would mean a massive change to the way I look and how I live my life.

“But ultimately, I knew it was the best thing to do for my health and I knew I couldn’t live like this anymore. It got to the point where I was in so much pain that I stopped caring about the way it would change my body, as long as it took the pain away.”

Undergoing the six-hour surgery in May 2022, Emma says she felt better immediately when she came round from the general anaesthetic. She said: “I was sore from the actual procedure, but I just remember waking up and feeling so much better internally.”

And now she feels liberated. She added: “I can fully embrace my job, I am not in pain, I have loads more energy, and can get back into my fitness and running without the fear of having a toilet emergency. I feel as if I’ve taken my life back, which is so empowering.”

Now, Emma is training for the Brighton Marathon 2023, which she is running in aid of charity Crohn’s & Colitis UK.

She said: “I used to need an afternoon nap every day, now I’m training for a marathon – it just shows what you can do when you can suddenly redivert all the energy taken up with the stresses of such a condition into physical activity. My life really has changed thanks to the stoma – it’s saved my life.”


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