With her designer suit and three-inch heels, she looks like a fashion plate off a magazine cover. There is no hint of what life has dealt her. What survival instincts helped her overcome some of life’s worst obstacles? If living with an ostomy for 62 years does not make her the ‘woman of the year’, I don’t know what will. This is the story about Evelyn Waldera and you tell me what you think.
Evelyn Waldera was a teenager with chronic diarrhea. Six years of serious illness resulted in her only completing grade 8. These were very hard times for her. She was young and her life was restricted, painful and downright miserable. A very caring and frustrated father sought help through the Mayo Clinic. After referral to a doctor in Winnipeg, Evelyn was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis.
Following surgery in 1946, she weighed only 79 lbs and was very weak from years of being ill. There were no supplies in those days. How would she cope as they sent her home with nothing but cotton wool to pile over the stoma and strapped on with a big binder? What kind of life could a young person have needing messy changes every few hours? She was told to expect to live her life bedridden, unable to walk or hold herself upright or even eat without the contents of her stomach leaking. Home was in the country, there was no doctor, no nurse and no one to talk to.
Unable to watch her suffering, her father again searched for answers. Rubber pouches were found that were sealed with an inflated rubber donut that had to be pumped up at each fitting and scrubbed once a day. The pouches had an inch and a half wide elastic belt which was quite uncomfortable. Compared to having no appliance at all, they were a massive improvement – no bandages and no mess (usually). This Davol appliance gave her life back again!
Ten years later a new appliance arrived in Evelyn’s life. This Nu-Kumfort appliance from the United States had a steel plate attached to a regular plastic bag. She wore a big belt with metal hooks to keep the bag in place. She likes to tell the story of how the metal detector would buzz when she went through airport security. I wonder how she explained that away? Did they “pat” her down? It probably sounds pretty primitive to you, but to her, it was a great improvement. It had no bags to scrub and no “donut” to blow up. And it was much flatter, so it was not as obvious under her clothes. The belt was made of the material that police braces were made of. They were over 1 inch wide and very thick. The belt had to be pulled very tight or else the bag would leak. It was like a “too tight bra” that cuts into the skin. This was her apparel for 15 years and she carries the permanent marks of that belt to this day.
Evelyn had many boyfriends in her life but was too scared and embarrassed to tell them about her surgery. How many times did she end a relationship when things started to get serious? How many times did her heartbreak? What would it be like to have your doctor tell you not to get married because if you got pregnant, one or the other would probably die? Of course, there was no information about birth control in those days. Well, Evelyn showed those doctors! At age 43, with her life getting better, she got married, moved out of the country and helped her husband as he travelled back and forth between Canada and the USA racing horses. A love of life, husband and horses was in Evelyn’s future.
Evelyn endured many, many bowel-related surgeries. Years ago there were no antibiotics, the incisions were so long and took forever to heal. She had 3 operations on her rectum – it was always draining and wouldn’t heal because it was always moist. She recalls how the doctors created a “tent” over her stoma with a light bulb inside to help dry the incision so it could heal.
The doctors had originally created a “double-barrel” stoma in the navel area. The stomas kept getting larger and larger, to the point that the ETs could not find an appliance that would fit them. So in 1991, Evelyn had surgery to change the stoma to her right side. She should have had the surgery 6 years previously but she had put it off due to her husband’s deteriorating health. Unfortunately, both Evelyn and her husband ended up in the same hospital at the same time – she for ostomy surgery, her husband for amputation of his leg due to diabetes. Evelyn was very ill and the doctors were very concerned for her. It was while she was in the hospital that the doctors had to tell her that her husband had a heart attack following surgery and died.
Then Evelyn’s stoma started to retract which created skin problems. It was approximately five years until she finally had her stoma moved to the left side in 2006. Now her stoma is just “like a cherry” and working like a charm. “It’s so cute now!” she exclaims.
Evelyn was born a middle child in 1924. She had a brother, 15 months older and a brother 10 years younger. Evelyn is amazed that none of her family had a sick day in their lives, yet she is the only one left.
Despite the poor appliances and surgical problems with which she began, Evelyn strongly believes that her ileostomy has had a very positive effect on her life. As Evelyn explains, she has lived a full, active life and enjoyed good health. She could not have done this without having ileostomy surgery. Her ulcerative colitis was totally debilitating and her ileostomy cured her and let her live again. Her experiences make her an authority on the medical advances made in ostomy equipment over the last sixty-two years. From being discharged from hospital to an isolated Northern Ontario town swaddled in bandages, followed by years of primitive, but partially effective pouches, through the availability of modern appliances, continuing on to her current very active life as an octogenarian.
This wonderful woman is such a well-adjusted person. Her personality sparkles. She has such a horrendous story to tell but is always thankful for how it turned out. At every point in her story which she loves to tell, she always talks about how her life improved, over and over again. She is always smiling, is grateful for opportunities in her life, is extremely supportive and encouraging for other ostomates and never feels sorry for herself
- Evelyn was named “Optimist of the Year” for 1998 – 1999 by her Optimist club of which she has been an active member since 1993 and has served on the club’s board as well as volunteered with the many yearly events.
- She has participated in several fashion shows as a model. She is a virtual fashion plate while at the same time displaying graciousness and a wondrous spirit.
- She has been a member of the Ostomy Manitoba Association since 1972 and has only missed three meetings in all that time.
- For many years she served on the Ostomy Manitoba Association Hospitality committee, taking three buses through all kinds of weather, to arrive at meetings early to make coffee for the members. She has continued to volunteer at every opportunity, in many capacities in the Chapter.
- She was involved in the “New Horizons” group that was set up by the Ostomy Manitoba Association, especially for seniors. It was a social event where the group met weekly for a luncheon.
- She has attended several UOAC conferences and she was named “Honorary Chair” for the UOAC‘s 8th Annual Conference in 2005 for obvious reasons.
- With her cheerful nature at all times, she is truly a great ambassador for the Ostomy Association. She is very dear to all of us in our chapter.
As Evelyn says, “I like to think that I am a positive living example for ostomates, showing that ostomy surgery not only saves lives but greatly enhances the quality of life as well.”
“Sixty-Two Years and Still Going Strong”. Now do you not think that she is entitled to an award?
As told to: Lorrie Pismenny
President – Ostomy Manitoba Association
Evelyn Waldera passed away following a short stay in the hospital. Her obituary was published in the Winnipeg Free Press Obituaries—Sat. Nov. 7, 2020.