Tips for Managing an Ostomy At School

As a student, there are easy ways you can prepare ahead and manage an ostomy while you are at school.

Read answers to frequently asked questions about how to change your pouch and participate in activities.

Teri Coha MSN, CWON shares her advice

There are so many things to juggle when at school, but even more so when a student has an ostomy, such as a colostomy or ileostomy. It’s natural for questions to come up regarding managing busy class schedules with short breaks, participating in activities, and being prepared for urgent situations. The following are some frequently asked questions along with tips and advice.

Q: Is there anyone at school who should know that I have an ostomy?
A: It is best to schedule a meeting with the staff at school before returning to classes. The school nurse or someone who helps at the school when a nurse is not available (not all schools have a nurse on site every day) needs to know that you have a stoma. None of them need to see your stoma though. So, don’t worry that you are going to have to show everyone. The school nurse may want to see your stoma, but if you are independent in your care and you don’t expect to have to change your ostomy pouch at school, then the nurse does not necessarily need to see it. They are there to help you.
In order to make your day at school as stress-free as possible, you might want to let all your teachers know that you have an ostomy too. This way, if you must leave the classroom unexpectedly, you can easily step out without disrupting the class. You may also need a pass that you always keep with you to show a hall monitor. Hall monitors may change a lot and this will make getting to the bathroom or nurse’s office a little quicker. Establish a plan with your school for how substitute teachers will be made aware that you may have to leave the classroom. Of course, you do not want to take advantage of this plan. If you need to leave one certain class while in session every day, then you may want to consider a different plan for changing or emptying your ostomy bag.

Q: What information will the school nurse need to help me with a pouch change?
A: This depends on how comfortable you are with changing your ostomy pouch on your own. If you’re still adjusting or use the assistance of a parent or guardian, then it may be helpful to change your pouch alongside the nurse so they know all the steps. If you feel comfortable changing the ostomy bag on your own, need minimal assistance, or would like more privacy, ask if you can come to the nurse’s office to change it yourself.

Q: Sometimes it is a challenge to make it to the restroom in between classes. What advice do you have?
A: I’ve heard that some young adults find it easier to leave a class a few minutes early than arriving to a class late. Look at your schedule and decide the best times, based on your output, for emptying your ostomy pouch or changing the pouch if you are using a two-piece pouching system. Figure out how much time you need. Then plan on leaving that class early enough to have plenty of time to empty/change the full ostomy bag and get to your next class. To make it easier, you could share this plan with your nurse or administrator who could let your teachers know too. Keep all your supplies in a small bag in your backpack. If you go to a large school, you may not have enough time to go to your locker between classes, so feel at ease by being prepared.

Q: What about gym? Can I participate? Is there a way to change for gym without classmates knowing I have a stoma?
A: First, you need to be sure that your surgeon thinks you are ready to return to gym activities. Next, consider how comfortable you will be in the locker room with the other students and what sport you would like to try. If you are able and want to participate, athletic shorts, running shorts or yoga pants can be worn to cover your stoma. When you change for gym, you can leave these on under your gym clothes.

Q: Are there any special considerations for participating in sports or physical activities?
A: Again, first be sure the activity is approved by your physician. They may allow you to participate in some but not others. For example, once you have recovered from the operation, the surgeon may allow you to play baseball but not high-impact contact sports such as football or rugby. If you have your stoma for a longer period, other activities will be allowed. The coach or gym teacher, just like your other teachers, should know that you have a stoma in case you need to step out. There are many different product options to choose from and two-piece ostomy pouching systems have shorter, closed-end pouch options available. These are often preferred when participating in sports because they can be quick and easy to change. Also, using products such as barrier extenders to hold your barrier in place during activities is important. And don’t forget to drink plenty of fluids. 

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Teri Coha MSN, CWON is a pediatric nurse at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, IL with more than 35 years of experience. Her practice has focused on the care of infants, toddlers, and teens with ostomies.

Financial Disclosure: Teri received compensation from Hollister Incorporated for her contribution to this article.