The Archers Brings Stomas Into the Spotlight

27/04/2016 16:42

Like the other five million listeners to BBC Radio Four's "The Archers", I am gripped by the storyline which recently saw abused wife Helen stab her husband Rob Titchener, without doubt the worst drama villain in recent years.

Once we learned that he'd survived, the next development was discovering that evil Rob had been given a stoma while he recovers from his life-saving bowel surgery. Archers' fans rejoiced; it seemed that apart from dying, being given a stoma was apparently the worst thing that could happen to this loathsome character. He is probably the first leading character in a prime show to be so afflicted.

More than 120,000 people in the UK - around 1 in 500 - have stomas, yet for a country seemingly obsessed with lavatory humour, it is something that is rarely discussed in public. Type "celebrities with colostomy bags" into a search engine and hardly any familiar name comes up. Bethany Townsend, a brave Crohn's disease sufferer posted pictures of herself in a bikini with her colostomy bag and received widespread praise, but it has not encouraged others to follow suit. Journalist George Alagiah's wife outed him as a bag wearer last month. Perhaps he would have preferred to stay in the shadows.

Archers' listeners were quick to highlight the opportunities for misery and indignity that Rob Titchener would now endure with his stoma. The public perception of stomas is that having a bag is thoroughly life-limiting and prohibits all normal activities. And until a few months ago I shared that view - if I even thought about it at all. But then a close friend was fitted with a temporary ileostomy for their small bowel (I'd never heard the word "ileostomy" before - only "colostomy" which, it transpires, is only for the large bowel). And confiding my worries to a work colleague, she revealed that she, too, had an ileostomy for a few years. Another older friend admitted she now had a permanent "Bag for Life" after bowel cancer surgery. It's like being a member of a large club to which no-one really wants to belong.

I've since learned that people with stoma bags manage a thoroughly normal life. It certainly requires discipline and "bag management", but work, travel, sport, swimming and yes, even sex, are all possible. But unless a bag is particularly "gurgly" or "farty", everyone else will be unaware that someone is wearing one.

That brings me back to "The Archers". Fans of the programme follow it on social media as part of a giant "Tweetalong". On 19th April, while applauding the success of a Twitter campaign for Refuge, inspired by the same Helen-Rob domestic abuse storyline, another listener tweeted "if only Rob were a nice person there would be a campaign for stoma awareness". But stomas don't just happen to bad people and so I was inspired to set up a fundraising campaign for the Colostomy Association to support the other 119,999 people in the UK with stomas.

My friends have been lucky that they have access to brilliant stoma care teams at London's Chelsea & Westminster and Kingston Hospitals. There are also stoma supply companies such as Fittleworth, whose home delivery service rivals Amazon in terms of efficiency. But for people without such easy access to specialist nurses, the Colostomy Association provides a lifeline.

I am the ghostwriter behind @bagofthedevil (aka Rob's Stoma Bag), now giving his bag a voice in the Archers' Tweetalong. I'm trying to strike a balance between sarcastic and caustic but also informative and helpful in raising the profile of stomas and how to manage them. I never thought I'd have more followers on Twitter as a talking stoma bag than for my day-to-day work! And I never thought I'd be grateful to the vile Rob Titchener for highlighting something that is so important, could change any of our lives in an instant and yet is so little discussed.