Grandfather Steve Clark is special. He says: ‘I’m not normal. But then, who wants to be normal?’
The reason is that he has a colostomy bag. And now he’s on a mission to, as he calls it, ‘take the taboo out of poo’.
It’s quite hard to have a serious conversation with Steve, because he’s a man who always sees the positives in life and loves to laugh.
But this attitude was tested to the limit three years ago when he suffered a perforated bowel and his life changed forever.
For a couple of weeks, the 59-year-old had had a niggling pain in his stomach which he put down to a bad diet and too much beer.
On a four-day drive to France and back it got progressively worse and he ended up in an operating theatre undergoing a major operation.
Several hours later he woke up with a colostomy bag.
‘I’ve no idea how,’ says Steve, a grandfather from Fareham, ‘but I’d managed to perforate my bowel.
‘When I got back from France I went to the doctor’s and everything else is a blur. The pain was unbearable. It felt like a knife slicing open my abdomen, I’ve never felt anything like it in my life.
’When I woke up from surgery the first words I heard from doctor were “you’ve had a colostomy”.’
‘I had no idea that was what they were going to do’, says Steve.
‘Quite frankly, I was high on morphine and a lot of what happened in the first few weeks went straight over my head.
‘At first it (the bag) was temporary but a lot happened and I was in and out of hospital. I had a leak into the abdomen which caused an abscess.
‘In May 2012 I went in to hospital for what we initially thought was going to be a reversal. What was supposed to be an eight to 10-hour operation turned into a 14-hour operation. Instead of reversing it they had to take away more of the bowel and move the stoma (colostomy) from the traditional left-hand side to the right, which is very unusual.’
Steve spent weeks in hospital recovering and a darkness set in when he realised he would have the stoma for the rest of his life.
He says: ‘I was getting very, very depressed about it.
‘I love my job. It beats working for a living,’ he laughs.
‘But the original surgeon said I would never go back to taxi driving.
‘Throughout this period I’d been on the strongest painkillers and morphine and it does funny things to your mind.
‘You’re not really taking everything in that’s going on around you. You try to make sense of what’s going on, but it all becomes a fog.
‘I ended up in a very dark place. I won’t say I was suicidal but that would have been possibly the next move.
‘Although my wife and family were very supportive and loving, they couldn’t relate to it.
‘I felt alone in the world.’
Steve had to learn to walk again after the operation and he was extremely weak. By now he was on mild anti-depressants.
Desperate to help him, Steve’s wife Cherry surfed the internet looking for support. And she found it with the Colostomy Association. That led her to a Facebook support group which Steve says changed his life.
‘Suddenly there were 400 to 500 people who knew what I was going through,’ says Steve. ‘I felt I could be open and honest and talk frankly. It was at that point I started coming out of the darkness.
‘I began to get on top of things and I could see I could get my life back.’
A few months later a group of 30 friends from the site met up for the weekend in Birmingham.
‘I admit I was nervous at first,’ says Steve.
‘Would I smell in front of them? But then I thought ‘‘who cares? Let’s just get on with life’’.
‘It was sponsored by one of the bag manufacturers,’ he says with a smile.
‘They showed us round the factory and plied us with goodies. The weekend was absolutely fantastic. It was a wonderful, wonderful experience. We laughed so hard.’
Just a few months after his major operation he was taxi driving again.
He eats and drinks what he likes and even goes to circuit training. He has to be aware of his bag but it does not stop him doing what he loves.
Every few days he has an irrigation where he flushes his intestine through with water and empties it directly into the toilet through a special sleeve. It takes 40 minutes but means he does not fill his bag for around 24 hours.
He credits Cherry with helping him through the tough times. Next year will be their 40th wedding anniversary.
He says: ‘She excelled herself during my illness by keeping up to date with what was happening to me, questioning the medical staff and generally researching as much as she could about my colostomy surgery.
‘There is not a pedestal high enough for me to put my Cherry on.’
Steve is now desperate to get the message out that anyone could end up with a colostomy bag, but it need not be a life sentence.
He says, ‘Colostomites can be from a day old to 110 years old. They can be male or female.
‘And it can be caused by childbirth, Crohn’s disease, rectal or bowel cancer. Anyone can end up with a colostomy bag.
‘A lot of people look at this and think it’s the end of the world but it’s not, it’s life. You can pull yourself round by appreciating that it’s got a funny side.
‘I have to maintain my own positive outlook. If I can drag others along kicking and screaming, great!’
Inspired by Bethan
Steve Clark was inspired to speak out about his colostomy following the actions of Bethan Townsend.
The 23-year-old put a glamorous holiday photo of herself in a bikini on social media – with her colostomy bag clearly on display.
She received an overwhelming amount of support and is now a model.
A colostomy is formed during surgery to divert a section of the large intestine through an opening in the abdomen.
The opening is known as a stoma. A pouch is placed over the stoma to collect waste products that would usually pass through the colon and out of the body through the rectum and anus.
The bag is attached by a strong adhesive.
So far Steve has raised £1,347.22 for the Colostomy Association by wearing a purple wig in his taxi. To donate go to www.justgiving.com/Steve-Clark13.
For more information on colostomy, go to colostomyassociation.org.uk or call 0118 939 1537.