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Gill Castle’s Journey: From Ostomate to Charity Founder

Gill when she was pregnant, wearing a flowery summer dress and standing next to a wooden-clad wall

Following a traumatic birth in late 2011, I underwent colostomy surgery and was subsequently medically retired from my job as a police officer due to my poor mental and physical health resulting from the birth injuries.

Initially struggling with acceptance and facing challenges such as constant bag leaks, I discovered the Dansac Novalife TRE ™ convex bag, which provided a good fit and gave me the confidence to embrace living with a stoma. I set out to prove that having an ostomy wasn’t going to hold me back. You can listen to my podcast journey here – Empowering You to Own Your Journey.

I started with indoor cycling classes, progressing to triathlons, a half ironman in 2017, and a 105-mile endurance race across Scotland. I jumped out of planes, completed the National 3 Peaks in 24 hours, qualified as a scuba diver, and became the first person in the world to solo swim the English Channel with a stoma!

During my Stoma Chameleon awareness campaign in 2021, I discovered a group of women at the Gynocare & Fistula Hospital, Eldoret, Kenya, who had stomas as a result of fistula surgery but did not have access to stoma supplies. Instead of stoma bags, they were using plastic bags or pieces of cloth.

Supporting Female Ostomates in Kenya

I set up my charity, Chameleon Buddies in 2022 to help support these ladies adapt to living with their ostomies, including supplying stoma bags and peer support groups. There is a huge degree of stigma among Kenyan communities around living with a stoma, compounded by a lack of understanding of the needs of ostomates and limited access to stoma bags for patients. Ladies reported relationship breakdowns, loss of employment and, in extreme cases, the removal of their children because of the taboo surrounding ostomies.

In July 2021, I flew out to Eldoret, Kenya, to run a peer support group and a fact-finding mission to discover the unmet needs of the patients at the GynoCare Centre and run a peer support group.

In November 2023, my team and I flew to the hospital in Eldoret, bringing with us Dansac Specialist Stoma Care Nurse Claire Ryan. Claire ran a weeklong stoma clinic, assessing each lady and assisting the team in organising their supplies in the hospital. One patient was discovered wearing a plastic bag attached to a dirty seal, loosely tied to her waist with a fraying piece of string. This was to manage her urostomy.

One of the most important aspects of the work carried out by Chameleon Buddies is the education of the female patients and the team of nurses and social workers in the hospital on all elements of living with a stoma. A 5-day peer support workshop was facilitated at the hospital educating the ladies on a range of ostomy needs, such as skin health, diet advice, and correct stoma baseplate measurements. An additional workshop was held on the creation of washable sanitary towels, with the charity supplying enough materials for each lady to make 10 pads. This is an essential item to enable the ladies to manage living with their ostomies with dignity.

Gill Castle in Kenya with fellow Chameleon Buddies colleagues and one of their advocates, a little girl from Kenya

Creating a Sense of Belonging & Community

Chameleon Buddies has now run two extensive peer support group weeks for the girls and ladies at the Gynocare hospital, with the next group in November 2024. The groups bring together patients from across the whole of Kenya, the vast majority of whom never have heard of, let alone met, another ostomate. The sense of belonging and community fostered during these support weeks is one of the highlights of the week for all the ladies attending. The charity employs one of the ostomates, Pastoress Rose, as a roving ostomy ambassador, holding support meetings in local villages. A group WhatsApp chat was set up in 2023 to maintain friendships and connections made between the ladies.

Chameleon Buddies has transformed the lives of these Kenyan ostomates, who now feel empowered to embrace living with their ostomies, secure in the knowledge that regular stoma supplies are assured. They have friendships with fellow ostomates and an annual clinical assessment with a UK stoma nurse.

A BBC Documentary, The Stoma Swimmer, showcases the positive impact of these trips. It is a far cry from plastic bags and ostracisation. You can watch the documentary here – The Stoma Swimmer.