UOAA National Conference: Education & Friendship

I’ve sat down to write about my experience at the UOAA National Conference a number of times now, and so far it’s been challenging to put my experience into words. Taking a different approach with this attempt, if I had to sum up my experience in one word, it would be:

Life changing.

I can’t tell you exactly how my life changed, or what changed, but on some deep level I’m confident that attending this event was a pivotal moment in my life.

Having not been to an ostomy conference before, I had no idea what to expect. It took a lot of guts (ha!) to travel there alone and venture into the unknown, and boy am I glad I did. I arrived late night before the conference officially started and got settled into my hotel room. The next morning, I woke up absurdly early to attend the 6:30 Tai Chi for Arthritis class. My internal clock was definitely still pretending it was in the pacific time zone, but the adrenaline and anxiety about what the week would bring were good motivators to get me out of bed and downstairs. After class, registration was open so I went and picked up my badge and goodie bag. Ostomy Samples Galore from UOAA Registration Bag

The first session I planned to attend was a meet and greet for millennials, but it wasn’t scheduled until early afternoon so I had a few hours to kill. I decided to walk to the grocery store, which turned into an adventure when I realized those couple hours were all mine. I wandered down the road and noticed some signs for free tours of the Federal Reserve Bank. Normally I’d pass that up but I was feeling spontaneous and really trying to grasp the opportunities in front of me, so I went in. There’s enough security there that they make you walk through a metal detector and put your belongings through an x-ray machine. They found my ostomy scissors. Whoops! It was easy to explain that I had them for a medical reason and the guards offered to hang on to them at the front. Easy. The tour was self-guided and interactive and at the end they had shredded paper money you could take as a free souvenir. Score! After the bank tour, Grocery Shopping in St LouisI went to the grocery store, stopping frequently to admire the architecture. The style of the buildings is very different from what I’m used to and I was really enjoying taking it all in. When I got back to the hotel I had time to eat breakfast and put together a cheat sheet for which sessions I wanted to attend. I was really proud of myself for taking the time to go off my intended route to wander around and explore. It’s not that it’s out of character for me, but I don’t give myself the opportunity to be in that kind of situation very often and I’m really glad I took advantage of it.

There was a good 15 or so of us, late teens to early 40s, at the meet and greet for millennials. I was kind of nervous, not knowing anyone at the conference and knowing that this was likely going to be the place where I made friends. Despite a number of people already knowing each other, I felt that everyone made a huge effort to be inclusive which made the environment really comfortable and welcoming. Before the session officially started, I noticed that one girl was from a city just a couple hours away from me and she got really excited and immediately insisted on us trading information, giving me her phone so I could find myself on Facebook. Instant acceptance. I felt a sense of relief knowing that if I made friends with no one else, at least this girl would make sure I was included (She turned out to be pretty awesome!). Once we thought everyone had arrived, the two girls leading the session suggested we all introduce ourselves, share what kind of ostomy we had, and share our hobby as an ice breaker. The time flew by, and it was such a great feeling to be around so many people who understood and had lived through similar struggles.

Next up was the 1st Timers Orientation. Leaving the meet and greet, I noticed two other people from it that were just down the hall, also on their way to the orientation so I skipped up to them and decided I was going to tag along with them. I cannot express how grateful I am to myself for having the courage to run up to them, and how grateful I am to them for being where they were when they were! They knew each other from the internet, but each came to the event on their own and were both just as nervous about being at the conference as I was; it was the beginning of an incredible bond.

It was hard to choose which sessions to attend when there were multiple appealing options that conflicted, so in some instances, my friends and I split up and took notes on different sessions to share with each other. I attended the Pregnancy and GYN Considerations, Medicare and Private Insurance Reimbursement, New “Sexpectations”, Peristomal Skin Challenges, Millennium Parenting, Nutrition and the Ostomate, and the Youth Rally sessions. My favorite sessions were the Pregnancy and GYN Considerations and the Medicare and Private Insurance Reimbursement. I found them both to be full of information I was unfamiliar with and the speakers were engaging and very knowledgeable. There was a big expo hall open for a few hours on two of the days where we were able to schmooze with many ostomy appliance and accessory vendors and get our obligatory free samples and pens! In addition to the expo hall and educational sessions, there were a couple events that were fun to attend including an ice cream social, a great talk by an ostomate who is also a WOCN, a fun-run/walk, the closing ceremony and the farewell dance party.

The conference ended up being just as much, if not more, about building friendships as it was about attending the sessions put on by the UOAA. There was a fair amount of down time at the conference, depending on which sessions you chose to attend, plus tons of down time in the evening. Prime bonding time. I spent most of my time with my two new friends but we often got together with other groups of people from the youngish generation. With all my new friends, I ate a lot, went to the top of the Hilton to a rooftop restaurant/bar for drinks and to take in the night time view, went to the zoo, went for walks around the city, went to the top of the arch, went on a river cruise, ate dinner at a restaurant with live music, and went to a hilarious improv show. What I loved about all of these activities, was that I was with complete strangers that felt like they had been my friends for years. There was an instant sense of belonging that I think we all felt. When the event came to a close, it was like leaving summer camp – we were all so sad to say bye. In fact, we’re already making plans for a reunion because the next conference is just too far away.

I said this event was life-changing. It was. I learned so much about myself. My beliefs about the importance of social support were reinforced time and time again throughout the conference. Ostomies don’t discriminate. They come on people of all shapes and sizes, races and religions. The conference was a convergence of all of these people that would likely never have crossed paths had it not been for their ostomy. It was so cool to be a part of that and allow myself to influence and be influenced by all the incredible people I crossed paths with.

Here are some pictures from my trip.  I have a ton more of me posing with all my new friends, but some of them are still “in the closet” about their ostomy and I don’t want to out them before they’re ready.  Are you convinced yet? Will I see you at the conference in Irvine, CA in 2017?

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