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Fifteen-year-old Cooper Hurst was a high school long distance runner when he underwent ileostomy surgery. Read his inspiring story of perseverance and how he embraced living with an ostomy.
As one of the top distance runners on the Western Branch High School Cross-Country team in Virginia, 15-year-old Cooper Hurst loves the runner’s high he gets when pushing his limits. “It just feels so good,” explains Cooper. “And the team I’m on is very supportive. Having super close friends that are like family is really helpful.”
This incredible bond grew stronger when in December of 2018, after running two miles at an indoor track meet and tutoring a friend that night, Cooper ended up in the emergency room due to terrible stomach pain. Doctors discovered that he had a congenital abnormality that caused mal-rotation of his small intestines which turned life threatening. Over the course of the next 37 days, Cooper spent nine days in the intensive care unit in critical condition, lost 11 feet of his small intestines, received a feeding tube and a peripherally inserted central catheter (PICC line), and had multiple surgeries including ileostomy surgery.
Cooper’s teammates and their parents rallied. They flooded the hospital to sing Christmas carols and play video games with him. Cooper’s twin brother Cambel, who is also on the Cross-Country team, kept it real for him, playing ball and continuing to spar with him.
“They are very close,” says Shannon, the twins’ mom. “Cambel was stressed out about academics and his brother’s health. So my husband and I tried to keep both Cambel and Cooper’s lives as normal as possible.”
When it came to managing Cooper’s ostomy pouching system, Wound Ostomy Care Nurse Ferne Elsass put Shannon at ease.
“She was like Tinker Bell with her sparkly headband,” remembers Shannon. “She taught us so much, like how to plan around the ostomy by creating a calendar to know when to change the pouch.”
Cooper was not embarrassed to have his mom help him change his pouching system, in fact they learned everything as a team and worked together 24/7. Ferne also introduced Shannon and Cooper to Hollister. Shannon read every one of the ostomy educational booklets to learn as much as she could about this foreign new experience.
On January 19, 2019, Cooper was released from the hospital with a PICC line and feeding tube, several medications, and home health nurses to support his care. Unable to go to school for six months, this National Honors Society scholar kept up his straight A average with the help of a visiting teacher. At that time, his only goal was to go back to school for one day.
“The hardest part for me was waiting to get back to a normal life,” explains Cooper. “It helped to have a schedule – change my bag, eat something small, relax, do schoolwork and play video games, and then talk to friends at night to keep up with what was going on at school.”
When friends visited, Cooper didn’t hesitate to show off his ostomy pouching system, and suggests that other teens with ostomies do the same.
“Embrace the change and tell your friends it’s your new normal,” says Cooper. “I knew my friends were questioning and I wanted them to know what was going on with me.”
During surgery for a painful blockage, doctors chose to perform an ileostomy reversal, which brought on another set of challenges.
“I had to learn how to go to the bathroom again and what foods I could eat,” says Cooper. “On some days I wished I had the ostomy back.”
It took time to adjust to the ileostomy reversal, but Cooper eventually achieved his goal of going back to school for one day, and actually went back for a month attending half days. But once an athlete reaches a goal, another appears on the horizon. For Cooper it was going back to Cross-Country, but doctors told his family that Cooper might never run again.
“This was a big blow to us; we had to figure out how to help a kid whose whole identity was wrapped around being an athlete,” explains Shannon. “Life will just throw you serious challenges and you have to find morsels of hope to help you get through.”
Cooper’s Coach Ryan Carroll was one such morsel of hope. During Cooper’s 37-day stay in the hospital, Coach Carroll helped him re-learn how to walk due to leg weakness from his immobilization, attended physical therapy appointments with him, and became a continuous source of inspiration.
“He promised that I’d make State next year,” says Cooper. “He gave me his medal when he ran State, and when I win mine I’ll give it back to him.”
Even though he still has a feeding tube, Cooper is now running and plans to train all summer for his upcoming season. With his determination, we have no doubt he’ll make State.
Cooper Hurst is a straight-A rising Junior at Western Branch High School. He was presented with the 2019 Inspiration Award from his school and was invited to be a council member on the Kids as Partners Advisory Council (KAPAC) at his local Children’s Hospital. When not studying, he can be found running with his Cross-Country team and playing video games. He lives with his mom, stepdad and twin brother Cambel in Chesapeake, Virginia.
Financial Disclosure: Cooper Hurst received compensation from Hollister Incorporated for his contribution to this article.
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