Colostomy comment by Cincinnati police offends; opens dialogue

CINCINNATI -- A comment made by a Cincinnati police lieutenant intended to shock teens about the consequences of gun violence also offended ostomates around the world.

An ostomate is someone who has had a surgery, like a colostomy, ileostomy or urostomy, designed to evacuate waste from the body.

9 On Your Side and reported on the Cincinnati Police Department's efforts to show pictures of gunshot survivors to the most "at-risk" teens. Those pictures were to include those who were paralyzed or required a colostomy bag.

Lt. Joe Richardson said at the time,"You're not killed, but you're walking around with a colostomy bag and that's just not the way to get a girl's attention, by limping down Warsaw Avenue with a colostomy bag."

The idea was to appeal to the sense of vanity in the teenagers. But it also struck a nerve with many ostomates who, concerned with societal acceptance, understanding and accuracy, found it uninformed and insensitive at best.

"We feel the officer said something that he didn't realize would be such a blanket statement that had hurt a lot of the work we do, daily, to eradicate the stigma of ostomies being something that is bad. People survive and thrive because of them," wrote Alison Rothbaum, a Cincinnati woman who suffers from Crohn's disease. She had an ileostomy in Spring 2003.

A colostomy is, very often, a life-saving procedure performed when a patient suffers from conditions like Crohn's disease or colorectal cancer.

However, while those who've had a colostomy or know someone who has had one know of its medical significance, most people aren't familiar enough with the procedure to know what it is or why someone would have one. That's one reason why the proposed program by the Cincinnati Police Department bothered so many in the ostomy community.

"In general, the average person in America and around the world, is not aware of what a colostomy is unless they either personally have one, or know of someone who has shared with them the fact that they have one," said Doug Yakich, social media chair for the United Ostomy Associations of America.

"It is a question of raising awareness, when this went out publicly it presented an image of a colostomy bag as unattractive, disgusting, and related to gangs, it created a negative image for those who never heard about a colostomy. That image would be very difficult to change to a more positive one," Yakich said.

In addition to working with people who've had a colostomy, Yakich says the medical procedure has twice saved his life.

Yakich, who lives in Glendale, Calif. but grew in Cleveland, has battled Crohn's disease since he was 17. Three years ago he had his rectum and a portion of colon removed due to the damage the disease had caused over 17 years of battling it.

He credits the colostomy procedure with not only keeping him alive, but maintaining the quality of his life.

That's a message the United Ostomy Associations of America (UOAA) tries to drive home to the general public. A guide by the association states in part:

A colostomy is a life-saving surgery that enables a person to enjoy a full range of activities, including traveling, sports, family life and work, even though they have a stoma and may wear a pouching system.

Roughly three weeks after the story ran on 9 On Your Side and, an ostomate in Canada spotted it while surfing the Internet and shared it with the ostomy community.

That community, angered by the remarks, launched a phone and email campaign that had an international reach. Rothbaum said the topic outraged people around the world, including many who had never heard of Cincinnati prior to reading about the controversy via various forms of social media.  

"We have received comments, website hits, signatures and more from far and wide. This touched an international spectrum, and international outrage. Countries that wouldn't even know where Cincinnati was located, now have heard of us in a way that we're working to rectify."

That served to alert then-Interim Chief Paul Humphries to the offense and prompted him to issue an apology.

Yakich told 9 On Your Side and the apologies by both Humphries and Richardson were widely accepted.

In August, at the UOAA’s National Conference in Florida, Yakich read the apology at the closing ceremony. It was met with a standing ovation.

As the Cincinnati Police Department pressed on with its anti-violence campaign, 9 On Your Side was told a decision was made not to use the graphic images.

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The apology from the Cincinnati Police Department is

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