Parkite shares ‘Great Comeback’
November 24, 2009
Sylvia Prothro Hebert has plenty to be thankful for this holiday. Twenty years ago, the native Floridian and current Parkite didn’t think she would ever be able to live a normal life.
Today, she has worked as a flight attendant for 13 years, is married with three healthy children, and enjoys all of the recreational activities that Park City has to offer.
On top of all of that, Hebert was recently named the 2009 Great Comebacks Award recipient for the Western region, an honor that recognizes the inspirational achievements of people who have overcome debilitating intestinal diseases and ostomy surgery.
At age 9, Hebert was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, a chronic disorder that causes inflammation of the digestive or gastrointestinal tract.
At 21, she went into the doctor’s office for a routine colonoscopy and came out with an ileostomy, a type of ostomy surgery that entails removing the diseased part of the intestines and rerouting the healthy part to a hole in the abdominal wall.
Hebert’s intestine had been punctured during the colonoscopy and she was rushed into emergency surgery. When she woke up, she discovered a pouch on her stomach and was told that her digestive waste would no longer exit through the standard route.
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At the time, Hebert felt like she was at the end of her rope. For about a year before the surgery, she had been struggling with symptoms of anorexia – including hair loss and weak gums and teeth – because she wasn’t able to keep food in her stomach.
She was in college and weighed 89 pounds. "People would say to me, ‘How can I catch that disease? I want to get skinny,’" she recalls. "They just don’t think what they’re saying. It’s painful. I would be in bed for days or weeks sometimes, just trying to get enough energy to go to class."
Once she got the ostomy surgery, things started to improve, but not without setbacks. She had four follow-up surgeries to release fluid buildup in her digestive system. "Just when you think you’re on the right track – boom. You get knocked down again," she says.
However, Hebert didn’t let obstacles get in her way. She returned to school and graduated with a teaching degree. A few years later, she decided to pursue a career that she had dreamed about but never thought possible.
"I always wanted to be a flight attendant, but I thought everything had to be perfect," she says. She knew she fit the prototype on the outside, but she was worried about what was happening on the inside. "I had nothing to lose, so I went for it," she says. She applied with Delta, went through training, and got the job.
After flying over Park City, Hebert decided that she wanted to live here for a year to try it out. "Twelve years later, I’m still here," she says.
Hebert has lived with ileostomy surgery for 21 years. Although she’s experienced occasional flare-ups and obstructions due to scar tissue caused by Crohn’s disease, for the most part she is healthy, and more importantly, happy.
She skis with the Delta Ski and Snowboard Club and has completed two half-marathons and a sprint triathlon. "It has not stopped me from trying anything," she says.
At the urging of a friend who also has Crohn’s disease, Hebert decided to share her story with the Great Comebacks Program this past year. The program was founded by Rolf Benirschke, a former place-kicker for the San Diego Chargers who underwent ostomy surgery for ulcerative colitis.
"One of the main reasons I did send in my story is because, especially for young kids that have it, they think their life is over," Hebert explains. "They don’t think they’re ever going to be able to find a mate, have children, have a family, go waterskiing, go jet-skiing, go snow-skiing, any of that. Once you get the ostomy surgery and get on the path to recovery, there are no limits."
Hebert is a testament to that statement and also to their prospects for having children. She is currently raising three – Reese, 5, Garrett, 3, and Renee, 1 – and wants to let others know that it can be done. "I felt like I didn’t know who I could talk to," she says. "I want to make sure this story gets out there for those people who have the same questions I did."
Since she has had the surgery and shared her story, Hebert has met countless others with Crohn’s disease and other intestinal disorders. "You and I both would be surprised how many people out there have them that don’t even talk about it," she says. "I don’t know why, but it’s a forbidden topic."
She has become somewhat of a poster child for ostomy surgery, and she is using that to help other people. "The main thing I want people to know is life doesn’t end when you get an ostomy, it begins."
Next March, Hebert will attend a conference for regional Great Comebacks Award recipients in Washington, D.C., where a national winner will be announced. Hebert says the most important thing for her is to share her story and give others hope.
She remembers a metaphor that Benirschke once used to describe the program’s mission. It’s like when it snows for the first time, he said, and the first person that gets out there continues to sink down into the powder, but the more people who take the path, the firmer it gets.
"That’s why this Great Comebacks Program is out there basically, to pave the path to show everybody that life is not over, life only gets better after you have this surgery," she says. "I am very humbled by the award and I look forward to helping other people get through it."
For more information about the Great Comebacks Program, visit http://www.greatcomebacks.com.