Valuable Support System

Comox Valley group offers support and encouragement to those dealing with life-altering ostomy surgery.

JoAnne McElroy has always had a fascination with old things.  In fact, ailment when she recalls growing up, some of her fondest memories are of trips she and her father took to the community landfill near Mackenzie, BC.  She and her dad would regularly go to the dump with the sole purpose of rummaging around to see what they could find.  McElroy remembers that mixed among the things that clearly belonged in a garbage pile, there were always items that caught her and her father’s eye— a broken lamp, a picture frame, old windows, a crooked wooden chair, a wood stove.

“Back in the day it was amazing what people threw away—it was a goldmine,” recalls McElroy.

During those excursions, McElroy’s dad taught her how to find the gems concealed within the piles of garbage.  In fact, her dad furnished their entire lake cabin from things found during their trips to the dump.  Most importantly, her father taught her how to see the potential in something someone else threw away.

She uses those skills today as owner of Blackberry Lane – Farmhouse Inspired Furnishings, a furniture restoration business based in Cumberland.  Though McElroy has worked as a tree planter for the past 15 years and is also a certified teacher, for the past 14 months she has been spending most of her time carefully transforming old furniture castoffs into beautiful pieces of furniture that are sought after throughout Vancouver Island.

Like her dad could see the potential in items someone else threw away, McElroy can visualize how beautiful a piece of furniture can be, if only given the chance.  She can see the potential in a dated, scratched, and thrice-painted bureau that has been offloaded to the Sally Ann or is otherwise unwanted, or unappreciated.   “Taking an old worn out piece of furniture and making it beautiful again really makes me happy,” says McElroy.  “I like to think that I take old pieces and breathe new life into them.”

Though McElroy has been restoring furniture for more than 20 years, she credits her father for teaching her the fine art of restoration through his love of fixing up and restoring old cars.  As far back as McElroy can remember, her father would take vintage cars and restore them into gleaming things of beauty.  “My father has always had a passion for old cars and the restoration of them,” she says.  “He began when he was 14 years old—he was given a 1926 Star that he fixed up and drove to school.”

Restoring cars became a hobby and a passion her dad never gave up.  “I guess I am a lot like my father in that I love and see the beauty in old things,” she adds.  “I admit I’m a bit different that way.  For example, where most people see rust as something that needs to be removed, I admire it and want to photograph it.  The color is just so gorgeous and the texture is beautiful.”

Though McElroy’s dad made an old car look brand new again, that’s not what she does with her furniture.  “I like to retain the story of each piece if it’s possible,” she says.  For example, when McElroy refinishes a piece she doesn’t strip away all the paint.  “To me, stripping away the paint feels like stripping away the history.”

Instead she likes to reveal the heritage of the piece by sanding it just enough to show the layers of paint. “The layers of paint tell the story.  It’s what makes the piece unique and interesting.  Anyone can go into a furniture store and buy a piece of furniture that’s been mass produced by the thousands, but my pieces are one-of-a-kind.”

McElroy tells the story of one of her favorite pieces—a bureau that was quite old and painted with a sage green paint.  When she began sanding through the first layer of paint another layer of burgundy paint began to show through.

“It was striking,” she recalls.  “The sanding began to reveal lines of color that swirled and created beautiful patterns that looked like a map—a map showing the history of the piece.  If I just stripped off the paint, I’d never reveal the story.”

Because of McElroy’s unique philosophy, it took her a long time to come up with a name for her business.  Having Blackberry Lane in the name was easy—she’s always loved the lanes in Cumberland with their painted fences and rutted tracks, some taken over with blackberry brambles.

“I originally thought of Blackberry Lane – Up-Cycled Furnishings,” says McElroy, “but then I realized that my pieces are not up-cycled at all—they’re not made into something that functions differently, they’re just made beautiful again.”  McElroy struggled to come up with a name that accurately described what she did with her furniture.   However, she has always loved the idea of farms filled with old pieces of furniture—farmhouse furniture that’s been loved and well-used over the years.  So one day when she was driving through the farmlands of Black Creek the perfect name came to her:  Blackberry Lane—Farmhouse Inspired Furnishings.

Her tag line is Recycle, Recreate, Re-love, because that is just what she hopes to do with each piece.

“Instead of buying new, I feel purchasing restored furniture is a better way to furnish one’s home, using less resources than if one bought new,” McElroy says.  “I recreate furniture, give it a new life, a new look and that piece is then taken into a new home where a person will love that piece all over again.”

Though McElroy used to search through the dump for treasures, that’s not where she looks for them today.  Instead, McElroy keeps her eyes peeled for old furniture treasures at garage sales, estate sales, auctions, and on Craig’s List.  Every now and then she even finds her treasure in the local thrift stores.

Sometimes people are surprised when they learn that some of her beautifully restored pieces were originally found at a thrift store.  She tells the story of a wooden coffee table she found in a local thrift store, which she restored and put it up for sale at The Rusty Rooster in Cumberland.

“A lady walked in and was admiring it.  She obviously liked the piece and was interested in it, but what clinched the sale was when I told her that it originally came from a thrift store,” recalls McElroy.  “It was the piece’s unique story that ultimately sold it.”

McElroy finds all of her pieces on Vancouver Island.  “I don’t need to travel to the mainland to find what I’m looking for, there’s plenty right here on the island,” she says.  “I also have two friends who help me—one in Parksville and another in Victoria—and since they both know what I like, they let me know when they find something I might be interested in.”

Anyone who has ever tried to refinish furniture knows it’s no easy task.  In fact, it’s back-breaking work that takes a discerning eye and loads of patience.   For McElroy, a piece of furniture can take several days to complete.  “It’s a slow process because 98 per cent of the work done on a piece is by hand, and most of that time is spent sanding.”

But it’s the hours of fine work that make McElroy’s pieces stand out from the rest.  You just have to run your hand over one of McElroy’s finished pieces of furniture to know that the workmanship is superb.

McElroy strives to use materials that are kind to the environment.  “I use latex paints, I don’t use harsh solvents, and I even make my own chalk paint,” she says, adding that each piece is finished off with a liberal rubbing of beeswax.

From beginning to end, creating beautifully restored furniture is quite a process and it takes patience and artistic talent.  “I might have an idea of what I’d like to do with a piece when I start, but most times it’s like the piece tells me what to do,” McElroy says.  “Rarely does a piece end up exactly like I envisioned from the start.”

Because she has a keen eye for the potential in every piece of furniture, it’s been hard to hold back when she sees furniture she likes.  “There are so many beautiful pieces out there.  After I started Blackberry Lane, it wasn’t long before I began to stockpile things, and soon my partner and I were tripping over old pieces of furniture waiting to be refinished.  So we converted a room in our house into a studio where I can store furniture and work on pieces too.”

Though she has a studio she doesn’t see the future as one where people come to her house to see her completed pieces.  She sells her work at a few stores on the Island, but what she’d most like to focus on is creating custom work for people.  Clients can bring their old furniture to McElroy to refinish into new pieces that better match their decor and color schemes.  McElroy will even pay a visit to a client’s house so she can give advice on the final color of the piece that’s based on the existing colors in the house.

“I really like the idea of making custom pieces for people,” she says.  “In the beginning the idea of custom work made me nervous, because I knew there was a possibility of creating a piece of furniture the client wasn’t perfectly happy with.  However, I have learned exactly what questions to ask, and now I really enjoy the process.”

Besides furniture, McElroy also enjoys refinishing kitchen cabinets.  “I think there’s a real market for that here in the Valley.  Restoring wood cabinets is less expensive than buying brand new cabinets, and it has a lot more charm.”

Although refinishing is an interesting and unique way to brighten up an old kitchen or bathroom, McElroy even has some clients who have asked her to repaint and distress the kitchen cabinetry in a brand new house.

While McElroy focuses mainly on larger pieces of furniture, however, she refinishes smaller items as well.  “I do mirrors, chalkboards, and cork-boards out of old window frames, and coat racks with hooks out of old cupboard doors,” she says.  “I also make candle holders, shelves, doll cradles, stools and farmhouse chairs.  These types of things sell well because they are a good price point and not everyone is looking for a piece of furniture.”

Though McElroy’s business has taken some time to evolve, she feels she’s found her niche in Cumberland.

“I moved here by choice, and like many residents of Cumberland, I wear a lot of hats.  I could move to the North and get a job teaching, but I want to live here.  I came here for the lifestyle. Refinishing old furniture allows me to be creative, do what I love, and live where I want.”

For more information call JoAnne McElroy at 250-898-7330 or search for Blackberry Lane – Farmhouse Inspired Furnishings on Facebook.

You can find pieces of McElroy’s work at the Rusty Rooster in Cumberland, Be-Solely Canadian Clothing Boutique in Courtenay, Nancy’s Fashions and Furnishings in Ladysmith, and House of Hayday in Cowichan Bay.

“We have a great deal of experience in our group and we support one another all the time, <a href=

”says Betty Robertson, search left with Ken Osmond and Susan Toresdahl. “It’s really rewarding to see things turn around for people.”” src=”×401.jpg” width=”602″ height=”401″ /> “We have a great deal of experience in our group and we support one another all the time,”says Betty Robertson, left with Ken Osmond and Susan Toresdahl. “It’s really rewarding to see things turn around for people.”

Photo by Boomer Jerritt

How to be delicate and sensitive about their situation when first speaking to members of the Comox Valley Ostomy Support Group?

It turns out to be not as challenging as expected, and that is due to the positive outlook of those affected.  Indeed it was all highly enlightening, fairly upbeat and a testament to the adaptability of human beings to unanticipated adversity.

Sensitivity is, of course, paramount when discussing a clinical condition with anyone afflicted with any medical reality, but delicacy—not so much.  The members of the group, numbering more than 55, are comfortable with their reality, and are seemingly all upbeat and forward-looking.

Cutting to the chase, ‘ostomy’ describes a type of surgery required when a person has lost the normal function of bowel or bladder.  The surgery allows for normal body wastes to be expelled through a new surgical opening (“stoma”) on the abdominal wall.  Most persons with ostomies must wear special appliances over their stoma.

To clarify more succinctly, here are the primary categories of ‘ostomies’ that have been undergone by members of the local support group:  Ileostomy, a surgical procedure in which the small intestine is attached to the abdominal wall in order to bypass the large intestine; Colostomy, an artificial exit from the colon created to divert waste through a hole in the colon and through the wall of the abdomen and Urostomy, a diversion of the urinary flow away from the bladder, resulting in output through the abdominal wall.

The ostomy support group came about for the obvious reason, and that is that an ostomy is life-altering and very stressful at the outset.  “When we manage to connect with a local person who has had ostomy surgery, they are often surprised at the information and support we can provide,” says Ken Osmond, co-chair of the group.  “Whether it is a colostomy, ileostomy or urostomy, we have all categories represented at our meetings.”

Looking at the clinical realities, the most common reasons for ostomy surgery are colorectal cancer, bladder cancer, ulcerative colitis, and Crohn’s disease.  People who have had an ostomy must wear a pouch or bag to collect waste.  That reality can be a shattering experience at first.

“It’s a shock and there is a fairly steep learning-curve on how to manage an ostomy, but it gets easier,” says Betty Robertson, co-chair of the Valley group.  “We have a great deal of experience in our group and we support one another all the time.  It’s really rewarding to see things turn around for people.  They can lead normal lives but it takes a little time.”

The Comox Valley Ostomy Support Group falls under the umbrella of the Central Vancouver Island chapter of the United Ostomy Association of Canada. Anyone with an ostomy, as well as spouses and/or caregivers can attend local meetings.

While the support group membership numbers around 55, Osmond says they believe that total number of ‘ostomates’ for the Comox Valley as a whole is around 175 (or possibly more) individuals.  Out of a Comox Valley population of approximately 70,000 that is a sizeable number.

The initial process, after diagnosis, is the surgery.  Few of the surgeries are done locally, and more are carried out in Campbell River, Vancouver and Victoria.

“You have a pretty bleak outlook when you awaken after surgery,” Osmond says. “You’re away from home and you are wondering what you future is going to be like.  It’s not a good time.  But, in terms of the clinical care I received, it was magnificent.  My surgeon came to see me six out of the seven days I was there, and I also had two student nurses who stayed with me, one or the other of the two, right around the clock.  It meant a lot.  But, when you get out of the hospital you feel pretty alone.”

This brings about an issue that is very vital to the membership: the definite need for a specialty nurse for the Comox Valley.

“Once the surgery is over and you are discharged from the hospital you end up trying to cope on your own,” the group states in a press release emphasizing the need for such a nurse.  “Caring for an ostomy is not instinctive.  You need expert help to help deal with the many complications that can develop.”  The release goes on to state that while the situation is not ideal in the Valley, Comox Valley ostomates have access to Christol James an ET (Enterostomal) nurse based in Campbell River (where, somewhat ironically the ostomate numbers are fewer than locally).  James takes appointments at the Comox Pharmasave on the last Saturday of the month.

“I’m more or less here by default,” says James.  “There was a definite need and no one to fill it so I started visiting the Comox Valley in 2008.  It seems the caseload just keeps growing.  I have clients from Port Hardy through to the Comox Valley.  When I’m away there is no one to replace me so clients need to travel to Nanaimo or Victoria for help.  I sometimes wonder what will happen when I retire.”

While the Comox Valley ostomates are greater than Campbell River’s, there remains no resident nurse.  Indeed, two such nurses are needed in terms of the case-load.

“It’s wonderful that Christol will travel down to provide this important service to our community once each month,” says Osmond.  “But it is time we had an ET nurse located in the Comox Valley.  Ostomates need access to this vital health care service daily and they need it here in our community.”

As it stands, the Comox Valley Ostomy Support Group is actually larger than its equivalent in Nanaimo, and all such groups fall under the umbrella of the Central Vancouver Island Chapter of the United Ostomy Association of Canada.

What does it actually mean from the patient’s perspective to undergo an ostomy? The one thing that becomes immediately apparent to the outsider when attending a gathering of the group membership, is an almost exclusively positive outlook.  No doom-and-gloom is apparent with this membership.  If anything, the individuals are quite uplifting.

Co-chair Betty Robertson ultimately fell victim to a chronic Crohn’s Disease condition. Initially diagnosed with Crohn’s at age 26 she dealt with her condition for a number of years with medications of various sorts.

“In 1994 I was really sick,” she says. “I had a temporary ostomy then, with a bit of the small intestine and a bit of the large removed. It was then reversed and I went back to work and was OK for a time.”

However, the hiatus wasn’t destined to last for her.  “In 2008 my world came to an end,” she says. “The agony was back and I was told I was due for a colostomy.  Drugs wouldn’t do it any longer; they had to do surgery.”

The result for her was the loss of all her large intestine and all but seven feet of her small intestine.  Furthermore, she ran into major problems post-surgery and spent 16 days on antibiotics while in hospital.  The antibiotics left her horribly dehydrated.  She went home, but had to return to hospital to be ‘rehydrated’ via IV.

“I’m a positive person and tried to stay positive through this ordeal,” she says.  “I was given rehydration salts by Dr. Nel.  They force the body to absorb fluids, and in that regard I’ve been OK ever since.

“I’d moved to the Comox Valley from Edmonton in early 2010 and it was here I found this valuable support group.  Ken (Osmond) decided to expand on what already existed and I became a co-leader.  The support group has been a godsend to me, as it has been for so many others.  We definitely need that kind of support.”

Ken Osmond’s world underwent a major change in February of 2007.   It was in that month that he and his wife were booked to take a Panama Canal cruise.

“In the fall of 2006 I went for a medical test, which I thought was a good idea prior to our cruise,” he says. “Well, to state the case frankly, I failed the ‘stool’ test.  After that I underwent every test imaginable and ultimately they found the cancer.  It was confirmed on December 21, 2006.”

From the diagnosis it was off to the cancer clinic in Victoria where he underwent radiation treatment.  Then back to St. Joseph’s for cancer surgery, in February, 2007, ironically the month of the slated Panama cruise.

“They took out everything where cancer was found,” he says.  “I was left with 18 inches of large intestine.  I was seven days in hospital following the surgery, and from that point my life was both good and bad for the next while.  I had to undergo six months of chemo. And then, once I had the pouch I had ongoing skin inflammation problems.  Fortunately, a meeting with the nurse solved the problem.”

The transition to the new reality is not an easy one.  The patient awakens with a bag for bodily functions attached to the abdomen.  IVs and drainage tubes are hanging from various orifices.  While the patient is grateful to be alive, as was Osmond, further problems and adjustments can last a long time, and that is where outside professional help is vital.  It is also where the moral support of the group becomes vital.  Shared wisdom can go a long way.  So can maintaining candor and a good sense of humor.

One of the fortunate ones, and there are others in the group, is Susan Toresdahl, also a co-leader of the ostomy support group.  Where Toresdahl is fortunate is that her ostomy has been reversed.  She has been ‘reconnected’, as it were, since May of 2012.

But, when she was diagnosed with colon cancer she was devastated and, frankly, surprised at the unexpected diagnosis.

Trim, fit, a successful professional woman who had done, as the cliché goes, “all the right things” in terms of health maintenance.

“I was healthy, I ate well, I exercised, and all the things we’re supposed to do,” she says. “Then in February of 2011 it all changed after a wintertime accident.”

Toresdahl was out walking her dog when she slipped on some black ice, fell and broke her ankle.  An unpleasant but relatively simple accident.  People stopped to help her, she had the fracture tended to, and then she went home, irked by her temporary loss of mobility.

But then, when she was recovering from the accident she began to hemorrhage.  It was something completely unrelated to her fractured ankle, and a shocking and unexpected health crisis.

In St. Joseph’s it was determined that she was bleeding from the intestine.  It was then a matter of pinpointing the source.  They found the source, and Toresdahl woke up in intensive care following the exploratory surgery.

“After that, and none the wiser, I was sent home,” she says.  “Then it all changed for me. They phoned and said they’d sent in a biopsy and following that it was off to the Cancer Clinic in Victoria.”

At that time she began to experience intense pain and it was determined an ileostomy was essential for her.

“I was in really rough shape,” she says.  “I was in pain, I couldn’t eat and ultimately, over a period of time they changed all my blood.  With the ileostomy they took out a lot of the surrounding tissue so I as incredibly weak.  It wasn’t until May I could put any weight on the foot with the broken ankle.  It was all a terribly bleak time in my life.”

Toresdahl lived with her ileostomy for 14 months and an assessment at the end of that time indicated her cancer had been eradicated.

“They’d initially said at the Cancer Clinic they thought they’d gotten it but it took time for them to be sure, and during that period I had a multitude of tests; blood, urine, CT scans and fortunately I’d had a slow-growing cancer that initially could only be dealt with by the ileostomy.”

Life since her reversal is still relatively new and seems a little surreal at times.  She said they found the best place to reconnect on the intestine and the surgery was all carried out in Victoria.

“During the process they pretty much have to shut your immune system down, so it was all a bit dicey for a time,” she says. “But then I started to rally more, though I still have a difficult time putting weight on.”

Since then she has stayed active with the support group and has no inclination to move away from that.  She believes she has a contribution to make.

“Quite simply, people like Ken and Betty and lots of others were there for me when I needed them, and I want to be there for others,” she says.

The group, she says, is growing and at their Christmas gathering this past season more than 50 people attended.  She also points out, and something that might surprise many, is that ostomy surgery isn’t something that is confined to middle aged people and older.  The need can strike anybody at any age, and the support group does have some significantly younger members on the cusp of their lives.

“For the young a diagnosis can be truly disheartening and a lot of emotional support is needed,” Toresdahl says.  “But, the point that must be emphasized is that even though you must make a few adjustments, I find myself consistently amazed when I hear what people have been doing with their lives.  Many live adventurous lives.  I even know of one who attempted to climb Everest.  He didn’t succeed but he’s started a group to get people involved in that adventure.”

She points out that since her cancer took her completely by surprise after a lifetime of excellent health, it is essential that people get checked on a fairly regular basis.  “It’s one of our biggest cancers,” she says.

During the time of her ileostomy, she says, her life was turned completely around and to deal with your new reality, huge adjustments have to be made.  They are handleable, but they must be made.

“That’s where it is essential that we get an ET nurse here in the Comox Valley,” she says. “This is a person who can be consulted regularly and can improve the lives immeasurably of those who are making the adjustment to be an ostomate.

“Just a relatively simple matter like your diet demands a big change,” she says. “Everything you do is pretty much the opposite of what you formerly consumed in order to live a healthy lifestyle.  Forget a high fibre diet, for obvious reasons.  You’ll boil your vegetables until they’re mush.  Things like salads and nuts are pretty much out of the question.”

What she wants to do especially is to encourage new ostomates not to lapse into despair.

“It may seem like the end of the world when you get the diagnosis, but it’s nothing of the sort,” Toresdahl says.

This support and positive outlook is what guides the Ostomy Support Group:  “Our goal is to live well, with joy, harmony, a sense of peace, allowing the wisdom of accumulated knowledge, understanding compassion and emotional stability to guide us appropriately.  One values something for which one makes an effort.”

For more information visit Or, if you would prefer to speak to someone in person, you can contact Betty at 250-871-4778, Ken at 250-339-3791, or Susan at 250-339-6528.