Other than the occasional cold, Iyanla Vanzant, star of Iyanla: Fix My Life on the Oprah Winfrey Network, had always been pretty healthy. So when she suddenly started experiencing pain, cramping, and nausea last year, she assumed it was just food poisoning. The relationship expert was in Jamaica to speak at a friend's event, and she didn't want to be a no-show on the stage.
"I thought, I have food poisoning. Let me get this out, drink tea and go do my presentation," she recalls in an exclusive new interview with ESSENCE (ESSENCE and Health are owned by the same parent company). Vanzant made it onstage, but quickly realized this was no ordinary stomach bug.
"I spoke for about 20 minutes, then had a revelation that I shared," she says. "'I'm standing on this stage, telling you the importance of taking care of yourself and I'm deathly ill. I'm leaving. If you come back tomorrow, I'll be here.'"
A doctor thought it was food poisoning, too, and gave Vanzant medication and instructions to rest. The next day, "I wasn't feeling well, but it wasn't bad as the day before." She boarded a plane back to the U.S., but her symptoms started flaring up again as the medication wore off mid-flight.
"By the time the plane landed in Baltimore, I was on my knees in a corner, with my face in a barf bag," Vanzant says. An ambulance brought her to the hospital, where she was given a scary diagnosis: she had diverticulitis, a condition that causes small pouches to become inflamed in the the colon—and one of those pouches had ruptured.
These small pouches, called diverticula, are common in the digestive system, particularly in people over 40. And the presence of diverticula doesn't always lead to diverticulitis. But if they do rupture, the result can be severe abdominal pain, vomiting, nausea, and fever.
Although diverticulitis can be successfully treated with antibiotics in most people, others may develop complications, such as an abscess or peritonitis. In Vanzant's case, her left ovary had become positioned so that it was absorbing the toxins being released from the colon. Those toxins eventually started seeping into Vanzant's blood, leading to septic shock, which can be deadly. She underwent immediate surgery to remove the affected ovary and 13 centimeters from her colon, and also had a colostomy, a procedure that reroutes the colon so waste leaves the body through an incision in the abdomen.
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Vanzant's recovery wasn't immediate, and she ended up needing to wear a colostomy bag for 111 days while her intestines healed. "A diva such as myself was not happy about pooping in a bag on the side of my belly," she admits. But stayed positive by focusing on the importance of her long-term health. "[Y]ou can do anything for a little while if it's going to make you better."
The harrowing experience lead Vanzant to take a hard look not just at her health, but all aspects of her life: "When you have a colostomy bag hanging off the side of your belly, you get real clear about what you take in, knowing that you're going to see how it comes out," she says. "I had to do it at a physical level, but it was also about the emotional, psychological and spiritual level. What are you taking in?"