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Inspiring by example

After cancer surgery left Santa Rosa architect with an ostomy, he first attended a support group, then signed on to help others


Barry Watkins hadn’t been driven to volunteer. An architect, single and unattached, he went to work, lived his life.

But in late 2010, he was diagnosed with cancer; a gastrointestinal stromal tumor in his rectum.

Today, cancer-free, the Santa Rosa resident volunteers year-round. “I’ve gotten so much from people, I’ve tried to give back,” he said.

 STEPS INTO ROLE: Barry Watkins, 54, is the treasurer of the Ostomy Association of Sonoma County, and also serves as the group’s supply sergeant. (CRISTA JEREMIASON / The Press Democrat)

STEPS INTO ROLE: Barry Watkins, 54, is the treasurer of the Ostomy Association of Sonoma County, and also serves as the group’s supply sergeant. (CRISTA JEREMIASON / The Press Democrat)

But, first, back to 2010.

After four months of chemotherapy, Watkins, 54, underwent surgery shortly before Christmas. Going into it, he knew it would leave him with a permanent colostomy bag to drain his body waste.

“My sister said, ‘Why would you do something that will handicap you forever?’ ” Watkins recalled.

“It’s not a handicap. It’s something you live with and manage,” he said recently. In most cases, “It’s not something that cripples and restricts you.”

Three weeks after his surgery, Watkins walked into a meeting of the Ostomy Association of Sonoma County. The group, which meets monthly at the Red Cross office on Aero Drive in Santa Rosa, supports and advocates for ostomates, people with ostomies — surgical openings in the body created so that waste can leave the body.

“The goal is to find people who have ostomies, answer their questions or fears, and make them feel comfortable with it,” he said.

There is a great need for that, said Dmitry Gurtovoy, a wound ostomy continence nurse at Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital.

“New ostomates feel that everyone will know,’ said Gurtovoy, who works in the hospital’s outpatient ostomy clinic.

When a board member said the association needed younger leaders who could be relied on, Watkins said, “I’m both of those things,” and signed up to be the treasurer.

He handles the group’s finances and its annual membership drive and oversees the sponsorship of a child with an ostomy to send to summer camp.

Eight months ago, he volunteered to be the association’s supply sergeant, keeping a roomful of supplies at his home to dispense to any ostomate who needs them, from locals to tourists.

A woman whose insurer wouldn’t pay for the number of pouches she needed walked away from Watkins’ house with bags of them. A young man waiting to get on Medicaid and unable to pay for the supplies he needed left with a box full.

Watkins knows how valuable such support is, whether or not one needs it immediately or just needs the peace of mind. Before a recent trip to Las Vegas, he located an association providing the same supply service he does.

“It just made me more comfortable,” he said.

“The biggest thing that he has to offer is to essentially give an example,” Gurtovoy said. “To essentially show the patient that, ‘Hey, we can live a very productive, fulfilling life. I’m evidence of that.’ “

And today, the man who once did not volunteer said doing so “has given me families; new circles of friends who see me in a different light. It helps fill me out as a person.”

(You can reach Staff Writer Jeremy Hay at 521-5212 or