The last thing I remember before being wheeled into the operating room was the nurse telling me that I would have a large scar down my torso when I woke up. If I hadn't been so doped up, I might have laughed. The doctors had clearly explained that if I didn't have this surgery, I was going to die. Were we really going to talk about a scar?
"Well," my mother said, trying to inject some levity into what was quite literally a life-or-death situation, "no more bikinis for you!"
Twelve hours earlier, I had been admitted to the hospital with severe stomach pains. After blood tests, an x-ray, and a CT Scan, a surgeon came to tell me the bad news. My colon wasn't attached to the lining of my stomach (the result of a congenital birth defect).
My "floating colon" had twisted itself into a knot, and the organ was dying. The doctors needed to cut out the knotted portion, and they needed to do it ASAP.
Needless to say the thought of being bikini ready wasn't my primary concern. I just really, really didn't want to die.
What followed was a long, scary, and painful process. A few days after the first surgery, the stitches that had been used to sew the two halves of my intestines back together broke apart and bacteria began to leak into my bloodstream.
The doctors told me they would need to operate again. I was devastated. This reset the clock: the healing process would be longer, harder, and more delicate. I was immediately taken back to the operating room. A second incision was made over the first — the stitches were re-stitched and reinforced. Bacteria was flushed out, I was sewn up, and fingers were crossed. My stomach had been sliced open again before it had even had the chance to heal, so my body was like the wild west — it seemed like anything could go terribly wrong at a moment's notice — and it was utterly terrifying.
The stitches held that time, but recovery was slow. I was in constant pain and I couldn't stand, much less walk. At 21 years old, I had to have adults help me bathe and help me get to the toilet. Shame swirled somewhere in the back of my mind, but I was too weak and helpless to care. Any sense of pride had been stripped away by my circumstances — I didn't care if my butt was hanging out of my hospital gown, didn't complain about being bathed like an infant. It was demoralizing, to be sure, but the depression I felt superseded anything else.
My body was like the wild west — it seemed like anything could go terribly wrong at a moment's notice — and it was utterly terrifying.
For weeks, I lived with a nasograstric tube — a tube that went up my nose and down my throat where it sat, uncomfortably, in my stomach. There, it proceeded to suction out the juices naturally produced by my stomach, bringing them up through my nose tube and dumping them in a jar next to my bed. It was a kind of prolonged torture that made me wonder if I should have had the surgery at all. I was sick of being in pain, of being unable to do anything for myself, and frightened that nothing would ever change or, worse, that I would get better and then my body would rebel.
I didn't think much about my scar in the hospital — the "real" medical issues loomed so much larger and more dangerously over my head. I was vaguely aware of it when nurses changed the dressing, more grossed out by the crusted blood on the gauze than worried about the long-term body image implications.
When I was finally released from the hospital, I was more terrified than I had ever been in my life. The stomach pains that had derailed my life — and nearly ended it completely — had come out of nowhere. One minute I was fine and then next I was being sliced open (twice) for an emergency, life-saving surgery. The weight of my fear combined with my awe at being alive was overwhelming.
I carried that fear with me for years. But as the layers of tissue in my stomach fused back together, as the physical pain subsided, and as my digestive system grew stronger, it felt like everyone around me was starting to forget the whole thing ever happened. I started to look more normal, so everyone assumed I felt normal and that I wanted to pretend the whole thing never happened.
I started talking about my scar — showing it to my family and friends like some sort of bizarre party trick — hoping they would recognize the fear behind my exhibition, that someone would have magic soothing words that could alleviate all my fears.
Instead, they would say things like, "Oh, it's not that bad," and "It's healing nicely." I understand why their first instinct was to try to make me feel better about my scar, but from my perspective, that was completely beside the point. There was nothing small about what I went through — my scar shouldn't be small, either.
There was nothing small about what I went through — my scar shouldn't be small, either.
Pretending my surgeries never happened or were insignificant would be impossible, and I'm glad my scar doesn't let me do that. My medical scare and the surgeries that followed changed me in ways so fundamental that it's only right that there's a reminder permanently etched on my body.
It's not a battle wound, because I'm not the hero of the story. That honor belongs to the doctors and nurses who saved my life and helped me heal. Neither is it something to be ashamed of. It is simply part of the fabric of who I am now — someone who breaks into a cold sweat anytime I'm in a hospital but also feels overwhelming gratitude for simply being able to walk around the block without doubling over in pain. My scar is an accurate representation of who I am: perfectly imperfect.
I was actually disappointed when the surgeon told me I would have to keep my scar out of the sun (no bikinis) for the first year. I'd never had a particular affinity for the two-piece bathing suit, but I was determined to show the world that I wasn't embarrassed by my scar and wouldn't cover it up.
When the year passed and I could expose my scar to the sun, I did so proudly. Sure, I noticed when people stared at it, but I truly didn't care.
I can be vain about plenty of other things, but my scar is one thing I refuse to let myself feel self-conscious about. And why should I? At the end of the day, my scar says one thing and one thing only: I survived.