They’re the kind of thing that many people try to conceal. Some cover them with clothes, others use makeup, but most of us have them — physical or emotional scars.
They are some of the parts of me that make me feel the most self-conscious — a big gash across my stomach, a series of smaller scars from laparoscopic surgeries, a fist-sized bump on the lower right side of my abdomen. But, unlike the stitches scar on my big toe, or even the tattoos on my back and stomach, they mean something beautiful. They mean somebody loved me enough to give me a part of them. They mean I’m alive.
About 18 months ago I was diagnosed with end stage kidney disease, which means I only had between six and eight per cent kidney function. It didn’t take long for me to have to start peritoneal dialysis, which required a tube to be inserted into my stomach area so I could hook up to a dialysis machine and have several litres of solution pumped through me for nine hours every night.
The surgery and treatment kept me alive but came with its own scars — physical ones, but also emotional ones — as I tried to grapple with weight gain and the body image issues that inevitably come with having a tube hanging out of your stomach 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
I’d tape it up and try to hide it in my pants, or wrap it around to make it as thin as possible, but it was always there. There were dresses, pants and tops I could no longer wear. I couldn’t shower without seeing it. I’d have to adjust it before I went on air. I had to buy a whole new wardrobe to hide it. I couldn’t escape it.
When I received the incredible news that my cousin Christine was selflessly giving me her kidney, I was both elated and petrified. They were already increasing my dialysis dose and I knew I wasn’t going to be able to keep going for much longer. She was, quite literally, saving my life. I couldn’t be more thankful. Not only was the tube coming out but I was going to survive. I silently — and sometimes not so silently — thank her for every happy moment I’ve enjoyed since my transplant.
But I immediately started looking online for images of post-transplant scars. There were a few but it was one extreme or the other. Either people right out of surgery, or celebrities like Sarah Hyland, who bravely showed off her scars, but whose younger (and supermodel) body wasn’t like mine. I didn’t know what to expect for someone like me. I didn’t know how my stomach would look without the tube, or how big my transplant scar would be. I felt like I was going in blind.
In the days after the transplant I gained 25 pounds in water weight as a result of the steroids and medications. I couldn’t look at my stomach — I could barely move. The weight came off, slowly at first, and I’ve been working to get back to my pre-kidney disease body, but the scars and the bump are always there. At the time, I felt so horrible about myself. Here I was — alive and feeling better than I had in years — but wallowing in self-doubt and concerns about my appearance. It was petty and vain, but it felt like something I should have been able to control.
For the better part of two years, I had no control over my body or my appearance and now that I was “healthy,” I wanted to reclaim my body. But the scars and the bump made it feel like I didn’t have control — that my disease was still in charge.
And in a way — it is. If I don’t take my medications as prescribed and on time, my body will reject my cousin’s kidney. If my creatinine levels raise, I’ll be readmitted to hospital. If I get sick — I’ll get really sick — because the immunosuppressants I take in order to keep the kidney, make me vulnerable to everything. It doesn’t help that they make you hungry non-stop or that I too have developed a mild form of moon-face — where your face bloats up because of the steroids.
But some time between the June transplant that saved my life and a few weeks ago, I learned to embrace my scars. I didn’t want to spend my summer covered up or scared to go to the beach. I didn’t want to spend my life hiding under over-sized t-shirts and worried that my midriff would show. They are big and they feel ugly but they are a reminder of the beautiful and selfless gift from my cousin — my life.
Suddenly, I wanted to show them off. Even if my body isn’t the same, even though my kidney bump is still prominent, and the scars are still pronounced. I chose to wear a bikini to the beach and watched as people stared at the marks. It bothered me at first, but I refused to cover up. I didn’t want to hide the scars that saved my life no matter how “ugly” they appear.
I chose to share these photos in hopes that somebody about to undergo a transplant might stumble upon them and be able to focus on how fortunate they are to be getting the gift of life — and not have to wonder about silly things like scars or weight gain. I wanted them to be able to see how a regular person looked three months in and feel assured that, while there are marks and bumps and scars, it’s probably not as bad as they feared, and certainly not as bad as the disease itself — or the alternative.
I wanted to embrace my life-saving scars and I wanted other patients to be able to feel the same. I want people to see my marks as a sign that I’m not only loved- but fortunate. Because I know there are thousands of people waiting for an organ- some of who may die before they get a chance to have these very same battle wounds.
Hiding them suddenly seemed selfish, frivolous and vain.
They may not be pretty — but they are also a sign of hope, of strength, of my cousin’s selflessness — and of life.