How I learned to stop resenting -- and start accepting -- my liver-transplant scar

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Just over 18 years ago, I had to have a liver transplant. I was only 22 at the time, but had been diagnosed with autoimmune hepatitis, which caused my body to malfunction and attack my own liver because it recognized it as a foreign object. As a result, the doctor said I had the liver of an 80-year-old male alcoholic, and if I didn't get a transplant right away, I wasn't going to make it.

I was in denial at first, thinking, "Just give me a shot or some antibiotics to see how this plays itself out, but I'm not going to die." I went home that night and started throwing up bile. I was completely dehydrated, swollen, and I was too weak to walk on my own. The liver's function is to clean your blood, and mine had gotten to the point where it wasn't filtering any of the toxins out, so I was completely toxic and had to be stabilized. I wound up hospitalized for a week. That's when I was like, "Oh, this is for real."

It took 18 months before a donor match was found, and my doctors prepared me for what surgery was going to be like. They never sugar-coated things and helped me manage the fear as well. They said, "Imagine what it would feel like for a Mack truck to run over you, and whatever you think that could feel like, amplify it by 10 because that's how you're going to feel after the surgery."

The liver is located toward the back of your body, so what they had to do was open my chest up like a book. There's a vertical cut that starts in between my breasts that goes down six inches and then horizontally across on both sides. They peeled my skin back to expose my rib cage and broke a rib on my left side to have better access to my liver. After they replaced it with a new one, they had to reconnect the bile ducts and all the major veins, reset the bone and then closed me up with sutures and staples. 

The whole process took eight hours.

During the recovery process, it's mandatory to give blood every week so your doctor can monitor whether or not the liver is functioning properly. The average hospital stay after surgery is about two to three weeks. I was so tired of being sick that I checked out in eight or nine days. The staples didn't come out for another week or two.

Courtesy of Mitzi Miller

Mitzi Miller shows off her scar.

There's nothing you can do to prepare for the first time you see the scar. It's such a deep cut, and the lines are so huge that it's not something that will ever completely close -- you will always see this huge upside-down T on me. All across the scar lines are the dots from the staples, which have faded over the years, but it's still slightly pinker than my normal skin color, and the scar tissue makes it a little bit puffier than the rest of my skin. It looks very tribal.

The scar felt foreign at first, and I had mixed emotions. Obviously, I was thankful to have it because it meant that I made it. I was one of the lucky people that was given the gift of a donor, and I'm here to tell the story.

But I can remember that first summer going to the beach and wearing a two-piece -- because I was a 20-something and that's what I've always worn. I didn't even think about it until I noticed people staring.

At first I thought, "What are they looking at?" Then I realized it was my scar. It was bittersweet because something that brought me life caused people to look at me with what felt like scorn. I don't think I processed it as curiosity or even concern; I processed it as if they were judging me for being imperfect.

I don't notice the stares now, but that first year after surgery I was extremely aware of them. I was a young woman and was much more concerned about what others thought. It made me less confident around men and in dating because I was like, "Oh, God, I'm going to have to tell them about my experience. If things progress, he'll see it and what will he think?" It's not something that I ever get to walk away from.

There were definitely times where I felt awful. I was so mad at my surgeon because the cut isn't a straight line. It sounds crazy now, but I'd taken such good care of my body, and before the surgery I had no other scars. None. I never had an accident as a kid that required stitches or didn't heal completely. I don't even have tattoos. So I just felt ruined.

Thankfully, my mom was there to talk me through it emotionally because she grounded me. Whenever I expressed concern about people thinking I'm ugly because of the scar she'd say, "How can you worry about that when you're here and you're healthy? If a scar, which is something that was integral to making sure that you were even here becomes a deterrent, then that person has their own hang ups and is not the one for you."

I'm very proud of my scar now, and I have been for a very long time, but in the beginning it definitely helped me make a lot of smart decisions about people. If I was talking to someone who was very focused on physical perfection and what is and isn't beautiful I would remove myself because I'm actually extremely imperfect. I'm very comfortable with that, and my scar allowed me to be more aware of the kind of person I want to share my imperfections with.

Another surprise bonus of my scar is that I can use it as a weight-gain tool. I don't have the luxury of saying I'm going to put on 10 pounds, because whenever I put on weight the scar tissue stretches and it hurts. I immediately feel physically uncomfortable. It just feels like your skin is being pulled taut -- but from the inside -- so it itches. Because of that, it's important for me to stay physically fit, so I work out regularly. I'm only 5 foot tall, so my sweet spot is 118 pounds. At that weight I still have my curves and my tummy is flat. That's when I feel my sexiest because a toned up Mitzi is a happy Mitzi.

Although my surgery and illness is not the type of experience that I would wish on my worst enemy, I wouldn't take it back because it's such a tremendous part of my life journey. It informed who I am today. I'm a survivor, and my scar is a daily reminder that life is for the living. I was literally just two cuts away from dying. There's not a day that I don't get up and recognize how blessed I am to be getting up, period.

Anslem Samuel Rocque is Brooklyn-based writer whose has appeared everywhere from Essence and The Root to Complex and Penthouse. When he's not shopping for memorable socks, he's procrastinating about finishing his debut novel. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @iamARocque.

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