Megan Orser, 24, had three major surgeries by the time she was 19. But after discovering Pilates when she was 18, her body is stronger and healthier than she could have ever imagined.
By Megan Orser, as told to Beth Johnson
I was raised in London, Ontario, with my two younger sisters. My father is a business manager at 3M Canada, and my mother is an elementary-school teacher. When I was seven, I started getting tired. My mother began to notice that, more and more, I wanted to stay curled up on the sofa instead of playing or riding my bike.
It turned out that I had chronic kidney failure. It was becoming harder for my kidneys to remove waste, and to balance my body’s fluids and electrolytes. Thus began the frequent blood and urine tests and doctor visits that I came to hate, and that are still part of my life. The best days were filled with going to school, hanging out with friends and being able to be just like everyone else. The worst days were being called out of class because my lab results came back, and I’d have to spend a few days in the hospital getting stabilized.
A KIDNEY TRANSPLANT
By the time I was eight, my kidneys were functioning at 10 percent of their capacity. I needed to have a transplant. Luckily, my mother’s aunt was a match, and she offered me one of her kidneys. The surgery was an unpleasant haze of doctors poking and prodding me, and lots and lots of discomfort and needles.
After that transplant, I wasn’t allowed to play any contact sports again. That was fine by me, since I didn’t want to do those sports anyway! But I recovered, felt much more energetic and was back to playing like a normal kid.
A NEW PROBLEM
I now had something else to deal with. During all the medical workups for the transplant, the doctors realized that I also had scoliosis, also known as curvature of the spine. As the spine curves, the rest of the body, including the organs, has to adjust and distort in order to compensate.
BRACING FOR SCOLIOSIS
In fifth grade, the doctors decided I needed to wear a corrective back brace 24/7. This is not the news a 10-year-old wants to hear. During gym class, my best friend would help me take off the brace and then put it back on afterward. It was uncomfortable and hot, and I had to wear it all day long and all night long, even though it was often pinching my skin. I’d get self-conscious when we went out in public because I was sure everyone noticed my brace.
Even with everything going on, I still maintained a positive attitude. My parents always encouraged me to keep moving forward. Yes, these bad things were happening, but we just had to deal with them!
After wearing that back brace for three years, in eighth grade, I was told that it hadn’t helped enough. I would need to have surgery to insert rods into my back to permanently fuse my spine. So after all those years of wearing the damn back brace, I had to have the surgery anyway! Then, following the operation, I had to spend six weeks lying on my back—and there was no mention of physical therapy. Can you imagine? This was just 10 years ago, but in many ways, it was like the dark ages in terms of aftercare. (Shortly after I had the rod surgery, it stopped being the routine “correction” for scoliosis.)
A WELCOME RESPITE
After this ordeal, I began to struggle with depression. It felt like my body had really let me down. Most of the time, my back was either in pain or discomfort. I was also being pumped full of anti-rejection drugs from the kidney surgery, including prednisone, which caused water retention, increased my appetite and gave me “chipmunk cheeks.”
As a 13-year-old girl, I was naturally becoming more conscious of my appearance—and “chipmunk cheeked” was not remotely the look I wanted. The drugs’ side effects decreased within a couple of months as the dosages were lowered, but I continued to see myself as a girl who had puffy cheeks and a bloated belly. Looking back, I realize that was the first hint that I was headed for an eating disorder.
HIGH SCHOOL BEGINS
The next challenge came soon after: entering my 2,000-student high school. I had been with the same group of kids all throughout grade school, so entering ninth grade really ramped up my self-conscious feelings. I felt different from everyone else because of my scars (that no one could see), the puffy cheeks I thought I still had and the bloated belly I was convinced was still there. When I look back at photos from that period, I can see that it was all in my head. But at 14, my head ruled.
I didn’t realize then how tiring constant discomfort and pain were, but I can see now how much easier if was for me to go to a dark place about my appearance. Optimism can be elusive when you have chronic pain.
HIDING THE WEIGHT LOSS
I’d had so little control over my body that limiting how much I ate seemed like a way to regain that loss of control. As my eating disorder intensified, I did all the classic things to hide my weight loss. I’d wear baggy clothes. I’d tell my parents I had eaten at school or at a friend’s house.
My parents didn’t suspect anything, I think, because I’d always been so open, and I didn’t let myself become skeletal. I was 5’6” and obsessed with never weighing more than 119 pounds. This went on for a couple of years until I was 16. By then I was in a full-blown anorexic-bulimic cycle of not eating or throwing up when I thought I’d overeaten.
But that still wasn’t enough. I figured that if I worked out, I could burn even more calories. Because of my kidneys, I wasn’t allowed to participate in my high-school gym class. So my mother was happy to get me a health-club membership.
Luckily for me, the trainer I was assigned quickly guessed my issues and gave me an ultimatum, “You tell your mother, or I will.” I was a minor, and she couldn’t take the chance of training me until I gained some weight. It was the tough love I needed…and so I told my mother. It ended up being such a relief for me. My parents were upset they had missed the signs, but they were extremely supportive and quickly lined up a therapist for me.
Meanwhile, at the gym, my trainer started me on mini-circuits. She was fit and strong, and I was surrounded by other fit and strong women at that gym. I decided I wanted to look like them instead of just being skinny. My trainer helped me turn my mind around, commending my increasing stamina and, after adding weights to our routine, my muscle development.
I loved how with weight-lifting I was able to compete with myself. Each week, I’d lift more, or do more reps. I was so proud when I could bicep curl 30 pounds. My trainer’s encouragement, and my increasing strength, really inspired me to want to be a trainer myself.
So when I turned 18, the summer after graduating from high school, I received my certification as a personal trainer and started teaching some free-weight and cardio-interval classes at the gym. I cringe thinking about my inexperience, but I was thrilled to be a professional in the fitness world.
At the same time, I kept hearing about the benefits of Pilates. I needed to increase my flexibility and balance, and decrease my back pain. Strengthening my back at the gym had definitely reduced some of my pain, but it’s amazing to me now how much chronic discomfort I endured before finding Pilates.
The first mat class I took, at another gym, wasn’t the greatest in terms of technique, but it was enough to intrigue me. Then a gym client recommended a Pilates studio—and it changed my life. That first class was a hell of a workout, and I knew immediately that it could transform my body.
To read the rest, this story was printed in the September/October edition of Pilates Style. Get instant access to the magazine on your tablet or mobile device—packed with more great features—by purchasing our app edition!