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Confidence, the secret.

Olivia Martin is a 4th year medical student at Barts and The London School of Medicine and Dentistry, and a GUCH patient. In March 2015 she took part in Katie Piper’s Diversity Catwalk Fashion Show. Launched at the Ideal Home Show, the show aimed to challenge the conventional catwalk and used models chosen from the Katie Piper Foundation ‘Making it easier to live with burns and scars’ and Models of Diversity.

Taking part in the show helped Olivia overcome certain insecurities and they may not be what you think. Displaying her scar was the least of her worries and the same went for all the other models. 

Earlier this year, eight larger than life photographs of adults born with a heart condition, bearing their scars from life-saving cardiac surgery, proudly graced the Central Hall of Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Art Gallery & Museum.  The story of each model’s journey navigating the complexity of living with their condition, in their own words, was written on the reverse of their eight-foot high photo banners to give voice to this often hidden population.

Here Olivia shares her story….
If I’m honest, I only got involved with the Katie Piper Foundation because I was procrastinating before an exam! I was sat with all my textbooks around me, telling myself I was revising while actually scrolling through Instagram, when I saw Katie’s latest post asking for people with visible differences to be part of a new, diverse fashion show. The Katie Piper Foundation was launched in 2009 with the aim of delivering a gold standard of rehabilitation and scar management for burn survivors. I never in a million years thought I’d be chosen, but I realised that entering the competition would take a few minutes, which would take me up to the tea break and chat time I’d agreed with my housemates, so I went for it! 

My scars come from two open heart surgeries. The first was at ten months. I was diagnosed shortly after birth with Tetralogy of Fallot (commonly known as TOF). Surgeons patched a hole in my heart, and because I had a narrow pulmonary artery (which takes blood to the lungs to get oxygen) they gave me an extra tube that took some of my blood around the narrowing from my heart to my lungs, like having two small pulmonary arteries instead of one big one! This surgery was just meant to keep me going until I was five, when my heart would be bigger and easier to operate on. I was incredibly lucky, and stayed healthy and happy until I was a teenager, when I started to get extremely short of breath and more tired all the time. 

My doctors all agreed it was time to do another surgery at the age of 20, this time to remove my pulmonary arteries and give me one bigger one, with a pig valve in it. By the time I had the surgery I couldn’t work for more than five minutes without getting so breathless I couldn’t talk. I’m ridiculously stubborn though, so I was working full time in a pathology laboratory, and studying part time for a degree in Biomedical Sciences. The second surgery went really well, but my recovery was slow. My wound took a long time to close because a stitch that should have dissolved poked through, and I ended up with a keloid scar which is very red, raised and itchy. I always assumed my second scar would be much like the first, which was barely noticeable and never itchy or painful, so I really struggled with this new, giant scar that was so sensitive I couldn’t wear necklaces or woolly jumpers! As my health improved, I started wanting to exercise more to try and get my strength and stamina back to what it was, and my lovely friend Liz started taking me swimming. I soon stopped though, as I felt like everyone was staring at my chest and talking about me. I covered up my scar in high neck t-shirts and scarves, and gave away my favourite clothes.

Eventually, I got so bored of wearing t-shirts. I’ve never been a fashionista, but I enjoyed dressing up and hated feeling like I was wearing dull clothes to hide my scar. I went without a scarf one day and….nothing happened. No one was mean, a couple of people looked but only briefly and it made no difference to my day. The spell was broken, and I went back to wearing my normal clothes. I felt like I’d just been given a whole new wardrobe for all the possibilities I now had! As loving and supportive as my friends, family and boyfriend had been, it took me a long time to accept my scar and to understand that anyone who does look (and it’s not nearly as many as you think) is just curious, not judging you. I still have off days when I feel like it’s the first thing I see in the mirror, but they are less and less as time goes on. 

To apply for Katie’s show you had to send in a photograph of you overcoming your ‘visible difference’, and I immediately knew which photo I wanted to use. Last year, I went on holiday to Crete with my boyfriend (now fiancé). Shortly before we went, a teenager with CHD had posted on a Facebook group that she didn’t know where to find a bikini to cover her scar for a girlie holiday and she was worried about going! There was an outpouring of support for her, and encouragement to show her scar and be proud. After all I had been through trying to get used to my scar, I made my boyfriend take a photo of me on the beach in a triangle bikini with my scar out for all to see! I was FAR more embarrassed about posing on my own on a packed beach than I was about my scar. 

I sent off the photo and promptly forgot all about it until I received an email saying I had been shortlisted! I have always admired Katie Piper for how she has overcome so much, and works hard to help so many people. The work that the Katie Piper Foundation does for people with scars from burns is truly inspiring and life changing for those they help. 
We had two rehearsals and fittings, and then we did three shows a day for three days. During the first day of rehearsals we were asked if we would be willing to do a swimwear finale. I looked awkwardly at my feet while everyone else agreed. Realising my hesitation Lucas, the incredible stylist Katie had chosen for us, reassured me that he wouldn’t let any of us go out in something we weren’t comfortable in. I nervously agreed to go out in swimwear, trying not to think about it too much. 
Meeting the other women Katie had picked was just incredible. All of them had visible differences and all were massive divas! They had so much confidence and were all so friendly and wonderful that I knew that I could do the catwalk, even the swimwear, with their support. These women are truly my friends for life, and the inspiration and friendship they have given me are the best part of the whole experience. 
The first show rolled around extremely quickly and as we lined up backstage waiting for our cue, I realised I was shaking like a leaf. I have never been so nervous in all my life. Last minute nerves were getting the best of me, and I started to worry what people would think, say, and post online! Lin, the mother of the group, squeezed my shoulder, Vicky grinned nervously from her ramp and we all exchanged apprehensive looks. Stepping onto the stage I was shocked at how many people had turned up. There wasn’t even room to stand, and the end of the stage was full of cameras flashing. I’d love to see the photos they got as I stepped on, the sheer shock and confusion on my face must have been hilarious! I think the audience could sense (and probably see) my nerves though, and they cheered me on as they had all of us. I made it to the end of the stage and back without falling over and felt like I had won the lottery! 

After that first show, the rest were so much fun. We had a great time back stage, getting to know each other and messing around. The make-up artists let me take photos at each stage because I was determined to have a go at home (I am useless at all things girlie) and I took about a thousand selfies. Loads of my friends and family came to see and support me, and I got to meet the other girls’ families too. 

Walking round the Ideal Home Show to get lunch and shop between shows, people stopped us to say ‘Well done’, or tell us their stories and even show us their scars. Suddenly, I wanted to get my scar out rather than hide it in high necked tops! By the last day, far from being nervous, I was struggling not to have a little dance to the music while I was on stage in my bikini! 
Being a part of the show has just been wonderful. I am getting married next year, and I had been dreading dress shopping because there aren’t many options for a dress that would cover up my scar because I didn’t want it to steal the show. Now I am shopping for the dress that I want, with a sweetheart neckline and plenty of lace, rather than the dress that hides my scar. I am excited to wear the bikini that Lucas picked (and let me keep) to go swimming with my friends when the weather is nice. Finally, I have made friends for life with a bunch of strong, beautiful, inspirational women who taught me that it doesn’t matter that you appear different. Beautiful is about so much more than how you look. 
I am finally proud of what I went through, and I know that without my scar I could never be where I am today: getting married to an amazing man, studying to be a doctor, and blessed with friends and family that support me through everything.  I hope that the Diversity Catwalk helps other CHD survivors not to be worried about what other people think, and to show off the scars that saved our lives and made us who we are today. 

By Olivia Martin 

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