Gallery Follows the Text
Megan O'Malley's twenties didn't play out like most twenty-somethings you see on Instagram, partying with friends or interning their life away. Instead, she made over 60 trips to the emergency room and spent more than seven years fighting for the healthy comfort we too-often take for granted. The tattooed warrior was only 20-years-old when she bravely went under the knife for the first time, just a year after getting her first tattoo on her ankle (see photo 3). In November 2014 just before her final surgery, O'Malley's friend Paola Ponchielli, a photo journalist, urged her to pose for the camera and document the beauty behind her large scar–a scar that symbolizes an illness she refused to be defeated by.
Ms. O'Malley turned 29 on August 13, and is confident that she will be okay for the rest of her life–given her obvious strength, we are too. With plans for more tattoos and a brighter, healthier future, O'Malley shines not only for the camera, but throughout her entire interview with Inked. Read her incredibly brave story below.
You began this battle in 2007. Can you tell us how it started?
Basically, my ureter tube that attaches to the kidney was obstructed, it was closing and as I got older it was almost fully closed and was not working at all, so they removed that piece of my ureter and reattached it to my kidney.
Over the years, scar tissue built up and I had a five-inch mass of scar tissue around my kidney that was pushing my kidney shut. They tried doing a bunch of surgeries. They put drains in my back that went in through my ribs to my kidney and came out into a bag where they would drain any fluids, but nothing worked for a long time and everything started to block. They had done so many surgeries and put so many holes in my bladder and my kidney. They had just done more damage to my body and keeping the kidney wouldn’t have been worth it at that time. I made probably 60 trips to the emergency room where I was admitted numerous times, it was totally insane.
But it got worse in the last two years, right?
Yeah, over the last two years, I had to have a series of probably 25 surgeries. They did a really major surgery where they cut me open 10 inches and tried to take a piece of my intestine to make a ureter for my kidney to drain and that didn’t work. That was about a month-and-a-half before Paola took all of those photos in November. It’s very raw looking in those photos; it looks like it just happened.
Was it considered a kidney failure?
My kidney was beginning to fail because it wasn’t able to drain. Your kidney is very vascular so it was just obstructed, nothing could get out of it. All fluids and medicines get processed through your kidneys so the one kidney was twice the size of the other and it was causing nerve damage in my back. I went through two years of hospitals and surgeries and drain tubes coming out of my back and catheters coming out of my stomach–it was gross.
My boyfriend was there for all of it and we had only been dating for four months. All of a sudden he was my caretaker. He had to help me go to the bathroom and help me get out of bed; he slept in the hospital with me. It was a very long road and I’m just happy that it’s all fucking done.
That is extremely life altering at such a young age.
December 2014 was when they took my kidney out, and I got off all the medications in February. I was finally able to not have any tubes in me. Like I said, those pictures are from November 2014 right before they did that final surgery. Since then I’ve gained weight and I’m getting back to living a healthier life. I’m definitely much more grateful and appreciative.
Were you ever discouraged from pushing through?
I went to Columbia [University Medical Center] in the city and after all the surgeries and all the things they did to me no other doctors wanted to get involved. It’s like fixing a 20-year-old car that 20 other mechanics have worked on.
They’re a really credited team of urologists–I had like 20 doctors on my team–but I didn’t know if I should trust these doctors. It was hard to believe in them and put my faith into them, it became very discouraging.
There were definitely points where I thought it was never going to get better. I can remember laying in a hospital bed and looking at the ceiling when I was really, really sick and I was like if this is what my life is going to be like fuck this. Like what am I going to do live in a hospital for the rest of my life? It was just miserable.
You must have felt very trapped.
Looking back now I know that I got through it and I’m stronger and I know I could probably deal with a lot more than I gave myself credit for, but I felt very mentally weak at the time. I felt like giving up. My boyfriend was consulting with the doctors for me because I was like, “Whatever, do what you want!” He was telling them, “Don’t give her that, don’t do that to her!”
What helped you see the light at the end of the tunnel?
You think all the time about the people who love you and support you through the good and bad, but for like two years–I’m getting upset, I’m sorry I never talk about this–being in the hospital and having your friends and family constantly with you, you start to feel like a guinea pig. Ya know you’re lying in a hospital bed while people come out of their way to see you.
My dad came down every weekend from Pennsylvania and my mom lives in Florida and she was here for months. My friends did a fundraiser for me to help pay for my hospital bills. All the help and support I had through everything, the gratefulness I have for the people in my life is unexplainable. When I was giving up on myself no one else was giving up on me. I was never alone.
Did you have tattoos before you got sick?
I got the sleeve on my arm in 2012 after my grandmother passed away and I have more being done to finish that. I draw and I gave my tattoo artist some ideas and he put that together. My grandmother loved daisies and the roses are there because everyone was given a rose when we went to her gravesite. The heart locket was something she had given to me a long time ago, so I added that, too.
Would you get any tattoos to memorialize what you’ve gone through now?
I’ve thought of a few different quotes and ideas to do but nothing much because that scar is pretty much my tattoo of what had happened. I can’t think of anything I’d get specifically for that, but I plan on getting my arms done fully.
Would you ever use a tattoo to cover up the scars?
I actually asked my tattoo artist (Luke LoPorto of Timmy Tattoo) if he could cover it with anything and he told me to wait. He said it’s not going to cover the scar because it’s split down the center of my stomach and it’s pretty sick. The ink isn’t going to look the same on that part of my skin because it’s not normal skin it’s dead skin. I don’t think I would ever cover it at this point.
How did it feel to be photographed for the first time after your surgeries?
I let Paola do it because I’m very comfortable with her, she’s a close friend. She saw my scars and said, “Can I take photos of it? I can do a thing on my website and I could use you as an example.” I was super hesitant though, I’ve never been confident with myself.
Looking back in the space that I was in mentally–I was on a lot of medicine–it’s kind of a blur. I never felt that in those moments it would benefit me or that I’d be able to look back and see something beautiful. She had seen that from the beginning.
I remember feeling so insecure. A lot of those photos are candid and you can see it on my face that I’m so in my head. I’m thinking what’s next? I knew I wasn’t better. I was removed from that moment; I just figured I was helping my friend with her portfolio.
Did she know that those pictures would be therapeutic for you?
I don’t think she knew at the time. I was really upset about it and my boyfriend was trying to get me to show them but I was almost crying because I didn’t want to lift my shirt up. Paola kept saying they’re beautiful and awesome and that I am stronger because of them. She’s a really positive, supportive person. Everything that she said was depicted in her pictures. It was a really encouraging thing that she did for me. I couldn’t look at them for a long time but I’m happy that I have them now.