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Earning Your Scars: 'God's Tattoos' -- Badges of Courage, Reminders of Survival

02/11/2013 01:00 pm ET | Updated Apr 13, 2013

I had avoided looking at my chest. It had been a month since the surgery in which a defibrillator with wires attached to my heart had been implanted. The surgical bandage over the wound had now fallen away. For the first time, I looked. I looked closely. I flexed my chest, and suddenly the egg shaped device under my skin popped out. A purple scar zig-zagged to the left. Down the middle of my chest, I noticed the other scar: a zipper-like line. It was white. It extended from almost the top of my chest to several inches above my belly button. This scar was the result of quadruple bypass heart surgery I had endured seven months earlier. The combination of the two scars, the protruding "egg"(like a scene out of the movie Aliens) alarmed me. At that moment, I felt like a freak. As I stared in the mirror, I felt my eyes begin to water. I felt disfigured and ashamed. But I cut the pity party short. I had survived a life-threatening experience, and these were the scars I had to show for it. I needed to move on.

How do scars affect us? How do we learn from them? I sent an email to a lifelong friend and asked for her opinion. Susan (not her real name) had recently undergone a mastectomy after she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She called me on a cold January afternoon and offered her wisdom. "Scars aren't a problem. Consider the alternative," she said. "It's not about what you like, it's about survival. You have to put it all in perspective."

A career woman who has achieved a great deal of success in her life, my friend told me she lived life one day at a time. Soon, she will face further surgery, this time to remove her ovaries after tests determined she was at high risk for cancer. "You are so courageous," I told her. "Here I am worried about my scars, and you're going through a life-threatening ordeal."

There was a pause on the line, and then the sound of her reassuring voice. "You went through one yourself," she told me. "You almost didn't make it, remember. You were in a coma. Your scars are a reminder of what you went through. You came out of all of it and survived," Susan said. "It's not that I have so much courage. It's that I've accepted what has to happen," she said.

Another friend, Tami, told me about the time when she was in second grade and a bully jabbed a sharp pencil forcefully through her hand. It left a terrible scar she can still see today. Tami said she decided to let the attack help her in another way. "When I was 7, I had trouble remembering my left hand from my right," she said. Tami was stabbed in her left hand. "When I look at the scar, I look at it in terms of something that taught me something important," she says. But it's something more important than teaching her the diference between left and right. "Scars are awesome," she said. They remind us that we survived -- that we can move on and move forward."

The lessons scars can teach us became evident evident to American television viewers when J.R. Martinez starred on Dancing With the Stars in 2011. The former infantryman with the 101st Airborne Division was seriously scarred in 2003 when a landmine detonated under his feet. He was leading an Army caravan into a dusty town in Iraq. According to news reports, Martinez said he felt depressed after learning he had suffered serious burns over much of his face his face and body. On the show, Martinez dedicated a graceful dance to fallen servicemen and women. Martinez's big smile and bright eyes made us forget the scars. And as he danced it, was clear that he was living the message he had proclaimed to his mom after the accident: "I'm going to be somebody. I'm going to do something with my life."

Martinez now makes it a point to visit scarred veterans in hospitals around the country. My friend Tami was one of the viewers who watched J.R. dance that night like he was floating on air. "J.R. showed us that scars give us compassion for other people and compassion is strength," she told me. "When you see a person like J.R., who has lived through what he's lived through, his scars are a sign of courage. And they give us the courage to live our lives."

Besides J.R. Martinez, other celebrities in our popular culture are known for their scars. They have learned to live with them instead of trying to hide them or remove them surgically. Harrison Ford's familiar chin scar was the result of a car accident, according to published reports. The craggy star of the movie Raiders of the Lost Ark was supposedly trying to buckle his seat belt while driving when his car crashed.

And there are other movie stars who wore their scars proudly. Elizabeth Taylor would show off her tracheostomy scar -- left after she suffered a near-fatal bout of pneumonia during the filming of the movie Cleopatra. ABC newsman Bob Woodruff has scars on his neck and face after emergency brain surgery. In 2006, while covering the progress of the war in Iraq, an improvised explosive device blew up while he was riding in a tank. The explosion shattered a portion of his skull and tore his neck. His recovery was long and arduous. Today, he has returned to a normal routine -- the scars his badges of courage. He has dedicated his life to being a crusader for brain-injured veterans. He has started the Bob Woodruff Foundation to help injured service members, veterans and their family. Woodruff has raised more than $2 milion for this cause. When we see his scars, we also see a man who turned a devastating tragedy into an opportunity to help others. His scars taught us a lesson.

Stephanie (not her real name) is a 33-year-old mental health professional in Florida. She suffered burn-related scars during a cooking accident. She told me: "I see scars as God's tattoos. Whether it's a surgery or an injury or a strech mark, you don't choose the things that are going to scar you," Susan said. "It's a metaphor for life, because life is a struggle between what you choose to remember and what you are forced to remember," she explained. "Scars remind us of an incident in our lives and they remind us that we survived through it," she said. "Scars are our own. We earned them. They set us apart."

So on a recent morning, I mustered up the courage once more to look in the mirror and analyze my scars. The oval defibrillator/pacemaker device still popped under my skin and looked like an egg. But it seemed to protrude a bit less than before. The purple scar that had once zig-zagged to the left looked pinkish now. Instead of jagged, it almost appeared to be in the shape of a faint smile line. That long zipper-like scar down the middle of my chest was still there. It was there to remind me of that day last May, when a surgeon cut into my chest and took my heart in his hands. The scar seemed a bit more faded now . It was indeed a badge of sorts -- a badge of survival. The bypass surgery had given me another chance at life. And for the first time, I smiled. The expression on my face matched the smile-like scar on my upper chest. I no longer felt disfigured. I didn't feel like a freak anymore. My scars now made me feel thankful that I was alive. Gratitude had finally replaced shame.

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