A routine surgery gone wrong inspired this fitness Instagrammer to embrace her shape.
Check out Australian fitness influencer Soph Allen's Instagram page and you'll quickly find an impressive six-pack on proud display. But look closer and you'll also see a long scar on the center of her stomach—an outward reminder of the years of struggle she endured after a surgery that almost cost her her life.
It all started when, at 21, Allen started experiencing severe pain with her period. "At one point, the pain was so bad I thought I was going to vomit and pass out, so I went to the doctor, had some tests, and was booked for an investigatory laparoscopy to check for endometriosis," she tells Shape.
Endometriosis occurs when endometrial tissue that lines the uterine wall grows outside of the uterus, such as on your bowels, bladder, or ovaries. This misplaced tissue can cause severe menstrual cramps, pain during sex and during bowel movements, heavy and extended periods, and even infertility.
Surgery is a common treatment for endometriosis. Celebrities like Halsey and Julianne Hough have gone under the knife to stop the pain. A laparoscopy is a minimally invasive surgery to remove the scar tissue covering the organs. The procedure is considered low-risk and complications are rare—most women are released from the hospital the same day. (A hysterectomy to remove the uterus entirely is a last-case scenario for women with endometriosis, which Lena Dunham underwent when she exhausted other surgical options.)
For Allen, the results and recovery were not so smooth. During her surgery, doctors unknowingly punctured her bowel. After being stitched up and sent home for recovery, she quickly noticed something was wrong. She called her doctor twice to report that she was in severe pain, couldn't walk or eat, and that her stomach was distended to the point of looking pregnant. They said it was normal. When Allen returned to get her stitches removed eight days later, the gravity of her situation became clear.
"The general surgeon took one look at me and said we need to get into surgery ASAP. I had secondary peritonitis, which is inflammation of the tissue covering your abdominal organs, and in my case, it had spread throughout my body," Allen says. "People die within a few hours or days with this. I have no idea how I survived more than a week. I was very, very lucky."
The surgeons repaired the perforated bowel and Allen spent the next six weeks in intensive care. "My body was completely out of my control, there were surprise procedures every day, and I couldn't walk, shower, move, or eat."
Allen was moved out of intensive care and into a regular hospital bed to celebrate Christmas with her family. But a few days later, doctors realized the peritonitis had spread to her lungs, so Allen went under the knife for the third time in four weeks, on New Year's Day, to remove the infection.
After three months of constant battle with her body, Allen was finally released from the hospital in January 2011. "My body was completely bruised and battered," she says.
She slowly began her journey toward physical recovery. "I wasn't huge into fitness before the surgery happened. I cared more about being skinny than strong," she says. "But after the surgery, I yearned for that feeling of strength and to look healthy. I was also told that to avoid chronic pain, I'd need to move my body to help with the scar tissue, so I started walking, then running," she says. She saw a promotion for a 15K charity run and thought it was the perfect goal to work toward to build her strength and health.
That run was just the start. She began trying at-home workout guides and her love of fitness grew. "I stuck with it for eight weeks, and went from doing push-ups on my knees to a few on my toes, and was incredibly proud. I applied myself consistently and the end result was being able to do something I never thought possible," says Allen.
She also discovered that working out really did help alleviate the pain that initially brought her in for that laparoscopy. (Despite surgery, she still experienced "awful periods" afterward, she says.) "Now, I don't have the endo pain with my period. I attribute much of my recovery to my active lifestyle," she says. (Related: 5 Things to Do If You Have Heavy Bleeding During Your Period)
Something else she never thought possible? Abs. When her goal changed from being skinny to being strong, Allen found herself with the six-pack she was certain no real, everyday person could have. While her abs inspire thousands of women on Instagram every day, Allen wants women to know there's a lot they don't see. She still feels "twinges of pain" left over from her surgeries, and suffers from nerve damage that can make some movements more difficult.
"Still, I'm incredibly proud of where my body has come and wouldn't be myself without the scar. It's a part of my story and reminds me where I've come from."
Allen never stopped setting new fitness goals. Today, the 28-year-old has her own online fitness coaching business, which lets her encourage other women to focus on being strong over skinny. Oh, and she can also deadlift 220 pounds and do chin-ups with 35 pounds strapped to her body. She's currently training for the WBFF Gold Coast bikini competition, what she calls "the ultimate challenge for me mentally and physically."
And yes, she'll be showcasing her badass, hard-earned abs—surgery scar and all.
This article originally appeared on Shape.com.