Hrush Achemyan
Credit: Wanthy Dimaren

As a celebrity makeup artist, Hrush Achemyan is constantly surrounded by some of Hollywood's most recognizable faces. But after a botched plastic surgery procedure left her just moments away from death, she began to re-evaluate the true meaning of beauty. Here, Achemyan opens up about her decision to go under the knife—and how she almost paid with her life.

On May 1, 2017, I made the decision to go under the knife for a breast reduction. The reason? Vanity, pure and simple. Sure, I sagged a bit, but at 30 that's pretty normal. And I probably could have gotten the breast- and confidence-boost I needed from a good bra. But my insecurities had gotten the better of me, which I have to think has something to do with my line of work.

As a celebrity makeup artist, I have the privilege of working on some of entertainment’s most influential, and beautiful, faces, including the Kardashians and Jenners, Christina Aguilera, Shay Mitchell, and Sarah Hyland. I’ve spent the past decade helping people love their appearances, but I’ve never exactly been confident in my own—which for a long time was fine because I was the one creating beauty looks, not modeling them. Except in the age of social media, being in celebrities' orbit comes with a spotlight of its own, one that I never expected and didn’t quite know how to handle.

Seeing negative comments about my body online made me feel like I needed to change. But the real issue wasn’t that I decided to get surgery, it was how: I felt so desperate that I rushed in, I didn’t properly research the potential bad outcomes of the procedure, and then I ignored my body’s warning signs.

There are two poor decisions that I made, the first (and a huge one) being not reading the information that my doctor gave me. I didn’t read what my doctor made me sign and, therefore, had no idea what I was getting myself into. I made the mistake of believing that since a procedure was normal that it was no big deal. I now know even common outpatient surgeries are hugely taxing on your body, and can come with some serious complications. My second regret? Not listening to what my body was trying to tell me. I had a bad feeling about it from the start and I should have followed my instinct and backed out. The fact that I didn't will forever haunt me, because it almost cost me my life.

I felt extremely cloudy when I woke up from surgery. I fainted in the first shower that I took in the recovery center, and right away, I knew that something was off, even though a nurse told me that can happen sometimes when tight bandages are first removed. Then, my head started to hurt so badly in one particular spot, I tied a belt around my head to try to keep pressure on it (this was another act of desperation, and not medically recommended). My doctor wasn't convinced anything abnormal was going on.

A few days later things had gotten worse. I was shivering and spiking fevers above 104 degrees, and mentally I felt like I was being held under water; noises were blurred, my vision was foggy, my head was spinning, and I could barely walk. I was on high doses of pain medications, which can cause symptoms like the ones I was experiencing, my surgeon said. Trusting him, and not wanting to seem like a complainer, I sucked it up when I should have listened to my gut.

By the time the doctor made a house call to come check on me, he confirmed I had developed an infection, which he said had to be flushed. I went to his office for that procedure (a small incision in my leg to drain fluid), and within a few days, I was gaining weight, my lips were blue, my skin had yellowed, and I had not slept for many nights because of constant shivers. A friend who is a nurse urged me to go to the hospital, immediately. It was 10 days after my initial surgery.

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Credit: Wanthy Dimaren

I was rushed into the emergency room and put on a gurney, with eight physicians surrounding me. I was absolutely clueless that I was at risk of dying as they tried to save my life. I remember hearing my mother sobbing, my friends screaming, medical equipment beeping, and physicians discussing my situation in a panic. Then, everything went blank.

Sepsis, and its more severe cousin septic shock, is a potentially fatal complication of an infection and is not uncommon post-op. It occurs when chemicals are released into the bloodstream to fight an infection but trigger an inflammatory response instead. According to the World Health Organization, sepsis is reported to affect more than 30 million people globally each year, leading to approximately 6 million deaths. Septic shock, specifically, results in a significant decrease in blood pressure. It’s a life-threatening diagnosis that can lead to respiratory or heart failure, stroke, organ failure, and death.

When I was in the hospital, oxygen couldn’t find its way to my brain. My left lung filled with water, my white blood cells were eating my red blood cells, and my weight jumped from 130 to 202 pounds. I had multiple blood transfusions and procedures in the hospital. I was blessed to not lose my leg after the infection was removed, which can be common in severe cases of septic shock, when prolonged blood clotting and blockages cause tissue to die. I cannot stress how grateful I am to the physicians, nurses, and staff in that hospital who acted quickly and knowledgeably to stabilize me. On my last day in the hospital, one of the nurses told me that I was lucky, because 29 more minutes of lost oxygen would have caused my major organs to begin shutting down. My left lung would have completely filled up with water. Essentially, I had been 29 minutes away from death.

It took me one year to muster up the strength to talk about my near-death experience on social media, being susceptible to all the same judging trolls who had exacerbated my insecurities to the point that drove me to alter my appearance in the first place. I finally allowed myself to be vulnerable to everyone’s judgments—and I have been surprised by the outpouring of positive responses I have received by sharing my story. It provided a platform for others who had been through septic shock, and it helped me realize that sepsis is a quiet, but pervasive, killer. Not many people recognize that sepsis is one of the most common risks of any surgery. I will never know where the infection that caused mine came from.

I wanted to not only educate my followers and anyone who cared to listen about sepsis, but also to use my story as a reference to how negative body image due to societal stigma could lead to reckless decisions with very real consequences. No one should ever prioritize their body image over their health and safety. And if you feel like something is wrong, physically, it’s so important to seek immediate help. In a twisted way, I thought that maybe God was punishing me for putting my external beauty before my health. But if I hadn’t ignored my initial symptoms by listening to an authority figure as I had always been taught, then I likely wouldn’t have found myself in such a dire state following surgery. Being brave and pretending you’re not in pain is never worth it. Trust me.

While I have made a successful recovery, I still deal with the effects of what I went through. My memory has been altered, leaving me in tears sometimes when I cannot recall the simplest things, like my aunt’s name. My weight has remained elevated; my body is still processing the shock, so it is holding on to whatever it can. Since my weight gain, people have made comments that I am too curvy; I’ve been asked whether I’m pregnant, or been told that I’ve lost myself on social media. And I give zero fucks. I have been through too much to care if my big and curvy, beautiful body is too much for anyone to handle. It’s strange—I did gain the confidence that I was looking for, not from the surgery that I thought would give it to me but from facing what came next.

Now that I understand some of the risks that come with procedures like the one I had, I have completely reshuffled my priorities and become a major advocate for beauty in its most natural form. In the past, given my profession and obsession with “perfection,” I would be the first person to say “You’d benefit from a bit of Botox here, maybe some fillers there, and oh! There’s this new procedure they do to tighten here and to pull there!” Now? No way. Leave it alone. And if there’s something I prefer to hide or highlight? I can enhance features with makeup, or direct the eye elsewhere.

Of course, I am well aware that people will continue to undergo cosmetic procedures, and that is their right. And if they do their research, power to them. But it’s so important—a life-or-death matter—to be fully informed of and educated about the risks that come with these serious medical procedures. Research your doctor, educate yourself on possible signs of complications, and most of all, don’t ignore your body telling you when something is wrong.

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Credit: Wanthy Dimaren

One good thing that came out of my trauma was my new perspective on life and my relationship with God. When the one-year mark of the incident came around, I enlisted the help of one of the best tattoo artists out there, Chuey Quintanar. I decided that I wanted a reminder of the positives of my story: that I am a survivor and that no matter how bad life may seem, I can fight through it. I placed a tattoo of a cross on my ring finger, and I decided to enhance and showcase the scar that saved my life. It’s located on my right leg where they pulled the infection out. It’s the leg that would have been amputated, had things gone differently. The quote I tattooed over my scar reads, “A moon will rise from my darkness,” meaning no matter how dark the world may be, I will always find my way to the light. I have forgiven the surgeon who missed the warning signs, and I have forgiven myself for ignoring my pain 10 days too long.

For those, like me, who have allowed internet trolls to dictate how you view your face or body, I have one thing to say to you: do not, absolutely not, allow keyboard gangsters to steal your shine. There is a reason they are trying to dim your light and it’s because they want what you already have. Do not allow these words to get to your heart, your soul, and your mind. It is all poison and you already are its antidote.