Beaming, my eight-year-old daughter, Sofia, and I struck a pose. We loved getting photos taken together.
Having modelled since the age of 16, I’d always been comfortable in front of the camera.
And as my job managing a beauty practice meant meeting lots of people, I had always taken pride in my appearance.
Then, when I was in my early 30s, I noticed fine lines between my eyes from squinting. Talking to my friends about it, they recommended getting Botox.
I’d never had a cosmetic procedure before, but I decided to give it a go.
Booking an appointment at a renowned clinic, the injections were over in less than 15 minutes.
It’s taken years off my face, I thought happily.
After seeing other women get carried away with cosmetic enhancements, I wanted to keep my face looking natural, so I only returned to have top-ups between my brows as needed.
Then, aged 47, I decided to visit a different clinic after hearing great reviews.
Once there, I was told about fillers, which are injected to add fullness to areas that have thinned due to ageing.
Though I’d only come for a consultation, the staff said they could perform the procedure right away.
‘They’re only temporary, so if you don’t like the result, we can take them out,’ they promised me.
Afterwards, I was told to expect the normal side effects including mild bruising and swelling over the coming days.
Peering at my reflection in the mirror back home, I could already see it working. But every few days, my forehead would swell up before retracting shortly afterwards.
I’m sure it will calm down soon, I thought.
Around three months after the procedure, something really strange happened. My forehead started to feel heavy and protrude forward more than ever before.
Heading back to the clinic, the staff insisted I’d just had an inflammatory reaction to the products they’d used and they made an appointment for me to undergo a corrective procedure.
The following week, dissolving agents were injected into my face to break down the products.
That’s when I learned that two different types of filler, including one made from silicone, had previously been combined in the same syringe and injected into my forehead and cheeks.
A permanent ingredient like silicone should never have been used in my face!
‘What do you mean?’ I asked, panicked.
They assured me they could fix the damage with regular appointments free of charge. But over time, my skin began to sag in certain areas.
I realised the dissolving agent had also caused the muscle and tissue in my face to waste away and distort.
Ashamed, I couldn’t bear to look in the mirror, much less face anyone, so I was forced to quit my job.
After several corrective procedures at the clinic, my forehead became so swollen and full of pus, I no longer recognised the person I saw in the mirror.
I look like a monster! I cried.
Friends and family tried to visit me, but I stopped answering the door.
Though they knew what was going on, I was too ashamed to even talk to them on the phone.
The only person I allowed to see me was Sofia, but I’d still wear hats and sunglasses in the house to try and hide myself from her as much as possible.
My constant support, she would collect my groceries and bring them home for me so I didn’t have to show my face in public.
Still, I couldn’t help but feel guilty for what we were missing out on together, like going shopping and picking out her formal dress.
Instead of me taking care of my daughter, Sofia had sacrificed everything to look after me.
As my skin continued to blow up, it hung down over my eyes, like it had melted from my forehead.
Now unable to see, I was even forced to hold up the skin with my hands so I could make out the room around me.
One day, I was so fed up, I asked Sofia to pick up some medical tape from the shops, which I used to tape my drooping skin to my hairline to hold it in place.
What has my life become? I sobbed.
Falling into a deep depression, the days and weeks quickly blurred into each other.
I longed to spend time with my daughter, but I could barely bring myself to get out of bed.
Before I knew it, I’d lost more than three years of my life living as a recluse.
If only I was more careful with who I let touch my face, I thought.
Then one day, I was sitting in my room when Sofia walked in and broke down.
‘Enough is enough. I need my mum back,’ she pleaded.
Convincing me I was too young to throw my life away, she vowed to get me the help I so clearly and desperately needed.
Taking a photo of my face, she sent the horrifying image along with a heartfelt letter to every teaching hospital in the country, begging for a doctor to see me.
But they all went unanswered.
Then finally, we got a reply from craniofacial surgeon Dr Reza Jarrahy, who specialises in face transplants, and he booked me in to see him straight away.
In his office, I carefully removed the bandages I’d used to cover myself up with and he started to weep.
‘I won’t let you stay that way,’ he promised.
Along with renowned plastic surgeon Dr Boyd, they came up with a plan to repair my botched surgeries.
But they warned it would be risky.
I was terrified about going under the knife again, but I knew they were my only hope for a normal life.
I can choose to hide or fight, I realised.
My doctor weeped when my bandages were removed
In April 2013, I underwent a procedure in which the doctor attempted to remove the products in my forehead and lift the skin away from my eyes so I was able to see.
When I came to, I couldn’t see out of my right eye.
The medical team explained that the de-bulking process must have caused the substances in my face to dislodge and press against my optic nerve which restricted the blood flow.
I’d be permanently blind on that side.
They were as heartbroken as I was and I knew they weren’t to blame.
During the operation, the plastic surgeon also discovered that the skin in my forehead was so hard from the silicone there was no way he could move it.
So, six months later, I endured a gruelling 17-hour procedure where all of the muscles and tissues were removed down to the bone.
Then, a large section of skin and tissue was taken from my back and grafted onto my face.
The surgeons had never done anything like it before and the pain afterwards was indescribable.
Once that healed, I had a facelift to move the bulk of silicone in my lower face and cheeks to give me a more natural and contoured face shape. Afterwards, I felt like a new woman.
‘You’ve given me a second chance at life,’ I told the surgical team.
Since then, I’ve undergone five more operations to help restore my face to the way it looked before my world was turned upside down.
In 2016, I launched an initiative called Saving Face to campaign for safe cosmetic medicine and to prevent other women from going through what I have.
I want people to understand that they’re beautiful just as they are.
If you do decide to have a cosmetic enhancement, you must thoroughly research your chosen practitioner’s credentials first.
Not only did my mistake cost me my face, I also lost the vision in one eye.
Thankfully, with Sofia’s help, I’m able to navigate my way around places such as the supermarket and gym.
While I still struggle to recognise the person staring back at me some days, I have a new outlook on life.
Before, I was too caught up in how I looked and what people thought of me.
Now, I wake up each morning with a smile on my face, grateful I’m still alive.
I’ve learned that beauty truly comes from within.
In Australia, it’s estimated people spend about $1 billion on up to 500,000 separate cosmetic procedures each year and receive more treatments per capita than Americans.
About 100 people worldwide have been left blind in one or both eyes by dermal fillers, according to a 2015 report at the World Congress of Dermatology.
The Australasian College of Cosmetic Surgery (ACCS) was established to ensure the safe provision of cosmetic medicine and surgical procedures in Australia.
ACCS medical dean Dr Ronald Feiner said, ‘Cosmetic procedures such as fillers should be administered only by certified practitioners, including doctors, and registered nurses under the supervision of doctors.
‘While there are a number of permanent and semi-permanent fillers available in Australia, these treatments leave little to no room for error, and when administered incorrectly, can result in complication, such as tissue death (necrosis) and even blindness, so it’s important they only be carried out by someone who knows what they are doing.
‘For Australians who are considering undergoing these procedures, it’s important to do your homework on the practitioner beforehand to check their training backgrounds with a registered college such as ACCS or by searching them on the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority (APRA) website.’
* If you’re struggling with mental health, contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 (Aus) or 0800 543 354 (NZ).