Dancer realized 'anorexia' was stomach condition thanks to Grey's Anatomy

A ballet dancer who weighed just 88 pounds realized she’d been mis-diagnosed with anorexia thanks to an episode of medical drama Grey’s Anatomy. Olivia Vessillo, 19, suffered excruciating pain every time she ate, with doctors repeatedly telling her it was because of anorexia, or anxiety-issues related to food.

She finally realized she was actually suffering a rare condition called Median Arcuate Ligament Syndrome (MALS) after seeing a character come down with it on the ABC drama.

Olivia, from Jersey City in New Jersey explained: ‘Eating caused me severe pain, more than you can ever imagine. Doctors did every test you could think of but no one knew what it was.

‘Things got rapidly worse when I was 17 and I was really suffering. I went from 140lb to 88lb in just over a year because whenever I ate the pain just went off the scale, it was indescribable.

‘I was tracking my calories and I was lucky if I managed to eat more than 600 calories a day. Eating anymore just wasn’t possible and I was starving to death.

‘I even remember the date, it was October 26 2018 and it was season 15 episode five of Grey’s Anatomy. I had never even heard of MALS until I watched this episode.

‘One of the characters had the exact same symptoms as me and was diagnosed with MALS on the show, and I just thought “Wait, surely that’s too good to be true”. It was like a light bulb moment and from that point on I was convinced I had the same thing.

‘Up to this point all I kept getting told it’s all in my head, that I had anxiety and anorexic…

‘After watching that Grey’s Anatomy episode I looked up MALS on the internet and that’s when I knew I had it for sure.’

MALS is a complex digestive disorder causes a build up of pressure on the vital nerves and blood vessels in and around the stomach, causing extreme pain and making it very difficult for sufferers to eat.

Olivia lived with the condition for 18 years without even knowing it, with the epiphany caused by Grey’s Anatomy helping her seek out corrective surgery that has since transformed her life.

She was born with MALS but only started suffering with serious symptoms from the age of 15. As a youngster the condition caused mild to moderate symptoms such as nausea and stomach pain, but it worsened as she grew older, and scuppered her dreams of becoming a professional ballerina.

As the condition worsened Olivia said she started to experience frequent sickness and developed a bloated appearance caused by nerve damage in her stomach. During this period she managed to maintain a healthy weight of around 140lb, helped by her active lifestyle and ballet-related strength training.

Olivia said she made countless trips to the doctors to discuss her sickness and stomach stomach pains but failed to gain a diagnosis that explains her symptoms.

She said: ‘I’ve always felt poorly but I started to believe the doctors when they said I was anxious and might have anorexia. I never wanted to eat a lot because it hurt, and I ended up being convinced by what the doctors said.

‘I’ve had so many tests and not a single doctor could find anything medically wrong with me, but I knew something was horribly wrong.’

By the time Olivia turned 17 she was struggling to eat more than 600 calories a day because of the intense pain it caused, with the teenager forced to subside on yoghurt, scrambled eggs and crackers.

Olivia weight dropped from 140lbs in fall 2018 to just 88lbs in February this year, when surgery to correct her complex abdominal defects caused by MALS.

Olivia’s research led her to find out about Dr Richard Hsu, who is recognized as a leader in the management of MALS, based at Stamford Hospital, Connecticut. She contacted him directly to explain her symptoms and booked a consultation with him in October 2019, when he weight had dropped to below 100lb.

Olivia added: ‘I was still dancing when I was 17 but I was forcing myself to eat, but after having food I’d be doubled over in pain. It was horrendous.

‘If I ate more than what I was I honestly would have vomited. It felt I was being punished for keeping my body alive.

A series of diagnostic tests followed that resulted in Dr Hsu offering Olivia the chance to have corrective surgery, which she accepted.

The two hour operation took place in February this year and involved the repositioning of the vital blood vessels and nerves in Olivia’s stomach which were causing her so much pain.

Although she’s still not able to dance yet, Olivia is well on the road to recovery and has bulked up to just over 100lb. But she said she is still not able to eat full meals just yet and has to slowly re-introduce a healthy, balanced diet into her daily routine.

Olivia said: ‘That operation saved my life, I would not be here without it. I could have starved to death, that’s how serious things got.

‘I am able to eat properly and am starting to eat regular meals and snacks now, I’m really enjoying my food.

‘I’ve gone from hating having to eat to eating being the highlight of my life, it just feels amazing.’

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