Invisible Battles Are the Most Important

By: Jessica Frano
Companion Fitness Editor
Instagram: @Jessicafrano

My name is Jessica Frano. I am a personal trainer, NPC competitor, and overall fitness enthusiast. I am also a survivor, as I’ve overcome multiple GI issues and lived with a temporary ostomy. I know how prevalent ‘transformation’ stories are in the fitness community.   And I know how powerful a motivating tool they can be -- whether as validation for my clients, to see the results of their hard work, or inspiration for others who might see a path they, too, could follow.

But I rarely think of my own “transformation.” It’s unconventional, and at times it was very painful.

The broader catalyst for my transformation is relatable to a wide audience. I was on a career path that left me unfulfilled and unsatisfied, and I was seeking a path fueled by my passions.

At the time, I was your ordinary skinny-fat cardio bunny, naturally muscular and loathing it. I had already decided corporate America was not where my heart was and had been considering a career in fitness, but as a single independent woman living in Chicago, I couldn’t just become unemployed to pursue my passion.

So I continued in my stress-filled role at work until the universe intervened.

In February of 2008, I woke to the most intense abdominal pain I ever imagined. I had no idea what was wrong, but as I started throwing up bile, I knew I had to call 911 and get to an emergency room.  I ended up having emergency surgery to repair a twisted colon. I had parts of my small intestine, large intestine and appendix removed. A couple months later, I was rushed back to the ER, with blood clots in my portal vein, most likely as a complication from my first surgery. I was put on Coumadin (a blood thinner) at that time, and returned to the job I held for 5+ years only to be let go (ultimately, a blessing in disguise). 

Fortunately, I had already decided corporate America was not where my heart was. I did not expect these to be the circumstances under which the change would occur, but it made sense to make the jump now. I enrolled at National Personal Training Institute so I could devote myself completely to the process and eliminate much of the stress I believe my former job had caused me. Right before my final exam, I ended up back in the ER. After a few days in-patient, it was determined I needed another emergency surgery. They found I had a necrotic small intestine and if they had waited a few more hours, I probably would not have survived.

Coming out of that surgery, I was left with a temporary ileostomy bag that I would have for 3 months. In March of 2010, I had the reversal and in 8 weeks I was back in the gym, back to work and working out again.

The rest is history.  I had the freedom to pursue my passion and I fell in love with the fitness lifestyle. I spent a couple years working in a corporate gym before taking the leap to start my own small business as an independent personal trainer. Near the beginning of my fitness journey, I befriended a competitive bodybuilder who worked with me and began learning about bodybuilding training and proper nutrition.

My surgeries left me with a fair amount abdominal scar tissue that can be quite painful.  It’s been a process to learn what I can and cannot do, what exercises might cause a flare-up or inflammation and what foods may leave me feeling bloated, distended, nauseous or uncomfortable. That learning curve included two intestinal obstructions since my takedown. Having an NG tube in the hospital for a couple days is no one’s idea of a good time, but each time I learned more about my body and how to treat it. I know I will always be at risk for obstructions but I don’t let that stop me, and I use it as a reminder to treat my body respectfully.

With 3 major surgeries, I have the abdominal battle wounds to show for it. I was initially self-conscious of these scars, but I have come to embrace that they stand for what I have overcome.

So I’m lucky. Not just because I survived when things got dodgy, but because my passion has turned to helping others find the same strength that circumstance thrust on me.  I have watched strength increases in the gym translate to an empowerment outside of the gym, both in my clients and myself. I feel like weight training is the greatest secret that so many miss out on, and I want to help spread the word! I also want others to know that no matter their previous experience, anything is possible.

Most people in the gym would never guess that I lived with an ileostomy bag, spent months unable to lift more than 5 lbs or deal with daily stomach issues.

I hope my story can be that perspective for someone else.  I’m still a work in progress, learning more about myself, constantly researching new methods and ideas with which to experiment, and learning how to move forward with my fitness goals as life goes on and my lifestyle adapts.

But my journey has helped me understand beyond a shadow of a doubt that sharing fitness is truly my passion and purpose in life, and I hope it serves to remind others, at all stages of their fitness journeys, that the invisible stuff we’re doing is really hard, but it’s the most important part, no matter what the pictures show.

Brooke Bogdan