Towradgi model emerges from world of pain

To look at Towradgi teenager Emily Tropea, you'd never imagine that anyone could ever have branded her a "hunchback" or a "freak".

But behind the flowing dark hair, bright blue eyes and stunning smile that captured the attention of judges on this season of Australia's Next Top Model, lies a world of heartache.

The last five years have been a blur of hospital wards, nurses and specialists as Emily, now 19, battled not one, but three debilitating conditions.

Making it into the top 25 girls in the reality television series this year not only helped her realise her life-long ambition of starting a modelling career; it marked her recovery from the conditions that nearly cost her her life.

And while a series of medical mess-ups and misdiagnoses prolonged her suffering, Emily is not bitter about the years she has lost. Rather, the beautiful young woman - who was also named the 2013 Face of Sydney Fashion Weekend in May - is excited about the opportunities that lie ahead.

"I want to share my story to inspire young girls and boys to follow their dreams no matter what and to show that if you want something bad enough, despite all odds, you can make it happen," she said.

Emily was 14, and had just completed her first modelling assignment, when her world was first turned upside down when she was diagnosed with scoliosis and Scheuermann's disease.

"Since about year 6, Mum was always on at me about my posture and was always telling me to sit up straight," she said.

"In year 7 I started to get really bad back pain but put it down to my poor posture and carrying a heavy school backpack.

"Then in 2008, when I was 14, I was at a sports carnival with my friends and when I bent over to tie up my shoelace, they were all pointing at me and yelling out 'oh my God, you have a hunchback'."

She shrugged it off but when she later relayed the incident to her parents, Debra and Lou, she saw the look that passed between them.

They took her to see the family doctor, who ordered X-rays. She was referred to a specialist spinal surgeon in Sydney, who diagnosed Emily with the two spine disorders which in the months to come would give her a hunchback appearance.

"It's funny the things you notice when your spine is curved, like the inability to ride a bicycle or even walk in a straight line," she said.

"I couldn't go to the beach as I couldn't wear swimmers without people staring at me, I couldn't go to the movies because I couldn't sit in the hard seats for any length of time.

"The physical pain was bad, and the mental anguish was terrible. I started wearing baggy jumpers and cardigans to cover up, and grew my hair long - I just wanted to hide, I felt like a freak."

Months of intensive physiotherapy did not help. In the end, an operation was the only solution, as specialists confirmed that the spinal curvature would eventually crush her chest.

In the nine-hour operation in September 2009, two steel rods were inserted down the length of her spine to straighten her back.

The results were amazing, but the pain was horrendous.

"I remember being paralysed by pain - I was weak and nauseous," Emily said. "But I felt a lot better about myself, a lot more normal. And even though I had a massive scar running down my back, I knew it meant I could think about one day modelling again."

It took nearly 12 months of rest and rehabilitation for Emily to recover, but soon after she did her life took a turn for the worst again.

In August 2010, happily back at Holy Spirit College with her friends, she was walking down the corridor when her vision blurred, she felt dizzy and had difficulty putting one foot in front of the other.

In the coming weeks she developed more symptoms. Her hands started trembling, her heart started racing and she was so weak she could only shuffle around. She started losing weight, her hair was falling out, and she was losing her fine motor skills.

She stayed in Wollongong Hospital for a week before being transferred to a Sydney hospital, where she stayed for three months.

"She was put on 23 different tablets a day, but no one could tell us what was wrong," Mrs Tropea said.

"It was a heartbreaking and frustrating few months and my husband and I had to switch shifts at the hospital each day so that he could work, and so one of us was home for our other two children, but we coped.

"But then when they started telling us we couldn't visit because she needed to focus on her treatment, and ultimately that she was imagining it all - and then that we were hypochondriac parents - that's when we brought her home."

Emily's symptoms had dramatically worsened while she was in hospital; she was now confined to a wheelchair and needed assistance for everything - from showering and toileting to dressing and eating.

She weighed just 39 kilos, her hair was falling out in patches, but still no one could diagnose what was wrong with her.

"I was in and out of rehabilitation over this time, and though specialists were still saying I was imagining things, that I didn't want to get better, that I liked the attention I was getting, I was truly doing everything I could to get better," she said.

"I did all the exercises they gave me and more - sometimes I'd be up till 2am doing exercises and would push myself to extremes before throwing up or nearly passing out."

During this time Mrs Tropea, now pregnant with her fourth child, was diagnosed with pre-eclampsia and was hospitalised for a month before undergoing an emergency caesarean and her son Cruz was born at 35 weeks.

It was a testing time for the family, who were also caring for their two other teenage children Jack and Keeara, and Emily was going from bad to worse.

So, against doctors' wishes, Emily's parents slowly began to withdraw her from the multiple medications that were causing her to become a 'zombie'.

"I didn't laugh, cry or smile for months - I was numb," she said.

After she was off the meds, she initially started to make some progress, but when that stalled, Mrs Tropea begged the doctors to do one last blood test.

It was the test that made all the difference.

"We were called back and told that the test indicated Graves' disease," Mrs Tropea said.

"We were sent to a doctor at the nuclear medicine clinic. He asked her to put her hands out, felt her throat and her pulse and just like that confirmed she had Graves' disease.

"He asked why it had taken so long for someone to find it; we asked why it had taken us so long to find him."

Graves' disease is an auto-immune disease that affects the thyroid and leads to symptoms including increased heartbeat, muscle weakness, disturbed sleep, anxiety, hair loss and weight loss.

"I had all the symptoms but it took 14 months to diagnose it," Emily said.Emily was referred to an endocrinologist who said without a diagnosis, she would have been dead within three weeks - she was so frail that her body would just have shut down.

It wasn't all smooth sailing from there. She had to have a thyroidectomy in February 2012 and will need to be on medication and undergo regular blood tests throughout her life. But, she said, she now has a life.

"It's taken 12 months to fully recover due to the length of time the Graves was in my body being mistreated," she said.

The beautiful young woman relishes her experience this year on the modelling quest. And while she was disappointed at her elimination, that's a setback she can handle."}

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