By Bunmi Adigun @Bunmi_Adigun
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Since the age of 12, Zara Hartshorn had been mistaken for a woman in her forties or fifties due to a disease she inherited from her mother Tracey Gibson, who despite only being 43, often got mistaken for a pensioner.
The mother and daughter from Rotherham, South Yorkshire were first told their appearance was due to a genetic condition called lipodystrophy.
But after visiting Dr Abu Garg, a lipodystrophy expert at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical centre in Dallas, Texas, he found that they were in fact suffering from an even rarer condition known as Cutis Laxa.
As well as the obvious symptoms, Cutis Laxa can cause serious health problems affecting the lungs, heart and arteries.
News of the diagnosis shocked Zara and Tracey, but Zara was more focused on her appearance than her health and underwent a four-hour facelift performed by Dr Robert Ersek to shave years off her.
Overjoyed with her new face, Zara brimmed with confidence and Tracey also had a matching procedure soon after to finally look her age.
But four years since the surgery, Zara’s saggy skin has slowly returned and a family feud temporarily tore her and her mum apart.
Now 20, Zara admits to not looking after herself and hasn’t given her health a second thought.
She said: “When I came back from the States, life was completely different. It was amazing.
“I had so much confidence, got into a relationship. I got pregnant and I was happy.
“But unfortunately I had a miscarriage and I’m no longer in a relationship.
“Since I found out I had Cutis Laxa, I have literally done nothing about it. The last time I saw a doctor was in Texas, which isn’t good.
“My health does worry me, but only when I think about it. Most of the time I’m oblivious to it, which isn’t a good thing.”
Zara is determined to live her life like a normal 20-year-old, despite still fearing meeting new people.
She said: “My facelift has dropped, especially when I smile and I don’t like it. It’s horrible, it makes me feel old.
“But I’m 20, I want to have fun. I want to be 20 and act 20.”
However, Zara’s health is starting to deteriorate and she finally found the courage to contact Dr Zsolt Urban who has been studying the condition.
Speaking to the doctor online, she was told some devestating news - Curtis Laxa could cause her heart to fail at anytime.
She said: “It is actually a serious illness and I’m disregarding it like it’s not even serious. I’m terrified."
Realising she’d been living in denial, Zara made the brave decision to have a thorough heart scan.
Fortunately, tests showed that Zara’s heart was fine.
She said: “I’m buzzing. I’m not going to die.”
Acceptance of her condition has made Zara turn a new corner and she’s determined to use it to help others.
She said: “In all honesty, I don’t blame anyone for this illness. As daft as it sounds, everyone’s born the way they are for a reason and there is a reason I am the way I am.
“For me, the future is about trying to help as many people as possible that have got the same condition as me.
“I would like to inspire and try to help and reach out to those people that are scared to come forward and admit to the world that they have got this illness.”
**CONDITION OF USAGE: Zara’s journey features on Extraordinary People, Wednesday 15 Feb, at 10pm, on Channel 5.**