Wounded Healer: GWU Student’s Medical Trials Shape New Role in Helping Others

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Written by Liv LuVisi, Communications Intern

She climbs, spins, and drops—shifting gracefully in and out of mid-air poses supported by silk fabric—spiraling and twisting herself into intricate knots as she displays a delicate balance of beauty and strength. Gardner-Webb sophomore Aubry McMahon is an artist of aerial silks, a performance art closely resembling the acrobatics of Cirque du Soleil.  Aerialists rely greatly on physical strength and skill, and while McMahon flourishes in her element, health has not always been on her side.

“Aerial was the first thing that made me feel strong,” McMahon shared. “It was something I could put my trust in and also helped me to gain trust.”

McMahon has learned that her moves must be intentional; her focus, resolute. One wrong decision could have disastrous results. The delicate balance required for aerial acrobatics closely resembles the equilibrium she’s had to find as she has struggled with limiting health issues, beginning before she took her first breath.

A triplet, McMahon was born three months premature with a mild form of cerebral palsy. Weighing a mere one pound, 10 ounces, she was delivered deprived of oxygen and put on a ventilator to help her breathe. Just minutes earlier, her brother was born with similar medical complications, leaving only her newborn sister breathing normally.

“They didn’t know if we would survive, so they wanted to make our lives worth something,” McMahon said. Parents Thomas and Rosalind McMahon entered their newborns into a drug study on Surfactant (now commonly used to treat premature babies). Within 24 hours, the trial drug began developing the babies’ lungs normally so that doctors could take them off ventilators. Four months later, the triplets finally left the sterile walls of the hospital to go home for the first time in their lives.

However, McMahon’s premature birth was only a foreshadowing to later complications. She began physical therapy from a young age to rehabilitate her cerebral palsy. Her jugular vein sits on her eardrum, causing deafness in her right ear. Two of her eight surgeries have corrected a lazy eye. She now has asthma and was placed in yet another medical study for hypothyroidism that caused her metabolism to slow down and her body to feel weak and cold.

Rather than allow her health’s uncertainties to restrict her lifestyle, McMahon chose to reach out of her comfort zone, ultimately turning what was once a vulnerability into a strength. She began taking aerial silk classes prior to her high school senior year at Aerial CLT of Charlotte, N.C.

“Aerial was one of the first things that truly helped me focus on becoming healthier, physically and mentally,” she said. “I started aerial at a very transitional point in my life, and it was the one thing that made me feel whole again. Some people’s stress outlet might be reading a book or photography, and it just so happens that mine is a little bit different.” Her time at Aerial CLT sparked a desire to begin to eat healthier and exercise more frequently.

While McMahon confesses that she despised rollercoasters growing up, hanging 20 to 30 feet up in the air does not faze her. “Aerial is a very disciplined and controlled form of art, and something that it has taught me is that I don’t have to be perfect. It’s about learning to trust yourself,” she said. “If you don’t re-grab the silk below you to secure yourself, you’ll most likely end up over a dozen feet below on the hard ground. Now, that’s scary. This is why control and trust are so important when it comes to aerial.”

McMahon’s pursuit of aerial silks has propelled her toward a path of physical, mental, and spiritual well being, ultimately paving the way for her to become a source of help to others. She chose to combine two of her passions—aerial silks and the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA)—to coordinate a fundraiser in Charlotte.

“After I began focusing on my health, NEDA became important to me because they help people also struggling with health-related issues,” McMahon explained. As part of the event, Aerial CTL students performed self-choreographed routines. All proceeds from the event were donated to the NEDA.

“Weeks prior to my performance, I had a mental scenario of how it would go, and although it didn’t go exactly as I had planned, it was better,” McMahon said. “It was perfectly imperfect. It was vulnerable, and it was real. Throughout this process, so many people have opened up to me about how eating disorders have affected them, and although it breaks my heart, it also mends it because I know that so many people are also passionate about becoming healthy.”

Her involvement with NEDA doesn’t stop there. McMahon is majoring in psychology at Gardner-Webb and plans to attend graduate school to become a marriage and family therapist, specializing with those who struggle with eating disorders.

The significance of McMahon’s medical trials in forming her new role as a wounded healer is not lost on her. “It’s important to me that I help people with my life,” she explained, “because people have always cared for me and helped me, even when I didn’t ask. I want to be able to do that for somebody else.”

Located in Boiling Springs, N.C., Gardner-Webb University provides exceptional educational opportunities within a Christian environment, preparing students to think critically, to succeed professionally, and to serve faithfully as members of their local and global communities.