‘I can exhale:’ Transgender man shares transformation journey through Spectrum Health

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. -- Beau VanSolkema of Grand Rapids is sharing his journey with FOX 17, one that started with him as a woman. The 34-year-old recently had top reassignment surgery done in Grand Rapids through Spectrum Health by a doctor who usually works with cancer patients.

But VanSolkema's story isn't unique, just one that's not frequently told. After dealing with everything from depression to attempted suicide, VanSolkema is now comfortable in his own skin and hopes his story will inspire someone else to be who they are.

Beau VanSolkema didn't always go by that name. "I was born as Sarah Elaine VanSolkema," said Beau. "I consider myself to be a true Grand Rapidian. I grew up in Wyoming, Michigan."

VanSolkema says he knew early on that he was different.

"At age seven I had an attraction towards females, and I didn't quite understand it," said VanSolkema. "I knew that it was different, and even when I was getting sexual education at age 13, I didn't really understand it then."

That marked the beginning of Beau's story, a long road filled with depression and self-harm.

"I had a lot of bullying done to me in school for various reasons," said VanSolkema. "That's also when I started self-mutilating."

It's something that started at age seven and went on for the next 12 years.

"I quit when I was 19," said VanSolkema. "I can't remember how old my nephew was, but he was a toddler. I had the word 'Worthless' carved into my leg at the time. He was on my lap and he was old enough to kind of trace it with his little finger and he traced that on my leg. It just turned my stomach. I just quit cold turkey right then and there."

The same year, Beau came out to his family as a lesbian.

"I dated a girl from age 17 to 19 until she was killed in a car wreck," said VanSolkema. "That devastated me too because that also happened that year and that's actually what forced me into coming out."

In 2008, Beau's depression took over and he tried to take his own life.

"I overdosed on pills and alcohol," said VanSolkema. "After that, I immediately asked for help. I knew what I had done was wrong. I regretted it, every moment of it."

VanSolkema realized he was still unhappy in his own skin. After talking to friends, he realized only two years ago that he identified as a male.

"When I started getting education about it, I realized this is totally who I am," said VanSolkema.

VanSolkema started hormone therapy, grew facial hair and three weeks ago underwent surgery.

"I knew right away that I wanted my breasts removed," said VanSolkema. "I wanted that done since I couldn't even tell you when, that's how many years it's been. I was just more than ready to have it done."

The removal was performed by Dr. Paul Wright, a surgical oncologist at Spectrum Health.

"I was approached by my practice manager, Jenny Mills, and we talked about the need that we have for transgendered patients being able to have access to top surgery, as we call it," said Wright. "There's really no one offering it that would accept insurance and so there was a great need for that."

Dr. Wright typically works with patients who have breast cancer and undergo double mastectomies. Just eight months ago, he began working with transgender patients.

"Really the patients are more or less the same," said Wright. "They are looking for hope."

"For the first time in my entire life, I can exhale," said VanSolkema. "When I exhale, I don't feel like I'm forced into this shell of a body that I wasn't given and didn't choose."

Since Dr. Wright started working with transgender patients, he has performed 15 top surgeries. It's a procedure that these patients would have to typically go out of state for or just put off all together.

VanSolkema is working towards his bachelor's degree in social work from GVSU, hoping to work with other people like him in the future.

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