Authentic Life Begins Thanks to Transgender Health Program

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Jace Cowperthwaite was standing in the bra section of a clothing store with his mom when suddenly he began to cry.

“This isn’t right. I don’t like this. I don’t feel like this is me,” the then 15-year-old said. “And, I swear, my mom’s just a saint. She said, ‘Do you want to go to the men’s section?’” Jace hadn’t been the kind of kid who struggled with his gender identity from a young age. But when puberty hit and his body became more feminine, it didn’t feel right.

The next several years were a journey — for him, for his family — that ultimately led them to the office of Nicole Mihalopoulos, MD, MPH, the chief of the Division of Adolescent Medicine at the University of Utah.

Jace remembers how comfortable he felt on that first visit to Mihalopoulos’ office. Everyone called him by the name he chose. Everyone used the pronouns he wanted. Mihalopoulos is part of the University of Utah Transgender Health Program, which has seen a boom in patient numbers. More than 700 new patients ranging from adolescents to adults are expected in 2019.

Jace heard about the program from a trans friend. He and his mom went together to the University of Utah to find out more. At the doctor’s office, staff spoke to Jace and his mom together and separately. “They were curious about who I was, to get to know me more and know my background and know my story,” he said.

Now 18, Jace has been receiving weekly testosterone injections for eight months. His appetite has increased. His voice has dropped and he’s a lot stronger. The teen has gone from doing fewer than two pushups to 15 in a row. He plans to continue the testosterone long-term.

“I’m so surprised by the amount of support that LGBT people have in Utah,” said the Tooele resident. “You’re in a very religious state and you go to the U and get an over-whelming amount of support.”

His transformation isn’t over. In mid-November, Jace received chest masculinizing surgery from Cori Agarwal, MD. In the days before, the 18-year-old felt his excitement build.  “I’ve spent three years looking for surgeons and Cori Agarwal was the only one where I thought, ‘I want that one,’” Jace said. “I noticed from a lot of the photos I’ve seen there’s minimal scarring and that’s a big issue of mine.”

Agarwal’s respectful manner was hugely important to him. “I love her, because she’s really accepting,” Jace said. “She answered every question I had.”

Soon, he plans to be wearing V-neck shirts, no longer encumbered by the binder that he used to wear to flatten his chest. He looks forward to wearing tank tops and not having to hide his body.  After the surgery, the 18-year-old will continue working toward his GED and exploring the possibility of acting or a police career. As he looks toward the future, he’s so grateful for the services at the University of Utah.

“I don’t know where I would be if that wasn’t there,” Jace said. “Honestly, I think I wouldn’t be where I am now. I think I would be held back.”

Jace remembers life before he cried that day in the clothing store. He felt like he was surviving, not living. Every day was a struggle. After changing his name and clothing, he began to feel more comfortable with himself. He spent more time with his family.

His evolution hasn’t just been his alone, Jace said. “Parents grieve as well. They’ve lost something as well,” he said. “I do feel sad about changing the name my mom gave me and not being able to wear a wedding dress and not having my dad walk me down the aisle.”

In the days before the surgery, the reality of his coming transformation floored Jace. This was it. “Last night the realization finally hit me that it’s going to finally happen,” he said. “I’m getting a weight lifted off my chest.”

A new life was about to begin.

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