The Chinese “Elephant Man”

This story is a couple of weeks old, but I’ve only just come across it. It reminds me that there may be some things worse than death, and this is one of them:

To see the face of 32-year-old Huang Chuancai is to witness a rare genetic condition in its most terrible form.

Chinese doctors say Huang, of China’s southern Hunan province, suffers from a disease known as neurofibromatosis, a genetic disorder of the nervous system that primarily affects the development and growth of neural cell tissues.

For many of its sufferers, the disease means abnormal growth of these tissues and, as a result, facial disfigurement. But Huang’s case could well be the most extreme case of such disfigurement in the world today.

Before surgical intervention, 50 pounds of tumor tissue had pulled and twisted Huang’s face into a distorted form, nearly unrecognizable as human. According to wire reports, doctors found that the heavy mass that droops from his head and face had deformed his backbone, stunting his growth. The tumor had totally covered his left eye, while his left ear hung down to his shoulder, and his right ear and jaw were completely engulfed.

To see photos of just how bad neurofibromatosis effected Huang, click these links. But be warned. The images disturbed even me, a surgeon who’s seen some pretty horrible things in person:

  1. Man With Tumor for Face Braves Surgery
  2. China’s “Elephant Man” hopes to be normal after second surgery
  3. Surgery Hope For Tumour Face Man

I wasn’t able to find much about how well Huang did after the surgery, which must have been a tour de force of surgical skill to get the tumor off without either killing the patient or causing serious complications and morbidity. Here’s what this unfortunate man had to live with:

The “Elephant Man” from Hunan province could hardly speak before then because his tumour was so big.

The crippling mass drooping from his head and face had totally covered his left eye, while his left ear hung down to his shoulder, and his right ear and jaw were engulfed by the tumour.

Mr Huang’s condition has ostracised him from society – bullying from his classmates forced him to leave school when he was 10 years old.

He says he was even approached several years ago by someone who wished to buy him and display him as part of a circus freak show.

But hopes are high that Mr Huang will be a step closer to being cured when he undergoes the second operation today at the hospital in Guangzhou, the capital of prosperous Guangdong province.

“I hope that when my illness is cured, I can go back home and have a nice spring festival with my family,” he said.

It’s hard to imagine living with such a condition. It just goes to show that the worst diseases and conditions may not necessarily be the ones that kill us.