A Fresh Face Made Him a New Man

For the first time in nearly 30 years, James O'Neal can see his chin.

Three weeks ago, O'Neal had surgery to remove a huge mass of tumors that had disfigured his face for nearly 30 years. With the support of a community that started in his home of Woodinville, Wash., and grew to circle the globe, O'Neal became a "new man."

"Looks good, I like it. It's perfect," O'Neal said in an interview with ABC News affiliate KOMO News in Seattle, after seeing his face without bandages or stitches. "Perfect. Oh, yeah!"

O'Neal suffered from neurofibromatosis, a genetic disorder that caused benign tumors to grow on his nerve cells. These tumors can appear anywhere on the body, but O'Neal's were concentrated in a mass on the left side of his face.

But the unabashed way in which O'Neal went about his life and work -- he is a checker at the local Safeway -- earned him the admiration of the community.

Last fall, a church group headed by Katie Knopf, one of O'Neal's long-time customers at the supermarket, began a campaign to see if anyone would be willing to help him seek treatment for his condition.

"I was always interested in his story. He really impressed me," Knopf said. "Only a few people came to the first meeting, but everyone gave money, and we got $60 that day."

A Medical Hero

Since then, O'Neal's story has been picked up by the local news, and the community has rallied around him. An official fundraising drive began in May, and the total amount of donations has grown to about $240,000, which is more than O'Neal needed for his surgery.

"I've never had that kind of support before," O'Neal said. "I'm overwhelmed. I didn't think it would be this quick."

Dr. Peter Neligan, director of the Center for Reconstructive Surgery at the University of Washington Medical Center, performed the operation free of charge.

"He's a very striking individual," Neligan said before the operation. "The least I can do is join in to the community effort and donate my services. ... He's quite pumped about the idea of having surgery."

But the surgery was risky. Twice Neligan had to stop the operation because O'Neal was losing too much blood. By the time the operation was over, Neligan had used 28 units of blood, although the body only holds eight units.

Although there are records of people receiving full-face transplants, O'Neal opted for a less radical operation to "debulk" his tumors, which removes most of the tissue but leaves some behind.

O'Neal will have a second surgery in another six months to remove tumors from his neck and minor procedures every five years should keep further tumor growths from engulfing his face once again.

Following surgery, O'Neal spent five days in the intensive care unit with substantial swelling of the face. He also needed a breathing tube in case his throat swelled shut.

But afterwards, O'Neal marveled at his left ear, which was in its right place, no longer dangling from the mass of tumors, as well as his straightened nose and his chin.

O'Neal has taken the events of the past year in stride although he sometimes can't believe how strongly the local, and global, community came together to help him

"It's not going to change my personality or nothing," O'Neal said. "I think I inspire a lot of people just being out working."

To learn more about O'Neal's story, visit http://friendsofjamesoneal.blogspot.com/.

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