Jose Mestre's face was consumed by a 12-pound tumor, an explosive growth of blood vessels that blinded him in one eye and invaded his mouth, making it difficult to breathe and nearly impossible to eat.
Doctors in his native Portugal had given up hope that they could operate on the 53-year-old former traffic guard, and Mestre had resigned himself to the fact that he surely would die.
But thanks to the intervention of a stranger, who had watched a plastic surgeon perform miracles on another patient with a facial tumor on a Discovery Health documentary, now Mestre is on the road to recovery.
Mestre's journey took him from Portugal to St. Joseph Hospital in Chicago last year, where plastic surgeon Dr. McKay McKinnon performed three risky procedures to save the man's face.
Now, TLC chronicles Mestre's story in a television documentary, "The Man Who Lost His Face," which will air Sunday night.
"It's an incredible story," said McKinnon, who specializes in craniofacial surgery. "I have not seen a facial tumor quite as dramatic as this ever… His face was a mass of fiber and tumor and blood vessels that made him unrecognizable as a human being."
Mestre had been born with a venous malformation, also called a hemangioma, one that had begun growing uncontrollably at the age of 14. These tumors typically increase in size during puberty and his had begun to distort all of his facial features.
Eating was difficult, causing bleeding on his tongue and gingiva, and Mestre's left eye was completely destroyed as the tumor literally swallowed his face.
"For all of his adult life his face had shocked those around him and made his life a kind of living hell," said McKinnon. "His mother sought medical advice in their country, Portugal, and at multiple other medical centers in Spain, Germany and England. They were given conflicting diagnoses and plans of treatment."
Helping Jose was complicated by the fact that his mother was a Jehovah's Witness -- a religious denomination that bans blood transfusions -- and she wanted her son to follow her faith.
"Jose would eventually be forced to decide between death from complications of frequent bleeding from the growing tumor, or renouncing his faith and receiving definitive surgery," he said.
But three years ago, Mestre's mother died and his younger sister Edith, a hairdresser in her late 40s, became his guardian and became more proactive in seeking medical care.
Mestre's fate changed when an English tourist, who had watched documentaries about facial surgery at St. Joseph, saw him on the streets of Lisbon. That stranger, known to doctors only as "Peter," arranged an introduction by e-mail to McKinnon who examined Mestre while giving a medical presentation in Portugal in 2008.
"Jose and his sister speak of him with such reverence," said hospital spokesman Margo Schafer. "They call him 'our angel Peter.'"
Since then, doctors have had no contact with the tourist.
In 2010, after much "prodding" by his sister, Mestre arrived in Chicago for surgery.
"It got to the point that the tumor was so life-threatening that Edith had really pushed him to have surgery," said Schafer. "She told him, 'You are going to die anyway, so die trying.' He was really strong in what he was going through."