A New Face Emerges for Formerly Disfigured Man

Surgery removed 11 pounds of tumors from James O'Neal's face.

Oct. 26, 2009 — -- No one could blame James O'Neal for looking in the mirror a few times a day and admiring the contours of his face -- chiseled jaw, straight nose, smooth planed cheek. They are, after all, brand new.

Disfigured by an 11-pound mass of tumors so large they dominated the left side of his face, O'Neal, 47, from Woodinville, Wash., had surgery in August to remove the tumors and to reconstruct his face.

"I didn't recognize myself when I first saw it," O'Neal told ABC News affiliate KOMO News in Seattle. "I like the nose -- I like that best. I can actually breathe out of both nostrils, that's nice. I like that."

O'Neal's tumors were the result of a genetic disorder called neurofibromatosis that causes benign tumors to grow on nerve cells. The weight of the mass slowly distorted O'Neal's face and twisted his nose so much that breathing was difficult.

Still, O'Neal never shied away from people around him, working as a checker at a local Safeway. His customers became his admirers, then his friends, then his advocates.

With help from his community and with support pouring in from around the world, O'Neal was able to have surgery to remove the tumor tissue from his face.

"[For me], it's incredibly rewarding," said Katie Knopf, a long-time customer of O'Neal's who lead fundraising efforts for him through a blog. "I'm the most proud that I was able to follow through and that everyone else made it really simple to follow through. I really wanted to see his life get changed for the better."

Community Support for Surgery Reveals New Face

Dr. Peter Neligan, director of the Center for Reconstructive Surgery at the University of Washington Medical Center, donated his surgical skill to remove O'Neal's tumors.

O'Neal's first operation, in November 2008, removed 8 pounds of tumor tissue, but was cut short because he was losing too much blood. The second operation this year went more smoothly.

"We knew going in it would be less complicated," Neligan said. "The results have been very gratifying."

After removing the last traces of tumor tissue, Neligan used leg tendons as a sort of sling to support O'Neal's nose, which the tumor had twisted out of shape, and keep the corner of his mouth in position. O'Neal's ear, which was misshapen and hung low off his tumor mass, was restructured and repositioned.

Feeling Normal for the First Time

While O'Neal is still missing one eye, he has turned away from more surgery.

"He's not particularly interested in any further reconstruction, he's perfectly happy," Neligan said. "He looks in the mirror several times a day!"

But O'Neal may be the only one who notices how face-like his face is now.

"When I was talking to him recently, I noticed that before, I was so distracted by the big mass on the side of his face," Knopf said. "Now I noticed that I don't notice anything anymore. It's all like normal now."

Looking to Future, Family

Although all the tumor tissue was removed, the neurofibromatosis persists in all of O'Neal's facial tissues and there is a strong possibility that tumors will continue to grow over time. However, Neligan said he doesn't anticipate major surgery to remove such tumors in the near future.

O'Neal will continue to follow up with Neligan yearly to monitor the progression of his disease and catch tumors before they get too large.

"We'll touch it up, maybe, if he starts to get some growth, to nip it in the bud," Neligan said.

And Knopf said O'Neal looks forward to moving ahead with his life, including getting married and having a family.

"He would be a fantastic dad," Knopf said.