March 5, 20123— -- Cassidy Hooper has high hopes for a career in radio broadcasting, despite her physical challenges. The 16-year-old from Charlotte, N.C., was born with no eyes or nose.
She attends The Governor Morehead School in Raleigh, N.C., a residential K-12 school for the blind, but no challenge is too big for her: She runs on the track team and recently qualified for a scholarship to the Charlotte Curling Club.
And soon, by the end of the school year, she will have a new nose.
Since the age of about 11, Cassidy has gone through a series of skin graft and facial reconstruction operations at Levine Children's Hospital in Charlotte. In three final surgeries done over two to three weeks, doctors will stretch skin flaps over a bone or cartilage graft from another part of her body.
Cassidy said she is excited that for the first time she will be able to smell and breathe through her nose. "I'll have a real nose like everyone else's," she said.
Nothing has ever stood in the way of Cassidy's optimism and ambition.
"Things always may be hard," Cassidy told ABCNews.com. "But here's what I think: I don't need easy, I just need possible."
No one knows why Cassidy was born without eyes and a nose, a rare birth defect that likely occurred during the first two weeks of gestation.
"Her heart and brain are normal," said her mother, Susan Hooper, 42 and a kindergarten teacher. "Nothing else is going on with her."
Cassidy's father, Aaron Hooper is a 47-year-old engineer and she has two sisters, 18 and 12.
From the moment she was born, her reconstructive surgeon, Dr. David Matthews, knew Cassidy would eventually have surgery, but had to wait until she stopped growing. He put in an expander to stretch the skin above her mouth and widened her face to create a bony opening, then an airway.
"It's been a long process," said Hooper.
As a little girl, Cassidy had prosthetics for eyes, but at $5,000 a piece the family could not afford to replace the custom-made eyes when she outgrew them.
"Insurance didn't pay one cent," said her mother. "We had already started the process to do her nose, moving her eyes closer together and having her skull reshaped. We were not going to pay for it then have to pay again."
She said once Cassidy's nose surgery was complete, they would buy new prosthetic eyes.
To be born with no eyes and nose is "exceedingly rare," said Dr. Sherard A. Tatum III, director of facial and reconstructive surgery at Upstate Golisano Children's Hospital in Syracuse, N.Y.
A member of the American Academy of Facial, Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, Tatum volunteers with its Face to Face program, providing free facial surgeries to children in the Third World.
Building the foundation for a nose is complex, said Tatum, who does not treat Cassidy.
"The nose is a little like the ear -- what you see isn't functional," he said. "A lot of people have noses they lost to trauma and cancer and breathe fine and have a sense of smell. The nose is something we expect to see in its conventional place and it's good to put glasses on, but it's not 100 percent necessary."
"The nose is a bit of a tee-pee," said Tatum. "The soft tissues that make up the inside and the outside skin and mucus membrane don't have a lot of strength to stick out of the face like the nose does. You can't just slap some skin up there and make it look like a nose."