A Rare Disorder: Stretchy Skin

ByABC News
January 23, 2007, 11:20 AM

Jan. 23, 2007 — -- Norwich, England, is home to rolling rivers, quaint streets and old churches, so it might be surprising to learn that it's also home to the Circus of Horrors.

From the bearded lady to the elephant man, mysterious medical conditions have a long history of attracting audiences to a circus tent. And those days have not disappeared. The crowd lining up in a theater lobby for tonight's performance proves the "freak show" is not a thing of the past.

The Circus of Horrors is a touring extravaganza, packing the house wherever it goes. It features everything people don't want to see but can't stop looking at. The show includes all sorts of characters with all sorts of body piercings and tattoos. But the star of this show is 37-year-old Garry "Stretch" Turner, and his wild skin-stretching act.

Turner suffers from an extreme case of Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, a rare genetic disorder that can severely weaken a person's joints, blood vessels and in Turner's case, skin. The disorder, which most commonly attacks a person's joints, affects about one in 10,000 people. However, the odds of Turner's special variety of the disease are astronomical.

The skin on Turner's body is truly elastic. "If [you] look at your own skin cells under a microscope, they'd be nice and round and lock in many places. But my skin cells tend to be more jagged, and don't fit together quite so well," he said. "The best way to describe it is I'm built rather like a badly woven basket, if you can imagine that, which will pull apart."

Normal human body cells are held together by a kind of chemical glue called collagen, which keeps them tightly bound. But the collagen of someone with EDS is misshapen and loose, which, in the most extreme and rare circumstances, produces skin like Turner's.

Backstage at the Circus of Horrors, Turner demonstrates how the skin on parts of his body can be pulled away. "There's areas of skin, like on the belly, for instance, that will stretch a lot further," he said.

"It's actually twice as thin as regular skin," he continued. "Although you wouldn't believe it to look at it it is actually quite paper thin."