Sarah Atwell, bullied teen with half a face has life-changing surgery
- Sarah Atwell, 17, from Nova Scotia, Canada has neurofibromatosis, a rare disease that causes a tumor to grow on half her face
- The results of the surgery will air on Discovery Fit & Health tonight
By Tamara Abraham
PUBLISHED: 17:21 EST, 18 December 2013 | UPDATED: 18:38 EST, 18 December 2013
The teenage star of The Girl With Half a Face has undergone surgery to transform her appearance.
Sarah Atwell, 17, from Nova Scotia, Canada, was diagnosed with neurofibromatosis at eight months old, a genetic condition that has caused a large tumor to consume the right side of her face.
Now, in a one-hour documentary that will air tonight on Discovery Fit & Health, Sarah is seen undergoing a four-hour procedure that will change her life.
Recovering: Sarah Atwell, 17, in hospital after surgery to remove an aggressive tumor on the right side of her face. Already we can see how her smile is straighter
While the results from the surgery remain to be seen this evening, Sarah has revealed that she is delighted by the results.
Describing the moment that she looked in the mirror for the first time, she told Fox News: 'I was pretty happy, because I had straight lips.
'I kept looking in the mirror and taking pictures of myself. My mom and neighbors were shocked. We sent my dad pictures, and he was really happy. He said as long as I'm happy, he's happy.'
But the surgery was not without serious risk of blood loss - a fact that Sarah was all too aware of. The documentary shows her anxiously waiting at the Queen Elizabeth II Health Sciences Centre with her mother beforehand as her surgeon, Dr Steven Morris, maps the skin he will remove from her face.
Bullied: Sarah, from Nova Scotia, Canada, was diagnosed with neurofibromatosis at eight months old, a genetic condition that has caused a large tumor to consume the right side of her face
Afflicted: Sarah, pictured as a toddler (left) and at age eight (right) says her tumor grew with her as she grew
of our surgical approach is to maintain normal tissue so the skin is
fairly normal,' he said.
'The nerves are very abnormal, so [typically] there might be a fine wisp of a nerve fiber, but when it grows in neurofibromatosis, it might be as big as a pencil. So we're trying to maintain normal nerve function and trying to preserve normal structure.'
The plastic surgeon admitted that Sarah's tumor was an extreme case.
'When she first came to see me, the lesion
really occupied the whole of her right face; it was growing all around
her eye,' he said.
School 'sucks': Discovery Fit & Health also records some of the bullying that Sarah experiences at school, such as classmates repeatedly ripping down her class photo and the abusive names she gets called on a daily basis
Support: Sarah pictured outside her home with her mother Tara
'She'd had a couple of previous de-bulking procedures, but [the tumor] went from her nose to the ear on the right, and the skin hung down off of her jawbone. It was an enormous overgrowth of abnormal tissue.'
While the most significant surgical procedure has now taken place, the work to Sarah's face is not yet over. Nor can surgeons promise that the tumor won't grow back.
'The next procedure will be to de-bulk the tumor around her eye,' Dr Morris said. 'Her eye had some sight in it, but it wasn't a great amount of sight. The tough challenge is what to do with eye and reshape the eye socket.'
Emotional: Sarah conquered at least part of the pain associated with her disfigurement with a 2012 YouTube video in which she hit out at her bullies
Sarah, who has been badly bullied her whole life, initially shot to fame in 2012 after posting a video to Facebook in which she made her intentions to live a happy life clear no matter what the bullies called her.
In a series of cards held up to the camera, she says: 'I have a tumor, that’s all. . . I wish people could understand there is nothing wrong with me.
Another reads: 'I get called names all the time. . . Bitch, slut, fat face, fat, ugly - it hurts.
‘Maybe one day the bullying will stop, but until then I’m going to be STRONG,’ one of the last cards says.
The impact of that post was bigger than she could have ever imagined.
Fighting back: Sarah posted a video on Facebook in which she
reveals how the cruel and hurtful taunts she hears at school have affected her
Revealing her pain: At 16, she'd had enough. 'I was tired of being bullied and I put in on Facebook' she said
Trying to stay strong: Sarah's touching candor won her millions of internet fans almost overnight
‘The next day I got up and my inbox was over 1,000 messages or more from people,’ Sarah told ABC News. ‘It felt pretty good.’
WHAT IS NEUROFIBROMATOSIS?
Neurofibromatosis is the name for a number of genetic conditions that cause swellings or lumps.
Although many people who have the condition inherit it from one of their parents, up to 50 per cent develop it randomly from a gene mutation before they are born.
Despite their alarming appearance, the growths and swellings - called neurofibromas and caused by a growth of cells - are not cancerous or contagious.
The condition has long been associated with the ‘Elephant Man,’ the name given to Joseph Carey Merrick, who was severely disfigured.
However, in 1986, a new theory emerged that Mr Merrick may actually have had Proteus syndrome, a condition which involves symptoms such as abnormal growth of the bones, skin and head.
The confusion was again compounded in 2001 when it was proposed that he had suffered from a combination of neurofibromatosis type one (NF1) and Proteus syndrome.
However, DNA tests on his hair and bones have proven inconclusive.
Among those viewers was a producer from Discovery, and so began the TV documentation of the young girl’s life.
Of her tumor, she says: 'It grew with me as I grew. In my right ear, it's kinda hard to hear sometimes, because [the tumor] pulls everything down. And my right eye, it's just blur.'
Discovery Fit & Health also records some of the bullying that Sarah experiences at school, such as classmates repeatedly ripping down her class photo and the abusive names she gets called on a daily basis.
'Almost every day at school sucks,' she admits. 'My class photo keeps going missing. Someone takes it, I don't know why. And it hurts. . .
'There's some kids that will call me names and threaten to kill me. . .'
Her teacher, Sarah Lockhart, echoed this.
'Sarah's been bullied most of her life - being called names, being made fun of,' she said. 'She keeps to herself, but we do know that it does affect her life every day.'
Sarah laid bare her feelings in a video diary, by way of a coping mechanism, and from there, her viral YouTube/Facebook post was a natural step forward.
Sarah says that she hopes to have a career where she can work with children, and particularly to help those who experience bullying.
‘If I could stand up to bullying, and if another kid who was bullied sees me and thinks they can talk to someone and think, "I can stand up for myself," then I have helped,’ she said.
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