Body

Southland grandmother Christine Brown's revolutionary and life-changing facial surgery

''I've been judged all my life on how I look, but a face is just an outer shell – people need to look inside and see the real person.''

Southland grandmother Christine Brown has spent a lifetime refusing to look in the mirror, but revolutionary facial surgery has given her the strength to finally accept how she looks.

"People tell me I look good, but I'm still gaining confidence," admits Christine, who lives in Invercargill. "I've been judged all my life on how I look, but a face is just an outer shell – people need to look inside and see the real person."

Christine, 55, was born with a genetic disorder known as neurofibromatosis type 1 (NF1), which causes tumours to grow on the nerves of the skin or inside the body. Her mother and grandmother had the disorder, and one of her children, Cohen, 25, has also inherited it.

A bonny wee baby, Christine's condition didn't show until she was 7.
A bonny wee baby, Christine's condition didn't show until she was 7.

Although it affects everyone differently, for this mum-of-three, it means her tiny frame is covered in thousands of different-sized benign growths, sitting on or just under the skin.

"My grandchildren know them as Nana's lumps and bumps," tells Christine. They're everywhere – even on the palms of my hands and the soles of my feet.

"They're part of me, I quite like them," she adds, kneading a lump at the top of her chest as her granddaughter Zara-Leigh, four, naps on her lap.

More disfiguring, though, has been the effect on Christine's face. Born without a cheekbone, jaw or adult teeth on the right-hand side, she's spent most of her life with a drooping face after a massive tumour was removed from one cheek.

Christine, aged 12, with brothers Tony, L, and Alan. Tony died of NF complications at 23.
Christine, aged 12, with brothers Tony, L, and Alan. Tony died of NF complications at 23.

Her husband of 32 years, Lee, says, "You know that Edvard Munch painting The Scream? That's what Christine looked like when we met. I never cared – we were young and she wore tight jeans and had a nice butt. She's always been beautiful to me."

Although Christine's baby photos show her as a bonny wee girl, the first lump popped up in her cheek at about age seven. By 13, they began to appear all over her body.

"At school, I was called Gobstopper because that first lump was like a big lolly in my mouth," she recalls. "To this day, I hate Gobstoppers and won't let my grandchildren have them."

Christine's husband Lee was smitten from the start. "She's always been beautiful to me," he says.
Christine's husband Lee was smitten from the start. "She's always been beautiful to me," he says.

As a child growing up in Gore, she was tormented by bullies – kicked, spat on and punched. By 13, she was suicidal.

"I went to see my nana and said, 'Why have we been born like this? She stood me in front of the mirror and said, 'What do you see?' I said, 'I'm ugly.' She said, 'Look deeper, you're beautiful.'"

As an adult, the corrective facial surgeries continued, yet Christine still hid her head in shame. She grew accustomed to walking around in public with a hand on her face or her head hidden in a shoulder.

"People don't like being confronted by someone who looks different," she says. "I was conscious about not confronting people."

Lee, 55, adds, "But if I was with you, I'd get angry. Even today, if I see people staring, I wave and say, 'Do you want to take a photo or will I take it for you?'"

Christine before the surgery.
Christine before the surgery.

Christine had endured 17 surgeries to rebuild her face with marginal success. But in February, Christine had full facial reconstruction at Dunedin Hospital for the first time using bone to rebuild the sunken side of her face.

"In the past, I'd had surgery to fit in for my husband or children, but this time it was for me," she tells.

Surgeons took bone from Christine's fibula in her leg and from her scalp to pain-stakingly create a cheekbone and eye socket. The marathon operations were carried out in three stages, the longest taking 16 hours.

Thousands of tiny benign lumps cover Christine's body.
Thousands of tiny benign lumps cover Christine's body.

Although Christine is still finding the courage to look closely in the mirror, she knows the results have been good. "I'll have a good look when I'm ready," she says with a shy smile.

"What the surgeons have done is remarkable," adds Lee. "Christine's glasses used to fall off one side, but now her face is symmetrical."

Although her recovery has been long and painful, Lee says she never complains. "She's positive, despite everything life throws at her."

NF1 carries an increased risk of cancer and in 1995, Christine was diagnosed with a rare sarcoma in her ribs and given 15 months to live. "I told the doctor I had young children and didn't have time to die," she laughs. "I stayed positive and I put death off."

Christine with daughter Farrin and grandkids Zara-Leigh, L, and Aulria.
Christine with daughter Farrin and grandkids Zara-Leigh, L, and Aulria.

And 28 years on, Christina is continuing to fight – this time for people like her who have been marginalised. She's passionate about speaking in local schools regarding bullying, acceptance and empathy.

"I still have my lumps and bumps, but they're part of me and who I am," she declares. "And I've got them to thank for making me so strong."

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