Real Life

Meet Matt, the gentle giant

This big-hearted Kiwi is a man on a mission

Matt Cuthill was a normal Southland lad until he turned 13, when he began growing at an alarming rate. Averaging 2.5cm a month, he was a towering 1.93 metres (6ft 4in) by the time he was only 14.

“I went from ordinary teenager to pocket giant, with colossal hands and feet,” recalls Matt, 51. “My dad Bob was a glider pilot – I did my first solo flight at 16 – but I had to give it up. I became too big for the cockpit.”

And it didn’t stop there. Matt was sleeping up to 16 hours a night and would wake with an extreme thirst, drinking up to 15 litres of water a day. No longer able to fit clothes off the rack, his mum was custom-making his outfits and ordering shoes to fit his size-13 feet.

When Matt was 17, a routine X-ray showed that, unlike most his age, his bones hadn’t fused – and so he continued to grow. By then, he was at his current height of 2.03m (6ft 8in) and without any medical treatment, he was likely to get bigger by the day.

Matt was referred to a specialist and a scan of his head showed he had an enlarged pituitary gland. “For most people, the pituitary is the size of a peanut, but mine was huge, like an old 20-cent piece.”

Matt was diagnosed with acromegaly, a rare and mysterious form of giantism. The disorder develops when the pituitary gland produces too much growth hormone. Famous cases include the late professional wrestler and actor Andre the Giant, who grew to 2.24m (7ft 4in) and the late Robert Ladlow, also known as the Giant of Illinois, who was considered to be the tallest man in history at 2.72m tall (8ft 11in).

Life-saving surgery

Matt estimates he might have reached up to nine-feet tall if his growth hadn’t been stopped in its tracks with a diagnosis and treatment. He had keyhole surgery to remove part of his pituitary gland, followed by a course of radiation and medication.

He says although acromegaly is rare, it’s relatively easy to treat. “Acromegaly doesn’t kill you, but the longer it’s left, the worse the effects are. I was heading to being eight feet tall and the body’s cardiovascular and muscular-skeletal system just isn’t prepared for that height. Early diagnosis saved me from an early death.”

For the last 26 years, Matt has been married to Wendy, 50, who at a diminutive 1.57m (5ft 2in), barely reaches his chest. “I call him my gentle giant,” she laughs. The Christchurch couple, who have a daughter, Victoria, 23, reveal life has actually been made easier by Matt’s unusual size. Wendy jokes, “He’s good in a crowd – I can always spot him.” Matt adds, “Work around the house is easier without the need for a ladder when I’m painting or changing a lightbulb!”

Growing up, Matt says half his hometown of Invercargill was tall, but he was soon head and shoulders above the rest. “Put it this way, there were not many picking a fight with me at the local pub.”

Because of his height, people expected him to be a bully when he was younger. “I made a point of not being like that,” he tells, “and I think it shaped who I am today.”

Although some scientists believe there’s a genetic element to giantism, it never crossed Matt’s mind that his daughter Victoria might inherit the disorder. “She’s a normal height and smart, like her mother,” he says proudly. “I’ll tell you one thing, though, my height is good for keeping all her boyfriends on their toes.”

Matt says there could be up to 4000 people living with acromegaly in New Zealand – and about half of them probably don’t know they have it. Despite its clear symptoms, the disorder it is so rare that many doctors don’t test for it. Onset can begin during the teens – like Matt’s did – or as an adult, which is more common. In young people, it is characterised by huge growth in height, hands and feet, as well as extreme thirst, lethargy and headaches. In adults, the hands, feet, jaw and tongue mysteriously grow.

Marrying Wendy in 1987.

“If you are an adult who is suddenly needing to move up a shoe size or adjust your rings, see a doctor,” says Matt.

In order to raise awareness and support others, Matt joined the NZ Acromegaly Society and he is now its South Island representative. Having spent nearly 30 years thinking he was alone, he realises the condition isn’t as rare as he once believed.

With the right treatment and support, life as a real-life giant can be pretty good, Matt insists. “I get noticed in a crowd. And at concerts I get a good view, although I’m sure the view from me is fairly limited. Hey, being a giant is not all bad.”

Matt towers over wife Wendy and their daughter Victoria, who’s “a normal height and smart like her mother”, he tells.

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