Rare illness scars the man, but not his spirit

‘CALHOUN -- Nothing worked. One day, the car wouldn’t start. Then its transmission broke. The next day, their reliable old Ford truck began misfiring.

For Donnie and Sharon Fritts, a couple living on the thinnest of margins, the broken vehicles posed a serious setback. Without them, how could Sharon take Donnie to the doctors?

On an October evening a year ago, Donnie Fritts walked into the basement of their little ranch home 75 miles north of Atlanta. He eyed his wood-working tools and sighed. He would sell them to pay for the vehicles’ repair.

He worked late, cleaning the machinery on which he’d created birdhouses and other objects that delighted his wife and neighbors. The saws and drills, the joiners and sanders: They’d done more than make pretty things.

They’d helped Fritts forget, for a few moments, that he was a victim of a cancer so rare that it had robbed him of his face.

Fritts went to bed and awoke before daylight. He eyed an old fishing rod, tossed it in the back of the misfiring truck and drove to a nearby lake.

He shared the lake, Fritts saw, with another man on the opposite bank. He had a truck, too; its hood was up. The man yelled: “I need help!”

Fritts paused. He needed help? What about a guy with no money and no face? He was tempted to ignore the man.

At one time, the old Donnie Fritts may have done that. But Fritts had learned through his own struggles that he should always show compassion to a stranger, just as strangers had shared that gift with him. A man with no face can see these things.

Pain, sleeplessness

A rare form of cancer robbed Fritts of his nose, upper palate and upper lip, part of his forehead and 16 lymph nodes. He has a hole in the middle of his face the circumference of a baseball. When she wants to kiss her husband, Sharon Fritts gives him a peck on the lower lip: That’s all he has left.

In the past eight years, he has undergone more than 40 procedures to remove the cancer and rebuild his face with a prosthetic nose and other attachments. The first attempt to create an artificial face failed when infection moved into bone and between his eyes. Now, Fritts, 53, is waiting for the infection to subside so physicians can try again. It may take a year.

“That way,” he said, “at least I can walk into a restaurant without people staring.”

The Frittses estimate that his operations have cost more than $1.4 million. Medicaid paid for his care for two years until physicians declared him permanently disabled, also allowing Medicare to underwrite his treatment. Their church has established a fund to help them meet other living costs.

He’s a former mill worker. She worked at Walmart and the Dollar Store until she quit to be her husband’s full-time caregiver.

They never dreamed that a tiny lump, first noticed nine years ago, would mean such a big change in their lives.

It felt like a BB, tiny and hard in the roof of his mouth. Fritts ignored the lump; in 2002, he had more pressing concerns. He’d survived two rounds of layoffs at his employer, a maker of chenille bedspreads, and was working harder than ever.

The lump didn’t go away. His face began hurting, too. His teeth got so loose in his gums that Sharon began feeding him mashed potatoes, soft and easy to eat.

His nose swelled until it was twice its original size. Veins under his eyes broke, giving him black eyes.

“I looked like a raccoon,” Fritts said.

Some days, he swayed on his feet with fatigue. Nights, he fell into bed, only to toss until the sun rose.

‘Pursue this’

Fritts waited for the symptoms to go away, but they didn’t. In June of 2002, low on money after repeated visits to medical professionals, Fritts visited a Gordon County health clinic. Waiting for a nurse, Fritts prayed for someone who might give a name to his pain.

The door opened. In walked nurse practitioner Caroline Wills. The overhead light revealed a cross on her neck.

Wills cast a quick look at the man in the examining room. She noted the broken blood vessels, the dark eyes, how he slouched with fatigue.

“I knew he was in pain, and I thought I knew why,” Wills recalled. A longtime practitioner, she recognized the signs of cancer. Wills referred Fritts to an X-ray specialist, and, as he prepared to go, she stopped him. “Please pursue this,” Wills said.

He did, visiting several dentists and physicians, but no one agreed on what was wrong. One dentist said he had a sinus infection. A doctor suggested the pain stemmed from teeth grinding while Fritts slept.

Fritts knew better, or thought he did. “Am I going crazy?” he asked his wife after one visit to a physician who told him he was exaggerating his pain. “Am I imagining this?”

In late November, some of Fritts’ teeth had become so loose that he had to have five removed. His dentist took out five, apologizing with every extraction.

The dentist also sent tissue samples from Fritts’ gums to Emory University Hospital for analysis.

On Dec. 23, 2002, the Frittses’ phone rang. Sharon answered. It was the dentist. “Sit down,” he said.

The little lump, said the dentist, was a tumor. He spelled out two words neither had heard before: amelioblastic carcinoma.

“What’s that?” Donnie asked.

“It’s cancer,” the dentist answered.

Face removed

Amelioblastic carcinoma has been documented only a few dozen times, according to the National Organization of Rare Diseases. The nonprofit group, based in Connecticut, tracks rare diseases and offers support to patients suffering from little-known afflictions. Its causes are unknown.

“It can spread quickly,” said Stefanie Putkowski, a NORD spokeswoman. “It can be very aggressive.”

It’s nearly always fatal, too.

In January, the Frittses, accompanied by a pastor at their former church, drove to Emory University Hospital in Atlanta. A physician greeted them in a waiting room. “Mr. Fritts,” she said, “ you are going to have a rhinoectomy.”

“What’s that?” Donnie asked.

The doctor twitched nervously. “We’re going to remove your nose.”

They rode back to Calhoun in the rain. No one said anything, the car’s wipers thumping like a scared heart.

The operation, on Aug. 20, 2003, took five hours. Three doctors made an incision atop his skull, from one ear to the other. They pulled Fritts’ face off his skull as if it were a mask, laying it on his chest. They removed his nose and cut a segment of bone from the rear of his skull. They used two slivers from it to form a bridge between his eyes to keep them in place.

When he looked at himself for the first time in the mirror, Fritts, who couldn’t speak after the surgery, wrote a note to his wife.

“You need to leave,” the note read. “Get a life. I’m a dead, dying thing.”

New face, start

When they heard of Fritts’ case, Drs. Michael Singer, David Ross and Craig Dufresne were intrigued. They’d repaired faces before, but never had a patient who’d needed such extensive work. After meeting with Fritts, the physicians, based in Chevy Chase and Bethesda, Md., agreed to make him their patient.

Dufresne, a plastic surgeon in Chevy Chase, stretched the skin on either side of Fritts’ mouth, stitching them together so they formed a new lip. He injected it with a little fat from Fritts’ stomach to give it shape.

Ross, an oral surgeon, fashioned a gold-and-titanium implant that would hold his nose and palate in place. He drilled it into his skull. Singer created a palate and enlisted the help of former CIA disguise specialist Robert Barron to fashion a prosthetic nose.

In a 2010 interview, Singer recalled how he and Fritts embraced and wept after Fritts tried on his new nose.

“There aren’t many patients like him,” Singer said.

The story of the man with a new face spread. In 2010, the Frittses were guests on the “Today” show. Visiting the Calhoun Walmart, Fritts was stopped by a woman who asked him to pray for a sick relative. Another man shoved $9 in Fritts’ shirt pocket.

“I ain’t got much,” the man said, “but I swore I would help you out if I saw you.”

“People,” said Fritts, “can be so kind.”

Then his lip broke.

‘Always praying’

On Aug. 24, 2010, Fritts stepped outside and yelled for their dog, a Sheltie-Collie mix named Tater.

Something broke. Fritts reached for the place where his upper lip should be and felt the plastic palate inside his mouth. The lip that his Maryland physician had so carefully crafted had snapped like an old rubber band.

Tests revealed growing infection between his eyes, which apparently had cut off the flow of blood to his upper lip and caused it to die. The false nose and other features would have to go until the infection went away. Fritts was faceless again.

Until physicians say he is infection free, Fritts and his wife can do little but wait. And pray. It’s been more than a year now.

“They’ve shown such courage,” said their pastor, the Rev. Norris Sexton of the Barrett Road Church of God, where Sharon plays the piano for Sunday services.

“We’re always praying for them,” said church member Peggy Sarrett. “You know, people’s prayers can go a long way.”

They can save a life. That’s what happened in October 2010, when two men regarded each other from opposite sides of a lake.

Fritts saw the empty beer cans and whiskey bottles scattered about the truck at the lake’s edge, looked at the man standing beside it.

Probably an ol’ drunk, he said to himself.

What if he is? A voice — God’s, Fritts is certain — replied inside his head. Go.

Fritts drove to the other side of the lake. He got the man’s truck started, then looked at the stranger more closely. He noted the man’s blank eyes, the way he slumped.

“Are you all right?” Fritts asked.

In heaves and sobs, the man shared his story. His wife had recently died, leaving him with a 10-year-old daughter. He had no idea how to run a household. He knew nothing about little girls. He came to the lake, he told Fritts, to kill himself. Fritts placed a hand on his shoulder.

They prayed at the lake’s edge, Fritts asking God to give the stranger strength. “When I finished,” said Fritts, “the light in his eyes was back.”

Fritts, too, felt a weight fall away. The vehicles would get fixed. They’d manage.

He’d get another face.

Fritts, who hadn’t wet a line, returned home. “Today,” he told his wife, “I was a fisher of men.”

And so Donnie Fritts faces each day.