Disfigured and left to die in the snow as a baby, young Chinese man finally gets new lease of life

After spending years hiding away from the world, a man from central China is slowly rebuilding his confidence after undergoing extensive surgery

PUBLISHED : Friday, 21 September, 2018, 11:41am
UPDATED : Friday, 21 September, 2018, 10:50pm

A young man who was abandoned in the snow as a baby after suffering serious facial injuries has finally been able to face the world following extensive surgery.

Taking the first baby steps out of his self-imposed isolation, Zhao Xuecheng, 24, sent his first-ever selfie last week, one of the first tastes of a new life.

I looked really scary. I stayed only one year in school before I dropped out because I was bullied.
Zhao Xuecheng

Doctors have been able to remove almost all of the scars, which were repaired by using healthy skin from a small spot on his forehead – the only part of his face untouched by the scarring.

He now has a nose where two holes in his face used to be. His eyelids can close again, and he is able to chew, speak more clearly and is finally able to smile.

“I like my new face, and my mother is very content,” Zhao said from his home village in Xiangyang, Hubei province. “I am helping with my parents with harvest now and I am ready to go out to find a job next month, probably some manual work like packaging food.”

Nobody knows what caused his serious injuries, only that Zhao’s adoptive mother, Li Xianyu, a farmer in Qifang township, found the boy abandoned one snowy day in January 1995.

He was about four months old, and his facial features were unrecognisable because of the burns.

Li, who already had two children, could not bear to leave the baby in the snow and took him home. They called him Xuecheng, which means “growing up in the snow”.

They were too poor to afford medical treatment for his serious scars, and though Zhao slowly recovered, he remained disfigured.

“I looked really scary,” Zhao said. “I stayed only one year in school before I dropped out because I was bullied because of my face. My mother taught me herself even though she received only a primary school education.”

He said that he was able to read, but his limited education meant he had difficulty writing.

Zhao did not have a face transplant but facial reconstruction surgery. In a way, it reconstructed his life too.
Xie Weiguo

Zhao stayed on in his village as an outcast of sorts, speaking to no one but his parents.

Zhao said his mother, now 67, had her heart set on finding treatment for him since she was getting old and worried about what would happen to him after she and her husband were gone.

They saved 50,000 yuan (US$7,300) from recycling waste and began giving media interviews to ask people for donations before they contacted Wuhan No 3 Hospital in March last year.

One Italian woman who read about the case contacted the hospital to ask if she could help and donated US$29,000 to a fund set up to help pay Zhao’s medical bills.

“Some parts of his face had collapsed,” said Xie Weiguo, head of the hospital’s burns department. “He had only a tiny spot of good skin on his forehead. The mother was very resolute about having him treated even though he did not receive proper treatment when he was young.

“It was not an easy task, but we eventually drew up a plan to give him a new face.”

The first step was to give Zhao a proper nose with silica gel, Xie said.

The doctor then implanted a soft tissue extender in Zhao’s face so that the undamaged skin on his forehead could be extended with a saline infusion injection every week. The nurtured skin was then used to replace the scarred tissue.

Zhao went through seven operations over 17 months, which enlarged his mouth, eventually allowing him to chew properly and enunciate words. His eyes, which had been subject to frequent infection because the eyelids could not shut, were fixed as well.

The final facelift, using his own skin for a transplant, was performed on August 30, and the bandages were removed on September 11 this year.

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Most of the scars have now gone except for some small incisions.

And along with the new face came with a changed personality.

Xie said that Zhao rarely spoke to other people before his operations, but he felt that Zhao had gained new confidence and openness after each surgery.

While in hospital he became more socially confident and started taking the initiative by talking to other patients.

On the day the bandages were removed, he took his first selfie and sent a video to staff members on Xie’s team, and also said some encouraging words to a young girl who was also having surgery for her own facial burns.

“Zhao did not have a face transplant but facial reconstruction surgery. In a way, it reconstructed his life too,” Xie said.