Elephant Man

Lee McGuire's deformities may be unique on Earth. The shoes he'll need to walk will be just as special.

The toddler in the photograph beams as he rests his arm on the cantaloupe-size growth on his side. The doll-faced boy in the old print seems unaware that his body shouldn't look this way, that the growth isn't an armrest, that humans shouldn't have cauliflower feet.

Doctors in Denver chopped the growth off soon after the hospital photo was taken back in 1964. They fashioned the cauliflower into ersatz hooves. The boy was given a slight chance of surviving the operation and a slighter chance of surviving childhood. Whatever this disease was, it would surely kill him.

Thirty years later, in 1994, Lee McGuire found the hospital photo of himself. He had never seen the giant lump or his pre-surgery feet.

Lee McGuire as a toddler.
Lee McGuire as a toddler.
McGuire resting at his mother's home in Paradise Valley.
McGuire resting at his mother's home in Paradise Valley.

By 1999, McGuire's hooves had worn out. He returned to Paradise Valley from California and moved in with his mother. Loaded up on pain pills and barely able to walk, McGuire spent most of his time sacked out on the couch watching TV.

One evening, as he watched the History Channel, a documentary on the Elephant Man came on. The narrator mentioned that doctors now believe the Elephant Man, the wildly deformed subject of the classic movie, suffered from something called Proteus syndrome.

McGuire remembered a comment made by a doctor years before. McGuire thought the doctor had said pro-tirus, or pro-tirius -- pro something -- as the doctor looked at his body. McGuire limped to the computer and scanned the Internet for more information on the symptoms of Proteus. He was soon reading about himself.

What the world's best doctors have told him since then, essentially, is that he probably has the same crippling disease as golfer Casey Martin, which is extremely rare, mixed with the deadly, shape-changing disease of the Elephant Man, which is even more rare.

Basically, he discovered there is nobody on Earth like him.

"Whoopee," McGuire says sardonically as he sits on his mother's couch in Paradise Valley. "I'm the freak of freaks.

"I could have a lot of fun with this if I could just walk."

But McGuire needs shoes. More specifically, he needs biomechanically engineered shoes, unique shoes built to be a comfortable, solid foundation for a uniquely contorted body that wasn't supposed to live this long.

After a year of surgery and healing, McGuire is ready to get back on his feet.

The right shoes will cost thousands to design and make. McGuire will have trouble affording them if he can ever find somebody who can make them. His insurance probably won't pay for what he really needs.

What he really needs is help from a company such as Nike, which brags about having the most advanced biomechanics shoe-design lab in the world. Nike built Casey Martin's shoes.

McGuire wrote Nike asking if the company's researchers could help. He asked if they could at least look at photos of his feet and body and give some advice.

But while Nike tells us to "Just Do It," Nike told McGuire they just wouldn't do it.

And so it goes, and so it has often gone, in Lee McGuire's four-decade search for a pain-free life and a comfortable pair of shoes.

Whoever makes the shoes, McGuire admits, will have the challenge of their careers.

"First of all, this is just half a toe," he says, pointing a pencil head at his right foot.

"Now, the knuckle to it is over here. Follow? And these two bones over here are fused together. They're supposed to be separate, but they're fused together with this bony overgrowth stuff.

"Over here are the heads of two knuckles. Right under here are my two metatarsal heads.

"Are you freaked out yet?"

His left leg is three inches shorter than his right leg, which is supported by bones three times thicker than on the left. His leg bones meet in a misproportioned hip askew with his spine, which curls up between two large humps of something on his back. Doctors think the humps might be masses of capillaries, masses that, if punctured, probably wouldn't stop bleeding until he was dead.

Around that crooked frame, the laws of anatomy break down. Blood flows through him in odd ways, waste material is mishandled. There are unexplained lesions throughout his torso and a wall of some sort of tissue against his liver. Sometimes fluids move with too much pressure, sometimes too little. Bruises, blisters and sores all come and go within a different paradigm.

Only his head was spared the cruel metamorphosis.

So the head must deal with cruelty and pain. Instead of suicide, McGuire copes using his innate lust for life and a ferociously mordant, morbid sense of humor.

He'll tell people he's an alien; then, as they laugh, whip out his feet at them. He once made money off kids at a playground by betting them he only had three toes. "I've always dreamed of selling my skeletal remains to Michael Jackson," he says. And don't get him started joking about his huge testicles.

"It probably would have been better if I was nuts or stupid," he says.

Instead, he was normal. Growing up, his mother and brothers were supportive, his father drove him to fight through adversity. He played football in junior high in Michigan, he made the varsity wrestling team his freshman year in high school. He wore bell-bottoms that hid his legs and feet. He bought cavernous Dr. Scholl's to hold his feet.

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