Victor Chukwueke, 29, was born in south-eastern Nigeria. His jaw was slowly crushed by the swelling tumours of neurofibromatosis, which makes his speech sometimes laborious.
What was your childhood like?
I grew up in a very small village, Ezere. Around 300, 400 [people] but no running water, no electricity. I don’t remember not having the tumour. As I was growing, it was getting bigger. I didn’t have access to medical treatment. So the tumour was left unchecked.
Growing up, I didn’t want to look different. I just wanted to look like other kids. Sometimes I didn’t want to go outside. People staring at you. Some kids make fun, I feel a little bit ostracised. Some people don’t understand this disease. They think it was a curse.
My parents heard about the nuns. I was brought here [to Michigan] by Catholic missionary nuns. They brought me here in 2001 from Nigeria… I stayed with them and had nine surgeries.
You went to community college for two years, then Wayne State University, where in 2012 you were selected to give the commencement address. What are you doing now?
I’m in medical school at the University of Toledo, just finishing up my second year. It’s challenging. It’s going well, you just have to put in the effort. I have some friends, we play soccer, ping pong.
What’s it like being stared at?
It reminds you. It reminds you that I have an issue. That I have a problem. A group stops what they’re doing and starts staring at you. They are shocked. I’m getting used to it.
When you see yourself in the mirror, what do you think?
I’ve lived all my life kind of like this, so I’ve kind of accepted who I am. My biggest worry is how I think people will see me, that’s what I’m worried most of all. Especially now that I’m trying to become a doctor. I’d like to see patients, so I’m more worried about how comfortable they're going to be.
Is that why you wear a facial prosthetic?
I’m trying to make others feel comfortable, especially my patients.
How do you feel about interacting with patients for the first time?
I’m confident in my ability. Just a little bit apprehensive. I’m sure that people will understand.
Victor has set up a humanitarian foundation and hopes to become a medical missionary.