For most of his 16 years Andrew Fisher has been hiding in the shadows on a South Pacific island paradise in Fiji. Mysteriously and grossly disfigured soon after birth—possibly from a fall—he was abandoned by his parents, spent his first seven years in a hospital and eventually was accepted into the home of distant relatives. His hips had been fractured, causing him to limp; his nose was smashed in, and his lower face was so badly mangled all growth was arrested in the jaw, fusing it shut. Chinless, Fisher could open his teeth only one-sixteenth of an inch, feeding himself by cramming finely chopped or pureed food into the space left by his rotted front teeth.
At 14, he looked 8 and weighed only 80 pounds. Rather than suffer further from his schoolmates’ taunts and the stares of strangers, he dropped out of school and turned for solace to the sea, where he manned a 30-foot fishing boat named Lilly. An expert fisherman, he would dive alone for hours, spear gun in hand, braving scrapes with six-foot sharks off the coral reefs of Fiji’s picturesque Viani Bay. Away from the palm-shaded, beachside home that he shared with his seven-member family, Fisher called himself “Captain of the Lilly,” words he could mumble only with difficulty.
In 1983, across the Pacific, David Le Clair, a Long Beach, Calif. salesman spending his free time aboard a sailboat anchored in the city’s marina, struck up a friendship with Vincent Fisher, a Fijian deckhand who had just sailed in from Tahiti. Invited to Fiji, Le Clair visited Vincent in mid-1984 and again in December, when for the first time he met Vincent’s “adopted” little brother, Andrew, who mostly lurked in the dark corners of the family’s quarters when strangers were present. Andrew’s mother, Le Clair learned, had left the area, and although his father remained in touch, the boy preferred to stay with the Fisher family, who own chickens and pigs and earn a living by selling copra and fish.
“I knew he was bright,” says Le Clair, 42. “I could tell from his eyes, his behavior and the way he picked up on things. But it was the way he ate that got to me—all he could manage was a little mashed food, which he sucked through this little slit. His teeth had rotted or collapsed inside. It just didn’t seem right that someone should have to struggle to do the simple things of life when I suspected the conditions were all correctable.”
Back in the U.S., Le Clair spent the next year bringing about his “miracle.” First, he called Dr. Richard Henderson, an old friend, and described Fisher’s condition. Henderson next called a cousin by marriage, Dr. Robert Hardesty, chief resident in plastic surgery at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, Pa., who in turn got his hospital to proceed with the case. Through letters and seemingly endless phone calls, Le Clair succeeded in getting pictures and X rays taken of Andrew and flown to the U.S. “Once, when the X rays were lost in the mail, I just about gave up,” he recalls.
Last December, Andrew—sporting his first pair of shoes—arrived with Vincent in Los Angeles, their first stop before proceeding to Pittsburgh. The shy, wide-eyed boy was fascinated, says Le Clair, by “the thousands of lights on the freeway, car-carrying trucks and electric windows on cars.” In Pittsburgh, Andrew was examined for several days, and on Dec. 18, at 7 a.m., the operation began. “It was a team effort from the start,” says Dr. Hardesty, 33, of the 10-hour surgery. “An anesthesiologist, an oral surgeon, two plastic surgeons, a radiologist, a pathologist and several nurses all agreed to work for free.” Grafting bone from his ribs, they constructed a jaw with new joints wired in place, buttressed his nose with a cartilage graft and shaped a chin.
During three weeks of convalescence at the hospital and the Ronald McDonald House, and later in L.A., where he underwent more dental surgery, Andrew remained stoic. Vincent had returned to Fiji, and at first Andrew would not speak, only nodding or shaking his head in response to questions. “He would often stroke his face, running his hand over his mouth and chin,” says Bill Bradley, a Pittsburgh social worker. “Andrew did not touch his face before, acting as if that part of his body didn’t exist. For many years he must have practiced this denial. Thank God he doesn’t have to anymore.”
Last month, just before returning home, Andrew Fisher sat in an L.A. hamburger restaurant with Dr. Hardesty and Le Clair, who still must raise funds to pay $22,000 in unpaid hospital and other fees and provide for future operations on the boy’s hips, teeth and a dangerous growth in his ear. “I was delighted with his progress, but the absolute biggest thrill,” Dr. Hardesty says, “was to see him open his mouth to eat a Bob’s Big Boy.” Just before digging in, the once “faceless” Fijian looked around with a grin, then said in slurred but measured words, “No one notices me.”