Jim Jerome
December 23, 1991 12:00 PM

THE PALE BLUE, POLYESTER-COTTON surgical robe clings to nothing, hides everything and comes accessorized with a paper floral shower cap, blue slipover booties and a matching mask to cover the nose and mouth. The only thing that doesn’t go with this purely functional outfit are those inquisitive, darting, dark eyes. But the eyes are a giveaway: The woman wrapped in such unflattering—and modest—garb is Cher. It is March 1991, and she has interrupted recording sessions for her Love Harts album to be here in Operating Room 19 of Humana Hospital in Dallas. For sex appeal, the surgical scrubs can’t compare with the flamboyant star’s usual run of torn bodysuits, stretch minis and slinky see-throughs. But by any human measure, this may well be her most revealing outfit ever.

For Cher is not, at this moment, a performer but a spectator, and the incongruously drab clothing makes an eloquent statement: a pledge of hope and love spoken straight to the heart of a drastically disfigured 14-year-old girl who lies anesthetized in the OR. Marie Matejic has flown all the way from Brisbane, Australia, to go under the knife of Dr. Ian Munro, a surgeon with Humana’s Craniofacial Institute. He will perform massive reconstructive surgery on the left side of her face—deformed since birth by neurofibromatosis, a disease that attacks the nerves and results in soft-tissue tumors, skin discoloration and other anomalies.

Cher, 45, met Marie last year when the cheerful eighth grader visited backstage with a dozen other kids afflicted with cleft palates and craniofacial defects during the star’s tour of Australia. It was Cher’s research for the 1985 movie Mask—the story of a boy who has a disfiguring disease—that taught her about the pain of children with such facial deformities. “When I met Marie,” says Cher, “I didn’t think she’d stay in my mind, but she did. There was something profound about her face.”

Later during the tour, Cher tracked Marie down and then, back home, began working with the Dallas-based nonprofit Children’s Craniofacial Association (previously known as the International Craniofacial Foundation). CCA brought Marie together with Dr. Munro, 52, one of the acknowledged masters of facial reconstruction. Although Marie’s mother, Kathryn, who is divorced and supports her four children on her salary, could not afford the $53,000 fee for the initial operation, the CCA was able to hold total costs—airfare and hotel accommodations for Marie and Kathryn, and surgery fees—to around $30,000. (For kids like Marie, CCA negotiates “indigent care rates,” often getting physicians to donate services or accept insurance paybacks only.)

As honorary chairwoman of the CCA board, Cher is the group’s No. 1 celebrity at fund-raising events. “There are all kinds of worthwhile charities,” says Cher. “But I can’t spread myself too thin. I have to feel committed. If you look at one of these children, knowing that the only thing that keeps them from living a normal, happy, productive life in society is money, it seems a shame.” Though many U.S. children with craniofacial deformities begin a series of operations when they are still infants, Marie has never had corrective surgery—some of Marie’s doctors said she would get better results by waiting until she was an adolescent. And Cher has never seen it performed.

Munro, fellow surgeon Dr. Jeffrey Fearon, 38, and anesthetist Dr. Susan Smith huddle tightly around the operating table. Cher moves in and stands, transfixed, close enough so that she can gently massage Marie’s limp left hand. Munro and Fearon proceed with stunning efficiency and intensity. Their bodies barely shift on stools as the hours stretch on, their heads craning low over Marie’s, while hands and fingers move with fluid authority. After a couple of hours, Fearon steps back, and Dr. Smith pops a Hershey Kiss under his surgical mask. All the while, Munro, in response to Cher’s childlike inquisitiveness, keeps up a steady patter on his specialty.

Neurofibromatosis, he tells Cher, is a usually benign but progressive genetic condition that affects the lining of the nerves. “In Marie,” he says, “it went on relentlessly and caused enormous overgrowth of the soft tissues of the cheek and bones.” Munro has envisioned a 50—60 percent improvement in Marie’s looks after this first operation—with subsequent “finesse” work within a year improving her appearance another 20-30 percent.

Like a film director on a set, a surgeon sets the tone in the OR. Munro is casual, unflappable, assured. He insists on a sound track of classics played on three preloaded six-disc CD changers stacked in a supply cabinet. Right now, by design or coincidence, the music is Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance”—this is, after all, Marie’s graduation from one phase of her life into the next, and the mood in the OR is buoyant and hopeful.

But the task at hand is daunting: to peel back the skin on the entire left half of her face, remove the excess tissue, saw through the upper jawbone to position it evenly with the lower jaw, rebuild the left corner of her mouth, and finally break, rebuild and reposition two walls of her left eye socket to correct its position.

The incision—starting through the center of the upper lip, around the nostril and along the side of the nose, then just below the lashes of the lower eyelid—is routed, says Munro, “so that the scars will be hidden in shadow by the natural folds and depressions of the skin.” When the cutting is done, he says matter-of-factly, “It’s not often you visitors see a face skeletonized to this degree.”

“Well,” says Cher, “lucky me. I guess.”

Using a microneedle to burn away unwanted tissue, Munro begins to poke and zap the whitish, wormlike fibroids, which are 50 times thicker than normal nerves. “God,” Cher whispers to herself, “this is fascinating.” Soon, Munro uses a pen-size microsaw to cut through Marie’s jawbone at the level of the base of the nose, so the corrective rotation can begin.

Two hours into the operation, Cher takes a break to update Kathryn, who has chosen not to watch the surgery and sits in the waiting room with CCA staffers and Cher’s close friend and personal assistant, Paulette Betts. Cher delivers her upbeat report with the pacing and clarity of a TV news reporter. “And what’s Marie like?” Kathyrn asks.

“She’s doing great. It’s so intense. The energy, the concentration are unbelievable. What they’re doing is a miracle,” she says breathlessly. Surprised by her own fascination, she adds, “I think I was a surgeon in another life.”

By the time she returns to the OR, it is 11 A.M. and Marie’s jaw, cheekbone and new eye socket are stabilized with tiny glinting metal plates and screws. The bones will grow back together around the permanent plates. By 1:45 P.M. Munro and Fearon have finished the intricate stitching of internal sutures, and the surgery is over. Afterward, Cher is the first to greet Kathryn in the hallway. “It was fabulous,” she says. “I can’t wait for you to see her.”

Half an hour later, Munro leads both women into the intensive care unit. Kathryn leans over the rail of the bed and squeezes Marie’s hand. Relieved, exhausted, a little unsure, Kathyrn grins and gazes at her daughter. She is barely conscious, grossly swollen. “Hiya, Darlin’,” Kathryn whispers. “Can you hear me? You look beautiful.”

As soon as she leaves the ICU, Cher heads for her hotel and a quick change of clothes. Soon she will speed off in a limousine to a CCA fund-raiser. After two hours of “being Cher,” as she puts it, she is back in the ICU, bearing a stuffed rabbit from the hospital lobby gift shop. Marie begins to stir. Cher leans in. “Are you there, Kiddo? I bought you a big Easter bunny. You’re a trouper. I know you’re going to be really happy. You did great. You look like you’ve been in a big fight—and you won.”

Marie’s battle began 14 years ago when she was born with what her mother calls “this gigantic left eye.” Marie was the fourth and last child of Kathryn and Lou Matejic, a Brisbane construction worker. (Her brothers are 21 and 19; her sister is 17.) There were three very early operations to reduce pressure and “settle her eye down,” says her mother, but at 12 weeks doctors decided that Marie did not have infantile glaucoma, as initially suspected, but neurofibromatosis.

Kathryn recalls “an immense feeling to protect this child, love it more, maybe, than a normal baby. A doctor actually told me, ‘You’ve got three healthy children, so why don’t you just have her institutionalized?’ That was ridiculous.”

Marie’s medical condition put added pressure on a marriage that was already shaky, and when she was 6, her parents split. “I took the kids. I was better off on my own,” says Kathryn. Marie rarely sees her father, who is remarried and has another child.

Kathryn moved the family to a small rented house, sharing her bedroom with Marie, and has supported her children—currently as a secretary at a public-service union—entirely by herself ever since. A proud, fiercely protective mother who has borne her adversities with dignity-, she says simply, “We’ve always had a home, always had food. I can’t say we’ve missed out on a great deal. But we don’t mix all that terribly much with other people. We’ve always been pretty private.”

Kathryn could not, of course, control the inevitable teasing and staring at school. Yet Marie, a spunky, endearingly flippant kid with a dry sense of humor, went about her life, made friends and fitted in as best she could. “There probably were some nasty people,” Marie says, “but I remember the good times.”

Apparently immune to self-pity, she adds, “Oh, I’m aware of people who stare and little kids going, ‘Oooh, what’s wrong with her? Look at the girl with the funny face.’ But I don’t care about them. Never did. I go right through it. They can stand in front of me and call me names, stare at me. That’s their problem, not mine. I lead a normal life.”

Marie has always bemoaned her family’s attempts to protect her. “If my mum sees someone saying something, she’ll go over to them and say something. I mean, she doesn’t need to do that. They don’t bother me. If I’m with one of my brothers or my sister, they’ll stand in front of me so the kid can’t see me. That gets me really angry. I say if the kid wants to stare, let the kid stare.”

Three weeks after surgery, Marie got to fulfill a childhood dream by heading from Dallas straight to Disneyland. But by then she had won an even sweeter prize: a new friend. CCA volunteer Maegan Sheehan, a 20-year-old Dallas girl who had undergone some 30 operations from the time she was 7 months old to correct a viciously malignant facial tumor, started visiting with Marie before the operation. With Maegan as tour guide, the two girls went to the movies, romped through the Six Flags Over Texas amusement park and even cruised Dallas in Maegan’s car. When it came time to go to Disneyland, Marie invited Maegan to join her.

The visit was a roaring success from the moment Marie and Maegan stepped inside the gates and were greeted by Mickey, Pluto and Roger Rabbit. The two young friends dashed off on their own, sometimes almost losing Kathryn in the crowds. There were furtive stares and stunned double takes from passers-by—but Marie was having far too much fun to care.

After Disneyland came a visit with Cher in the star-studded beach community of Malibu. As they strolled by the Pacific, Cher and Marie discussed movies, their favorite rides in the Magic Kingdom and the possibility of future trips to the States for Marie. Marie related one of her many postoperative war stories. “When I went through the airport [security], I beeped,” she told Cher. “I took off my watch and I still beeped. I said, ‘Well, I just had surgery and I’ve got metal in my head.’ He couldn’t believe me.”

“That’s pretty neat,” said Cher, and they both laughed.

On their last night together in Los Angeles, Marie and Maegan had a slumber party in the hotel room of a CCA staffer. And before their farewell, Marie wrote her new friend a note. “It was really sweet,” Maegan recalls. “She said, ‘I really love you and I’m gonna miss you and I trust you, and I don’t trust anyone, really, outside my family. And I appreciate you because I felt you weren’t bothered by it when we walked around together and people looked at me.’ ”

Since her return to Brisbane in April, Marie has been getting back into the rhythm of her life—”doing the same old regular things,” as she puts it. But there have been adjustments to make. Says Kathryn: “When we first got home, I felt an initial letdown—depression is too harsh a term for it. The whole month was so great. I’ve said to Marie, ‘We’ve got to save our pennies for a return. Now and then you’ll see one of those TV competitions to win tickets to the West Coast, and I’ll say, ‘Now, Marie, let’s put in for that one.’ We’ll get back there somehow.”

Kathryn recently moved the family to a larger house where Marie finally has her own bedroom. Marie, who has just completed the ninth grade, is a responsible, dedicated B student who likes to cook dinners in home economics, study drama and German, play sports and “muck around” on weekends. “I’m glad to get back to my friends and to the schoolwork and my favorite TV shows,” she says. She and her mother have also been discussing future surgery with her follow-up surgeon in Brisbane, Dr. Lanigan. Early next year Marie will have work done on her left cheek and eye and on her mouth and nose. “I can’t predict the future,” says Marie. “I just think, well, my personality isn’t any different. It’s just that my face has changed. I’m still the old, fun, carefree Marie.”

And Cher is still, well, Cher. But like her new pal, she too has been changed by the intensity of their shared experience. “It is hard to see them trapped in these little faces,” says Cher of kids like Marie. “You can really see the change in Marie’s life,” she adds. “Her operation was one of the highlights of my life.”

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