WALKING towards her husband-to-be on her wedding day, Janine Violet Light felt beautiful, confident and truly herself for the first time in decades.
The 35-year-old, from Belfast, Ireland, has suffered years of abuse and cruel comments from trolls after a rare flesh-eating bug destroyed large portions of her face as a child.
Janine developed the devastating infection after being diagnosed with leukaemia when she was just two years old.
She's endured horrendous bullying since, with vile trolls even comparing her to Quasimodo in the last few years.
She also struggles to eat certain foods and can't close one eye at all, despite undergoing more than 30 operations.
The mum-of-two is now hoping a top US surgeon could restore most of those physical functions, while also helping boost her self confidence at last…
'I had two ops a year, until I was 15'
Janine contracted necrotizing fasciitis, an infection that kills parts of the body's soft tissue, while undergoing chemotherapy for her childhood leukaemia.
She was left with rotting tissue and, following life-saving surgery to remove large parts of it, major facial disfigurement.
She says: "I think I’ve blocked most of it out, all I can really remember are the surgeries. The first one was at the age of five.
“I went in with leukaemia and came out with [necrotising fasciitis]. I don’t know exactly how long I had that, all I know is by the time they realised what it actually was, it had already done the damage.
“The first surgery I had was to rebuild the cheek. Then I had two a year, every year, until I was 15, mostly reconstructive.
“But the last one they did didn’t work. It was to fit an extraction device, which was attached to the skull with three holes on each side of the head – and attached to the roof of my mouth.
“It was to try to encourage the right-hand side to grow. After that I’d just had enough, I was so fed up with it, so I haven’t had more since."
Janine was forced to take large sections of time out of school for her surgeries. But while she says she was taunted by a few bullies at the time, the worst comments have come in adulthood.
“As I grew up it really impacted my confidence. It wasn’t so much going through school, it’s got worse more recently," she explains.
'They call me Jeanie Meanie, Pastie Face, anything you can think of'
For years, Janine has fallen victim to vile abuse from social media users and people on the street.
“The latest one they’ve been doing is comparing me to Quasimodo, then I’ve also been called Jeanie Meanie, Stupid Face, Pastie Face. Anything you can think of," she says.
“I have police involved too… I think they target me because I’m different.
“The comments just wear me down. It’s that and the fact I do really need something done now, especially to my teeth… that’s triggered me to look into this surgery."
The years of bullying have ultimately left her feeling “worthless” and “like I don’t belong here, as if I am some sort of freak show for everyone to make fun of".
When the infection rotted away parts of Janine's face, it also affected her gums and took many of her teeth too.
She now only has around seven left, some of which are damaged – which impacts what she can eat.
“The problem is they can’t fit false teeth before I’ve had more reconstruction," she says.
“I can’t eat everything, things like certain biscuits, steak, sweets and crisps can be painful.
“My right eyelid was rotted away by the illness, so they had to place that back on. My right eye won’t close now when I go to sleep.
“I did have a little nugget fitted to help it close, but last year it came away. It actually cut through the eyelid."
Janine's physical disfigurement has impacted her life in other ways too, as she says she's been unemployed for years due to trouble finding work.
“Once I applied for a job at a fast food restaurant, I was 16 years old, and I got turned away and was told they couldn’t hire me because I would scare or offend their customers," she recalls.
'I could finally be myself on my wedding day'
While Janine says she wasn't really interested in relationships until adulthood, she has now found true happiness with her husband, Matthew Light, 44.
The pair got together around 11 years ago, after Janine split from her ex and father of her two children.
“He started off as a friend of the family," she explains. "One day he walked past me at a bus stop, and we just got chatting."
The pair eventually tied the knot last year at the old Crumlin Road Gaol in Belfast, with around 60 of their closest friends and family around them.
“We fell for each other quickly, and finally married a year ago. I’m glad we did it last year now.
“I was really nervous on the day, but I think he was worse than I was!” she says.
“It was an amazing day. I had my dress specially made [and generously donated by a local designer]. Then I had my hair and make-up done on the day too which felt so nice.”
“I could finally be myself on my wedding day. I didn’t have to worry about who would say something.”
'The surgery could make me feel like I belong'
Janine is now hoping that Dr Kongrit Chaiyasate, a plastic and reconstructive microsurgeon in Royal Oak, Michigan, US, may be able to reverse some of the effects of her facial scarring through reconstructive surgery.
“This surgery will make a big difference to my life, changing how I look and giving me a lot more self-confidence; helping me feel more like me," she says.
The highly-skilled surgeon, whose mentor Dr Ian Jackson originally operated on Janine – but has since sadly passed away – has now offered to operate on her free of charge.
Speaking to Jam Press Dr Kongrit said: "The fact that she is still experiencing bullying and isolation for her appearance really affects me, especially as a parent.
“One of the most rewarding parts of my job is being able to give back what has been taken from somebody.”
He believes that Janine has 'outgrown' the reconstruction that was done to her two decades ago and now hopes to establish facial harmony and facial movement in her.
Dr Kongrit added: "We would like to restore her smile and her blinking mechanisms by connecting the nerve graft from the normal side to an affected side.
"We then will put muscle on the nerve graft so that she can smile and blink. We also want to work on her previous reconstruction to match the other side.
"I am hoping to restore not only function but some aesthetic balance as well.
“If she can eat and drink as normal and walk down the street without having to hide her face I will have done my job.”
Dr Kongrit says the risks are similar to those associated with any long surgery, including bleeding, infection, or failure of reconstruction.
A GoFundMe page has now been set up to cover the costs of her travel to the USA, as well as hospital funds and accommodation.
Janine hopes to raise the $100,000 needed as soon as possible so that she can travel to the USA as soon as coronavirus restrictions ease up.
"It would be a dream come true to be able to feel like I actually belong here, and would enable me to walk past the bullies without them calling me names and making me feel worthless," she says.
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