Body

Real life: An infection ate my face!

All my life I'd felt rejected until a chance meeting at a bus stop changed everything.

By: As told to Take 5

Janine Howard, 33, shares her true life story;

I kept my head down and pulled up the hood of my jumper as I scurried out of the supermarket.

All I wanted to do was get home without anyone seeing me.

"Hey Quasimodo!" a teenager yelled at me from across the street.

The group he was with all roared with laughter.

I put my headphones in and turned the music up loud to drown out their jeers.

You'd think I'd have got used to the abuse by now, but it still hurt.

It all started when I was three and diagnosed with leukaemia.

Doctors told my mum I might not make it.

Then, to make matters even worse, I caught a rare flesh-eating bug in hospital.

The infection, called pseudomonas, attacked my pretty face destroying most of my jawbone, teeth, nose and right eye socket.

It took chemotherapy and radiotherapy to blitz the cancer.

Antibiotics eventually fought off the infection. But the mutilation of my face was irreversible.

With some nurses when I was five. Photos exclusive to Take 5

More than 100 stitches held together a gaping, ugly, red hole where my cheeky smile used to be.

My earliest memories are of hospital wards, the smell of disinfectant, white coats and kind nurses.

When I was five, I was flown to America for specialist treatment, where a patch of skin from my back was grafted onto my right cheek.

Gradually, plastic surgeons attempted to rebuild my face, but no operation could completely fix me.

I missed so much school to have surgery and it isolated me from my peers.

Not that I had many friends anyway.

"Ugh, look at her," taunted one little girl in the playground.

One day, a teacher made me sit in the corner with my desk facing the window.

"I don't want you upsetting the other kids," she said. A tear slowly trickled down my one good cheek.

There were some happy memories though. I met Princess Diana at a Children of Courage event.

I remember her kneeling down beside me to sign my autograph book.

I've treasured that book ever since.

I was a good student.

I loved English and French, but by the time I was 16 I'd had enough of school and the bullies.

I'd also given up on the hospitals and refused to have any more treatment.

"I want to live just as I am," I told Mum.

But getting a job was impossible.

Employers took one look and ruled me out.

I applied for a job in a fast food restaurant but the manager told me I'd frighten his customers.

Even after many surgeries, the damage was still noticeable.
Photos exclusive to Take 5

As much as I wanted to work, I had no choice but to live off benefits.

My confidence was at rock bottom. I found it hard to make friends.

The idea of me ever having a boyfriend was laughable.

Who would ever love me? I thought as I cried myself to sleep.

Then one day, when I was 24, I was waiting for a bus into town when I heard a voice.

"Hey Janine, how're you going?" asked Matthew, 33.

A friend of my relatives, I'd met him a handful of times though we'd never spoken at length.

We started chatting and my stomach flipped.

Most people avoided my gaze and then stared at me when they thought I wasn't looking.

But he wasn't recoiling. He looked me right in the eye.

My bus arrived, but I didn't want to leave. He didn't seem to want me to go either.

"What's your number?" he asked quickly.

I gave it to him, jumped on the bus and couldn't wipe the grin off my face.

A sweet, good-looking guy had just asked for my number! I could hardly believe it.

For once, the stares and whispers of the other passengers as I walked down to find a seat didn't bother me in the slightest.

Later that afternoon, I got a message from him.

How's your day going? Xx he typed. My heart raced when I saw the kisses at the end.

We started messaging back and forth and before long we met up.

We went for a walk and then to the pub for a drink.

It felt so natural.

I never thought I'd find anyone special. Photos exclusive to Take 5

One date turned to two and our romance blossomed.

"You're so beautiful," he said as we cuddled on the couch a few weeks later.

I was taken aback.

No-one had ever used that word when talking about me. But Matthew was being sincere, I felt sure of it.

For the first time in my life, I felt special.

Eventually, we moved in together and soon after I found out I was pregnant.

Sadly, I miscarried a few weeks later.

Matthew was there for me throughout.

The heartbreak only made our love stronger.

Walking through town a few weeks later we passed a pet shop and I spotted a sign in the window saying 'Kittens for Sale.'

"Will you buy me a kitten?" I asked Matthew.

He got me a ginger cat that we immediately named Garfield. And then he had another surprise.

"Let's pop in here," he suggested. "We've got more shopping to do."

Puzzled, I followed him into the shop and watched while he flipped through the catalogue to the jewellery section, gesturing to the diamond rings.

"Are you going to choose one then?" he laughed as my mouth dropped open.

That was that – no fancy proposal – we bought a ring and walked home holding hands.

Ever since that first day, Matthew has been my rock!
Photos exclusive to Take 5

That was almost nine years ago now.

We still haven't tied the knot – as we say we are cash poor but rich in love.

Matthew has been my rock since that day at the bus stop.

If he ever hears people calling me names he tells them to leave me alone. He's proud to walk next to me.

Now, if someone is mean I tell myself, "At least Matthew thinks I'm beautiful."

One day, I'll walk up the aisle and be able to hold my head high.