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'Born this way'Six years and five surgeries later, Shannon Mercer is a healthy, happy Grade 1 student
Northern News Services
Published Wednesday, Sept 26, 2012
The six year old is in Grade 1 at J. H. Sissons School, where she loves to play sports - especially run - and play with friends. She also loves to sing and play piano.
"She's turned into a really confident girl," said her dad, Tim Mercer, with pride.
Shannon was born on May 8, 2006, with a rare skin disorder. A large congenital nevus, a type of birthmark, covered the right-hand side of her face.
"I know that when I first got my birthmark, my mom and dad were a little scared for me," Shannon told Yellowknifer.
Six years and five surgeries later, the birth mark is gone but many scars and patches of new skin remain in its place.
Children at school ask her about the scars on her face sometimes, said Shannon. Her friends know all about her birth mark, and she is OK talking about it with them.
However, every once in a while, she will have to contend with someone teasing her, but even then she keeps a positive attitude.
"They're just bullies. They're just being themselves," she said in a sing-song tone, suggesting she has said those words before. "I know what to do, just walk away from them."
While she explained how she responds with bullies, Shannon asked to sing a song she sings when people are mean to her.
"Momma told me when I was young that we're all superstars," she sang in a bouncy voice. "She rolled my hair, put my lipstick on, I'm on the right track baby, I was born this way."
The last line of the song is the most important, she said.
When Shannon was born, Tim and his wife Debbie Meade decided they would face their daughter's health issues head on and be open about it in the community.
"We were fairly private people," said Tim. "But, you know, she looked so different and it's a small community ... we figured that the more people who knew about it in a small town, the easier it would be for her."
Mercer and his wife had to look to the U.S. to find a support group that could help them answer some of the questions they were grappling with.
"It was a super-concentration of pigmented skin, and it covered about half of her face," sad Mercer, describing the blemish as a dark patch that looked like a large mole.
In the end, because of the increased risk of cancer, the couple decided that the risks to Shannon's future health were great enough that they would have the mark removed when she was one year old.
The first surgery involved inserting a balloon under the skin of her neck, which was then expanded slowly over two months to grow new, healthy skin that was later used surgically to cover the areas of Shannon's face where the birth mark had been.
"So, this skin right here in her cheek is expanded skin," Tim said while tracing a line from Shannon's chin up around her right eye. Shannon began to squirm as her dad spoke.
"Are you OK talking about this?" he asked his daughter, and only when she said yes did he go on.
Shannon has visited Sick Kids Hospital in Toronto every year since she was born. She has had one surgery every year until this year.
"This is the first summer she hasn't had one, just because the mark is removed and they want to let her grow into her features a little bit before they do some scar revisions."
Later procedures involved skin grafts to replace skin on her nose, under her eye, and anywhere else pigmented skin cells remained.
The first couple surgeries were fairly invasive, said Tim, but Shannon has kept high spirits and a good attitude throughout.
"She's a trooper," he said.
While the family still experiences mixed reactions around Yellowknife, it's while travelling outside of the community that they notice it most, said Tim. When travelling on airplanes back and forth from Toronto, the family has experienced a whole new range of reactions.
"Everything from people asking to change seats because they were afraid it was some kind of disease to people looking at you like she'd been abused or taken a fall or a burn or something like that," Tim said.
"You just have to grow a thick skin. I think one of the most important lessons we've learned is that she will learn to react by watching us react."