Teen who skirted death six years ago succumbs to genetic disease

Posted: Tuesday, March 13, 2001

FAIRBANKS (AP) -- A Fairbanks youth who made headlines when he beat death six years ago has succumbed to the genetic disease that confounded his doctors.

Christopher Michael McMahan, 17, died Thursday at Fairbanks Memorial Hospital. He had suffered from neuro-fibromatosis, a disease of the central nervous system, also known as elephant man's disease.

''He had made it so long,'' said James McMahan, Christopher's father. ''He'd get a little sick or something and he'd always recover. He fought hard.''

Christopher briefly became a national celebrity when he traveled to New York City in 1994 for a lifesaving operation that dozens of doctors had refused to do because it was too risky.

Doctors removed a large tumor that grew from the base of Christopher's brain through his spinal cord. Because the tumor was constricting his spinal cord, Christopher had begun to lose the use of his arms and legs.

Without the operation, Christopher would have become paralyzed and died within a few months, doctors predicted.

The surgery, in which 70 percent of the tumor was successfully removed, was performed at New York University Medical Center days before Christmas.

Christopher's story was broadcast nationwide and he was dubbed the ''Miracle on 34th Street,'' because the hospital was on 34th Street. He appeared on CBS and ABC news, CNN and Inside Edition. New Yorkers flooded him with gifts. Family members said the success of the operation was better than any Christmas present they could have asked for.

But within a few months, Christopher's health began to decline again.

He was home in the Fairbanks area a few weeks when he started to lose feeling in his arms and legs again. A fast-growing tumor had developed on his brain stem. He returned to New York for a second operation.

His recovery from that operation was a struggle and he suffered from pneumonia and viral infections.

Christopher's mother, Kathy Russo, took him to Texas where his grandparents lived and where there was a clinic that treated neuro-fibromatosis patients.

After three days there, he was rushed to the hospital because of trouble breathing.

A tumor the size of a 50-cent piece, and believed malignant, was found in his neck. After that, Christopher deteriorated so much he couldn't speak. He couldn't move because of paralysis on his left side. A ventilator helped him breathe.

Russo was told her son was too weak for surgery or chemotherapy. Doctors didn't know how long Christopher would live.

Russo then decided to change her strategy. She started treating her son with homeopathic medicines and brought him back to Alaska, almost a year after his first surgery.

The tumor was not malignant, but it was unlike tumors typical of neuro-fibromatosis patients, James McMahan said.

Christopher was taken off a ventilator nine days before his sixth-grade graduation, in 1996, and returned to school.

McMahan said his son lived as normal a life as any teen-ager in a wheelchair could. Christopher had planned to go to college and become an oceanographer. He kept hope that he would walk again and worked hard at physical therapy.

''He held his own and stayed active probably a lot better and a lot longer than most people in his condition,'' McMahan told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. ''I couldn't have done what he did -- his strength and perseverance and keeping a joyful attitude. He fought right until the end.''

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