Extraordinary People

Wednesday 10th June 9.00pm

The documentary strand exploring extraordinary tales of human experience concludes with the story of two children suffering from congenital hypertrichosis, or ‘werewolf syndrome’. The programme investigates how genetic research may hold the key to giving these children normal lives – and potentially helping millions of others.

Seven-year-old Nat Sasuphan from Thailand was born with congenital hypertrichosis, an extremely rare and incurable disorder that causes the sufferer to grow excessive hair on the face and body. “The worst thing at school is when the new students make fun of me,” says Nat, whose father is worried that Nat’s condition will cause her to develop an inferiority complex. Removing the hair is tricky: laser treatment had bad side effects, hair removal cream leaves a rash and shaving may harm the skin.

Eleven-year-old Prithviraj Patil of Maharashtra, India, also suffers from the disorder. Prithvi’s family is concerned about the effect that it will have on his future. “First the hair must go,” says his grandfather. “Only then can he have a good future.” The family has been given new hope by Dr Amit Shah, who runs a clinic specialising in cosmetic procedures and has been performing laser treatment on Prithvi for the past nine months.

Unlike Nat, Prithvi has displayed a marked improvement since beginning laser treatment. “When the hair is gone, there is a definite change in him,” says his father. “He feels normal, like other children – and that makes him happy.” The lasers only destroy the darkest hairs, leaving the lighter ones to grow back, but Prithvi’s confidence still receives a tremendous boost with each session.

However, laser therapy is only a treatment – not a cure. Dr Shah has agreed to assist the research being done by Columbia University geneticist Dr Angela Christiano, who specialises in cracking the genetic codes of hair conditions. Dr Christiano hopes that studying the genes of hypertrichosis sufferers will help her research into baldness by shedding light on how hair changes and grows.

Studies on two other hypertrichosis sufferers have highlighted a genetic anomaly on chromosome 8, and Dr Christiano is interested to find out if Prithvi and Nat’s genes display the same defect. Strangely, Nat’s genetic makeup appears to be normal – but there is still a chance that Prithvi’s may have the same anomaly. Dr Shah takes samples of Prithvi’s blood, hair and skin to be tested, and awaits the results with interest.

Prithvi’s father is hopeful that the tests will reveal something that will explain his son’s condition. “I have a feeling that they will find out what the problem is and find a cure,” he says, confidently. However, preliminary results are unclear – Prithvi’s chromosome 8 is normal, like Nat’s, but there is a question mark over another gene known to affect hair growth. Prithvi’s family members are crestfallen, but Dr Shah assures them that this is not the end of the research. “We are not going to stop here,” he says.

Nat’s parents, meanwhile, have given their daughter temporary respite from her condition by shaving her facial hair after a test showed that her skin was unharmed by the procedure. This enabled Nat to blend in with her friends in the school play, and having a bare face for the first time since she was two years old gives her a huge confidence boost. Until there is a genetic breakthrough, this temporary solution offers Nat a chance to briefly look normal.

Because Nat and Prithvi’s condition is so rare, the medical world is not prioritising the search for a cure. However, the wider lessons that can be learned from studying hypertrichosis – and the potentially lucrative returns that could result from cracking the mystery – mean that there is a real chance that a cure could one day be found.

Wednesday 3rd June 9.00pm

The documentary strand exploring extraordinary tales of human experience continues. Liam Hoekstra is just like any other happy toddler, with one remarkable difference – he has 40 per cent more muscle than the average child his age. Keen to learn more about his incredible abilities, his parents submit him for a series of tests. Could Liam’s condition hold the key to a cure for muscular dystrophy?

At first glance, three-year-old Liam Hoekstra seems just like any other child his age. However, on closer inspection, his abdominal muscles, biceps and the trapezius muscles on his back are extraordinarily well developed. In fact, Liam has an astounding 40 per cent more muscle than the average three-year- old boy. Liam’s parents, Dana and Neil, adopted him when he was just a day old. But it quickly became clear that Liam was no ordinary baby. Although most children do not walk until they are around 15 months old, by the time he was six months Liam could walk up and down the stairs. “I figured we had a strong kid,” says Neil, proudly.

Liam’s parents are often worn out by the demands of their son, who seems to have the energy of ten children. A typical day begins with a gym class before nursery. Coach Phil Bishop believes Liam is unique. “He is able to muscle himself up much more quickly than others,” he says, watching Liam climb easily up a rope. “Liam has the potential to do anything he wants in sports.” After a day of physically demanding activities, Neil and Dana still struggle to get their energetic toddler to sleep.

Although they were aware Liam was unusually strong, Neil and Dana only discovered that he could have a genetic condition when local doctor Erlund Larson became interested in the boy. “His grandfather told me he could lift himself up with his arms,” he says. “Very few athletes could do that.” Dr Larson diagnosed Liam with myostatin- related muscle hypertrophy, a condition first found in the Belgian Blue breed of cattle in the late 1990s. In 2000 a German boy was also diagnosed with the condition, which promotes above-average growth of skeletal muscles. Although Liam eats constantly, he has a very fast metabolism and no body fat.

Liam’s parents hope his unusual physique will prove to be an advantage, and have already introduced him to a number of different sports, including American football. Dana is grateful the American Government recently passed the GINA (Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act), which prevents anyone who has genetic testing from being forced to share the results. “I have had people come up to me on the street and ask me if I think it’s fair for him to play sports,” admits Gina. She hopes that in the future Liam will be able to compete on an even playing field, whatever his advantages.

Geneticist Dr Eric Hoffman thinks it is possible that conditions such as Liam’s could hold the key to a cure for Duchenne muscular dystrophy, which kills most sufferers by the age of 20. However, Professor of Exercise Science Dr Stephen Roth is concerned by the effect the research could have. “If Liam’s condition is understood, it will be immediately abused by athletes,” he states.

Keen to learn more about Liam’s abilities, Neil and Dana submit him for a battery of tests, including sit- ups, hand grips and a bar test. Another child of Liam’s age is able to complete only one sit-up – Liam easily finishes 17 in the same time frame. He also has the hand grip of a seven-year-old, and is able to hold onto the bar for a full 13 seconds, while another child his age manages only seven seconds. Strength and conditioning experts Michelle Ward and Ted Quick are astounded by his abilities.

“At some point in time we will understand what is different about Liam,” says Dr Larson. Dana’s perspective is matter-of-fact, however. “At three years old I haven’t looked that far into the future,” she says. “For now, Liam is just happy being Liam.”

Wednesday 27th May 9.00pm

The documentary strand exploring extraordinary tales of human experience continues. Liam Hoekstra is just like any other happy toddler, with one remarkable difference – he has 40 per cent more muscle than the average child his age. Keen to learn more about his incredible abilities, his parents submit him for a series of tests. Could Liam’s condition hold the key to a cure for muscular dystrophy?

At first glance, three-year-old Liam Hoekstra seems just like any other child his age. However, on closer inspection, his abdominal muscles, biceps and the trapezius muscles on his back are extraordinarily well developed. In fact, Liam has an astounding 40 per cent more muscle than the average three-year- old boy. Liam’s parents, Dana and Neil, adopted him when he was just a day old. But it quickly became clear that Liam was no ordinary baby. Although most children do not walk until they are around 15 months old, by the time he was six months Liam could walk up and down the stairs. “I figured we had a strong kid,” says Neil, proudly.

Liam’s parents are often worn out by the demands of their son, who seems to have the energy of ten children. A typical day begins with a gym class before nursery. Coach Phil Bishop believes Liam is unique. “He is able to muscle himself up much more quickly than others,” he says, watching Liam climb easily up a rope. “Liam has the potential to do anything he wants in sports.” After a day of physically demanding activities, Neil and Dana still struggle to get their energetic toddler to sleep.

Although they were aware Liam was unusually strong, Neil and Dana only discovered that he could have a genetic condition when local doctor Erlund Larson became interested in the boy. “His grandfather told me he could lift himself up with his arms,” he says. “Very few athletes could do that.” Dr Larson diagnosed Liam with myostatin- related muscle hypertrophy, a condition first found in the Belgian Blue breed of cattle in the late 1990s. In 2000 a German boy was also diagnosed with the condition, which promotes above-average growth of skeletal muscles. Although Liam eats constantly, he has a very fast metabolism and no body fat.

Liam’s parents hope his unusual physique will prove to be an advantage, and have already introduced him to a number of different sports, including American football. Dana is grateful the American Government recently passed the GINA (Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act), which prevents anyone who has genetic testing from being forced to share the results. “I have had people come up to me on the street and ask me if I think it’s fair for him to play sports,” admits Gina. She hopes that in the future Liam will be able to compete on an even playing field, whatever his advantages.

Geneticist Dr Eric Hoffman thinks it is possible that conditions such as Liam’s could hold the key to a cure for Duchenne muscular dystrophy, which kills most sufferers by the age of 20. However, Professor of Exercise Science Dr Stephen Roth is concerned by the effect the research could have. “If Liam’s condition is understood, it will be immediately abused by athletes,” he states.

Keen to learn more about Liam’s abilities, Neil and Dana submit him for a battery of tests, including sit- ups, hand grips and a bar test. Another child of Liam’s age is able to complete only one sit-up – Liam easily finishes 17 in the same time frame. He also has the hand grip of a seven-year-old, and is able to hold onto the bar for a full 13 seconds, while another child his age manages only seven seconds. Strength and conditioning experts Michelle Ward and Ted Quick are astounded by his abilities.

“At some point in time we will understand what is different about Liam,” says Dr Larson. Dana’s perspective is matter-of-fact, however. “At three years old I haven’t looked that far into the future,” she says. “For now, Liam is just happy being Liam.”

Wednesday 20th May 9.00pm

The documentary strand exploring remarkable tales of human experience continues. In Puerto Rico, a man claims to be able conduct electricity through his body. Forty-year-old Jose can withstand high-voltage currents without any apparent ill effects, powering light bulbs and firing sparks from his fingers. Meanwhile, in Brighton, a woman reports that her body mysteriously affects electrical appliances. Can scientists explain these unusual abilities?

Jose lives in the small town of Barranquitas, Puerto Rico. Since the age of 13, when he was abandoned by his grandfather, he has lived alone – and has developed an extraordinary ability. Jose is seemingly capable of transmitting high-voltage current through his body. “People don’t believe that electricity passes through my body, but I will show everyone it’s true,” he says.

Publicity-shy Jose is now willing to demonstrate his skills for the first time in 12 years. Local journalist Gabriel visits Jose at his TV repair shop and watches as he holds a live wire in one hand and a fluorescent bulb in another. The bulb immediately lights up, causing Jose no visible pain. Jose is even able to fire sparks from his fingers. Gabriel stares in amazement as the TV repairman sets light to a scrap of tissue with an electrical flare from his finger, before burning lines in a plank of wood.

Jose’s talent has come to the attention of researchers at the University of Puerto Rico. They are impressed by a display of his skills and ask him to return in a week for further tests. In the meantime, Jose seeks out medical advice as to his condition. He agrees to have an electrocardiogram test to see if his exposure to electricity has caused him any lasting damage. Jose is nervous about the results, as doctors have warned him to stop his risky activities in the past. Fortunately, the exam shows his heart is functioning normally.

Jose still has some way to go to convince the scientists of his unique powers, however. Their initial theory is that he mitigates the worst of the current by standing on a plastic box. Jose refutes this suggestion by repeating his trick with his feet planted firmly on the ground. In front of his curious neighbours, Jose holds on to the fuse box of his apartment building with both hands – exposing himself to twice the normal mains voltage. “Touching mains voltage with two arms… is about the most dangerous thing you can do,” says expert Professor Nick Donaldson. But Jose survives his dose of electricity without even a twitch.

The next step is for the researchers to test the amount of electricity actually passing through Jose’s body. However, their findings prove controversial – not just to Jose, who feels they have not been thorough enough, but to scientists in the UK, who are following the case with interest. Can a test be devised to give a definitive answer?

Elsewhere, in Brighton, a woman claims that she too has unusual electrical abilities. Debbie says that her body can randomly disrupt electrical appliances, from hairdryers to streetlights. “When I’m in the appropriate frame of mind, things around me blow up,” she says. “The only warning I have is a nanosecond beforehand, when I get a funny sort of tingly feeling.” Despite her reluctance to fly – for fear of what might happen to the electrics on the plane – Debbie agrees to go on holiday. No sooner has she arrived, however, than her hotel suffers a mysterious blackout. Is this connected to her alleged ability?

Scientists at UCL are keen to investigate Debbie’s claims. They connect her to an oscilloscope and try to provoke her ability. Debbie is shown footage of Jose performing his tricks, on the basis that it might trigger her own powers. Remarkably, the level of electrical current in Debbie’s body rises in time with the scenes on the screen, reaching three times the normal level. Can researchers explain this result?

Wednesday 13th May 9.00pm

The documentary strand exploring remarkable tales of human experience continues. Five-year- old Juliana Wetmore has the most severe case of Treacher Collins syndrome ever seen. Juliana was born with over half of her cranial bones missing and has undergone 27 operations as doctors endeavour to build her a functional face. This film follows Juliana as she prepares for yet another major operation and begins her education.

Juliana Wetmore is a most extraordinary child. The five-year-old suffers from an extreme condition called Treacher Collins syndrome. Born with a severely deformed face, Juliana has undergone round after round of risky surgery in a bid to rebuild her features and give her the hope of a better life.

In the beginning, mother Tami Wetmore had a seemingly normal second pregnancy. But scans soon made it clear that there were major complications. Doctors were unable to give a clear diagnosis and suggested terminating the pregnancy – but this was never an option for Tami or her husband, Thom. It was this sort of devotion to their child that would sustain the family over the next few years.

Juliana was born in March 2003 and the birth almost killed her mother. The prognosis for the baby was not good. Treacher Collins syndrome occurs in one in 50,000 births. It affects the face and head, and Juliana’s case is the most severe ever recorded.

The little girl was born with nearly 60 per cent of the bones in her face missing and a number of severe abnormalities. These included a sealed eyelid, no cheek bones, no nasal passage and almost no upper and lower jaw bone. Although Juliana’s hearing is restricted, she has good vision in her right eye and a normal-functioning brain.

The first 18 months of Juliana’s life were perhaps the most difficult for her family. Juliana suffered numerous respiratory infections and endured complications after surgery. In her short lifetime, she has undergone some 27 operations as doctors attempt to rebuild her face.

Dr Wolfe, who has operated on Juliana since the beginning, is now ready to undertake another series of operations designed to help Juliana live a fuller life. Tami and Thom’s chief priority is the health of their child. They want her to eat and breathe freely, but they also want her to engage in the same activities as any normal five-year-old.

This documentary follows the next stage in Juliana’s surgical reconstructions, as well as tracing her academic and social progress. Cognitively, she is as bright and capable as any other five-year-old, but the routine of major invasive surgery is an obstacle she must continually overcome. Now, as a milestone operation approaches, Juliana faces another watershed moment – she is about to begin mainstream education. Can the combination of surgery and Juliana’s own innate confidence help her take a massive step towards a normal life?

Wednesday 6th May 9.00pm

The documentary strand exploring remarkable tales of human experience continues. This edition follows a radical procedure to save the life of a woman suffering from liver cancer. Thanks to an operation that has been undertaken only twice before, mother of four Christina Wright has another chance at life – but only if her son is prepared to risk his own.

With organ donation in Britain at an all-time low, liver cancer patient Christina Wright may not reach the top of the waiting list in time to save her life. However, surgeons at St James’s University Hospital in Leeds have come up with a radical solution to the problem – adult-to-adult live liver transplants. With risks involved to the donor as well as the recipient, this operation has been performed only twice before. “Our live donors take a risk with their life in order to save the life of another individual,” explains consultant hepatologist Dr Charlie Millsom.

The procedure involves removing half the liver of a healthy donor and using it to replace the diseased liver of the recipient. If the operation is successful, both half livers will grow to the normal size within 12 months. But the operation is complicated and involves two teams of surgeons working simultaneously in adjacent theatres for a whole day. “Donating part of your liver is about the most major surgery you could have,” says Professor Peter Lodge.

For Christina’s four grown-up children, the decision to help their mother is an easy one. The only choice that remains concerns which of the four is best suited to donate. At St James’s, the four meet with the medical team to learn about the risks and benefits involved. The team quickly rules out youngest sons Spencer and Paul owing to their medical histories, leaving Darren and sister Alison. Both are blood-group compatible with Christina, so the decision comes down to a question of liver size. In the end, Darren is selected as the most suitable donor.

Before the operation can go ahead, however, Darren must undergo a battery of tests to see if he is both physically and psychologically fit for the job. The doctors must ensure that Darren’s blood, lungs, heart and liver are all healthy enough to undergo major surgery. In the event, the news is good – Darren is up to the job and a date is set for the procedure. “It’s a fantastic thing he’s doing,” says Christina of her son. “He’s always been my right-hand man.”

When the day of the operation dawns, Darren and Christina arrive at the hospital and are prepared for surgery in adjacent theatres. Because the procedure is so complicated, each of the two teams will feature two consultants. “This is a very precious situation,” says Professor Lodge. “We can’t afford any mistakes.” After Darren is given an epidural to deal with the pain when he comes round, the surgeons can begin. While one team sets to work bisecting Darren’s healthy liver, the other checks to ensure that Christina’s cancer has not spread, before removing her diseased liver.

After a few hours, Professor Lodge has completely bisected Darren’s liver and must now wait for the other team to be ready to receive the organ. Once the teams are in sync, the most critical part of the operation begins – to move Darren’s half liver into Christina’s body. The surgeons attach Christina’s blood vessels to the liver and remove the clamps. If all goes well, the patient’s blood will flow directly into her new liver without leaking. Twelve hours after the operation began, it is over. For the family waiting anxiously outside, it is great news – the procedure has been a complete success.

Just three months after their surgery, both Darren and Christina are well enough to attend Spencer’s wedding – at which Darren is best man. “It’s a funny feeling,” says Christina of her experience. “I can’t put into words what the medical team has done for us – I don’t think you could ever repay that.”

Wednesday 29th April 9.00pm

The documentary strand exploring remarkable tales of human experience continues. This edition follows the story of Rudy Santos, a Filipino man who was born with three extra limbs attached to his abdomen. At the age of 55, Rudy is beginning to suffer poor health as a result of the additional weight. Could his rare condition be killing him?

Once a star of mythical proportions, 55-year-old ‘Octopus Man’ Rudy Santos could command up to 20,000 pesos per night as the main attraction at a travelling freak show. Owing to comparisons with the god Shiva, Rudy became a national celebrity, with women lining up to be with him. Then, he disappeared. In hiding from tax officials, Rudy has not been seen for nearly a decade. But with his health in crisis, it could finally be time for Rudy to explore his mysterious condition.

After years on the run, Rudy now lives in a shack on a remote island 500 miles from Manila. “I’m not used to living in poverty,” he admits. “I don’t even have a proper cooking stove.” Rudy met his wife, Evelyn, while she was working as a magician’s assistant. The pair also have a daughter, Linda. Rudy has not shown his surplus limbs to anyone outside his family for years, but now feels ready to display them once more. Rudy has two extra arms and an additional leg protruding from his abdomen. “My limbs do move, but I don’t have full control over them,” he explains. He also points out his nails. “You will notice they are double-sided,” he says.

Rudy suspects the superfluous body parts are a partially formed twin brother. But the limbs are now beginning to become a burden. “Sometimes I have stomach attacks,” Rudy says. He is also losing weight uncontrollably, which has left him too weak to work. Rudy has never seen a specialist doctor, but with his health and the welfare of his family at stake, he has agreed to visit a surgeon in Manila. As the family prepares for the two-day trip, Rudy is apprehensive – he suspects his extra limbs may be killing him.

When he arrives in the capital, Rudy is shocked by how much has changed in his absence. The following day he meets with Dr Vicente Gomez, a surgeon at the Philippine Orthopaedic Institute. Keen to help Rudy, Dr Gomez agrees to treat him free of charge. First he checks Rudy’s health, and discovers he has high blood pressure and curvature of the spine, caused by carrying the extra weight. Dr Gomez explains Rudy has a parasitic twin, a condition so rare there are only 90 cases in the world. The twin is formed when an embryo fails to fully separate within the first 12 days of pregnancy.

During development the twin can become a parasite, living off the blood supply of the other embryo. The vast majority of parasitic twins have no brain tissue.

Later that week, Rudy has his first X-ray. Dr Marc Anthony also performs an ultrasound to see if Rudy shares any vital organs with his twin. The doctors are concerned to discover that Rudy has a heart murmur, which has been caused by the extra demand placed on the organ. Dr Gomez determines that the twin is only joined to one side of Rudy’s pelvis. “If you want it removed, it’s feasible,” he tells him. The ‘Octopus Man’ now faces a difficult choice – the extra strain of carrying his twin is putting his heart under pressure, but his weakened health means he might not survive surgery.

As Rudy wrestles with his decision, it becomes clear his concerns are not entirely related to his health. Although he could have an operation to change his life for the better, Rudy’s emotional attachment to his twin is very strong. “It’s like someone chopping off his brother or sister,” says Dr Anthony. Rudy feels he has a lot to thank his ‘brother’ for – including meeting his wife. “If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t have worked at the carnival and we would never have met,” he says. “Once my twin is removed, there’s no going back.” Will Rudy have the strength to remove the twin that is killing him?

Wednesday 22nd April 9.00pm

The documentary strand exploring remarkable tales of human experience continues. This edition follows a leading Chinese surgeon as he performs a partial face transplant on a man mauled by a bear. Meanwhile, a burns victim hopes that the successful outcome of this case will pave the way for his own full face transplant.

In 2005, doctors in France made international headlines when they performed the first-ever face transplant. Six months later, surgeons in China surprised the world with the news that they had performed their own facial transplant. This film follows the tale of this pioneering treatment and the prospects it holds for other patients.

At the Xijing military hospital in Xian, Dr Guo Shuzhong has become accustomed to treating patients with horrific injuries. “Some patients are so badly disfigured, they don’t look like human beings anymore,” he says. News of the face transplant in France is of especial interest to Dr Guo, who wants to make his hospital, and his country, a world leader in this extreme new form of surgery.

A candidate for the first Chinese face transplant appears in early 2006. Word reaches Dr Guo of a tribesman in the remote Yunnan province who suffered horrific injuries after being mauled by a black bear.

After studying photos of the patient, Li Guoxing, Dr Guo invites him to the hospital – a gruelling, four-day journey over 1,500 miles. Li does not speak Mandarin Chinese and is unused to the big city. Accompanied by his nephew, who acts as translator, he undergoes his first medical exam. Dr Guo finds that Li’s face has been utterly destroyed by the bear – his nose has gone, his cheekbone is broken and there is a gaping wound in his cheek, revealing the tissue below. “His condition is critical,” says the plastic surgeon. “It’s going to be very difficult.”

Before surgery can begin, doctors must find a donor face that matches the age and shape of Li’s own. The face is eventually provided by a road-accident victim. Now surgeons begin a mammoth 18-hour operation to remove the face and stitch it onto Li’s head. The surgery is particularly complicated because bone from the donor must be attached to recreate Li’s nose, and each blood vessel must be sown under a microscope. However, the initial results are good. “When I looked in the mirror, I was very happy. It was like a dream,” says Li.

A face transplant requires a lifetime of follow-up treatment. To stop his body rejecting the donor skin, Li must take drugs to suppress his immune system. He faces three threats in the form of infection, metabolism changes and an increased risk of cancer. But after 18 months in hospital, a homesick Li checks himself out against medical advice and returns home.

Li is now so far away from modern medical facilities that he runs the risk of complications with his surgery. Dr Guo soon learns that Li’s skin is rejecting the transplant. He travels to Yunnan to confront his patient and discovers that Li has stopped taking his drugs because he was feeling better. Despite Guo’s entreaties to move to the city full-time, where doctors can keep an eye on him, Li insists on staying in his mountainside village. The outcome of the pioneering surgery now hangs on Li’s promise to resume his medication. “I feel frustrated,” says Guo. “I spent more time looking after that patient than I did my own family.”

If Li’s transplant fails, it could have serious consequences for other patients hoping to undergo the procedure. Among them is petrochemical plant worker He, who sustained appalling burns whilst saving his colleagues from a gas leak. His act of heroism left him totally disfigured and he has been shunned by society. Surgery is his only hope of returning to a normal life. “This is my second chance at life,” he says. He has already moved closer to the hospital and is prepared to follow the doctors’ instructions. But will his dreams be realised?

Wednesday 15th April 9.00pm

The documentary strand exploring remarkable tales of human experience continues. This edition looks at three British toddlers with a rare condition that means they are among the smallest people in the world. The cameras follow primordial dwarves Liam, Finn and Alex as they make new friends, endure medical procedures and make their way in life.

Born with an incredibly rare condition called microcephalic osteodysplastic primordial dwarfism type 2 (MOPD II), three-year-olds Liam, Finn and Alex are less than half the size of other children their age. Three of only 150 diagnosed primordial dwarves in the world, the children face an uncertain future. Along with the physical challenges posed by everyday life, primordial dwarves and their families must deal with the risk of life-threatening brain conditions that could develop at any time.

At nearly four, Liam from Nottingham is just 29 inches tall and weighs the same as a three-month- old baby. At such a size, Liam is unable to wear the same clothes as his friends but is determined not to let his stature get in his way. “He has no fear,” says Dad Robbie. “The drive and ambition he has is going to give him a great chance in life.”

While they know that Liam’s life may be cut short, Robbie and Jo are optimistic about their son’s future. Their hopes are given a boost when they head to London to meet Danny – one of the few primordial dwarves to have made it through to adulthood. Twenty-year-old American Danny is visiting London with his parents, providing the two families with a great opportunity to spend a day together to share stories and advice. Robbie and Jo are pleased to see that Danny seems to be a happy, well-adjusted young man – but Danny’s father warns that arriving at this point has been a struggle.

A few days after Liam’s encounter with Danny, another big day arrives – his fourth birthday. Wearing a specially made ‘Power Rangers’ suit, the lad enjoys his party like any other four-year-old. Seeing their son reach this milestone gives Robbie and Jo more reasons to be positive about the future. “Liam will have a job, Liam will drive a car, Liam will fulfil his education. He will have health issues along the way, but we’ll deal with them when they come,” concludes Robbie.

At 30 inches tall, Alex is the tallest of the three children, but has great difficulty feeding – one of the many side effects of his condition. Since he was a baby, Alex has been fed via a tube directly into his stomach. Concerned that he should now be eating solids, parents John and Sue take him to the Alder Hey children’s hospital in their native Liverpool for tests. However, doctors must first feed Alex food containing barium to permit radiological examination. The procedure is distressing for the lad, but the results are good – there is no physiological problem preventing Alex from eating.

With relatively little still known about MOPD II, John and Sue are keen to meet other people with the condition, so set about organising the UK’s first primordial dwarf convention. “Our aim is to bring everyone together so that kids can realise they are not alone,” says John.

After weeks of organisation, 14 families from all over the UK and the US gather in Liverpool for the Walking with Giants convention. John and Sue are delighted that their hard work has not been in vain. “It’s a safe environment,” says one parent. “Everyone understands everyone else – everybody’s on the same wavelength.”

In Wrexham, 25-inch-tall Finn is off to hospital for her yearly MRI scan. Primordial dwarves must undergo regular checks for brain aneurisms and Moyamoya disease – two potentially fatal vascular conditions that could develop at any time. It is a tense time for parents Mel and Jon, but they try to remain positive. “We’re a bit apprehensive about the scan,” says Jon. “But you’ve just got to deal with it when it happens.” Luckily, the scan reveals no abnormalities in Finn’s brain, meaning she can concentrate on the issues affecting other girls her age – including her imminent first day at big school!

Wednesday 8th April 9.00pm

The documentary strand exploring remarkable tales of human experience continues. This edition revisits morbidly obese Mexican Manuel Uribe as he prepares for the biggest day of his life. Weighing in at some 560kg when he earned the dubious title of the world’s heaviest man in 2006, Manuel has since shed some pounds, found love and is now due to marry.

When he first came to the attention of the media, 43-year-old Manuel Uribe was a desperate man. Weighing over half a ton, the monumental Mexican had been confined to his bed for some years and was severely depressed. “He wanted to kill himself and was always cursing God,” says his mother, Otilia. In the depths of despair, Manuel turned to a local journalist and appealed to the world for help. Floods of offers came in from surgeons and dieticians, and Manuel was soon on a strict regime of exercise and dieting. Two years later, Manuel had lost a massive 180kg. Perhaps more remarkable than his weight loss, however, is the fact that he had managed to find love.

Manuel met his fiancée, Claudia, four years ago. After knowing her as a friend for two years, he began to see her in a different light. “Claudia has a good heart,” he says. “She’s extremely beautiful and very caring.” What is most surprising about Claudia’s decision to marry Manuel is the fact that she has been in this position before. Her first husband weighed 220kg and dropped dead just six years ago as a direct result of his bulk. “People think I’m crazy to do this all over again, but you can’t help who you fall in love with,” says Claudia.

When the pair announced their engagement, it made headlines around the globe. Manuel is amused to see that his story is considered newsworthy in such far-flung places as Australia, China and Europe. “To them it’s like a soap opera,” he says. “But to me it’s real life.” With the media circus in regular attendance at Manuel’s house, the quiet wedding ceremony he and Claudia had planned is no longer an option.Manuel’s huge size also means that his marriage will be somewhat unconventional. Still unable to walk, Manuel will travel to the venue and exchange vows without leaving the relative comfort of his reinforced bed.

Organising a wedding for a man of such proportions is a logistical nightmare. With just a few weeks to go before the big day arrives, Manuel has yet to find a venue with an entrance big enough to accommodate his colossal bed. Finding a suit is also going to be a challenge. With a waistline measuring 2.8 metres, Manuel must bring in a local tailor to make him an outfit from scratch. “One of my favourite actors is Steven Seagal,” says Manuel. “I like the shirts he wears, so I’m going to get one made for the wedding.”

On top of organising his nuptials, Manuel must also continue to exercise regularly if he is to live to see the big day. Despite having lost a quarter of his body weight, Manuel is still morbidly obese and could drop dead at any moment. A stark reminder of Manuel’s vulnerability comes just a few days before his wedding day when another obese Mexican man, Luis Garcia, dies as a result of his size. The news is a shock to the community and a bitter blow to Manuel. “Life is very fragile,” he says. “One could die at any second.”

However, the couple get some better news when a local politician grants them the use of a large club on the other side of Monterrey for their wedding reception. With the venue sorted, Manuel can relax and enjoy his stag night – for which his friends have organised a street party just outside his house. “I feel fortunate to be Mexican,” says Manuel as he enjoys the celebration. “We have a culture of community and support each other.” However, with a number of things still to organise – including the transport across a busy city – will the wedding go without a hitch?

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