Francis Smith was born virtually without a face. With no ear-canal openings, cheekbones or eye sockets and a gaping cleft palate, he underwent life-saving emergency surgery immediately after his birth and faced long odds of surviving at all.
Now, 44 years later, Smith ranks among the world’s leading scientists studying the genetic syndrome that once threatened his life.
Smith tells his remarkable story in “Wonderfully Made,” taking its title from the Bible’s Psalm 139 and written with co-author Michele Dubroy of Carmel.
“I want this to be a resource for families of children with cranio-facial anomalies and other challenges,” Smith said about his book. “My life story can encourage them as they raise these children with these challenges.”
Smith grew up in Garrett, nurtured by extraordinary parents who adopted and raised a dozen children with extreme special needs. Bob and Betty Smith settled their family in a spacious former funeral home, where they mixed love, faith and determination to teach their children self-esteem and independence.
Francis had been born as Hugh O’Connor on April 25, 1975, in Bloomington to visiting Irish professors. With their child in no condition to survive a trip back to Ireland, his birth parents gave him up to become a ward of the state of Indiana. Doctors at Riley Hospital for Children kept him alive and welfare officials placed him with a foster mother who cared for him in a low-income neighborhood of Indianapolis until the Smiths adopted him at age 2.
As the 11th of the Smith children and perhaps the most severely challenged, Francis at first required feedings by tube. He endured countless surgeries that improved his airway, jawline and appearance. Special, bone-conduction hearing aids put him in contact with the sounds around him.
As Francis gained the ability to express himself, it became clear that he possessed exceptional intellect.
While mastering his schoolwork came easily to Francis, his facial appearance made him a target of vicious bullying in his junior high school years. The taunting “destroyed me emotionally and physically,” he said.
His life took a dramatic turn upward when Francis won a scholarship to attend Canterbury School in Fort Wayne.
“Canterbury was the first school where I found complete and total acceptance, where both students and teachers reached out to me and saw what I could become,” Smith said.
After flourishing in his Canterbury classrooms, Smith advanced to Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne to earn his bachelor’s degree in biology. He dreamed of becoming a physician, but his repeated efforts to gain admission to a medical school fell just short. According to his book, Indiana University told him it had concerns about his ability to communicate with patients effectively due to his speech and hearing limitations.
Smith turned his focus toward biomedical sciences — a course of study that took him to London, England, and then to San Francisco.
Today, with a doctorate in cranial-facial research, he works in Denver studying the causes of cranio-facial differences, including cleft lip and palate and Treacher-Collins Syndrome, a 1-in-50,000 condition that triggered his facial challenges. In the near future, his research may take him back to London to work with an international team of experts.
Smith often travels long distances to speak about his research. Now, he hopes to find speaking engagements to tell his inspiring life story and spread his message of hope for special-needs children and adults.
“Francis and I want the book to be a stepping-stone to a ministry to reach out to people with special needs and to help them become faith-oriented,” Dubroy said. “They may not be perfect by human standards, but God is still using them in very unique and powerful ways. That’s what I’m hoping to convey through the book.”
She uses the term “untapped capabilities” as an alternative to what others call disabilities.
A special-needs teacher as well as an author, Dubroy met Smith through their church in San Francisco in 2008. She persevered through several setbacks to put his life story into print.
“God had His hand in his life from the very beginning. … His life is a miracle, an absolute miracle,” she said about Smith.
Dubroy sees a right-to-life message in Smith’s biography.
“He would have been aborted in another generation,” she said. “That’s something we feel very strongly about, because God has plans that we can’t possibly perceive, but if we turn our life and our will over to Him, He’s going to do marvelous things with it.”
Smith faces the future with optimism for medical advances and social acceptance.
“I have seen in my own life the evolution of surgical techniques, along with hearing aids, speech therapy and so many other ways of addressing not only the medical and surgical but also the quality-of-life and psychological issues that come with having a cranio-facial difference,” he said.
A year ago, Smith returned to two of his former schools, Canterbury and J.E. Ober Elementary School in Garrett. He spoke about “my life experience as an example of faith and acceptance,” he said.
“Despite my challenges, through my faith and the support of my parents, as well as my determination, I was able to overcome and persevere,” he said.
He hopes that for people with cranio-facial differences, his book “will bring even more awareness and encourage more acceptance.”
Dubroy sees an even greater opportunity for spreading the message of Francis Smith’s life.
“We both desire that this book not end with the book,” she said, “and I am working on the screenplay for it.”