March 18, 2011 at 5:42 PM ET
A Chinese man spent 55 years with the opening to his rectum in the wrong place. That's an unusually long time to live without a normal anus.
He had a relatively common birth defect known as imperforate anus, a condition in which one out of every 5,000 infants is born with a misplaced, blocked, or missing rectal opening. The problem occurs slightly more frequently in boys than girls, and its cause is unknown.
Surgeons typically repair the abnormality during infancy. Unfortunately for Wu, a Chinese farmer from Hubei Province, he couldn't afford this operation until middle age.
So, how did he move his bowels for more than half a century?
"Wu endured a .5 centimeter diameter surgical hole, or stoma, near his urethra for excrement, through which he could squeeze stools out with his hands," according to a story originally reported in the Wuhan Morning News.
It sounds gross, but medically speaking, he had a colostomy, a procedure that created a less than 1/4-inch wide "surgical hole," which substituted as his anus. This opening was located closer to his scrotum in a more forward position on his body than rear. Colostomy is the first stage of a two-part operation needed to correct imperforate anus.
Still, it's an awfully messy -- and weird -- way to go to the bathroom. Although living this way wasn't easy, he made do. "Wu had to pay attention to the food he ate, avoid constipation and was a frequent user of laxatives," explains the newspaper account. "The dilemma left him very thin but it did not prevent him [from] getting married and having children."
This January, the poor fellow finally saved up enough money so a surgeon could give him something he had waited a lifetime for -- an anatomically correct anus.
"What I find most unique about this case is that this gentleman went for more than five decades without getting proper treatment," says Dr. Rafael Pieretti, chief of pediatric urology at MassGeneral Hospital for Children in Boston. "In developed countries, children have imperforate anus surgically repaired within the first year of life." In fact, surgery to correct a less-serious form of the abnormality can be done by any pediatric surgeon; the more complicated cases go to pediatric urologists like Pieretti.
Fortunately for Wu, within three days of the operation, he reportedly "could excrete like normal people."