CALHOUN, GA -- Donnie Fritts was asked to make a choice. Die - with his face. Or live without it. He chose. This is one of the most amazing stories we have ever seen. It is the story of faith and the darkest of places.
Out for a walk on a beautiful day, it's something Donnie Fritts does not take for granted.
Because taking a walk for Donnie is different than it is for us. In the small Georgia town of Calhoun, he is well-known. But it is hard not to notice how people try to stare.
"I had a knot come up on the roof of my mouth that was very tender," Donnie said.
Fritts was a newlywed, married to Sharon. A second marriage for both, they were very happy and very much in love.
"He just always made me laugh he was so funny," Sharon said.
But the knot in his mouth got worse.
"My nose actually swelled, it got real wide and it turned black," Donnie said.
Fourteen doctors later, Donnie got a diagnosis: a rare form of cancer -- ameloblastic carcinoma -- three stage four tumors in the center of his face. The only treatment was drastic and life altering.
Doctors told him --
"We're going to take your nose, your top lip, the roof of your mouth, your forehead, part of your brain," he said. "We're sitting there in shock. You don't believe what's coming out of the doctor's mouth."
Even with the surgery, doctors gave him a less than two percent chance of survival.
"They gave him the option, die with your face on and basically die with your face off," Sharon said.
To see Donnie today is to know the choice that he made.
"It was a nightmare. I would lay in bed at night and dream they were dissecting my face until there was nothing left except a bottom lip," Donnie said. "And I would be saying 'Help me, help me'."
Donnie was the 16th person in the world to have this cancer. The 12 hour surgery was performed at Emory Hospital.
"I remember like it was yesterday. She walked in the room and she smiled and she said 'You look good,' and I shook my head no," Donnie said.
Unable to speak, Donnie wrote this to Sharon.
"'You, Sharon, like to just get out of here. You're a living thing. I feel like a dead, dying thing' And I said Donnie 'What's wrong?' and he said 'I saw myself today'," Sharon said.
"When they was putting me up on the x-ray table," Donnie said. "I caught a glimpse of myself in the x-ray machine and actually I jumped back. It scared me. It was like seeing a monster just starting at me. I began to weep. I couldn't believe how horrendous I looked."
Donnie had seriously considered dying with his face on. Life after the surgery was excruciatingly painful, and humiliating.
"We'd walk into a store together and you'd see a parent get their kid and pull them over," he said. "I remember coming home and telling Sharon I'm not going out in public no more because it hurt me for somebody to say something when they didn't know what I'd been through."
Donnie's world shrank. He found solace in the solitary work of building birdhouses -- creating places of comfort and refuge. Something he couldn't find himself.
Then a team of a miracle workers entered Donnie and Sharon's lives. Dr. Defrain, Dr. Singer, Dr. Ross and Robert Barron.
The Washington-based doctors teamed up to rebuild his face. One created a palate, affixed to his face with a bar. It allowed him to eat for the first time in six years.
Robert Barron would make Donnie his nose. Barron worked for over 20 years for the CIA, putting agents in hiding. He's a true master of disguise. His creation would bring Donnie out of hiding.
Once Donnie's face was in place, the real test was to come.
"I walked in the mall and noticed people walking by, not even looking at me, no double-takes or anything," he said.
"We were watching everyone's faces as Donnie walked by and no one looked at him twice," said Sharon. "That was probably one of the most exciting days of my whole life."
It was a change that took some getting used to.
"Now I gotta get used to my nose, because I was used to going straight in [to kiss Sharon], and now I have broken her nose because I need to learn to tilt," Donnie said.
"We don't tilt -- we're so used to going straight in. He just about knocked me out the day he got his nose," Sharon said.
The man Sharon loved for being funny, still is.
"I was in town the other day and a lady walked up to me and she said 'Donnie you look good, can you blow your nose?' Yeah, sure," Donnie said as he removed his nose and blew across it.
Today Donnie is cancer-free, having long ago defied the dismal odds.
His life is still difficult, his days still filled with pain. Physically he has been made whole. Spiritually he has come even further.
"Some people go, 'Oh poor you, Donnie.' I think it's make me a better person than I used to be," he said. "Made me a stronger person, a more caring person."
And for a young marriage that was tested in ways most cannot imagine, love has endured and the commitment remains.
"He's still funny, still strong, still beautiful," Sharon said. "Always will be."
The cost of rebuilding Donnie's face was not covered by insurance, because it was considered a cosmetic procedure. Hard to believe, but true. So they've had fundraisers and generous people help pay the almost million dollar cost.
Before Singer built Donnie's palate, he had no way to chew his food for about six years. The palate is stabilized by being affixed to a t-shaped bar attached to Donnie's face. It is held in place by pins. Now, Donnie can eat - even his favorite, steak.
The nose and eyebrows are attached to the bar. Donnie's pain can be severe. But he has an unwaivering faith that he says has carried him through.
And Sharon has been his rock.
Donnie and Sharon took time out Tuesday night to participate in a live chat on 11Alive.com to answer questions from viewers. You can look at the transcript in the chat box below.