METAIRIE, La. -- A man in his early 50s says it's a miracle he is alive.
Now, he wants to inspire people with emotional and physical challenges to know they're valuable.
Thomas Leggett, 53, goes through a lengthy ritual every day, going through a long process to mix special liquid food in a feeding machine.
"This awesome computer, that thing talks to you like a human being," he said pressing buttons so a compact machine will pump food through the tubes and into a hole in his abdomen.
It's all because Thomas can't, and will never, be able to eat.
"This is my daily life and I enjoy it. Well, I came to enjoy it knowing that I can't eat again," he said.
The story behind Thomas' reality, and downright cheerful acceptance of his lot in life, goes back to 1965.
Thomas was only two-years-old, from a big happy family in the Irish Channel. His mother, Mary Leggett, stayed home raising eight children. However, that life-changing day, she was at Charity Hospital and had just given birth to a baby. His father was at home with all the children, and that's when Thomas screamed.
"He said his mouth was burning and they gave him water. When they gave him water, instead of it staying in his mouth, it went down his esophageal cord," remembers Mary.
Thomas had swallowed one of the strongest chemicals, made to melt through thick clogs in pipes, Drano crystals. He was rushed to Charity Hospital, just floors below his mother and new baby brother. There he stayed for nearly three years.
There was extensive damage from his tongue and throat, down his esophagus to his stomach and intestines. But he was alive because the first woman surgeon in Louisiana, and first pediatric surgeon in the state, Dr. Rowena Spencer, was on staff at LSU School of Medicine. She was trained to perform a colonic interposition, surgically taking part of Thomas' colon to rebuild his throat and esophagus that had disintegrated.
"She was also sent from God, by God and through God, because the surgery that she did wasn't performed normally back there in '65 at all," said Thomas.
Doctors at Children's Hospital said accidental poisonings with dangerous household items are more likely to happen to children between the ages of one and five, and are more common in boys.
"They're getting into something that they shouldn't have by accident, something that should have been locked up or should have been kept in a safer place that by accident was not," explained Dr. Brent Keith, an LSU Health Sciences Center Pediatric Gastroenterologist who practices at Children's Hospital.
Now disfigured, Thomas' mother's mission was to make her son emotionally strong.
"He asked us this question once, 'Why did this happen to me?' I said, 'That's a question that you shouldn't ask. Why not you?'" Mary told him. "You got to learn to accept what you can't change and make that next step. It's a giant step, but you got to make it."
The surgery saved his life. But her support could not save him from horrific bullying in school.
"I was called every name in the book. They used to call me fish, muzzle, duck," recalls Thomas.
Being reminded today that her son was called ugly and had things thrown at him, is the only time mother Mary was speechless, gesturing through tears how she got him through it with big hugs.
He was too ashamed of being disfigured to ask girls out. A big sister helped him through those times, telling schoolmates he could not help the way he looked, reminding Thomas he was a miracle child.
"Thomas, never worry about what anyone says about you, you know. You thank God that you still alive," Mary said she told her son.
Thomas went through this tough time without his dad. A couple of short years after he got out of the hospital, his father passed. Mother Mary, who now had to go to work, three jobs and eight children, says he went to his grave feeling guilt over Thomas' accident.
"Well, he started drinking and I would always tell him drinking wasn't the way out. Drinking wasn't going to heal our problem. You got to learn how to heal from within," Mary told her husband.
Thomas did get married and has a grown son. He did warehouse work. For a while, he could eat very soft food, but swallowing was tortuous. Today with his marriage ended, and on disability, he constantly goes to doctors appointments. More surgeries are not an option.
"This is the end. That's it. No more. They can't go in," he says he is told by his physicians.
So now he has a new mission. He's written a book. He wants others with health challenges to be inspired by his journey to happiness.
"The number one message that I would love for everyone to know is, that there has to be a God up above to keep me alive from 1965 'til this present day," he says.
Mary keeps his spirit soaring.
"A lot of people need to know because you're going through something that doesn't mean that's the end. It could be your beginning," she believes.
Even though Thomas now has to sleep sitting up, because choking to death in his sleep is a real possibility, he focuses on helping others and their comfort around him with levity.
"The number one thing I always wanted to do is eat a steak. God knows I wanted to eat that steak and that hamburger so bad," Thomas laughs.
And his other dream is that someone, someday will tell his story on the big screen.
Dr. Rowena Spencer died nearly three years ago at the age of 91. She was dedicated to helping children. She would carry and sing to them before and after surgery.
She said, "Babies are people. They need more than bottles and a diaper." (Dr. Spencer told this to Charles Fishkin, a friend and former patient, reported in her nola.com obituary.)
Editor's note from Meg: I met Thomas Leggett by chance. I was filling up my car at a gas station on Veterans Memorial Blvd. in Metairie last year, when he came running out of the convenient store to tell me his story. He was passionate and had his book and flyers and card ready to give me. Maybe our chance meeting wasn't by chance at all.
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