By Charlie Morasch, Land Line contributing writer
For years, Bill McElligott wondered about the raised, brown bumps on the left side of his face. He wondered why his face showed such a stark contrast from one side to the other.
After his grandkids asked him about the bumps last year, McElligott, 69, decided to find the answer.
Since early June, McElligott, now a retired truck driver with nearly 30 years over the road under his belt, has seen his picture flashed across seemingly every cable news outlet and online news source known to man.
Google “trucker” and “sun damage,” and his portrait will litter your screen.
In April, McElligott’s unique case was published in the New England Journal of Medicine. The paper was written by Dr. Jennifer Gordon, who along with Joaquin Brieva, M.D., saw McElligott last year in Illinois. The doctors diagnosed McElligott with unilateral dermatoheliosis or “photo damaged skin.”
A biopsy showed no cancer.
Most people have uneven sun damage and tans if they spent regular time in either a driver’s or passenger seat, Gordon told Land Line.
Gordon, said she spoke with McElligott before the article was posted to make sure he was OK with the publicity, and she believes the story’s popularity has already helped people.
“I think it caught the attention of a lot of people,” Gordon said. “When you think of UV ray damage, you think it can cause skin cancer, but we forget it can cause the aging process as well. This is a great reminder that UV rays can age a person’s skin.”
Gordon said it’s unclear why exactly McElligott has the rare condition.
“There is always the potential that some people are at a higher risk or predisposition to sun damage. However, there are no genes or mutations known that cause people to be severely more affected like this,” Gordon said. “It would also be interesting to see if his truck was unlike others – for instance, if reflection, window size, seat location and other items differed.”
McElligott’s case is rare enough that dermatologists will likely point to his case for years, Gordon said. Before McElligott, the dermatology field frequently referenced a famous case in which a secretary in an office showed rapid aging on half of her face due to 20 years of being seated at a desk in the same location for 20 years, with half her face exposed to bright sunlight.
“Bill’s case is now the updated one,” Gordon said. McElligott now wears sunscreen every time he is exposed to sunlight, she said.
To treat the sun damage, McElligott may undergo multiple surgeries, possibly including a facelift, Gordon said.
Gordon recommends that truckers – and others – wear a sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or greater while riding in vehicles, and said items like tinted windows and wide-brimmed hats can help.
Gordon saw McElligott while she worked as a fellow at Northwestern University. She is now a resident physician at the University of Texas Southwestern in Austin, TX.
American culture has come a long way in educating itself about excessive time in the sun in recent decades, Gordon said. In countries like Australia, she said, concerns of skin cancer and related issues have led to free sunblock dispensers at beaches.
“I have been everywhere,” McElligott said with a laugh.
He is scheduled to be interviewed for a national television show soon, and politely declined to participate in a full interview.
Despite the attention, the veteran driver said he hasn’t yet reached celebrity status.
McElligott said he attended a wedding recently, and it appeared no one recognized him.
In all the years he lived and worked with the sun damage, McElligott said very few people had treated him rudely because of the condition.
“I only had one person ever say, ‘oh, look at that’,” McElligott said.
Editor’s note: Bill McElligott is not related to Dr. John McElligott who regularly writes Trucker MD, a column for Land Line Magazine.