Affected by one of the rarest illnesses in the world, Pollitt Syndrome sufferer James Henlan thought he would never meet anybody like him.
But that dream came true when fellow American patient Austin Hopkins was flown halfway across the world for a once-in-a-lifetime meeting in Birmingham yesterday.
It is believed to be the first time that two people suffering from this rare debilitating syndrome have met.
Both James, of Sheldon, and Austin, from Columbus in Ohio, United States, are two of only ten known people in the world with Pollitt Syndrome, a genetic disease causing severe disabilities and which sees the patient grow no bigger than a child.
When Austin’s family saw a report about James four years ago, they set the wheels in motion to try to bring the two together.
Yesterday the pair revelled in each other’s company even though 27-year-old James is registered blind and deaf and 16-year-old Austin cannot read or write but knows the lyrics to 100 songs, particularly those of his favourite musician Eric Clapton.
Father Donald Hopkins, a 50-year-old beer company worker, and wife Patricia, a 54-year-old disabilities officer, raised enough money with neighbourhood donations to fly 4,000 miles to the UK with Austin and their other son Blake, aged 19.
Mr Hopkins said: “From the moment Austin saw a picture of James on the internet, he said ’that looks just like me’ and I knew we had to bring them together.
“For 16 years, Austin has never seen anyone who was anything like him. Meeting another person with Pollitt Syndrome has been an amazing experience for him and this trip has been very emotional for both the families. They have been extremely excited.
“We want James to know that we will be a part of his life. There may be an opportunity for us to help him and for him to be a big brother to Austin.
“We had so much help getting here from people in America raising money for this trip. It has been worth every penny.
“My goal now is to find more people around the world and set up a support group.”
The Hopkins family is spending the week in the Midlands seeing James, who is cared for in a Coventry care home but spends four days a week at Elizabeth Gunn Centre, in Harborne, run by charity Focus Birmingham for young people with disabilities.
James’s friends at the centre also made a warm welcome to Austin and his family and played Austin’s favourite songs including Clapton’s I Shot the Sheriff.
James’s grandmother Rose Henlan said: “This is so wonderful and James is very happy. It’s wonderful to think that Austin’s family travelled halfway across the world to allow the pair to finally meet. It’s an extremely special moment.”
James’s foster parents, pensioners Ken and Lilian Hawkes, of Sheldon, became too frail to continue caring for the former Barnado’s boy in 2004.
They had looked after him for ten years despite originally being asked to provide a safe house for James for three weeks.
Pollitt Syndrome is a rare condition characterised by brittle hair and limitations to mental and physical growth.