16-year-old with rare condition looks like a 60-year-old but is given new hope after surgery

A youthful desire

There are millions of people out there who spend countless amounts of money each year to look younger. They buy the latest anti-wrinkle creams, they drink gallons of water, they eat the right kinds of food, and they might even have Botox injected into their face! While all of these treatments do work for some time, ultimately nothing can hold off the the aging time clock. Yet, we do have a choice to make when it comes to aging. We can either embrace it, or we can ward it off for a while. Unfortunately, one 16-year-old girl didn’t have a choice in the matter – until surgery opened up a new world of possibilities.

The girl in question

So, who is this 16-year-old girl who looks like a 60-year-old? Well, say hello to Zara Hartshorn! This teenager currently lives in Yorkshire, United Kingdom, and recently made a name for herself after her incredible story made its way across the pond and to media outlets worldwide. The reason for this is because Zara spent most of her life looking completely different to others her age. With saggy skin, wrinkles, and an old face, Zara had an adult’s face on a teenagers body. She put this down to a condition she was diagnosed with when she was a child, a condition called lipodystrophy.

An inherited condition

Zara was just four years old when her parents noticed that her skin was sagging and she was beginning to look older than her times. She was taken to the doctors when she was diagnosed with the condition – which she inherited from her mother. Yes, Zara’s mother, Tracey Gibson, also suffers from the twisted and wrinkled skin and has spent her whole life battling the fact that she looks older than everyone else around her. Although she knew that she wasn’t alone, the diagnosis was a bitter fact to swallow.

Beautiful no matter what

As Zara learned more about her condition, she learned that lipodystrophy results in the decay of bones and fat underneath the surface of the skin, leading to enhanced wrinkling. Zara knew that there was nothing she could do about her condition, but the sight of her aging make her increasingly upset as the years went by. Despite the fact that her mom was by her side and consistently told her that she was beautiful no matter what, it did not help with her self-confidence or body positivity.

Mistaken identity

For the most part, Zara tried to make the most out of a bad situation – but it’s fair to say that she had a difficult upbringing. By the time she was just 12 years old – not yet a teenager – Zara was being mistaken for a middle-aged woman who was aging rapidly. She was often mistaken for one of the teachers at her school, and many people even thought that she was her older sister’s mother. These kinds of comments were extremely upsetting for Zara, who was just a child.

Getting thrown off

However, that was not the most upsetting thing to happen during Zara’s childhood. During her teenage years, Zara attempted to take a local bus and asked the driver for a child’s ticket. After all, she was a child! However, with her aging appearance, the bus driver did not believe that Zara was a child, and asked for identification to prove her age and that she really was younger. When she could not provide this, she was kicked off the bus and left in tears by the side of the road.

Bullied for her looks

Because she looked so different to how she should have looked during her childhood years, Zara was subject to both emotional and physical abuse. She was bullied throughout most of her life, and couldn’t walk down the street without people staring at her and pointing. These experiences would often knock her confidence and feel completely deflated as a person and child. She just couldn’t do anything her friends or classmates were doing after school or at the weekends, and she felt like an outsider.

The worst of times

As she embarked on her mission to undergo a life-changing surgical procedure, Zara spoke in more detail to The Daily Mail about her childhood. She noted that the bullying and the teasing was most hurtful between the ages of 8 and 10 years old. At this age, the kids around her did not realize that their words could hurt so much, and would often point at her and call her names such as “granny” and “monkey.” She was also occasionally physically abused in the playground because of her unique look.

Stopping altogether

In fact, the thought of going to school and interacting with her peers tormented Zara so much that she ultimately stopped going at all, for a while. She wanted to avoid all of the bullies, she wanted to avoid being mistaken for a teacher, and she wanted to avoid being out in the real world. During this time, she liked to hide herself away from the people around her, because she constantly lived with the fear of someone asking her how old she was – and having to give a truthful answer they just wouldn’t believe.

Finding a solution

After years and years of turmoil, Zara and her mother eventually decided to try and find a solution to their illness. So, she made her story public and hoped that experts who knew about her condition would be able to help her. Before too long, an expert in lipodystrophy in the United States got into contact with her and asked her to take the trip to Texas so that he could look into their condition further and hopefully find some way to help them. So, they met up with Dr. Abhimanyu Garg.

A trip the States

Both Zara and her mother were overwhelmed to learn that a leading doctor in the field was willing to help them, and couldn’t wait to make the trip across the pond to meet Dr. Garg. As soon as they got there, Dr. Garg sat them both down and took a variety of tests to investigate their lipodystrophy, and to look into any potential cures or alternatives to help them through their lives. Although Zara and her mother were more than willing to oblige, they had no idea the discoveries their incredible doctor would make…

A misdiagnosis

While Zara and her mother were looking for a solution, they actually received another diagnosis. Although they showed all of the symptoms of lipodystrophy, Dr. Garg discovered that the mother and daughter pair were not carriers of the illness. Instead, they were living with a much rarer condition that he had seen only a few times before in his lifetime and his career. This rare condition is called cutis laxa and is much more serious than their first diagnosis. Zara and her mother just couldn’t believe this turn of events.

A new illness

So, what is cutis laxa? Well, it seems that the actual illness is very similar to lipodystrophy – but affects its carriers on a much larger scale. While the sagging of the skin is one of the main symptoms, sufferers of cutis laxa can also expect a shorter life expectancy, heart problems, lung problems, and even weakened joints. In fact, Zara and Tracey were 2 of the 30 people known to have this illness in the UK. Because of the rarity of their condition, Zara and her mother were worried.

Options A and B

Thankfully, the pair didn’t have to worry for too long, as Dr. Garg was on hand to help the mother and daughter through this new diagnosis. Although there is no known cure for this condition, Dr. Garg was willing to give Zara two options to help her feel more comfortable about her outward appearance. He offered her the opportunity to have cosmetic surgery and have a nose job, or to have a complete facelift, or to have both. After much deliberation, Zara eventually chose to have both!

A successful surgery

Zara’s facelift was a complete success, and Dr. Garg was incredibly proud of what she had achieved under the knife. When it was finally time to see what the doctors had done to her face, Zara waited in anticipation as she watched the bandages come off her face one by one. For the first time, she was going to see her face without wrinkles and without signs of aging, and the end result gave her a “mixture of surprise and happiness” at the new face that was staring back at her.

A complete turnaround

Zara was over the moon with her transformation and noted that her facelift and nose job had completely turned her life around. Although she had had boyfriends in the past, her new face presented a new love interest in the form of her boyfriend, Ricky. Despite the fact that Ricky met Zara after her surgery, she has shown him pictures of her face before and noted that he still thought she was beautiful. Yet, now she has had the facelift, she finally believes him and knows that she is.

New lease of life

This new face and boyfriend have given Zara a completely new lease of life. While she hated school as a child and often tried to stay at home away from the rest of the world, Zara is now making it her mission to see what the world has to offer and make the most of herself. It’s now her dream to go to college and study beauty therapy, with the aim to own her own beauty parlor in the future. Now that she has the confidence, she knows she can do anything.

Not listening to the bullies

Although there are still people who laugh at the old photographs of Zara and call her names behind her back, Zara is now much too happy to listen to what her haters have to say. She can now walk down the street with confidence that she is young and beautiful, and the confidence that the bullies will not get to her. Rather than before, she now brushes off all of the criticism and all of the negativity and focuses on how far she has come in her short life.

Lucky to have the opportunity

Despite the fact that she is ready to move on from her life of pain, Zara often likes to take a moment and look back on the past few years. After suffering from her premature aging for so long, Zara and her mother were extremely lucky to be approached by Dr. Garg. It wasn’t until that moment that Zara got a real diagnosis and a real answer to her illness, and later offered life-changing surgery free of charge across the pond. She counts her lucky stars every day for this fact.

Looking younger, feeling older

Now, Zara looks younger than she has ever been, and she is extremely happy with the end result. She can now live her life as a normal 16-year-old and look back on this experience with happy memories. Through this ordeal, Zara has noted that although she may look younger, she is still older on the inside. After all, you can’t go through the kind of things Zara went through without growing up extremely quickly. And she still had some growing up to do, as her troubles were not nearly over.

Adversity follows Zara

Life isn’t a fairytale, and sometimes even when we think we have found a happy ending, fate proves to have just a little more in store for us. That certainly proved to be the case for Zara four years after her operation. Slowly but surely, her skin began sagging again and a family dispute drove a wedge between her and her mother. Even worse, she had been letting herself go health-wise and not looking after herself as she should have been.

Immense high leads to precipitous low

Just coming back from her surgery in the United States, Zara professed her life was amazing. Not only was she in a relationship, but she also became pregnant. But then she lost her baby, and her relationship ended. Despite suffering from a potentially dangerous condition, she also had not seen a doctor since her operation in Texas, choosing instead to repress any health concerns. What’s more, it seemed like her condition was once again rearing its head…

Cutis laxa strikes again

Despite getting the transformative facelift, Zara’s skin began to sag again, especially when she smiled. “It’s horrible, it makes me feel old,” she lamented, adding she was only 20 years old, and wanted to look – and act – like a 20 year old. Her overall health had also begun to deteriorate, to the point that Zara could no longer ignore it. Mustering up the courage, she contacted a specialist who had some very grave news for the young woman.

Potentially life-threatening danger

The doctor – one Zsolt Urban – had been studying cutis laxa for a long period of time, and informed Zara that her condition may lead her to suffer from sudden, and possibly fatal, heart failure. She now realized at long last the gravity of her situation. “I disregarded it like it wasn’t even serious,” she said. “I was terrified.” She had no other choice but to come into a hospital for a thorough heart scan, and hope for the best.

Given the all clear

To her palpable relief, the scan showed her heart was fine. She could barely find the words to describe what she felt. “I’m buzzing,” she simply uttered. “I’m not going to die.” Given something of a new lease on life, Zara knew she had to use her time on this planet to do good. And she knew just the way to do it – by publicizing her condition and hopefully helping others suffering from it in the process.

Tracey’s trials

We touched earlier on the fact that Zara had inherited her condition from her mother, but we didn’t elaborate on how seriously it had affected her mother’s life. In fact, Tracey admitted that when people used to bully her and call her “granny,” something that undoubtedly hurt her feelings quite a ton. For this reason, she knew she had to do something drastic. And what do you think she did? The same thing her daughter did.

Not your typical family

Just like her daughter had gotten surgery done on her face, Tracey decided to walk down that same road. When you think about the way her face looked before, the transformation is truly astonishing. It’s really interesting the way that Tracey took a leaf out of her daughter’s book, because it happens the other way around in life. Of course, things were never the most conventional with this family – and that’s what sets them apart from everyone else.

Not cheap

Although it’s cool to talk about the surgeries that these ladies have gotten, it would be prudent to mention that these things cost money. You can’t just walk up to a doctor and say, “Hey you, give me a facelift.” These are procedures that will cost anyone top dollar, which only goes to show how badly these women needed it. The fact that they were willing to spend so much money just shows how hard the times they went through were.

The grand total

Tracey revealed to the public that all the work that had been done on her face costed a total of £50,000! For those of you who don’t know how much that is in U.S. dollars, it’s around $64 thousand. So how did it get to cost so much? Well, apparently it wasn’t just work on her face that the doctors were doing. In order to fully revitalize Tracey’s look, they had to give her not only a facelift, but also a neck lift and other various fillers.

Her time to shine

Just to remind you what Tracey looked like before her surgery here’s another picture of her before it took place. She is the one on the right, and she clearly was impressed by the work that the doctors had been able to do with her daughter. Sometimes we can be hesitant to do things in life, and all we need is a little push. It seems that once Zara got her surgery out of the way, Tracey figured that it was finally her time to shine.

Spiritual rejuvenation

Now that Tracey and Zara have both gotten rejuvenations on their physical appearances, the way they approach life has totally changed. It’s not that they weren’t happy before, but things are certainly easier for them now. Tracey says that getting up in the morning “feels absolutely amazing” now, which is something that we should all be so lucky to feel. If this picture is any indication, Zara also seems to have an extra skip in her step.

A self-comparison

Tracey also had another interesting comment to say regarding how she perceives the way she looked before her surgery. She said that when she looks at old pictures of herself, she thinks she looks like the dragon from Shrek. She also has gone on record to say that people used to bully her by calling her a “monkey.” No one should have to be exposed to such ridicule, so we’re happy that she was able to move on from such a time in her life.


What can we learn from the story of Zara and her mother Tracey? Well, one thing we can learn is that sometimes money can help you with certain things… But that is not the underlying message here. Although the surgery helped both of these women feel better about themselves, it was their happiness and resilience on the inside that ultimately helped them pull through. These are truly strong women, and we can learn a lot from them.

‘There is a reason’

Speaking candidly about cutis laxa, Zara said she believed there was a reason she was born with it. “There is a reason I am the way I am,” she assured reporters, adding that the future for her was about trying to help as many people as possible. “I would like to inspire and try to help and reach out to those people (who) are scared to come forward and admit to the world that they have got this illness,” she concluded.

The real life Benjamin Button

Far from Zara’s U.K. home, a boy was suffering from a skin condition that was no less serious than the young woman’s. Dubbed the “real life Benjamin Button,” six-year-old Yernar Alibekov of Kazakhstan has Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, a rare condition that affects connective tissue. He was diagnosed a month after being born, as his eyelids were so saggy that he couldn’t stop scratching them. Now, at just six, the young boy looked like an old man.

Surgical intervention required

As in Zara’s case, Yernar also needed surgery to try and offset some of the condition’s worse side effects. The problem was that the country he resides in, Kazakhstan, bars skin graft operations for anyone under the age of 18. Nevertheless, his mother Zibensa Tulepbergenova lobbied a hospital in the capital of Astana to waive the requirement and perform the operation anyway. Now all she needed was a way to pay for the costly procedure, or wait for an unspecified amount of time for it to be carried out for free.

Raising the funds

Zibensa was unwilling to wait and let her child suffer for the years it would take for him to move to the front of the public line, and therefore set about raising the requisite funds to pay to have the operation done privately. Yernar’s family was required to pay 112,000 Kazakhstani tenge out of pocket to have the operation performed. Though worth the equivalent of only 312 dollars, it was far too high a sum for his family to raise on its.

Prospects remain grim

Using the help of volunteers and friends, Yernar’s family was successful in raising the sum. Experts, however, are highly skeptical as to its efficacy in “curing” the young boy. Dr. Olga Loseva explained that his condition was rare, occurring in one in 50,000 people, and that surgery won’t truly improve his skin condition. The only way to help him, she said, was to “mitigate (the) consequences” of his condition and take care of him. Our fingers remained crossed for Yernar, with the hope that surgery might help him as it did Zara – but permanently.