PINELLAS COUNTY, Fla. — Clearwater parents Kaitlyn and Tim McCallum immediately knew there was an issue with their newborn son, James, when he was born.

What You Need To Know

  • Clearwater residents Kaitlyn and Tim McCallum began to notice a shell-like growth on back of their newborn son, James

  • A pediatric dermatologist in Orlando diagnosed James with giant congenital melanocytic nevus

  • Doctors have completed the removal process and now they’ve started a series of procedures to replace the bad skin with good skin

  • View photos of James' journey below

Kaitlyn delivered James in August, 2021. When he came out, there was a scabby growth on his back.

“(It was) terrifying, to say the least,” Kaitlyn said. “Right when he was born, it was pretty flat. There was a bump by his neck, there was a lump.”

“That’s kind of concerning, when you have medical professionals and they’re telling you they’ve never seen this before,” said Tim, who said doctors were initially puzzled.

As the McCallum parents searched for answers, struggling with the uncertainty, the growth increased in size, becoming lumpier and fattier. The spots grew darker, the texture became fleshier and the exterior grew hairier.

The growth began to resemble a turtle shell, with Kaitlyn and Tim adopting the nickname of “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle” for their toddler.

“We try to give him any superhero nickname, because that’s what he is to us,” Kaitlyn said.

Unfortunately, the shell-like growth also began to hinder James’ life. He couldn’t sleep on his back, which is a safe sleep practice for babies, and his head and neck movement became more and more restricted.

Finally, a pediatric dermatologist in Orlando offered a diagnosis: A giant congenital melanocytic nevus.

It’s a large patch of skin, often described as a mole or a birthmark, which presents at birth or develops in a baby’s first year. It is usually not harmful, though it can develop into cancer or become dangerous if it reaches the brain or spine. Thankfully, in James’ case, it was cumbersome, but harmless.

“Getting that diagnosis of ‘Okay, here is what It is, here’s who you can go to, here’s how we’re going to fix it,’ that was the moment of, ‘Okay, we can do this,’” Kaitlyn said.

Doctors began the removal process when James was six months old, starting with the lump by his neck and then moving down his back to remove the bulk of the shell. Now, they’ve started a series of procedures to remove the bad skin and replace it with good skin. A specialist at the University of Chicago is spearheading that work.

When it’s all over, doctors hope James will be left with nothing more than a scar. His parents know their turtle-shell hero will have a story to tell and they’ll look back on the strength it took for all of them to endure this birth surprise.

“I’ve learned how strong you can be and how much a mother can do for a kid,” Kaitlyn said. “Just keep staying strong. There’s an end to this and we’re almost there.”