Austin Niehus was born with a rare condition that caused him to possess physical deformities. As a result, the teenager looked different to other kids his age – and, sadly, some of his peers weren’t able to look beyond his appearance to find the sweet boy within. But after years of bullying, one meeting changed Austin’s life.
Austin, who hails from Craig, Colorado, was born with Goldenhar syndrome, or oculo-auriculo-vertebral (OAV) syndrome. This is characterized by the incomplete development of parts of the head and face; as such, then, those with Goldenhar typically look different to individuals without the condition.
Experts aren’t sure what causes Goldenhar syndrome, however. And the condition is rare, too, as it’s present in just one out of 3,500 to 26,000 births. Interestingly, though, Goldenhar affects males more than females by a ratio of 3:2.
And after Austin came into the world, doctors warned his mother, Kera Niehus, that her son probably wouldn’t live to turn one year old. However, Austin proved himself to be a fighter, and, eventually, he grew into an energetic young man.
In 2016, then, Austin was 15 years old; at that point, however, he had already undergone more than 50 reconstructive surgeries. Because he had been born with half of his jaw missing, over the years doctors have had to repair his palate and correct his cleft lip. Austin has also endured bone grafts, a tracheotomy and ear surgery.
Sadly, those procedures weren’t the only challenges that Austin has had to overcome in his short life. From an early age, the youngster had also found himself the victim of heartless bullies, who picked on him for how he looked.
Austin’s experiences didn’t stop him from living his life the best way he could, though. And, in the process, he developed a love of sport – particularly hiking, basketball and fishing. Even so, the young man didn’t have a special friend to share the highs and lows of life with.
And that was the case until British production company Raw TV stepped in. In 2016 Raw TV was making a documentary television show for TLC; in it, the team wanted to showcase Austin’s life, his struggles and his first tentative steps into friendship.
However, before producers set Austin up with his new buddy, they wanted to give viewers an idea of his everyday life. So, for around two weeks, a film crew followed the teen everywhere – from basketball practice to hospital appointments.
Revealing what the experience was like for Austin, his school’s basketball coach Gerard Geis told the Steamboat Pilot & Today in 2016, “[He] did very well with it. It was pretty exhausting for him. The cameras followed him everywhere he went for a while. Kind of gave him a taste of what it’s like to live on a reality show. He had a lot of fun with it, but he was worn out.”
Once the two weeks of filming were done, however, it was time for the teen to meet a new potential friend. Specifically, the showrunners introduced Austin to a girl named Elena Schefer. And as the TV show’s name – Two in a Million – suggests, she too has Goldenhar syndrome.
At the end of the episode, then, 12-year-old Elena flew in from her home in Seattle, Washington, to meet Austin in person. And in the resulting footage, it’s clear to see that both she and the teenager are excited to meet each other.
The show depicts Austin staring anxiously out of his window, waiting for Elena’s arrival. Then, when he sees her car arriving, he, Kera and his siblings all run out into the snow. And when Elena finally steps into the cold, Austin rushes towards her and greets her with a hug.
After Austin and Elena’s families meet, the pair then bond over a warming mug of hot chocolate. Elena subsequently introduces Austin to her adorable dog; she also hands him a gift. And in those first moments of meeting, the duo may have each felt like they had someone who knew what they were going through – perhaps for the first time ever.
Revealing her thoughts to the camera, Elena says, “Oh my gosh! He’s right there. I can actually touch him.” Later in the footage, she adds, “It felt really, really nice to finally meet. I’m just really happy to be able to talk to him in person.”
And it’s clear to see that Austin is equally as thrilled to have made Elena’s acquaintance. Speaking of his new buddy, the teenager gushes, “She’s awesome. She’s the type of person that you can be really, really good friends with. Like, dang!”
Austin and Elena’s time together also gives them the chance to go snow tubing and just be kids – something that had otherwise been difficult for them. “Doing this will be fun for her and me ’cause we will be able to just hang out,” Austin explains on the show.
Indeed, over the course of their encounter, Austin and Elena appear to develop a unique bond. And even though they live more than a thousand miles apart, they vow to keep in contact. What’s more, the pair’s union is invaluable – especially for Austin, who revealed, “I feel like I’m not alone now.”
And for Austin’s mom Kera, hearing those words from her son made all the difference. “It was just a phenomenal experience,” she later told the Steamboat Pilot & Today. “Austin, throughout the whole thing, found a very good friend. I have a feeling him and Elena are going to be friends for life.”
Furthermore, Austin and Elena’s families also made a deep connection during the meeting, as Kera explained. She said, “We found a new family through this whole Goldenhar world that we can relate with. It really was the most amazing thing to happen for Austin. It really, really was. I would do it again in a second, if it meant he could have this kind of opportunity again.”