Surgeons reconstruct facial features to restore look, function and hope

Jonathan Bailey, DMD, MD, FACS, examines each oral cancer patient and prepares him or her for surgery. “If the cancer is caught quickly and the person has good vascular health, we can not only remove the cancer, but we can also reconstruct the mouth and face – all in one surgery,” Dr. Bailey said.

Sue Bramlett learned she had cancer in her jaw in early May, 2014. “I was blown away, afraid and had many questions,” she said. “Dr. Bailey and the Carle staff were very approachable. I never felt like a number. Dr. Bailey was confident, competent and allayed most of my fears.”

Carle is the only hospital in east central Illinois where patients can have oral cancer reconstruction surgery.

“Oral cancer is scary,” Dr. Bailey commented. “But we can offer the cancer patient hope.”

Before the surgery, a head and neck CT scan gives the doctors a good map of the patient’s facial contours – which is the model they will use for facial reconstruction.

Dr. Bailey has been doing oral cancer reconstruction surgery since arriving at Carle in 2001. Dr. Bailey’s surgical partner is Kelly Cunningham, MD, who is fellowship trained in Head and Neck Surgery and Microvascular Reconstruction. She has been at Carle since 2011.

During surgery, Dr. Bailey removes the tumor and Dr. Cunningham takes some bone, skin, and arterial veins from the patient’s leg or arm. Once the tumor is out, Dr. Cunningham uses the bone and tissue to reconstruct facial features. She uses a microscope for this intricate operation.

“This is an eight- to 12-hour procedure,” Dr. Bailey said. “The patient will wake up and, aside from incisions, see the same face. The contours are the same. The proportions are the same. And, ultimately and hopefully, the functions will be the same.”

“I can’t emphasize enough the comradery and the relationship that has been built up between Dr. Bailey, I and our staff,” Dr. Cunningham said. “It’s been so much easier on me and Dr. Bailey to do these big surgeries, because we have complete trust in one another and those around us.”

Cancer survivor Bramlett says the physicians told her she faced a long recovery, and she estimates she is 75-percent recovered.

“They got to know me and knew that I enjoyed working out. Dr. Bailey told me my recovery was going to be like pushing through a hard exercise set – I just had to gut it out, to stay strong and I’d be OK,” she said. “That really helped me recover. His analogy was an important point to remember through the recovery from my long surgery and then the 30 radiation treatments. It was my mantra throughout and really helped me stay strong, encouraged and confident that someday I would look and feel like the old me. And as I heal, I’m definitely getting there.”

Dr. Cunningham and Dr. Bailey are invested in patients’ lives long after surgery.

“It’s not until after the patient leaves the hospital and comes back to see me that I truly know if we’ve done well,” Dr. Cunningham said. “Typically, the patient isn’t eating yet, so once I have more visits and begin putting them back on food – that’s when I begin to feel really good about what we’ve done.”