‘The way you see people is the way you treat them and the way you treat them is the way they become.’ – Johann Von Goethe
The World Health Organization defines ‘health’ as a “state of complete physical, mental and social well-being not merely the absence of disease or infirmity” … we couldn’t agree more.
In treating many thousands of people of all ages over the past 30+ years, for reconstructive deformities as well as aesthetic concerns, we have experienced and learned a great deal about health, happiness, and wellness from our patients. From birth deformities in children with cleft lip and palate to adults treated for traumatic injuries, and breast or skin cancers, it is so gratifying to see the functional as well as aesthetic benefits in quality of life for patients after reconstructive plastic surgery.
However, for patients electing to undergo cosmetic surgical and non-surgical procedures, measuring efficacy and benefit to the quality of life, goes beyond the obvious physical issues and although not as obvious or measurable, may have a powerful impact on overall health by profoundly improving a patient’s physical, emotional, mental, and social well-being, and most of all, personal happiness.
Every patient often has a unique story, but some especially impact all of us as caregivers forever.
Meet Ross, a 75 year old retired engineer.
Ross was referred to EVOLV because of complicated facial deformities and scarring resulting from radical oral cancer surgery and reconstruction. Ross was a mechanical engineer with a long and recognized professional career developing aviation robotics and looking forward to retirement when he was diagnosed in 2007 with a very rare and particularly aggressive form of oral cancer that had metastasized to his mandible. He was referred to the University of Michigan where he underwent radical resection of his jaw and surrounding tissues followed by a series of complex microvascular reconstructions. Although the cancer was successfully removed, the extensive surgery and post-operative radiation therapy resulted in severe loss of the jaw and lip tissue along with severe scarring.
As a result, Ross was not able to retain food and liquids in his mouth, had constant drooling, and was forced to take fluids with a special tube. Because of the scarring of his lips and oral tissues, his speech was rarely understandable and a conversation often not possible… all of which he found extremely frustrating and embarrassing. Even though he was cured of aggressive cancer, the limitations and difficulty in speech and simple eating and drinking with friends and family for Ross were devastating. After he lost his wife of over 30 years recently to cancer, he was left alone and without much of the enjoyment of his life in every way.
Ross had been evaluated at multiple centers looking for some improvement but was told nothing could be done other than a series of major and very risky complex reconstructions, which would have little chance of major improvement. After our consultation, Ross told us he would be grateful for any improvement, understood the risks, as he had run out of options as well as hope.
We couldn’t say no to Ross.
Ross was scheduled at Regency Outpatient Surgical Center but was not able to have general anesthesia due to his severely scarred airway and oral tissues. We planned to attempt to reconstruct the lips and tissue around the mouth so that he might be able to take and retain food and fluids more normally as well as to help his speech by repositioning the scarred structures to a more functional position. But Ross would have to agree to have the surgery done under local anesthesia with injection pain blocks only. He agreed and said he would drive himself to the surgery center and have a friend drive him home after the procedure. We were all touched by the gratitude, courage, and graciousness of this man.
Ross’s reconstructive surgery was done under local anesthesia in January. As expected, there was extensive scarring and atrophy off his oral tissues from previous radiation and surgery. We released the tethering scars of his upper and lower lips and repositioned the muscles around his mouth. Ross was awake during the entire 3-hour procedure and never complained or moved at all. When we were finished, Ross asked to see his result, so we gave him a mirror right there in the operation room. When Ross first looked at his result, he became tearful and so did we. He thanked us again and again, and then went home.
When we caught up with Ross in the office after his procedure and as the swelling resolved, he was a changed man… you could see it in his eyes. For the first time in years and even though the swelling was still a factor, Ross could drink liquids without drooling or embarrassment. And most importantly, his lips were able to touch and move more normally so he could pronounce normal sounds and his friends could understand his speech. But most importantly to Ross, and even though he accepted that he would always have facial scarring, he now felt like he looked like himself and didn’t feel so self-conscious about his facial appearance… Ross’s life was changed, he was a happy man. We were all thrilled.
Patients like Ross remind us all, why we love what we do. The scarring and deformities that so profoundly affected Ross’s life, were not only functional but also aesthetic. Of course, it is understandable how restoring the ability to have a conversation and communicate, as well as enjoy a dinner with friends and drink and eat without drooling or other embarrassments, would be impactful. But what is far more difficult to fully appreciate, is how our facial appearance can affect not only our own lives but those around us. What is often dismissed as mere ‘vanity’, misunderstands the innate human drive to be attractive. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the human desire to feel and look attractive transcends social, cultural, and economic boundaries.
The language of beauty and appearance is innate and consistent across all ages and cultures, and as studies have proven, perhaps the most powerful of energies influencing our lives. This is our evolutionary biology and the human programming that influences our mental, emotional, social, and physical well-being… and as a result, our overall health and quality of life. This is the science of beauty and consequently the power of aesthetics which so deeply affects the quality of our lives.
Our unforgettable experience with Ross reminds us of the wisdom in the famous philosopher Goethe’s quote about how our appearance and the way we see people is so life-changing. And that is one of the reasons why we love the unique artistic blend of aesthetics along with the reconstructive potential in our specialty of plastic surgery and cosmetic medicine.
And thank you, Ross, for your courage and gratitude in giving us such a special and lifelong gift to remember.