Ann O’Sullivan, 69, from Roehampton went to see her GP about a sinus problem only to discover her headaches were caused by an aggressive tumour that had been spreading undetected across the left side of her face.
Maxillo-facial surgeons at St George’s Hospital, Tooting, had to remove a large portion of Ann’s jaw, her left eye and numerous teeth before beginning the painstaking work of reconstructing of her face using innovative computer technology to rebuild the damaged area.
The technology involves electronically scanning the opposite side of her face to build a 3-D profile that surgeons can then replicate along with the use of a CT scan.
Ann said: “I’ve always been healthy so it came as a shock when the doctor referred me to hospital where the scan revealed a tumour. The hardest thing to take was the loss of my left eye.
“The surgeons told me it was just rotten luck but that I was lucky the tumour had been growing outwards rather than inwards. My father died of cancer but I was told that many types of cancer were now curable as long as they are caught early enough.”
It meant a ten-hour operation at the hospital’s specialist Maxillofacial Unit which specialises in reconstructive surgery including facial trauma, deformity and head and neck cancer.
The centre, which is recognised as a centre of excellence, carries out hundreds of operations a year.
The amazing operation included taking a portion of bone from her leg to reconstruct her jaw and a number of tissue grafts where arteries and veins had to be painstakingly re-connected using micro surgery.
A complication saw Ann return to surgery a day later for a further ten hour operation before surgeons were satisfied that blood was circulating properly to the affected area.
She added: “I can’t praise the staff enough. They kept me informed every step of the way and have been very caring and kind from the surgical team to the nurse who bought me a cup of tea in the small hours of the morning. I put my faith in the hospital and they saved my life.”
Ann said it took her a week before she was able to look at herself in the mirror.
“I told myself it could have been worse and am now focused on getting on with my life. You have to be positive.
“The hospital offered me a false eye but I don’t want that staring back at me every morning. I’m as fixed as I’m going to be and that’s good enough.”
Ann says her family have been a great source of support along with one of her grandchildren who curiously asked if her eye would grow back again.
“I told him no but that I could still keep on an eye on him with the other one.”
Dr Mr Kavin Andi, one of two surgeons involved in the operation, said: “It’s always satisfying to see a procedure go well and return people to their home environment so they can get on with their lives.”
Dr Andi, who was supported in theatre by a team of more than ten clinicians and nurses, said the use of 3-D imaging meant much of the preparatory work was carried out ‘virtually’ on a computer so he knew exactly what needed to be done before going into surgery.
He added: “We are lucky at St George’s because we are a world leader in this field of work. The 3-D imaging means I can look at the tumour from different angles and take the necessary measurements including how and where bone is removed and re-sculpted.”
“I am particularly pleased because Ann was allowed to go home on the pre-agreed date, despite the extra operation.”