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YOUR HEALTH: Rebuilding one man's jaw and his life

One man got his life back after a tumor took away his ability to feel

HOUSTON — Chris Stovah had a very public medical problem.

A fast-growing benign tumor on his jaw made it hard for him to have any sensation in the jaw.

"That teeth of that region, I couldn't use to eat. It comes with severe pain," he recalled.

And it kept him from living life, it even made Chris limit his time outside the house.

"He can't go to places without anybody asking him, 'What's going on with you here? What happened to you here?'" said his wife Trust Stovah.

Surgeons removed the tumor from Chris' jaw, but to do so they also had to remove a nerve, which meant Chris would lose sensation in a portion of his face and have difficulty eating or smiling. 

But one doctor found a solution that gave him back his life.

"What we call a micro vascular free flap, we brought that up and then connect, did the micro-vascular in the neck and then repaired his nerve at the same time," explained Dr. James Melville, Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeon at the University of Texas Health Science Center.

"So that surgery is pretty extensive."

During a 12-hour surgery Dr. Melville removed the tumor and rebuilt Chris's jaw. 

Then he reconstructed Chris's alveolar nerve using avance nerve graft to restore sensation to Chris's jaw and mouth.

"I can do whatever I want to do," Chris now says.

Recovery from the surgery is typically around 12 months.

Chris says he got complete sensation back in his mouth and jaw in about nine months.

What doctors are now learning

Recent advances in allograft nerves, which are nerves harvested from human donors, combined with advances in complex microsurgical repair allow doctors to successfully restore feeling to patients' faces after trigeminal nerve damage. 

Oral and maxillofacial surgeons are doctors who specialize in the care of patients with facial trauma and perform surgery. 

These surgeries, called orthognathic surgery, correct jaw irregularities and realign the patient's jaw and bite. 

These specialists also remove benign tumors and cysts through reconstructive surgery, in some cases they can repair the trigeminal nerve. 

It is very important for patients to report to their doctors if they have any numbness or pain following an oral surgery, because the nerve may have been damaged during the procedure. 

A safer alternative

Using the nerve allografts from human donors has been increasingly popular because after surgery, the patients does not have to go on immunosuppressives, which may or may not have even prevented the body from rejecting the graft. 

This new technique is less likely to reject the graft and retain the structure necessary for nerve regeneration.

If this story has impacted your life or prompted you or someone you know to seek or change treatments, please let us know by contacting Jim Mertens at jim.mertens@wqad.com or Marjorie Bekaert Thomas at mthomas@ivanhoe.com.