Copyright Material 1995
Dentistry On-Line
Volume 1, issue 8.

Experiences of major cleft palate surgery - a patients view

I had the great opportunity to work with Dr.Sachs, Dr.Drew and Dr.Schwartz at the New York Center For Orthognathic and Maxilliofacial Surgery. Working for them was unique. Why? Anybody could have worked for them and would have left learning and knowing a great deal about orthognathic and maxilliofacial surgery. But this simply wasn't enough for me. I wanted to become a part of the process and learn more of what I would eventually be going through because I have an extreme interest in medicine and want to be a doctor one day.

I have a cleft lip and palate and originally went to see Dr. Sachs for a correction of my jaw deformity. With him and his team and excellent staff I began the long process of getting ready and preparing for surgery. I first had to get braces to align my teeth properly for the surgery. With the talented help of orthodontist, Dr.Michael Apton, my teeth were ready for surgery less than a year later. Braces are necessary and are a must to operate. This ultimately helped Dr. Sachs align the jaw for the completion of surgery. Since I have an interest in medicine and wanted some experience, I asked Dr. Sachs if I could work for him during my Christmas break from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. He agreed; I couldn't wait to start working at his office.

It was interesting because I knew everything that I would learn would not only be of interest to me because I want to become a doctor, but also because I knew I was going to have the surgery. I had the chance to work at the office, see patients, and also see actual operations in the operating room at various hospitals in the area. It was my first experience in the O.R. and I was very thankful for having the opportunity to even work in the office.

Looking at what actually happens to the jaw during surgery was a bit overwhelming to me at first, but it made sense as I learned more of why the doctors performed the way they did. Every action in the operating room had a reason to it and I always wanted to know why. The first time a person enters an operating room it is something they just do not forget. For me it was an exhilarating experience beyond belief. I don't think I have ever felt more "alive" in my life. I immediately fell in love with it and what it was. However, I knew that I had to be composed and mature for what I would see. I admit it was gory at first, but I was able to put it behind me and proceed. After that day, all I wanted to do was see operations in hospitals, and I did! Dr.Sachs knew I liked it and permitted me to see more and more. Eventually, I was seeing operations every day or other day. I loved it! As time progressed however, I soon had to go back to school and finish up the second semester. This experience still carried though, I had my operation from Dr.Sachs to look forward to in June.

In preparation for my operation, I still had those braces on and seeing Dr.Sachs and my orthodontist regularly to make sure things were going according to plan. One thing I wondered a lot about the few months before the operation and that my parents asked me was, would I be scared and nervous or relaxed without fear for the surgery on my jaw since I knew and had seen what I did. I didn't quite know how to answer that question and I thought about it a lot. Would working with them help me or hurt me? Initially, I was not scared. I knew who was doing the operation well and how they all worked together, I was confident in them 100%. As school ended and my operation was near (end of June) I couldn't help but think more and more of the operation. Up until the day of the surgery I was still fine and not worried. I was a little anxious though, I wanted to get this done. The morning of the surgery I was tense with anticipation of the surgery, I also knew that from the reading of my blood pressure at the hospital! I had to realize one thing, I am human with a human heart. I didn't try to be this super person with NO FEAR written all over my body. If I was nervous and scared I would have admitted it and the only time I truly was absolutely scared out of my soul was when I cranked open those doors to O.R. #1, the place where so many times I was on the other end, looking at the patient in question, not realizing the fear coming from this patients face. Well, now it was my turn, to be the patient. Quite plainly, there was nothing I could do. I wouldn't run like the devil, I wanted to stay there and face the anxiety and all the emotions that I had, right in the face. And I did. What scared me though, truthfully, was the finality of it. It didn't hit me until I layed down on that operating table and stared right into those big, powerful, operation lamps that hung from above. It all hit me right there and then.

The operation involved cutting and moving my lower jaw, my chin, and my upper jaw including the cleft. With the upper jaw, the unilateral cleft makes the upper jaw actually separate in two. This further complicates the operation as now the doctors must then maneuver the upper jaw in two parts. All of these segments are moved around, (which, of course, is preplanned) until the desired fit of the jaw is in place. After the surgery my jaw is wired shut for 2 months. To supplement eating, I drink high caloric shakes and other liquids such as Ensure and Sustacal. It is not easy and my jaw as of this writing is still wired. I 'll never forget this wonderful experience.

It is no understatement that the patience of the doctors I worked with was incredible. Having to watch out for and be responsible of me in the operating room and in the office I know was not easy and was a considerable amount of extra pressure. They always had time for me and my numerous questions. The respect they showed me will never be forgotten. The experience definitely had a profound impact upon my life. I think often, if one day I can achieve and be only half as good as these Doctors, I will be an experienced, caring, and successful doctor.

Correspondence to:

Weschke@aol.com