Monday through Saturday, Kyle Cooper wakes up at 5:40 in the morning to get to his construction job by 7:00. On his only day off, he shoots trap at the local sportsman’s club with his grandfather. Things that would bother a typical teen—a long commute, arduous work, little time off for friends—barely faze Kyle. This 18-year-old has the quiet confidence and patience of someone twice his age.
Kyle’s demeanor may be due in part to having had to wait a lifetime for something he wanted so badly. He was born with hemifacial microsomia (HFM), a craniofacial anomaly that resulted in the left side of his face being underdeveloped. The cause of HFM is not well understood. Until this past February, what HFM meant for Kyle was that his face was noticeably uneven and barely any of his teeth touched. “I made it through and got used to it, but I couldn’t eat things like meat because it would take me three hours to chew.”
Kyle grew up knowing that he would have to wait years to correct his HFM. Boston Children’s Hospital Oral Surgeon-in-Chief Dr. Bonnie Padwa explains, “As surgeons we can try and improve the asymmetry during childhood, but it generally recurs and the non-affected side grows normally while the affected side does not. But once growth is complete around age 18, we can operate to correct the skeletal asymmetry of the jaws as well as improving the soft tissue contour with fat injections.”
Years passed of Kyle being the subject of roundtable meetings at Boston Children’s where Dr. Padwa and a multi-disciplinary team would evaluate his growth. “Six or seven doctors would stare at me and ask me to turn my head,” Kyle remembers. “I loved the attention but I just couldn’t wait until they said it was time.” When Kyle was finally given the green light, he requested that Dr. Padwa operate. “She’s super nice and she’s known me since I was a little kid. I don’t think I’ve ever had a question she couldn’t answer.” Dr. Padwa scheduled the operation for February 25th. By operation day, Kyle was more than ready.
“When I was sitting in pre-op, they asked me if I was nervous, I said ‘nope, just roll me in,’ remembers Kyle. I couldn’t wait. I had waited my entire life to get this done.”
Dr. Padwa performed Kyle’s 10-hour operation, using many pins and plates to reconstruct his upper and lower jaws and his chin. He recovered in the hospital for five days. There was a second follow-up procedure to fix a loose plate, and Kyle was back in the hospital for another four days.
Within a week, Kyle had lost ten pounds, which he had been told to expect. “When they cut into my face, the gravity brought the blood to my stomach, which made me throw up for four or five days straight.”
As if that wasn’t enough of a challenge to eating, Kyle’s face was also completely numb from a nerve that was bruised during the operation. Again, Kyle had been warned and took the numbness in stride: “It happens to everybody; it’s just the way they have to split the bone, it bruises the nerve. I was told how awful it was going to be for the first six weeks, so I pretty much knew what I was getting myself into.”
After a third hospital stay for dehydration, Kyle went home for good but on a strict liquid diet. Because of the numbness, Kyle had to suck up his liquid meals into a syringe and pump them into the back of his mouth. All in all, he lost 20 pounds and missed a month of school, returning just in time for prom and graduation.
Now five months after his operation, Kyle is little by little getting the feeling back in his face and is eating anything and everything to bulk up. Dr. Padwa is very pleased with Kyle’s progress and will continue to check in on Kyle regularly. Surgeon Dr. Brian Labow will give him fat injections in September to fill out his left cheek, and then Kyle will be ready to face his next challenge: college. He will start at the University of Massachusetts in the fall, majoring in criminal justice—the perfect field of study for someone who stays calm and presses on in the face of adversity.