A horrific accident shattered her body and disfigured her face, but surgeons did more than resculpt her face - they regrew nerves and brought back feeling. Doctors said the technique can be used in all kinds of trauma cases to repair nerves throughout the body.
"They told me when I came in, they thought I only had a 1 percent chance of survival," said Erin McCormick, who had face reconstruction.
One year ago, on a lake outing with friends, McCormick was run over by a boat. The propeller shredded her arm, upper body and half of her face.
"If you think about cutting yourself with a knife, think about cutting yourself with a knife a thousand times a minute, which is what a propeller is doing," said Dr. Pablo Prichard, medical director for plastic surgery at John C. Lincoln North Mountain Hospital at Phoenix, Arizona.
Prichard used screws and plates to help McCormick get her face back.
"A lot of what we did was more tedious work, putting little tiny fragments of bone back together, putting little snippets of muscles back together, as well as all the nerves that were cut," Prichard said.
But that was only half the battle, doctors also needed to prevent paralysis and restore feeling to McCormick's face.
"There are so many different complex natures in the face that gives it much more complexity than, say, an elbow joint," Prichard said.
Doctors used a new protective collagen shell. They place it around severed nerve fragments in the face. It protects the fragments from scarring, which can get in the way of nerves growing back together.
"The body is trying to scar internally from the outside and constrict on the nerve that's being repaired. This basically is protecting that nerve from the body itself, so it gives it the best chance possible to have a functional recovery," Prichard said.
One year after the accident, McCormick can feel every smile and frown, and loves what she sees in the mirror.
"Most people don't even believe me when I tell them what happened. They're like, oh, you look great! I kind of agree with them," McCormick said.
McCormick has had 19 surgeries, and she still has more ahead to fully repair her arm and other physical damage from the accident. Her experience has inspired her to pursue a career in nursing.
Medical Breakthroughs Research Summary
Topic: Rebuilding Faces Report: MB #3101
Background: Reconstructive surgery of the face is different from cosmetic surgery since reconstructive surgery is performed to correct trauma, injury or abnormalities. Such procedures are sometimes performed to improve function, and other times to restore a normal appearance.
Surgery to reconstruct the face can involve a wide range of numbers and combinations of plates, surgical screws, implants and grafts of bone, nerves, muscles and skin.
One of the more complicated types of surgery, the first part of facial reconstruction can take one to two months. The cosmetic part of reconstruction often takes place a year later.
What makes facial reconstruction so complicated? Doctors say the challenge in facial reconstruction lies in the fact that the face is made of up many different structures, including bones, muscles and nerves that control very fine movements. Movements controlled by this arrangement of structures include swallowing, speaking, blinking and facial expressions.
Successful facial reconstruction requires plastic surgeons to suture blood vessels that are only one to two millimeters wide.
Thankfully, advancements in technology allow surgeons to rebuild tissues at such a microscopic level, as well as harvest tissues from other areas of the body to be incorporated into the face.
Rebuilding Erin's Face: McCormick was boating with friends when the unthinkable happened. Run over by a boat, a propeller shredded her body and her face.
"They told me when I came in, they thought I only had a 1 percent chance of survival," McCormick said.
After she survived the initial life-threatening injuries, surgeons set out to rebuild her face.
"Ballpark, she had approximately 10 fractures in her jaw alone," Prichard said. "On top of that, she had fractures of her cheek, eyeball socket, and her, what we call, the upper jaw, or the maxilla."
Prichard and his team rebuilt McCormick's face by putting together tiny bone fragments and pieces of muscle, as well as reconnecting nerves that were severed.
"Not only [did] we put the nerves back together, but we [used] a special nerve-coating device to go around the nerves called neuragen that helps those nerves re-grow and go back into one solid nerve," Prichard explained.
Neuragen, a collagen tube, protects the healing nerves from being constricted by scarring.
For More Information, Please Contact: Susan Fuchs Public Relations John C. Lincoln Hospitals (623) 434-6266
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