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17-years-in the making, Fla. teen undergoes life altering surgery to give her a new face and smile

Posted at 9:52 PM, Apr 23, 2018

TAMPA, Fla. — Seconds after 17-year-old Lexi Banks was born, she was rushed into surgery. The 4-pound newborn was turning gray, struggling to breathe with doctors pulling her out of her mother’s embrace to perform an emergency tracheotomy.

“Your daughter needs this or she will die,” Lexi’s mom, Kim Cashman, remembers doctors telling her.  

That would be the first of many surgeries Lexi would have to endure throughout her childhood and teenage years. The surgeries haven’t stopped. But, Lexi’s Dr. Ernesto Ruas is hopeful the recent surgeries he’s performed on Lexi will be the last.

“I’m hoping in a couple of years she will be done,” Ruas said. 

Ruas is harvesting a bone from her fibula (calf bone) and taking her peroneal artery to make sure her new jaw has enough blood flow and circulation to survive.   

“The whole procedure depends on two little vessels that measure 1.5 mm to 2 mm. If those vessels get plugged up we are in trouble. She is not in trouble. The procedure is in trouble,” Ruas said.  

When Lexi was 6-years-old, Ruas tried a similar procedure. Ruas said her body rejected her bone and over time it disintegrated. 

Now that she is an adult, Ruas hopes this surgery will be the big break Lexi and her family have been waiting for.

Lexi wasn't able to eat solid food until she was 16-years-old. She had a tube inserted in her stomach for her entire life and until recently she lived with a trach tube. In the past two years, she has come a long way. Able to eat solid food and breath without the help of a trach. Not only will the surgery give Lexi the jaw she was never born with. But, it will help her breath better on her own and be able to finally eat food like everyone else.

Lexi was born with a rare condition called Goldenhar disease. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, "it is a condition that is present at birth and mainly affects the development of the eye, ear, and spine."

“Everything just stopped developing for a moment, and at that moment that’s when everything stopped, particularly on her one side", Cashman said. “So, the blood vessels just stopped for a moment, her ear stopped developing, her jaw.”

Lexi was born without a right ear, and her jaw was deformed, almost detached from her face.

“I want to just be happy about myself and people accept me,” Lexi said.  

Scripps station WFTS in Tampa talked to her before her first surgery, her speech impaired because her mouth was partially wired shut to keep her jaw in place for the upcoming surgery.

“People normally are nice but there’s always people out there mean, and people stare at me and say bad names to me,” Lexi said.  

Lexi has bone conducting hearing aids implanted in her cochlear, multiple surgeries on her face, surgeries on her gastrointestinal tube so she could eat, and numerous surgeries over the course of her life that have culminated in two major surgeries that will change her life.

“Because she is missing half her jaw she can't bite correctly, she can’t chew correctly, she can’t maintain her airway,” Dr. Ernesto Ruas said.  

Ruas, a plastic surgeon in Tampa, performed his first surgery on Lexi when she was just 5-months-old.

“She is a tough little cookie. As I said, she rolls with the punches she does very well,” Ruas said.  

In January, Ruas rebuilt Lexi’s upper jaw using a cadaver harvested from her leg. On April 16, Ruas performed a second surgery on Lexi to rebuild the entire bottom part of her jaw.  

Lexi, hands trembling, talked about her dreams of having a face that looked similar to everyone else.

“I want them to know I am a strong girl and I want to share people my story so they understand what I go through,” Lexi said. “I don’t have to hide away and not share my story but be out there in the world.”

After more than 14 hours of surgery, Lexi was in the ICU for several days and released over the weekend. She has to walk with crutches for a month and undergo extensive physical therapy.  

Her surgery was one of the toughest the family has ever gone through. But, Lexi, as always made it through.

"She is one tough girl," Cashman said.  

The surgeries are taking their toll on the family emotionally and monetarily.   Lexi saw her mom crying in the kitchen one morning over bills and made this GoFundMe.