Doctors rebuild New Richmond cancer victim’s smileIlissa Swanson’s smile grew broader near the end of last year when she completed a three-year process that left her with a mouth full of teeth. Before that, she had only wiggly, dysfunctional wisps of enamel.
By: By Debbie Griffin, New Richmond News
Ilissa Swanson’s smile grew broader near the end of last year when she completed a three-year process that left her with a mouth full of teeth. Before that, she had only wiggly, dysfunctional wisps of enamel.
The perky 26-year-old New Richmond resident said when she was a small child, her late mother Theresa began bringing her to see local dentist Dr. Steve Schwalbach, who also does orthodontics. He later referred her to local oral surgeon Dr. Steve Johnson.
The two men are friends, college mates and colleagues. Both agree the young woman’s case is unique.
At 17 months old, doctors diagnosed her with acute myeloid leukemia (AML) —cancer in her bone marrow and blood.
She is amazed by her own survival, especially knowing that as a young victim of AML, the odds were stacked against her.
Government statistics show the median age for an AML patient is 67 — the incidence rate is about seven in 200,000. A public health web site says: “This type of cancer is rare under age 40.”
Swanson explains that she underwent intensive and potent radiation treatments and a kind of chemotherapy so harsh that her parents couldn’t come into the room while she had it.
The doctors administered the drug using full protective suits and long metal tongs.
“They couldn’t even touch the bag that the medicine was in,” she recalled.
Through a port, doctors sent the medicine directly to her heart, the only tissue in her body strong enough to withstand the treatment.
She had spinal taps, bone biopsies and finally a bone-marrow transplant from her brother Myles when he was 7 months old and she was 20 months old.
Unusually, Swanson did not need any anti-rejection drugs — a fact she credits her mother for discovering in a casual talk with a blood-lab technician.
Swanson wishes her mom, who she says took full-and-active charge of her treatment, could see the “wonderful” results of her oral surgery.
“If it weren’t for Mom, I wouldn’t be living my life as comfortably as I am,” said Swanson.
Swanson moved to New Richmond when she was 2. She said her father Tom lives nearby, and she has six siblings: Trevor, Myles, Logan, Spencer, Wynn and Sylvia.
She said her cancer treatments permanently damaged the rapidly growing cells in her body, the ones that make fingernails, hair, teeth, skin and eyes.
She’s had cataract surgery to replace her eye lenses, and, tired of being less than four feet tall, she also tried intensive growth-hormone therapy for a period.
“I had such a positive reaction to it that I grew six inches in the first six months,” she said, explaining that she’s happy at her current height of about four feet, nine inches.”
Before the work, Swanson describes her mouth as having fewer teeth than normal, all of which were “wiggly.” Swanson said she’d grown accustomed to having teeth that didn’t work well.
Johnson and Schwalbach said that her tooth buds, roots, and jaw bone were extremely underdeveloped, lacking the structure to hold teeth. Schwalbach placed braces on her natural teeth just to hold them in.
Between them, the two doctors reconstructed bone inside her mouth, widened the bridge of her mouth, inserted implants, and attached bridges and crowns to those implants.
Schwalbach said Swanson was missing all her upper teeth except the molars — he implanted 10 teeth on her upper jaw and four on her lower jaw.
The two doctors both do pro-bono work that comes about in different ways — through charitable organizations and sometimes unique cases like Swanson’s.
Though they have a limited number of hours to give, both knew they wanted to help the young woman to chew and smile normally.
Asked for an estimated dollar value of the work, the doctors agreed it is in the neighborhood of $50,000.
The local doctors are finished with the basic process they envisioned for Swanson, though she may need additional work through the years.
Swanson said she is hugely grateful to both doctors.
A caretaker to her autistic 15-year-old brother and a hobbyist cheesecake chef aspiring to be professional, she says her “new mouth” gives her confidence and even more reasons to smile.