The first time I rebuilt a patient’s face

When we met her in the emergency room, her face was swollen and bloody from the top down to the jaw. There were so many pieces of the puzzle to put back together.
Elizabeth Shaw
Dr. Elizabeth Shaw

Photograph by Ben Rollins

Dr. Elizabeth Shaw
Otolaryngology, Perimeter ENT
It was 1996, and I was a junior medical resident working at a Level II trauma center. She was a middle-aged woman who’d been driving in the early morning on a rural two-lane highway near Gainesville when a deer ran out in front of her. The deer went through the windshield and was pinned there. She was trapped inside, the deer kicking her in the face over and over again until they could extract her from the car.

When we met her in the emergency room, her face was swollen and bloody from the top down to the jaw. There were so many pieces of the puzzle to put back together: multiple broken bones, the jawbone, the bones around the eye sockets. I think it took eight metal plates and countless screws to reestablish the bones. And then she had several lacerations that had to be repaired. I’m guessing I did 100 stitches. It took hours.

What stood out to me afterward was that she remembered everything that had happened—vividly. She described how terrifying it was to be trapped, to have the animal mercilessly kicking her and not be able to do anything about it.

Her jaw was wired shut for weeks, but ultimately she had no neurologic injury, no visual impairment, and she could chew and swallow normally. I don’t know whether she had noticeable scars, and that’s one unfortunate thing about residency: You don’t get to follow up with patients long-term. With my specialty—working on the head and neck—patients don’t get to hide a lot of what I do. It impacts them on a day-to-day basis. I do remember her being able to thank me. —As told to Josh Green

This article originally appeared in our July 2017 issue.

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