Verna's Jaw Surgery Story

Unlike the song in which the leg bone is connected to the ankle bone, Verna Scoular's leg bone is connected to her jawbone. In fact, part of her leg bone is her new lower jaw. A painful and persistent bone infection was destroying Verna's lower jaw when Dr. Ryan Smart proposed crafting a new jaw from a portion of her fibula, a small leg bone. The Essentia Health oral and maxillofacial surgeon also transplanted a portion of skin and tissue from Verna's thigh to replace the floor of her mouth and chin.

"I thought if he can make a straight bone into a jaw, he's one heck of a person."

Verna had struggled for 10 months with rare complications and infections from dental implants. She met Dr. Smart after she came to the Emergency Department at Essentia Health-Fargo unable to swallow and nearly unable to breath due to infection and swelling. When treatments and antibiotics couldn't clear the bone infection, Dr. Smart turned to reconstructive surgery to replace her jaw and preserve her ability to swallow, speak and breathe normally.

"When I first saw Dr. Smart, he said he could help," recalls Verna, who is 63 and lives in Valley City, North Dakota. She had been taking over-the-counter and prescription pain medications to try to get relief. Infections would seem to respond to antibiotics, then return.

When Dr. Smart proposed the complex surgery, Verna wondered how she'd be able to walk if a portion of her leg bone was removed. Dr. Smart explained the fibula is not the weight-bearing bone in the lower leg and that it would heal. "Dr. Smart said God gave us extra parts," Verna recalls. "I thought if he can make a straight bone into a jaw, he's one heck of a person."

To reduce the amount of time in surgery, Dr. Smart teamed up with Dr. Alan Bruns, an Essentia Health Ear, Nose and Throat specialist. While most patients stay in the hospital for seven to 10 days, Verna stayed nearly a month due to complications from skin grafts that didn't want to heal properly. While she and her husband, Dean, were discouraged, they stuck it out. "Dr. Smart explained that my body was not accepting what he was doing and all we could do is keep trying," Verna says. "He's got such a terrific bedside manner and he explains things so clearly that you know he's talking to you, not around you or above you."

Dr. Smart explains the surgery can help people with oral cancers, trauma, gunshot wounds and facial abnormalities. "This surgery restores aesthetics and function," he explains. "The goal is to make people feel whole again. We want them to have a fully functioning jaw and to live a normal daily life."

Verna and Dr. Smart say she has fully recovered. "Dr. Smart saved my life," Verna says, "Without his help, I would not be standing here today."