Something to smile about

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 St Andrew’s performs life-changing surgery on Papua New Guinea resident Jessica Lowa

Jessica Lowa couldn’t wait to return to her home outside Mount Hagen in Papua New Guinea to show her three children her new face and smile.

In pro bono surgery performed at Brisbane’s St Andrew’s War Memorial Hospital in late September, surgeons removed the 36 year old’s large facial arteriovenous malformation and reconstructed her face using grafts of skin from her leg. Further grafting was done in a second surgery at St Andrew’s in October.

St Andrew’s visiting plastic, craniofacial and reconstructive surgeon, Dr Richard Lewandowski, led the surgical team, which included Dr Ryan Fitzgerald and anaesthetist Dr Vernon Moo. The doctors, St Andrew’s nurses and theatre staff, all volunteered their time and services, St Andrew’s covered Ms Lowa’s hospital stays and theatre costs, and organisations including Lions Australia and Oil Search provided financial and other support for Ms Lowa and her husband Simon, who accompanied her to Brisbane. Ms Lowa’s treatment was organised through the World Care Program of medical charity Operation Smile Australia, which was founded by Dr  Lewandowski and his wife Sue in 1999. Arteriovenous malformations (AVMs) are the result of abnormal connections between arteries and veins and cause overgrowth of tissue, pain and substantial risk of massive bleeding. Ms Lowa’s disfiguring AVM had also affected her speech, ability to eat, and obstructed her eyesight.

Simon and Jessica Lowa before her surgery at St Andrew's

Jessica Lowa with her husband Simon before the surgery

“AVMs are always very difficult to treat,” Dr Lewandowski said. “Ms Lowa’s surgery involved ligating the external carotid artery to control bleeding, removal of all of the tissues involved, including skin, muscle, nerves, tendons and removal of her upper left lip, then reconstruction of the tendons, skin, and sharing of the lower lip with the missing upper lip.”

Before Ms Lowa and her husband flew back to Papua New Guinea, they expressed thanks to everyone involved. “I am so grateful for all the people who helped us get here, during our stay, and to the doctors and nurses. Through your hands I am a different woman and I am so happy,” she said.

Ms Lowa’s chance encounter two years ago with Sunshine Coast resident Peter Woods, who works as a health educator and emergency response nurse for Oil Search, led to the successful surgery.

At the time, Mr Woods was returning to PNG after transferring a patient to Cairns. “I introduced myself to Ms Lowa, and she told me she had been seeking help for her condition, but hospitals in Papua New Guinea were not able to assist. I said I would try to help if I could and make some enquiries.”

Oil Search’s Senior Medical Consultant Dr Will Davies contacted a specialist emergency physician at St Andrew’s War Memorial Hospital, Dr Mark Dalton, and then Operation Smile Australia and Dr Lewandowski.

UnitingCare Health’s Deputy Chief Medical Officer Dr Christian Rowan said St Andrew’s and UnitingCare Health were committed to assisting where possible with charitable medical cases. “We are delighted that Ms Lowa has recovered well and wish her the best in Papua New Guinea,” he said.

Dr Lewandowski said Operation Smile Australia would bring Ms Lowa back to Brisbane next year to review her progress, and she will also be monitored in Papua New Guinea by Oil Search medical staff as she continues to heal.

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