A surgery that went wrong five and a half years ago left Val Ireland with a disfigured face and unable to eat, drink or talk properly.

Now all she wants is to be able to face herself in the mirror again.

The 69-year-old was diagnosed with a squamous cell carcinoma in her upper jaw and sinus in 2012.

The only option was to remove the right side of her upper jaw and part of the sinus but she was assured surgeons would be able to reconstruct it without a problem.

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The cancer was successfully removed by the reconstruction was not such a success. Surgeons took bone from her leg to replace the bones taken from her face but a lack of blood supply in her face meant the graft failed.

Since then Ireland has had another 15 surgeries, 13 at Auckland Hospital and the last two at Mercy Hospital, in an effort to reconstruct her face but to look at her, you'd never know it.

Val Ireland has been left disfigured after having cancer cut out of her mouth despite another 15 operations to fix it. Photo / Nick Reed
Val Ireland has been left disfigured after having cancer cut out of her mouth despite another 15 operations to fix it. Photo / Nick Reed

A second attempt to insert bone into her face was when the wound broke open. A later surgery to reconstruct her upper lip also failed and has left her with no upper lip, nasal tip support or premaxilla – the bone which gives the top of your mouth its shape.

The once out-going and popular Auckland woman has not been able to eat ever since her first operation in May 2012 and instead relies on a feeding tube in her stomach to give her the nutrients to keep her alive.

For almost five years she had such a severe case of lock jaw a finger could barely fit in her mouth. An operation seven months ago has opened her mouth more but with it came unintended side effects.

Ireland used to be able to sip water through a straw but now she cannot close her mouth around a straw or keep any liquid in her mouth long enough to swallow it. On top of that she can no longer speak clearly – even with the ill-fitting mouth piece designed to act as the roof of her mouth.

She loves to dance and used to be the life of the party but rarely ventures out anymore.

People stare at her when she goes out, she can't enjoy a meal or drink with friends and struggles to make conversation because she can barely speak.

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"It's destroyed my life. It's made me very alone," she said through tears.

"I know that it will never be as it was but I'd at least like to be able to look at myself in the mirror and say, 'yes, that's me'.

"I don't even look in the mirror. I don't like it. If I look in the mirror, I get upset. If I don't look in the mirror I can carry on and do my daily things."

Val Ireland has been left disfigured after having cancer cut out of her mouth despite another 15 operations to fix it. Photo / Nick Reed
Val Ireland has been left disfigured after having cancer cut out of her mouth despite another 15 operations to fix it. Photo / Nick Reed

Ireland's surgeons had plans for more reconstructive surgery but she had lost confidence in them and was no longer comfortable with the idea.

Despite that, she was not willing to give up hope that someone might be able to make her look more human again and was holding out hope there might be a specialist she hadn't seen who was able, and willing, to put her back together.

Friend Lynda Anderson was determined to make that happen.

"She's disfigured, people shy away from her. It gets worse each surgery," she said.

"The New Zealand health system created this problem and they need to put it right. There must be some way to make her face look slightly better. Why can't they come up with something to give her back her dignity and a little bit of life?

"Can you imagine life without being able to do those things we take for granted like being able to eat food or talk or have something to drink?"

An Auckland District Health Board spokesman acknowledge Ireland's cancer journey had been an "arduous one".

"We have every sympathy for her difficult experience. We supported Ms Ireland in 2015 when she raised concerns with us about her treatment. We undertook a careful review of her care then.

"If Ms Ireland has new concerns about her treatment, we encourage her to contact us directly. If she does not wish to do that, then the Health and Disability Commissioner's Office is the next best option. We can then respond appropriately to the concerns Ms Ireland has expressed to the Herald."