Jake Tanner, 17, went through a life-changing experience. He went from having ideal health to being in the hospital working to recover from a procedure. Though the easiest response to his circumstance could have been to give up, Tanner worked hard to regain his strength and came out stronger than before.
"It all started with a toothache," Tanner said. "I didn't want to tell my parents because I didn't think it was a big deal. After waiting a week, I told them because I realized it wasn't going away, so we went to the dentist, and they did an x-ray and said they found the problem."
The x-ray revealed that Tanner had a fifth wisdom tooth, which they didn't find uncommon because his mother also had one. They believed his wisdom teeth were causing the pain, so they removed them. He would soon find out that it was more than his wisdom teeth that contributed to his pain.
"A week after getting my wisdom teeth removed, I started having these terrible headaches that would keep me up at night," Tanner said. “We called the dentist, and they said, 'it happens.' We told him it didn't seem normal, so they brought us in and did another x-ray.”
Upon receiving the x-ray results, the dentists discovered that Tanner had a dark spot in the area where they'd removed his wisdom teeth.
"I remember them saying, 'We need to get a biopsy on this right now,'" Tanner said. “They took the biopsy and sent it to Mayo Clinic for testing. At that moment, I realized it was a big deal, because suddenly things started to move fast. It was scary for all of us, but I didn't understand the gravity of the situation in the moment. You know, every teenager thinks they're immortal. They feel 'nothing bad can happen to me' until it happens."
Tanner was diagnosed with Osteoblastoma, a benign but aggressive tumor that affects the jaw bone. The tumor measured 4 centimeters and prevented him from fully closing his mouth. His dentist referred him to a JPS Health Network Oral and Maxillofacial physician, Fayette C. Williams, DDS, MD, FACS, Director, Division of Maxillofacial Oncology & Reconstructive Surgery, to determine the next steps for jaw reconstruction surgery. If left untreated, the tumor would continue to grow.
"There are multiple reconstruction options, which involve using bone from different parts of the body," Dr. Williams said. "In this case, we used the fibula from the leg because it allows us to place dental implants and rebuild the teeth at the same time. The fibula is used because we can take that bone with the blood vessels that supply it and reattach it to the blood vessels in the neck. So, it's like a transplant within your own body. It's immediately living and breathing like it was in its original location."
Treating these tumors requires multiple procedures over a one to two-year period. However, JPS Health Network can perform it in a 10-hour surgery and is one of six U.S. hospitals to do so regularly.
"When Dr. Williams started to tell us about the surgery, my mom and dad were nervous, but I was quiet," Tanner said. "I remember thinking about having noticeable scars and a different appearance, how my lifestyle would change, and that I wouldn't be able to stay fit anymore."
As someone involved in track and field events, like discus throwing and shot put, Tanner was concerned that his missing fibula would impair his ability to engage in the activities he loved if there was only enough bone left at the ankle and knee to provide stability.
"Before going into surgery, he was saying that I probably wouldn't be able to participate [in the track events] anymore," Tanner said. "Part of me thought, 'well, this is just something I'm going to have to deal with,' but when it came to it, I wanted to get back into doing what I loved."
After the procedure, Tanner was on a feeding tube and couldn't have anything by mouth for more than a week to keep the risk of infection low. Though this method benefited him medically, it caused him to lose much of the muscle he worked hard to build.
"In therapy, I had to practice walking because I couldn't for about three days," Tanner said. "When I started walking again, I had lost about 30 pounds. I was about the same weight as I was when I was a freshman, which was discouraging because I had been building up a lot of muscle weight for the past two years. Going backward was a bad feeling. Everything I had been working for had gone down the drain. It was sad to feel that way, but it motivated me to reach my goal."
When Tanner started training for discus and shot put, he was concerned that the procedure might affect his performance because side-to-side movements would be difficult. He had to spin on the foot that was operated on, which made it challenging. Nevertheless, he persevered. He couldn't imagine giving up his passion.
"When I showed up for my first track meet, I thought I would be terrible because I hadn't tracked my distance. I just practiced, but I set a personal record,” Tanner said. “I also went on to win our state championship for TAPPS 3A."
Tanner learned a valuable lesson from this experience that he will use to inspire others throughout his life.
"This experience taught me that you can be down to your lowest point, but you can get back up with hard work," Tanner said. "I learned that perseverance is the key to it all. It also gave me a new perspective on appreciating what you have because I got to know my family differently while I was in the hospital. Everyone was there taking care of me, and people I didn't know were reaching out and being supportive. I never realized that if anything were to happen, I would have a group of people to support me like this."
Tanner is grateful for the exceptional care provided at JPS. He commends the nurses for their efforts. They made him comfortable during a challenging time.
“Being at JPS felt like I was home,” Tanner said. “The nurses were amazing, and I even had my ‘nurse mom,’ Charla Sabre, who was with me the entire time. Everyone was so nice. I couldn't believe it. Having people by my side was a nice feeling.”