Steel Magnolias

Life can change at a moment’s notice, and sometimes, all it can take is a rainy day and a tortilla chip to set events in motion. For two local Savannah women, their lives were abruptly shaken by life-altering emergencies, requiring the South’s incredible medical community to intervene and save their lives. But as befits a Southern woman, their resilience and sense of humor shined through it all.

Sept 30 2021 6 Weeks Post Op

Susie Villareal

Susie Villareal noticed a significant amount of swelling along her jawline- enough to cause concern and refer to her primary care physician. An ultrasound revealed a build-up of fluid, and she was treated for a possible abscess twice. But the discomfort and swelling remained as a benign tumor grew undetected, eating away at her jawbone. 

“The only way I discovered it was when I took a bite of a tortilla chip, and my jaw cracked. I went back to my primary care and told them something was wrong. When I pushed on my jaw, it clicked like an eggshell.” 

Upon referral to an ENT, a dental x-ray exposed the tumor, now nearing the size of a baseball under her chin and pushing upwards toward her tongue. Diagnosed with ameloblastoma, a rare noncancerous tumor in the jaw, Villareal was sent to the specialists at the Dental College of Georgia with the Augusta University Medical Center for life-saving surgery. With most of her jaw gone around her chin, Villareal was the perfect candidate for “a jaw in a day.” An ENT, plastic surgeon and maxillofacial surgeon would perform a surgical dance to remove the tumor and rebuild her jaw “from nothing but a plate and leg bone.” In the recovery room, the maxillofacial surgeon said, “I have good news and bad news. The good news is the tumor is gone. The bad news is, you have no teeth.” With her newfound “bubba gump gums” as she affectionately referred to them, Ms. Villarreal replied “No shit.” to both of their amusement.

5 Days Post Op 3rd Surgery

But the journey continued as an infection grew around the titanium plate. A second surgery led to the majority of its removal after the bone graft was successful, and much to Villareal’s dismay, a third surgery was needed for her to have teeth. But she met with Dr. Marshall Newman, the new maxillofacial surgeon to her case, and his colleague Dr. Kyle Frazier, a fourth-year resident, who both supported her decision, building a trust that allowed Ms. Villareal to feel confident moving forward.

6 Months Post Op

“I trust them one hundred percent. The two doctors are amazing. I told Dr. Frazier, wherever he goes, I will stand beside him in trying to get somewhere. And Dr. Newman, his bedside manner, I don’t have words for it. The three of us have a relationship, and they allowed me to be myself and express my concerns. They talked with me, not at me.”

With 27 hours on the operating table between all three surgeries, she is now on the road to recovery. Despite the emotional, physical and mental trials, her sense of humor and quick wit endured, leaving the doctors in awe of her resilient spirit.

Susie V May 2022 Before 2nd Reconstruction

“We do a lot of big surgeries like Ms. Villareal’s, and what makes the difference is the positive attitude. And there were times when she was probably hurting and swollen, and the whole time she’s still making jokes and treating people well. It made it more enjoyable for us and bearable for her,” recalled Dr. Frazier.

Dr. Newman was also moved by her humor throughout the process. “I mean it’s just second to none. And it’s no small part that that’s probably why she did as well as she did. It makes our lives enjoyable just to be around her.”

Villarreal continues to live life to the fullest, choosing not to be a victim of circumstance.

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Jessica Mock

A rainy day in April led to a power outage at the school where Jessica Mock’s daughter attends. Finessing a last-minute playdate, the owner of Southern Sugaring picked up her daughter and her friend and planned to switch with the other mom that afternoon. After the girls were inside out of the dreary weather, Mock noticed a package left out on the wet driveway. A task usually given to her six-year-old, Mock decided to let her play and stepped out into the drizzly weather to retrieve the box.

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“I felt what felt like razor blades slice my finger- so I dropped the box. My first thought was that a box cutter was stuck in the box but when it dropped, that’s when I saw the snake slither into the grass. So, I looked at my hand and saw the two holes, and it was already starting to turn black and blue.”

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Mock knew there was an issue with copperheads in her area, but it never occurred to her to be wary of picking up a box off the driveway. “I knew to be cautious when I was in the yard and gardening, but I think- because it had rained that morning- the snake found shelter under the box. So when I picked up the box, I picked up the snake too.” Mock knew the snake was venomous but didn’t know how bad the situation could be. “At this point, Googling was not on my mind, so I was trying to think of things I could remember.” After attempting to suck out the venom and using a ponytail holder as a tourniquet, the ambulance arrived, and the EMTs promptly let her know that both of these were a “big no, no.”

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Mock’s swelling quickly reached her shoulder to what she described as wearing a long black and blue glove. A normal dosage of five vials of antivenom was administered, but she required 4-times that amount over the next few days and a stay in the ICU. “I slept so much because it hurt so bad,” Mock recalled. After 20 vials of antivenom at $20,000 per vial and a week in the hospital, Mock was finally able to go home but not after an arduous and frightening experience.

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“I had to have surgery on my finger at the end of that week. So they cut in three spots, and cut all of the tissue out right along the knuckle and that part had to heal from the inside out. They gave me pain medicine because it was excruciatingly painful, the only thing I’ve ever been through that hurt more is childbirth.”

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After physical therapy, nerve damage and random bouts of swelling, the healing journey continues, but she joked of a silver lining in all of this, “I did hear that copperhead venom is supposed to be preventive for breast cancer- one of my clients said that to me in the hospital.”

Mock is so thankful that she went to get the package that day- and not her young daughter.

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