For years he locked himself in his room and interacted only with his mother and son. He was so ashamed of the huge growth on his face he couldn’t bear to look at himself in the mirror. And the discomfort was unbearable – even something as simple as drinking water would cause bleeding and excruciating pain.
Oupa Phetlhu sought medical help at various public hospitals and facilities but was turned away with painkillers, which did little to help. Finally his mom, Shobo May could stand it no longer – she was determined to get her son’s life back on track.
“She put me on medical aid, we visited a doctor and we were transferred to a specialist,” Oupa (33) says.
He was diagnosed with ameloblastoma, a benign growth that commonly occurs in the lower jaw near the molars. By this time the tumour had started to eat away at his lower jawbone, disfiguring his face and wrecking his life.
“I used to be a security guard but I had to leave my job because I just couldn’t cope anymore,” he tells us.
“People were scared to look at me or be around me. So I stopped going outside and withdrew from the rest of the world.”
But finally Oupa’s life was about to change. Thanks to cutting-edge surgery and technological advances in the medical world, he now has a brand-new jaw – a 3D-printed titanium implant. He’s without pain or swelling and ready to face the world again.
“Now I want to provide for my son,” Oupa says. “I want to be an exemplary father and use this time to catch up.”
The trouble started in 2017 when Oupa, who’s from the small town of Edenburg in the Free State, began to suffer toothache on one side of his mouth. He had his lower molars extracted, thinking that would be the end of his problems. Little did he know it was only the beginning.
“After the extraction my face was slightly swollen and I thought it was normal given the procedure,” he says.
The swelling subsided for a while but then it returned and over the years the mass on his jawline grew and the pain worsened.
When none of the state facilities he visited could help him, he presumed he’d have to live this way for the rest of his life: a recluse in a world full of pain and misery. But thanks to his mother and medical aid, things would change for Oupa.
He was referred to the Centre for Rapid Prototyping and Manufacturing (CRPM) at the Central University of Technology in Bloemfontein. There he was introduced to Dr Charles van Niekerk, a maxillofacial and oral surgeon who specialises in dentistry. After consulting with Oupa, Dr Van Niekerk agreed to surgically remove the tumour.
But the growth had started invading soft tissue, which in turn led to bone destruction. Van Niekerk decided to replace the damaged bone with a custom- made 3D-printed titanium implant – at no cost to his patient. Oupa couldn’t believe his luck.
“For the first time in years I started to feel hopeful,” he says. “I was excited that I’d finally be able to live a normal life again.”
Hi-tech 3D printing is a computerised technique that requires extensive planning and precision.
Oupa’s procedure required four weeks, says Professor Cules van den Heever, a prosthodontist and medical adviser at CRPM who was involved in planning the surgery.
“The tumour had caused such severe damage to his jawbone that chunks of it were missing, so we had to design a jaw implant using 3D advanced technology,” he said.
CRPM specialises in 3D-printed prostheses for medical implants and other devices.
Professor Van den Heever explains that Oupa’s 3D implant was manufactured layer by layer. The process uses a 40mm-thick layer of bio-compatible titanium powder, which is fused with a laser beam into a shape designed on a computer. Creating the implant took about 20 hours to complete.
“We also made time for corrections, polishing and preparation of the implant for surgery,” the professor says.
In June Oupa went under the knife. It took the CRPM surgeons and medical team about four and a half hours to remove the mass from his jaw and insert the 3D-printed titanium implant using specialised screws. When he opened his eyes after the lengthy op he felt like a changed man.
“I looked at myself in the mirror and even though I couldn’t see myself properly under the bandages, I could see that the tumour was no more,” he says.
Two days later he was sent home to heal in the presence of his loved ones. Oupa’s son, Keoratile (11), was overwhelmed with emotion when he saw him. “He looked at me and said, ‘This is the papa I know’, while carefully cupping my face.”It was Keoratile who kept him motivated during his darkest days, Oupa says.
“He just kept telling me that everything would be okay and even though I didn’t look like the father he knew, he still showed me unconditional love.”
Four months have passed since his life- changing implant and Oupa feels like a new man. His jaw has healed so well that anyone who knew him before he had the tumour would never know it existed.
“Now all I have are scars which are covered by my beard,” he says.
He’s no longer on any medication but still needs to go for check-ups every six months.
There’s a possibility of growth recurring but Professor Van den Heever says it’s highly unlikely.
“We did all we could to remove all traces of the tumour.”
Oupa’s condition isn’t rare, he adds, but theatre time is the biggest problem.
“Trauma cases take up most of the available theatre time, so we end up with long waiting lists for pathology cases,” he explains.
Although it took years to get the treatment he needed, Oupa is grateful his medical troubles are a thing of the past. He says he can’t thank his doctors enough but for Van den Heever it’s all in a day’s work.
“What I love the most about my job is being able to give back to people to improve their quality of life,” says the professor, who’s specialised in his field for 39 years. Oupa now plans to reintegrate into society. He wants to find a job, socialise with his friends over a game of football and be the best dad he can be to his son. “I’ve lost so much time and wasted so many years at home because of that tumour,” he says.
“It’s time for me to reclaim my life.”