Saturday 20 April 2019

Facial disfigurement: "Strangers even shouted 'Jaws' at me in the street"

Leanne Woodfull
Leanne Woodfull
Facial stages: Leanne Woodfull had an underbite through her teens
The recovery after her operation

Leanne Woodfull

"My teens were a tough due to facial disfigurement, but thanks to surgery, I can move on, says Leanne Woodfull

Many of us go through at least one experience or incident, good or bad, that subsequently changes our lives forever.

I grew up being that outgoing, bubbly and confident kid who loved dancing and showing off in front of everyone and anyone.

I ventured into the infamously tough realm of fashion during my teenage years, to find myself running a successful fashion and beauty blog and being featured on such shows as 'Off The Rails', 'Xposé' and 'Two Tube'.

I was living my dream, but it always felt as if something was holding me back from my full potential.

My confidence and drive were knocked at a young age; it's fair to say I came across a gigantic bump in the road, something I've only managed to finally escape from this year; I struggled through my teenage years with a facial disfigurement, that was corrected in March.

It was a constant black cloud looming over me for almost a decade, it was tough trying to see the sun through it.

From a very young age, I started to visit a dentist regularly and had several teeth pulled out before I turned 10; I was never blessed in the teeth department.

As my adult teeth began to come through, I developed severe overcrowding on both my upper and lower jaws.

I had teeth growing horizontally, over and behind teeth. When I turned 11, I had braces put on to begin the slow process of correcting my teeth.

As well as having an overcrowded mouth, my two jaws met in the middle.

A normal bite consists of the upper jaw resting slightly in front of the bottom jaw; mine didn't.

My orthodontist warned my parents that there was a chance that I might develop an underbite due to the correction procedures beginning at such a young age, when my jaw was still developing.

I was 13 going on 14, when my orthodontist first started to see the signs of the unfortunate underbite developing.

It became more prominent and severe as the years went on.

My confidence plummeted, and I struggled with constant bullying from others in school, outside of school and online because of it.

I was quite a troubled teenager from 14 years of age on, I started to self harm and wanted to end my life on several occasions.

As well as emotional issues, the underbite also meant that I developed a lisp and found it difficult to talk.

Your tongue needs to hit off of your teeth in order to make certain sounds, which then turn into words.

There were certain words I started to avoid saying altogether, as my tongue couldn't reach my bottom teeth properly.

My underbite was at its worst during my last few years of school.

The bullying outside of school and online became absolutely horrific; people started spreading around a nickname for me – 'Jaws'. People referred to me as this for years (and still do).

I've had complete strangers shout "Jaws!" at me on the street, and other insults relating to my disfigurement.

When I was 17, I had to make the decision of whether or not I was going to go through corrective surgery for my underbite; I didn't think twice about it and said yes straight away.

My confidence was at an all time low at this stage, and I remember walking around with my face buried in a scarf for a year because I felt so ashamed of my appearance.

My underbite became even worse as I turned 18; my lower front teeth began to push out and were sitting at an almost horizontal angle.

It made my underbite even more noticeable and my speech difficulty worsened.

In October 2011, I underwent my first surgery in the process of correcting my bite.

I had all of my wisdom teeth extracted, along with two of my front incisors.

I was put under general anaesthetic for this, and it took a few weeks for me to heal.

The teeth were extracted in order for my orthodontist to push the lower front teeth back into position and prepare my teeth for the surgery.

Unfortunately, all of my bottom teeth moved into one space, instead of spreading out evenly, and I was left with huge gaps in my lower teeth for around eight months.

Again, my confidence took a knock.

My bite improved with the moving of the lower teeth, but my underbite was still on show for everyone to see – and of course it looked even worse in my head.

From the end of 2011 on, it was all a matter of waiting.

I started going to see my oral surgeon in St James' Hospital every few months, so they could monitor my underbite and growth. The surgeons have to wait until you stop developing entirely before they operate.

If they operate on your jaw whilst you're still growing, the underbite could eventually grow back.

I started watching underbite surgery progress vlogs on Youtube, and reading blog posts and forums about it.

I found that reading other people's experiences helped me more than anything.

Speaking to other people who were going through or had gone through the surgery was a life saver, it made me realise I wasn't alone in this.

Towards the end of 2012, I was getting really impatient waiting on a date for my operation.

The wait and process interfered with everything from jobs to college, and I felt like my life was put on hold.

In late January, my surgeon finally gave me a date for my surgery; March 5.

To say I was relieved would be an understatement!

Underbite correction varies with people; some have their bites corrected without surgery, some have only one jaw respositioned and then some undergo double jaw repositioning – like me.

The process involved breaking both of my jaws, repositioning them and screwing them back into place with metal plates.

There was always the possibility of my surgery being cancelled at the last minute, if there was an emergency.

The thought of it being cancelled and held off for another few months, scared me more than the procedure itself in the end.

I went for Xrays, splint fittings and moulds in the weeks up to the surgery.

The weeks flew in and the next thing I knew it was the night before the surgery! I was receiving hundreds of good luck messages on my various social networking sites.

I began fasting that night, slept for around three hours and before I knew it we were on our way to the hospital.

The exact moment I woke up from the surgery was so surreal; all I remember seeing is a bunch of nurses surrounding me, admiring my arm tattoos.

I went into theatre at around 8.30am, it was then 3.30pm.

My whole head was wrapped in bandages and my nose was bleeding heavily.

I had to fast for another 12 hours, to my disappointment.

I was incredibly thirsty; I ended up fasting for 34 hours in total – I wasn't even allowed a sip of water. The moment I received my first sip of water on the Wednesday morning was glorious!

The four days I spent in hospital all seem like a blur.

I was on heavy painkillers; morphine-based ones at nighttime. I had absolutely no concentration span, so the pile of magazines and books were abandoned by my bed.

My bandages were removed the next day and I had elastics wired into my mouth, I wasn't in any pain but I was extremely swollen.

Most of my face was numb, and I was drooling like a waterfall 24/7 and had to carry bowls around with me under my chin.

I didn't sleep for the first few days, and the lack of food was getting to me; obviously with two broken jaws, you can only swallow liquids.

I lived on milkshakes and soup, either supped through a polystyrene cup or inserted through a plastic syringe.

I was unable to talk at all, so I kept a pen and paper at hand.

I went home on the fourth day, after my surgeon gave me the all-clear.

It was terrifying at first, especially at night because you don't have the nurses looking after you.

I'm a big eater, so the liquid diet was really difficult, even in week one.

I yearned for food! I got sick of soup and milkshakes pretty quickly, and found that liquidised Weetabix was the only thing capable of filling me up.

I visited my surgeon for check-ups, and had my elastics repositioned.

I'm currently on week eight and I've felt more like myself over the last few weeks.

My swelling has gone down dramatically, as has the numbness.

I'm still swollen around my cheeks and jawline, although it isn't noticeable to most people.

I'm still completely numb around my chin and bottom lip, the feeling started coming back to other areas of my face slowly but surely.

Numbness can stay for months after undergoing double jaw surgery, as the nerves are stretched and sometimes damaged during the procedure.

If some areas of your face are still numb after six months, there's a likelihood of those areas staying numb for the rest of your life.

It's a risk most people are willing to take!

I've been on a soft food diet for a few weeks now, as I'm still unable to chew or open my mouth wider than the width of two fingers.

My elastics are still in, but I'm able to remove them to eat.

It's tough at the moment, as I just want to get back to normal as soon as I can. The difference in my bite was noticeable on day one, but only did we see the full change during week four/five.

I have a "normal" bite now, which feels completely unfamiliar.

Even though I'm swollen, numb and my eating's limited, I still feel tremendously happy over the results.

It'll be another month or so until I see myself looking back to normal, as the swelling should be gone by then.

My braces are due to come off this summer also, with only a few minor perfecting tweaks to make here and there.

I've documented my whole journey and process on my blog, and I've made vlogs that'll be put onto my YouTube channel.

Already, more than a dozen people have messaged me to say that my blog posts have reassured them about undergoing the surgery and that they've decided to go ahead with it.

I feel that my whole experience has made me into an incredibly thick-skinned and empathetic person.

I feel like life is only beginning for me now, as nothing is holding me back.

Irish Independent

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