Retired nurse Susan Lloyd was diagnosed with stage 4 oral cancer in 2013. “It all started with a sharp pain in my jaw that made it painful to eat,” she said. “The nurse at my doctor’s office looked at the jaw, then gave me some Advil and told me to go home. The pain didn’t go away. It got worse.”
As a nurse, Lloyd knew something was wrong.
It would take several months and visits to her dentist, an oral surgeon and an ENT surgeon to get a diagnosis and plan of treatment. As Lloyd tells it, “The oral surgeon took a biopsy. He’s the one who told me I had cancer and that I needed to take care of it immediately. I was referred to an ENT surgeon, but something just wasn’t right.”
Lloyd felt uncomfortable with the surgeon. “He seemed worried, even fearful, about performing the surgery. He kept telling me how complicated the operation would be. And I wasn’t just looking at one surgery — I’d have to have more reconstructive procedures afterwards and be on a feeding tube for over a year.”
Desperate for a doctor they could trust, Lloyd and her family decided to get a second opinion. They set up an appointment at a major cancer center in the northeast.
At this point, her daughter, Colleen Rodriguez, made the call that saved her mother’s life. “We could have gone anywhere to get treatment, but I really wanted to see if there was someone in town who we could trust,” Rodriguez said. “That way my mother would have her family with her while recuperating and she’d be close to home. It also made sense that, if radiation treatment was needed, we could have everything done at one place.”
Rodriguez knew Stuart Klein, executive director of UF Health Proton Therapy Institute, and called him. “This was Thanksgiving week, but incredibly, he got us in to see the doctors the next day — the day before Thanksgiving.”
The doctors recommended they see Rui Fernandes, MD, DMD, before they flew out of town for their other second opinion. “They told us we didn’t have to leave town because Dr. Fernandes is one of the finest oral and maxillofacial surgeons in the country,” Rodriguez said. “I couldn’t believe it — Stuart called Dr. Fernandes on his cell phone and we got an appointment to see him Friday, the day after Thanksgiving.”
They learned that Fernandes is a vocal advocate for patients seeking a second opinion. He is chief of head and neck surgery at UF Health Jacksonville. A University of Florida associate professor of oral and maxillofacial surgery.
“Unlike the ENT surgeon we saw, Dr. Fernandes was very calm. Very sure about what he was doing,” Rodriguez said. “He went over everything step-by-step and explained what he was going to do.”
When Fernandes told them he would take out the cancer and perform reconstructive surgery at the same time, Lloyd and Rodriguez were ecstatic. “It sounded like science fiction,” Lloyd said. “One and done. One operation and that’s it. No disfigurement. No follow-up reconstructive surgeries and only a week on a feeding tube.”
They both cried with relief.
It only took a minute or so to make a decision. “We want you to do the surgery,” they said.
The operation was scheduled and the trip to the cancer center a thousand miles away was cancelled. “That was the best thing we ever did,” Lloyd said. “I’m sure I wouldn’t be alive today if it wasn’t for Dr. Fernandes. He absolutely saved my life.”
“I had the pleasure of seeing Mrs. Lloyd on consultation for her diagnosis of squamous cell carcinoma of the left mandible. We discussed her treatment options and, after approval from our multidisciplinary head and neck tumor board, she and her family agreed to proceed with the plan. After her surgery she went on to have radiation therapy,” said Fernandes.
Susan spent a week recovering at UF Health Jacksonville. “The staff at UF Health was amazing. I’m so glad I didn’t go out of town. My daughter spent every night with me, my sister was there during the days. I was covered with family 24/7. Dr. Fernandes and the other doctors checked on my progress every hour day and night.”
“UF Health is a gem for our community that no one really knows about,” Rodriguez said of her mother’s experience with the hospital. “When you say ‘UF Health’ people think about emergency rooms and trauma. They’re so much more.”
“When I tell people what I had done, they can’t believe it. I mean, look at me. All that surgery and there’s hardly a scar!” Lloyd said.
“As a nurse, I can tell you that Dr. Fernandes is one of the best doctors in the country,” Lloyd said. “His skill, patience and expertise have given me the opportunity to have a full life. Now I look at every day as a gift. And it’s all because of him.”
Fernandes is pleased with Susan’s recovery. “She is doing very well and continues to be disease-free and enjoying her time with family and friends.”
Rui P. Fernandes, MD, DMD, FACS, FRCS
Associate Chair, Department of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery; Chief, Division of Head and Neck Surgery; Program Director, Head and Neck Oncologic Surgery and Microvascular Fellowship; Director, UF Center for Reconstructive Surgery; Co-Director, UF Health Skull Base Team