When Steven Jensen looks in the mirror he sees more than his own reflection. He sees a miracle; a face reconstructed from the ruins of Stage IV cancer.
"I was disfigured, never quite the same," he said. "And then when the jaw fractured, I had a hard time talking, eating."
Having already undergone one major surgery, he was now facing another. In desperation, Jensen turned to Stanford surgeon Dr. Vasu Divi, M.D., and a powerful technology that promised to literally remap his face.
"And he really explained what he could do," Jensen said. "That they would do computer mirror imaging and construct the jaw virtually before they even went in for surgery."
Divi added, "It's a huge advantage because you actually have an ideal situation. You've created the ideal before you get there."
The Stanford team began by taking CT scans of Jensen's jaw, which are beamed to a specialized center in Michigan to be turned into a precise 3-D model. Using a remote link, Divi carefully analyzes the computer simulation as he plans the reconstruction and collaborates with a technician.
"So using this and the CT scan, we can mark out where we want to remove the bone," Divi explained. "So now what I want to do is mirror image the opposite side to fill in that gap. So that's how we achieve the symmetric jaw with everything in the correct position. And we use that as the basis of the reconstruction. So now that I have this model, the next step is really to take this and make a 3-D print of this."
The physical model of Jensen's jaw, formed from plastic, is then used as a kind of template. Surgeons bend flexible plates along the jawline to capture the precise contours.
"So when I go into the operating room, I actually have this plate in my hand and I can screw this to the patient's jaw and use that to guide the rest of my surgery," Divi said.
The reconstructions can often take many hours in the operating room. And recovery can stretch for weeks. But as the swelling receded, Jensen says he began to watch his familiar reflection reappear in the mirror.
"After the surgery, I was just blown away," he said.
Follow up surgeries could help bring Jensen even closer to his original appearance. But he believes his improvement already runs far deeper than the cosmetic.
"I think the best thing is the ability to really have my speech and to be able to eat, like having my life back," Jensen said.
Divi also credits advances in microvascular techniques that allow surgeons to deliver blood supply more effectively in cancer reconstruction.
Written and produced by Tim Didion