Groundbreaking Cleft Palate Surgery Changes 20-Year-Old Patient’s Life

October 21, 2020 Updated: October 21, 2020

A boy who was born with a cleft palate didn’t speak until almost the age of 3. He always hoped that surgery could improve his quality of life, and finally, after almost two decades, a life-changing operation has achieved exactly that.

“I’m overly satisfied with the results,” David Bufkin, 20, said in a Banner Health news release. “It was a long road worth walking!”

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David Bufkin, 20, of Sun City, Ariz., was born with a cleft palate didn’t speak until almost the age of three. (Courtesy of Banner Health)

Bufkin’s cleft palate, and a 1-inch deficit in the length of his upper jaw compared to the lower, meant that he was plagued by a major speech impediment, trouble sleeping, and trouble chewing food growing up. He learned to speak through years of extensive speech therapy.

Dr. Robert Wood of Banner Children’s at Desert in Mesa, Arizona, was the surgeon tasked with Bufkin’s most recent and most drastic surgery.

“Because of the severity of his cleft, the upper jaw did not express adequate growth,” Wood told AZ BIG Media, “and as the remainder of his face grew normally, his upper jaw and mid-face became very, very recessed.”

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(Courtesy of Banner Health)

During the hour-long procedure, Wood removed his 20-year-old patient’s upper jaw from the base of his skull and attached it to a halo-shaped brace around his head, the news release said.

The brace anchored Bufkin’s skull and facial bones in place for two months, with the goal of shifting his upper jaw forward a full 3 centimeters at a rate of 1 millimeter per day, plus resting time.

Catering to Bufkin’s religious sentiments, the Banner statement noted that Wood, who is a “pioneer in blood conservation,” ensured that his patient did not require a blood transfusion during his surgery, using presurgical iron supplements and blood-count-boosting medication to prevent Bufkin from losing too many red blood cells.

Wood expects that his patient will experience some relapsing of the jaw after surgery, although orthodontic bands and braces will help.

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David Bufkin with an external distractor. (Courtesy of Banner Health)

“We moved his bone there, but the rest of his body would like to be three centimeters back,” Wood told AZ BIG Media.

The surgeon added that the postoperative head brace is “a real psychosocial hardship” for patients, and takes this into account in Bufkin’s aftercare plan.

“This is a life-changing event for him,” Wood said. “He was pretty deformed, and now [his family] thinks he looks like his father or grandfather.”

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David Bufkin after surgery and recovery. (Courtesy of Banner Health)

After his surgery, Bufkin can breathe more easily, exercise more comfortably, and sleep peacefully, the news release said. With his teeth in better alignment, he is also far better able to chew food, speak, and smile.

“[I’m] thankful Dr. Wood has finished bringing this challenging feat to fruition,” Bufkin said in the news release.

Bufkin’s family agreed, exclaiming that it’s “almost like having a whole new son.”

“[B]ut of course he’s still the same kid I know,” said Bufkin’s mother, Jessica Barnes.

“He looks like an entirely different person. I’ve been waiting for this for him for 20 years, and we are so grateful,” she added.

(Courtesy of Banner Health)

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