Smiles restored to Jessica Lowa from Papua New Guinea in pro bono surgery at St Andrew’s

Jessica Lowa from Papua New Guinea couldn’t wait to return to her home outside Mount Hagen to show her three children her new face and smile.

In pro bono surgery performed at Brisbane’s St Andrew’s War Memorial Hospital in late September, surgeons removed Jessica’s large facial arteriovenous malformation and reconstructed her face using grafts of skin from her leg. Further grafting was done in a second pro bono surgery at St Andrew’s in October. 

St Andrew’s visiting plastic, craniofacial and reconstructive surgeon Dr Richard Lewandowski led the surgical team, which included Dr Ryan Fitzgerald and anaesthetist Dr Vernon Moo.

The doctors, and St Andrew’s nurses and theatre staff, all volunteered their time and services, St Andrew’s covered Jessica’s hospital stays and theatre costs, and organisations including Lions Australia and Oil Search provided financial and other support for 36-year-old Jessica and her husband Simon, who accompanied her to Brisbane.

Jessica’s treatment was organised through the World Care Program of medical charity Operation Smile Australia, which was founded by Dr Lewandowski and his wife Sue in 1999.

Arteriovenous malformations (AVMs) are the result of abnormal connections between arteries and veins and cause overgrowth of tissue, pain and substantial risk of massive bleeding. Jessica’s disfiguring AVM had also affected her speech, ability to eat, and obstructed her eyesight.

“AVMs are always very difficult to treat,” said Dr Lewandowski. “Jessica’s surgery involved ligating the external carotid artery to control bleeding, removal of all of the tissues involved, including skin, muscle, nerves, tendons and removal of her upper left lip, then reconstruction of the tendons, skin, and sharing of the lower lip with the missing upper lip.”

Before Jessica and Simon flew back to Papua New Guinea this month, they expressed their thanks to everyone who had been involved in Jessica’s care. “I am so grateful for all the people who have helped to get us here, during our stay, and to the doctors and nurses. Through your hands I am a different woman and I am so happy,” Jessica said.
It was a chance encounter Jessica had two years ago at Port Moresby airport with Sunshine Coast resident, and Oil Search Health Educator and Emergency Response nurse Peter Woods, which led to the successful surgery. 

Peter was at the time returning to PNG after transferring a patient to Cairns. “I introduced myself to Jessica, and she told me she had been seeking help for her condition but hospitals in Papua New Guinea were not able to assist,” he said. “I said that I would try to help if I could and make some enquiries.”

Contact with Oil Search’s Senior Medical Consultant Dr Will Davies, led to contact with a specialist emergency physician at St Andrew’s War Memorial Hospital, Dr Mark Dalton, and then to Operation Smile Australia and Dr Lewandowski.

UnitingCare Health's Deputy Chief Medical Officer Dr Christian Rowan said St Andrew’s and UnitingCare Health were committed to assisting where possible with charitable medical cases.

“We are delighted that Jessica has recovered well and wish her the best on her journey home to Papua New Guinea,” he said.

Dr Lewandowski said Operation Smile Australia would bring Jessica back to Brisbane next year to review her progress, and she will also be monitored in PNG by Oil Search medical staff as she continues to heal.