Related stories: Restoring the body, renewing the spirit
Ashli Cooper may have lost her eye and most of the right side of her face to a rare sarcoma when she was 5 years old, but the vision she has for her future is focused and clear.
Through each step, David Chang, M.D., professor in the Department of Plastic Surgery, has been a vital part of Cooper’s survival, recovery — and life. During her 23-hour surgery, the cancer and the tangled web of blood vessels were removed, and the resulting large facial deck was reconstructed with a soft tissue free flap.
He closely observed his colleagues in neurosurgery remove the tumor that had devoured the bones and structure of her nose, cheekbones and part of her skull. Had the team not removed the tumor, Cooper’s parents were told she would live about one year.
Further reconstructive surgery was in her future to complete reconstruction involving her bone structure after her facial development was concluded.
“I remember that Dr. Chang told me we would have a ‘date’ in about 10 years to complete the reconstruction,” says Cooper, now 18. “He gave me hope, and that got me through some tough years and many tears.”
Two years ago, when the time came for Cooper’s reconstruction, Chang took a bone from her leg and fashioned a cheekbone and eye socket. During the six-hour surgery, he also transferred some of her own fat to fill out her face. While there will be follow-up surgeries, Cooper has opted against a prosthetic eye.
“Reconstruction has been a very big part of my cancer journey, but I like having my battle scars, too,” she says. “I don’t mind telling people my story because each person seems to get something different out of it.”
Cooper is off to the University of North Texas this fall for her first year of college to study psychology. She plans to earn a master’s degree at The University of Texas and then have a career working with children with cancer, ideally at MD Anderson.