Rare Tongue Surgery Gives Patient With Cancer a Chance at Life

November 17, 2015

Dr. Tré Landrum (pictured left) provides a check-up to

patient Johnny Morse (pictured right). Landrum performed

a unique cancer surgery on Morse in July.

Johnny Morse’s health care journey began with a constant painful earache that felt like someone was hitting nails into his head.

After visiting several doctors, he finally saw Dr. Tré Landrum, an ear, nose and throat doctor in Ada, who took several biopsies to determine the cause of the pain, which he determined was tonsil cancer. Subsequent CT and PET scans also found lung cancer in his left lung.

After more than 70 radiation treatments and 30 chemotherapy treatments beginning last fall, the cancer was gone.

But, shortly after the treatments, his tongue began to swell until it was about two inches thick on the right side, making it difficult for him to breathe and talk. After a visit to the emergency department at Mercy Hospital Ada in late-July, doctors found a large cancerous tumor in the base of his tongue.

Landrum said Morse had three options: do nothing and he would likely not live more than one month; perform a tracheotomy so he could breathe around the tumor, which may give him three or four months to live; or undergo a surgery to remove his tongue, voice box and lymph nodes in his neck, which means he would never speak or eat again.

We had to make the decision if he wanted to go home or if he wanted his tongue removed,” said Penni Morse, Johnny Morse’s wife. “He said, “I just want to breathe and live.’ So, we went through with the surgery. We had extreme confidence in Dr. Landrum.”

A Unique Surgery

The surgery for 52-year-old Johnny Morse took about 11 hours and not only required the removal of the tumor, tongue, voice box and lymph nodes, but also involved the creation of a flap or skin graft to cover the empty space in his mouth where the tongue used to be. 

Landrum said this complex surgery is very unique because it is rare to have an 11-hour surgery in Ada and big reconstructions, like the removal of the tongue and creation of a skin graft, are often only done in major teaching hospitals where residents and junior surgeons can care for the patient during the long recovery.

Without these other doctors, Landrum had to ensure he was in town and able to visit Johnny Morse in the hospital during his two-week stay. Dr. Imtiaz Ahmed, a pulmonologist and critical care specialist at Mercy in Ada, also cared for Johnny Morse during his stay in the intensive care unit.

This kind of surgery is also not performed often because radiation and chemotherapy treatments are so successful and can often treat these types of head and neck cancers without the need for surgery, said Landrum.

Based on the location of Johnny Morse’s tumor, surgery was the only treatment option. Now, the Morses must wait to find out whether or not the cancer will return.

World-class Services in a Small-town Location

Landrum said he is happy to offer complex surgeries, like Johnny Morse’s surgery, to residents in Ada and the surrounding communities. The Morses traveled from their home in Pauls Valley, Oklahoma, to Mercy Hospital Ada for cancer treatments and the surgery.

“I want to take care of people in the Ada area so they don’t have to go to Oklahoma City where they are two hours away from their family,” said Landrum. “Here in Ada, patients can get just as good of care and the exact same outcomes as if they were in Oklahoma City.”

Nicole Smith, a nurse practitioner at Mercy Hospital Ada, assisted Landrum in the operating room during the complex surgery while she was still a nurse practitioner student. She said she was inspired by Johnny Morse’s spirit and will to live.

He was a really nice patient,” said Smith. “The surgery takes away the patient’s ability to speak or eat again, but he was so happy to be alive that his happiness was contagious.”

Road to Recovery

Johnny Morse, a born outdoorsman, grew up on a dairy farm, built fences for a living and owned his own fencing and construction business. Penni Morse said he has had to slow down and cannot be as active as he would like to, but the pair stays active by getting out of the house every day to take a drive or run errands.

Originally about 250 pounds, Johnny Morse dropped to about 140 pounds while battling cancer. He now weighs nearly 170 pounds and is regaining his strength, while also learning to live without the use of a tongue or voice. He has a feeding tube and breathes through a hole in his neck.

In spite of the major changes in their lives, the Morses are thankful for Landrum and the entire staff at Mercy Hospital Ada for giving him more time and a chance at a cancer-free life.

“We’re just praying that the cancer isn’t going to come back,” said Penni Morse. “No one knows how long he will live, but by the grace of God, let’s hope he makes it at least 20 years.”

Media Contacts

Lindsey Treadwell
Ardmore, Healdton, Ada, Tishomingo
Phone: 580-220-6785