Advance with MUSC Health

Bill's Story

Advance With MUSC Health
July 01, 2022
Bill Watrous

Life was good for Bill and Pat Watrous.

Having retired and left the Connecticut snows and steep cost of living in their rear-view mirror, they were making the most of life in Surfside Beach.

“We settled into a good life,” says Watrous, 75. “Everything met our expectations. We participated in activities at Brookgreen Gardens, volunteered at a local food pantry, and socialized with neighbors and friends and family from up North.”

Then one day, in late summer 2019, Watrous noticed and felt something different in his face. He had strange sensations on the left side, and his eye drooped.

“At first, I didn’t pay attention to it, but when symptoms didn’t go away, I thought maybe I’d had a stroke. I went to a doctor, who referred me to the local ER, where I was told I had Bell’s Palsy and that it would go away. Still, nothing improved, so I was referred for a CT scan, which showed a tumor. My doctor recommended MUSC for treatment.”

Within days, he and Pat were at MUSC Health Hollings Cancer Center for additional tests to confirm the diagnosis. The news was breathtaking: aggressive cancer on the left side of his head, specifically cancer of the parotid gland, one of the major salivary glands in front of the ear through which critical nerves run.

“A cancer diagnosis jumps right out at you,” says, Watrous, who knew every day made a difference. What he didn’t know at the time was the tumor size: comparable to a softball, spreading inward, surrounding his ear, growing toward his spinal column and upward to his eye.

His condition would require a team of highly trained specialists and multiple surgeries.

The first surgery was performed in November 2019; it featured three teams of surgeons and lasted 15 hours. The complex surgery involved removal of all the tissue in front of, around, and behind Watrous’ ear, the skull bone behind his ear, the entire salivary gland in front of his ear, the nerve that controls the muscles of his face, and the lymph nodes in his neck. Then Dr. Evan Graboyes, MUSC Health head and neck microvascular reconstructive surgeon, began reconstructing Watrous’ missing tissue, using tissue from his left thigh.

“Everything associated with my ear and hearing had to be removed; my ear was flat against the side of my face, but the surgery was successful,” Watrous says.

In late December, Watrous began chemotherapy together with 6 weeks of radiation to help prevent the recurrence of his high-risk cancer. He and Pat stayed at the Hope Lodge behind MUSC Health Hospital Monday-Friday during his treatment. Sponsored by the American Cancer Society, the lodge provides rooms, meals, and snacks at no cost. He admits the regimen was grueling; he lost 35 pounds and was dehydrated, but he says the treatment worked.

Although the intense chemotherapy and radiation regimen was necessary to help treat his cancer, the radiation killed the skull bone behind his ear. As a result, in spring 2020 Watrous had to undergo another surgery, this time for surgeons to remove the dead bone and replace it with a conduit of healthy tissue from his chest. Dr. Graboyes constructed the conduit from Watrous’ ear to his shoulder. Due to the extensive radiation damage to his neck, the team had to traverse the conduit outside of his neck to reach the area of dead skull bone above and behind his ear. It resembled an upside-down turkey leg, but once again the treatment worked – with some help from medical leeches.

Three to four times a day, leeches, one at a time, were applied to his neck to suck blood. It wasn’t Watrous’ first encounter with the blood suckers.

“As a soldier in Vietnam in 1968, I was always covered with leeches and I never wanted to see one again,” he says “Fortunately, they were kept in a jar behind my bed where I couldn’t see them, but they did what they were supposed to do: emit a healing enzyme and suck my blood until they fell off. A few months later, Watrous had another surgery to divide the conduit and remove the turkey leg.” 

Once he had healed and regained his strength, Watrous faced one more surgery to help address the challenges from having the nerve that controls his facial muscles removed during his original cancer surgery. Dr. Krishna Patel, facial plastic surgeon with a specialty in head and neck reconstruction, moved the corner of his mouth up to alleviate the drooping, reconstructed the outer part of his ear and inserted a minute piece of platinum into his left upper eyelid to help it close as necessary.

Nearly 3 years since his ordeal began, the good life is beckoning once again and Watrous is ready to roll. He and Pat are cruising the beach roads in his 1962 black Corvette convertible, and they’re looking forward to a summer getaway in Rhode Island with their children and grandchildren. A classic car enthusiast, he takes in an occasional classic car show in nearby Myrtle Beach. And those lost pounds? He’s regained some, with help from Pat’s chocolate chip cookies and chocolate cake. 

“I’m feeling pretty good,” he says. “My last scans didn’t show any resurgence of cancer. As of now I’m considered cured but will continue to have scans as required.”

Watrous says he owes his life to his team at MUSC Health, who pulled him through some pretty rough times. “The nurses, doctors, techs and therapists really did work as a team,” he says. “From Dr. Graboyes and Dr. Patel to my radiation oncologist Dr. Jennifer Harper and my chemotherapy oncologist Dr. John Kaczmar, everyone communicated with one another. Everyone was in place, and they knew what they were doing. It gave me a much better feeling to know that they were all on the same page – and that they truly care.”