Lamberth and Shirley Mitchell: Losing Teeth, but Keeping Spirit and Faith

A 65-year-old Person County man is successfully treated for a rare head and neck cancer, but the treatment side effects damaged his teeth and gums. He may have lost his pearly whites, but not his spirit or his faith.

Lamberth and Shirley Mitchell:  Losing Teeth, but Keeping Spirit and Faith
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For six weeks prior to his surgery, Lamberth received daily hyperbaric chamber treatment that forced oxygen into the damaged gum tissues to aid in pain relief and healing.

Media contact: Tom Hughes, (919) 966-6047, tahughes@unch.unc.edu

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Written by Elizabeth Swaringen for UNC Health Care

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – For most of his 65 years, Lamberth Mitchell’s teeth were one of his best assets. These days, their absence is the center of attention.

For nearly 10 years, following successful treatment at UNC Hospitals for a rare cancer at the back of his throat where the intake of food and air meet, Lamberth of Roxboro, N.C., has lived with gum tissues damaged by the treatment that saved his life.  Poor circulation in those damaged tissues cause pain and loosen teeth. In whole or in part, many of Lamberth’s pearly whites fell out.

“The good news is I’m alive and cured,” Lamberth said. “The bad news is I lost my teeth. The good news is my team at UNC continues to take good care of me, and we can fix this.”

On July 12, Lamberth underwent surgery at the Dental Clinic at UNC Hospitals to remove the remaining teeth in his lower jaw in preparation for being fitted for dentures. The previous six weeks, Lamberth received daily hyperbaric chamber treatment that forced oxygen into the damaged gum tissues to aid in pain relief and healing. Those treatments in the pressurized chamber will continue for several weeks after the dental surgery to continue the healing.

The treatment was administered weekday mornings over two to three hours at the UNC Hospitals wound clinic and in conjunction with UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center palliative care/supportive care clinic.

Under the direction of Stephen A. Bernard, M.D., professor of medicine at the UNC School of Medicine, and a member of UNC Lineberger, the clinic sees patients at Carolina Point II, a satellite facility minutes from the hospital and easily accessible from  I-40. The convenient location and free parking are patient-pleasing complements to high-quality care.

“We started the palliative care clinic in early 2008, and he is the patient who has been with us the longest,” Dr. Bernard said. “Too many people think palliative care means end of life care, but there is documented evidence that if you provide palliative care for symptom management early on, even with advanced cancers, patients can live longer and with an improved quality of life, too.

“We can say that Mr. Mitchell is cured of the cancer, but it came at a price,” Dr. Bernard said. “His nasopharyngeal cancer is rare, and surgery was not an option because of the structure of the human skull and throat. He received enough radiation, with doses of chemotherapy to boost the radiation effect, to kill the cancer, but it left scars around the small nerves in his mouth and gums. He experiences a constant burning and pain in those tissues among a variety of other symptoms. Radiation also causes accelerated aging and even with incredibly good oral care, teeth may not survive.

“But we have the people, the skills and knowledge here at UNC to help someone like him,” Dr. Bernard said. “He had a complex disease that was effectively managed by multiple specialists.  Now, we have different specialists at work on what will be the lifelong management of treatment side effects.”

While in Chapel Hill for the hyperbaric chamber therapy, Lamberth and Shirley, his wife of 44 years, stayed at SECU Family House, the 40-bedroom hospital hospitality house that is the ideal home-away-from-home for patients who may have daily appointments at the hospital or need immediate medical attention.

“Roxboro really isn’t that far, but it was wearing us both out making that drive every day,” said Shirley, a retired Duke University employee. “We’d be up early to make sure we’d had breakfast, were bathed and ready to be in Chapel Hill for his 7:30 a.m. appointments. He will not be late so we were always there by 7.

“Family House is a little like a vacation,” Shirley said.  “Every one, staff and volunteers alike, are so helpful.  There’s a community that’s supportive, but there’s also the quiet spaces where you can go to be alone with your thoughts and prayers.”

She is particularly fond of The Quiet Room, a cozy hideaway above the house’s communal kitchen.  “Sometimes I come here late at night to meditate and pray. Just sitting in this room relieves stress, and you know stress can kill you.”

And Shirley knows a thing or two about stress. “I’m not a well person myself,” she said, citing her diagnoses of a benign brain tumor that required a shunt, a brain aneurysm and a diagnosis of kidney cancer—all before Lamberth’s own medical journey began.

Despite their health issues, Lamberth and Shirley remain upbeat, something Dr. Bernard noticed the first time he met them.

“They love one another and really look out for each other,” he said. “They are upbeat even when you know he isn’t feeling well. They enjoy a good quality of life. They have a garden.  And he gets on us when his UNC sports teams aren’t doing well.”

“I’ve been a UNC man all my life,” said Lamberth, the seventh of 10 children. “My daddy farmed in Person County, but he also worked as a custodian at the University. He carried me to the dental school to have my teeth cared for even before I was in high school.”

It’s a good thing he did.

“His pretty teeth were what attracted me to him in the first place,” said Shirley, recalling their meeting in high school. “That, and the fact that he had a car and a heart of gold.  He was always doing for others even as a young man.”

And Lamberth continues doing for others:  working with Shirley to register voters in the last two election cycles and serving as a trustee of Allen Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church.  A life-long member, Lamberth’s maternal and paternal ancestors were among the founders of the church.

“And as part of my healing, I hope my doctors have learned a lot from me so they are even better prepared for treating others,” Lamberth said. “It’s the least I can do for what I’ve received in Chapel Hill all these years.”

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