Tim’s Story: Tongue Cancer Could Not Stop Active Exotic Animal Expert

Tim Harrison of Springboro is known as a “jack of all trades.” He’s worked as a physician assistant; a policeman, paramedic, and firefighter of 29 years in the City of Oakwood; director of outreach for Animals, a nonprofit; an adjunct instructor at Disaster City at Texas A&M University; and a world champion of full-contact karate.

The 64-year-old also works with exotic animals around the world.

“I got involved with exotic animals when I was 16,” recalls Tim. “I was working with a veterinarian who was the vet for the Cincinnati and Columbus Zoos. He dealt with dangerous, exotic animals. Whenever something happened, I always went with him.”

Tim’s work with exotic animals in people’s homes was also featured on the documentary “The Elephant in the Living Room,” which has been broadcast on Netflix and Amazon Prime Video. He’s also been featured as an exotic animal expert on several network and cable news broadcasts, as well as podcasts.

“'I’ve seen everything from an African elephant in a person’s garage in Macy, Indiana, to giraffes in a garage in Troy, Ohio,” explains Tim. “I've had crocodiles, alligators, bears, all the big cats – any animal you can think of, I've dealt with it.”

Although Tim has seen a lot through his career and has never been fazed by fear, one day in 2013, he was told a sentence he never thought he would hear: “You have cancer.”

Tim was diagnosed with tongue cancer, the growth of abnormal cells in the front two-thirds of the tongue. Tongue cancer usually develops in the squamous cells – thin, flat cells that cover the surface of the tongue.

“When I hear of oral cancer, I think, ‘Oh, that's it,’” explains Tim. “I thought I better start hugging everybody and giving them kisses because my time's up.”

Doctors removed a portion of the bottom of Tim’s tongue and mouth.

Eventually, in 2020, Tim began to feel pain again in his mouth and throat.

This time, he contacted Sameep Kadakia, MD, a fellowship-trained facial, plastic, and microvascular reconstructive surgeon with expertise in the extirpation and reconstruction of advanced head and neck malignancies at Premier ENT Associates, as well as an MD Anderson Cancer Network certified physician at Premier Health.

“When Tim initially came in, there was no evidence of cancer having returned,” explains Dr. Kadakia. “It was only with follow-up visits that we detected an abnormal growth that was then found to be biopsy-proven squamous cell carcinoma.”

Tim knew he had a tough decision ahead of him.

“I saw in Dr. Kadakia’s eyes that we needed to do something,” recalls Tim.  “It was time to fight.”

Dr. Kadakia developed a comprehensive plan.

“Once I removed a portion of Tim’s tongue and jawbone, I had to remove lymph nodes from the right side of his neck, just to also make sure that the cancer had not spread to any of the lymph nodes again,” says Dr. Kadakia. “We tend to be a little bit more aggressive in our treatment to make sure we can give the patient the best chance of their cancer not returning.”

After Dr. Kadakia finished removing the portions of Tim’s mouth affected by the cancer, he worked with Sunishka Wimalawansa, MD, a fellowship-trained hand and microvascular reconstructive surgeon who has additional expertise in cosmetic and reconstructive plastic surgery. 

“The partnership with Dr. Wimalawansa gives us the unique ability to combine our reconstructive surgery skill sets,” says Dr. Kadakia. “We are both very passionate about providing high-level reconstructive surgery to our patients.”

Through a procedure known as a radial forearm free flap procedure at Miami Valley Hospital, the physicians took a small skin graft and some tissue underneath the forearm. Staying connected to the radial artery and vein, the graft is transplanted in the patient’s mouth.

“What we're doing is changing that anatomy and we're relying on that blood flow from the head and neck area to provide blood to the new graft,” explains Dr. Kadakia.

Next, Dr. Kadakia and Dr. Wimalawansa stitched the new graft to the right side of Tim’s tongue, effectively recreating the tissue that had been removed.

“You serve as your own donor,” says Dr. Wimalawansa. “That way, you don't need immunosuppression -that's your own tissue. We can use other healthy non-cancerous parts of the body to rebuild areas where you're missing critical tissues.”

After Tim’s procedure, he was taken to Miami Valley Hospital’s Regional Burn Center, which helps in the recovery of patients who have received major reconstructive surgery. 

While Tim was recovering, he had a tracheotomy and was on a feeding tube.

“While I was in the hospital, I was actually able to start talking again,” says Tim. “It was astonishing – amazing! Once I got out, I still had a hole in my throat, but within a few weeks it healed over.”

The love and encouragement from Tim’s family, friends, and even strangers helped him through his cancer journey, he says.

 “I remember so many people praying for me,” Tim says. “I could feel their prayers.”

Dr. Kadakia says Tim’s attitude and positivity were crucial in beating his tongue cancer.

“I was just so taken aback by how kind Tim was, how pleasant he was, how motivated he was,” explains Dr. Kadakia. “I think that made for a wonderful relationship between myself and Tim. I really came to respect him so highly as a productive member of society, as a human being, and as a friend.”

Tim has made a full recovery, just months following his second tongue surgery. He says his cancer diagnosis and experience have focused his attention on loved ones while continuing his work as an animal advocate.

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