Grateful Couple Donates to Advance Cancer Research for Head and Neck Cancer

Ed and Bobbi Merrell

More than 27 years ago, Ed Merrell received oral cancer treatment at Ohio State. This year, Ed and his wife, Bobbi, made a $500,000 estate gift to The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center – Arthur G. James Cancer Hospital and Richard J. Solove Research Institute in support of head and neck cancer research.

“I owe my life to them. What more can I say?” says Ed, now 72, explaining his decision to give back to the medical center where he underwent a total glossectomy, neck dissection and major reconstruction, followed by radiation therapy.

Not a smoker nor much of a drinker, Ed didn’t seem to display any of the typical oral cancer risk factors.

“It was a two-and-a-half-year odyssey trying to figure out what was wrong with me,” Ed remembers.

Headaches, earaches, neck aches and occasionally blood in his mouth sent him to four different ENTs without a diagnosis before he arrived at the office of Dr. David R. Kelly, then assistant professor at Ohio State, who passed away in 2014. Dr. Kelly discovered an octopus-type growth at the base of Ed’s tongue, and a biopsy confirmed a diagnosis of squamous cell carcinoma of the tongue.

Dr. Kelly performed Ed’s surgery, including a reconstructive chest flap procedure, in which he clipped Ed’s pectoral muscle, bringing it up through his throat to fill the floor of his mouth and serve as a new tongue.

The years that followed were spent in various therapies — relearning to swallow, eat, drink and speak without his tongue and to move his left arm, which was impaired due to the clipped pectoral muscle and the neck dissection. A prosthodontist at Ohio State created two specially fitted oral prosthetics for him — one for eating and one for talking.

Ed says he’s thankful that today he eats and drinks anything he wants, but it was a long road. The most difficult thing was relearning to swallow liquid, especially water because of its low viscosity, he says. It took months of practice in front of a mirror, choking and coughing, but he finally taught himself to swallow water.

With time, he also relearned to eat solid food — using swizzle sticks. His oral prosthetic device serves as a platform for the food to sit on. Ed uses the swizzle stick to push the food around and then move it to the back of his mouth when he’s ready to swallow.

As part of the reconstruction, Dr. Kelly had placed part of the tip of his original tongue on the pectoral muscle, so Ed can still taste food. And surprisingly, Ed notes, the radiation didn’t destroy his saliva glands.

Despite these tremendous challenges, Ed has overcome many of his handicaps and been successful. He still runs his own company doing real estate appraisal in the eminent domain area. He regularly travels throughout the state appraising properties for public projects. He’s called upon for depositions and to testify in court as an expert witness — a communication feat that once would have seemed impossible for him.

Today, Ed and Bobbi are passionate Buckeyes. Ed sits on the board of the Joan Levy Bisesi Fund for Head and Neck Oncology Research, an endowment fund for research at The James. He’s also a dedicated member of Ohio State’s head and neck cancer support group, where he serves as an inspiration to other patients and survivors.