Operation smile: how jaw surgery changed my life
For years, Martha Hayes was bullied for being goofy. An operation at 18 gave her a new self-confidence, but would it last?
Skinny, ginger, goofy bitch.
I was walking to school one morning when I heard this from a girl Id never seen before. She threatened to get a hammer and knock my teeth in place. I was 12, and recognised the girls on either side of her, egging her on, because they had been my friends at primary school. Now, here we were, pupils at rival schools, standing on opposite sides of the road, like something out of West Side Story.
Skinny. Ginger. Goofy.
Skinny was hardly an insult. I had two gorgeous older sisters I looked up to; I understood the merits of being a beanpole, and was well on my way to 5ft 8in myself. Ginger was trickier, but there was always Sun In or bleach-at-home highlighting kits. Goofy, however, wasnt something that could be so easily remedied.
I dreaded that walk to school for the next six years. I didnt need a stranger to tell me I was goofy: I had a battle-axe grandmother who once compared me to Ken Dodd. I was the youngest of four children, covering my mouth instead of smiling in photos, in case I ruined the picture for everyone else. The closest thing I recall to a compliment was: Youd be pretty, if it wasnt for your teeth.
As the months went by, so did the chunky-heeled Kickers, Kappa jackets and multicoloured tram tracks. I knew what people were thinking: Why doesnt she just get a brace, too? But this was more complicated than failing to keep up with everyone else at my all-girls school on Merseyside. I wasnt just gap-toothed; I was on-the-waiting-list-for-a-jaw-operation goofy.
While its normal to have an overbite most people do yours is quite significant, the dentist explained on a routine checkup in my first year of secondary school. The 13mm gap between my upper and lower front teeth was not something that could be fixed by a brace alone. So the term maxillofacial jaw surgery was bandied about; the promise of a perfect smile dangled in front of me only with a catch: Id have to wait until I was fully grown, so a fixed brace would be fitted only when I was 16, before an operation on the NHS two years later.
It was, at times, an agonising wait for a sensitive, emotional teenager with a forehead of acne and a mind that was always elsewhere. I dreamed of being an actor and was desperate for boys to notice me. Ill never forget my first holiday abroad, aged 13. Me, scurrying behind my blond, blue-eyed older sister Cathy as she strutted down the hill at Lake Garda in a body-con dress to the sound of car horns beeping. My mum, consoling me with a chocolate sundae as waiters nicknamed Cathy Miss United Kingdom: Just be patient, love. In a few years, youll be fighting them off.
Skip forward to February 2000, when I had just turned 18. I was a sixth-form student going through a bit of a grunge phase; a virgin whod never had a boyfriend and whose self-esteem was deeply tied up with my appearance. (I hate the way I look, the way other people see me, I wrote in my teenage diary. I feel inadequate, pathetic and useless.)
But, significantly, I was about to go into hospital for five days, finally, to have the op. In a gesture of support on my last day at school, my favourite teacher gave me a copy of the Philip Larkin poem Born Yesterday. Its message that true happiness has nothing to do with beauty, talent or fame was, Im ashamed to say, lost on me.
Settling into the maxillofacial unit the day before surgery, I was too worried about the immediate after-effects to think about the long-term benefits. I was going to be under general anaesthetic and knocked out for about four hours while they cut through the lower jawbone and realigned it. I would be swollen and numb, bruised and bedridden for at least a fortnight. I was to be put on a strict liquid diet; it would be another six weeks before I could eat solids.
Awake at 6am the next morning, I was moved into a small breakfast room with a handful of other patients while, as the nurse explained, they temporarily cleared the ward. The older lady in the bay next to mine had passed away. She had throat cancer, and I had heard her crying out in pain during the night. The realisation that I was taking up a bed for a cosmetic procedure when people around me were so seriously ill was like a punch to the stomach. By the time I was wheeled into the operating theatre at 9am, I felt like the worst person in the world.