Every time Lara Kerr hears USC mentioned, she thinks to herself, “Aw, my people!” This reaction is the result of being helped not just once, but twice by the Herman Ostrow School of Dentistry of USC.
It all started when Kerr was 5 years old, riding in the back seat of her family’s station wagon. This was 1958, when seatbelts weren’t commonplace. So when Kerr’s father was cut off by another driver and had to slam on the brakes, all of his children flew forward. That’s when Kerr hit her mouth on a metal brace. In a sense, Kerr’s parents were actually thankful for their daughter’s injury in the back seat that day. After all, if it weren’t for that painful incident, they would never have found the tumor growing in her mouth.
“This lump popped through my gum,” Kerr recalled. “They took me to the dentist, and he told us, ‘I hate to say this, but I learned in dental school about this rare kind of tumor, and I’m afraid that’s what I’m looking at.’”
With seven children, Kerr’s parents — a teacher and a stay-at-home mom — didn’t have money for dental surgery, so they were referred to what was then called the USC School of Dentistry.
Dental surgery at USC: Would she lose her jaw?
The tumor turned out to be an ameloblastoma, a benign yet aggressive growth that usually appears in the lower jaw near the molars. The rare condition attracted the attention of local media, and Kerr wound up with a front-page story about her experience at USC in the Los Angeles Times.
“I remember holding my little doll and everybody lining up,” Kerr said of the day she was interviewed and had her photograph taken. “I thought, ‘What’s the big deal?’”
At such a young age, Kerr didn’t comprehend the severity of what she faced. Originally, her doctor, Marsh Robinson thought he would have to remove her jawbone to extract the tumor, a procedure that would have left her disfigured.
“They told my parents before the surgery that they were going to remove my jawbone and use a rib bone to build a new one,” she said. “They did another biopsy during the surgery and decided not to take it out. The details are a little sketchy to me because I was a little kid. I just remember that I woke up with a jaw.”
If you bring up Robinson’s name to Kerr now, she quickly becomes teary-eyed. Back then, she nicknamed him “Dr. Marshmallow” but now refers to the late faculty member and Ostrow Hall of Famer as her hero and someone who gave her a chance at a normal life.
“If he had not taken so much extra care and instead just said, ‘Well, we’re going to take your jaw out,’ I would’ve gone through all of that reconstructive surgery. All of my teeth would be gone, and I would have been a little child with dentures.”
A hesitant smile
While unaware of the possible outcome of her surgery, Kerr was very much in tune with her fear of needles, something Robinson did his best to comfort.
“I was so scared going into the procedure,” she recalled. “I was lying on a little gurney and he came in, picked me up and carried me in his arms so I wouldn’t be so afraid. He didn’t have to show that kind of concern for me. He could’ve been completely clinical. So many times in those days, they’d say, ‘You’re going to be fine. Just hush.’ But he was so tender and kind to me.”
For 13 years, Kerr’s mother brought her back to the USC dental clinic to ensure the tumor hadn’t returned. To everyone’s relief, it did not. But Kerr was left with what she describes as “a gaping hole” in her lower teeth, a source of embarrassment all of her life. Over the years, dentists said there wasn’t enough bone to attach an implant, but even if there was a solution, she simply didn’t have the money for what was considered cosmetic surgery. So instead, Kerr hid her smile.
“I wouldn’t open my lips when I smiled,” she said. “People would say they never noticed, but I was very aware of it and sad about it for many years.”
Repaying the kindness
It was an embarrassment Kerr learned to endure. Time marched on, and she had children of her own. Decades later, a chance encounter would change everything. While attending church, she bumped into Duffy DeGraw, a close friend of her son’s who grew up next door to them in Paso Robles, Calif.
DeGraw met Kerr’s son on the first day of kindergarten and was always at her house, playing Nintendo, jumping on the trampoline and building forts.
“It got to the point where I would buy him little things for Christmas because I knew on Christmas morning he’d eventually show up,” Kerr recalled.
DeGraw was back in the area after graduating from the Ostrow School, having set up his own practice in nearby Los Osos, Calif. At their reunion, DeGraw walked up to Kerr, put his arm around her and said, “Lara, I owe you. I’d like you to come in; I’d like to work on your teeth.”
“She was kind of like a second mother to me, always taking care of me when I was over there, feeding me,” DeGraw said. “She had been a big influence on my life. When I was a child, she had done a lot for me — as much as she could. This was something easy for me to do for her to help her out.”
Kerr needed a root canal, restorations and a replacement for her missing tooth. DeGraw used his newly purchased CAD/CAM machine to create a cantilever bridge that would fill the space left by her childhood surgery. Now Kerr says her days of being hesitant to smile are behind her.
“I’ve been so thrilled with the whole thing. I’ve tried to think of things to do for Duffy,” she said.
“I made him cookies and I made his wife a nativity scene with handmade clothes.”
Because her two experiences with USC had such huge impacts on her life, Kerr was moved to write a thank-you letter in which she applauded the sense of community service USC instills in its students. She wrote: “USC blessed me twice. First, people who walked your halls removed my tumor and helped me heal. Then, years later, a young man who walked your halls stepped in to give me the gift of an unrestrained smile. For that, I express my gratitude.”
— Michelle McCarthy