Jim Kelly is progressing so “remarkably well” two weeks after surgery to have cancer removed from his jaw, his doctor expects the Hall of Fame quarterback to be released from the hospital soon.
“I’m very optimistic,” said Mount Sinai head and neck surgeon Mark Urken in a 20-minute video interview released Friday by the New York City hospital. “He is about as tough a patient — tough in a good way — in terms of being just incredibly courageous, and he continues to amaze me.”
Though Kelly is still unable to chew, he is now being fed orally in what Urken called: “a huge milestone and a segue for him to be able to leave the hospital.” Urken did not provide an exact timetable of when the former Bills star might be discharged and return to his home in suburban Buffalo.
A Mount Sinai official was only able to say Kelly won’t be released from the hospital on Friday.
Urken said he’s very optimistic Kelly will regain the same speech and eating functions as he had before undergoing the 12-hour operation. Several follow-up procedures will be required, including having dentures inserted into Kelly’s upper jaw.
“I expect that he’s going to recover really excellent function; his speech, I expect will be outstanding,” Urken said. “And I really expect that he will be able to resume a normal diet once we get him fitted with teeth.”
Kelly was required to have surgery after tests revealed a recurrence of oral cancer nearly five years after initially being diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma. The 58-year-old Kelly had been cancer-free since September 2014.
The operation involved doctors first removing the cancer from Kelly’s palate and portions of the bone that support his teeth on the right side of his face. Doctors were also required to address the left jawbone, which had previously been reconstructed after it had weakened as a result of radiation therapy.
Doctors then reconstructed Kelly’s jaw by transferring bone from his fibula, as well as using skin grafts from his calf to re-line his oral cavity. Blood vessels also had to be transferred to allow for proper circulation to the affected area.
“Everything is a little bit more challenging when a patient’s been previously irradiated,” Urken said. “It slows the healing process. It leads to more swelling and a lot more intensive recovery and nursing care.”
Urken credited Kelly’s wife, Jill, two daughters and brothers for providing round the clock support.
Jill Kelly released a statement thanking fans for their support, and reminding people to be aware of the signs and symptoms of oral cancer.
“We are so thankful that Jim continues to make progress every day,” she said. “His recovery will take time and patience. We look forward to being out of the hospital soon.”
Urken stressed Kelly’s resilience by noting that was something the quarterback was known for during an 11-year NFL career with the Bills which ended with him retiring after the 1996 season. Kelly oversaw a team that lost four consecutive Super Bowl appearances in the early 1990s.
“He’s just been remarkable,” Urken said. “Given his history and playing in the NFL, just imagining what it was like being a quarterback under assault. I think all of that was great preparation for taking on this huge challenge.”