Best Practices

Assessment of Free Flap Breast Reconstructions

Free flap breast reconstruction may be offered as a treatment optional federal facilities with appropriate patient selection and planning.

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Free flap autologous breast reconstruction is an excellent surgical option for breast reconstruction in select patients. A free flap involves moving skin, fat, and/or muscle from a distant part of the body, based on a named blood supply (pedicle), and attaching it to another blood supply adjacent to the acquired defect. This procedure is particularly useful in areas where local tissue supply is lacking in volume or is damaged due to trauma or radiation. These reconstructions are performed largely in high-volume centers outside the VA because of the required specialized level of surgical training, manpower, and nursing support.1 The Malcom Randall VAMC in Gainesville, Florida, started offering autologous free flap breast reconstruction as an option to select patients in October 2012.

The Malcom Randall VAMC operating room (OR) does not operate 24/7, and the system has limited available OR time and surgical staff compared with the volume of patients requesting care.2 Operative planning for free flap autologous breast reconstruction must occur months ahead of surgery to balance the system limitations with the ability to offer the highest level of care. Planning includes strict patient selection, preoperative imaging, practice runs with OR staff, use of venous couplers, and frequent intensive care unit (ICU) staff in-services. Planning also includes the need to keep surgeries within the allocated OR time to avoid shift changes during critical periods. Frequent and early communication occurs between the surgical scheduler, OR nurses, and the anesthesia and critical care teams.

Studies have found that the best chance of flap salvage in the event of a thrombotic event is a rapid return to the OR.3 It is essential to minimize the risk of emergent returns to the OR because it is not staffed throughout the night. Patient risk factors for perioperative vascular complications include hypercoagulable disorders, peripheral vascular disease, use of the superficial epigastric system, and smoking.4-7

A PubMed search for free flap reconstruction solely within the VA over the past 20 years found 1 article discussing the use of free flaps in head and neck reconstruction which demonstrated an impressive success rate of 93%.8

The object of this study was to assess free flap breast reconstruction results at the Malcolm Randall VAMC to determine whether it is a realistic treatment to offer in the federal system.


The Malcolm Randall Institutional Review Board approved a retrospective chart review of all autologous free flap breast reconstructions using CPT code 19364, performed from October 2012 to June 2016. Medical records of patients who had a free flap breast reconstruction were queried during that period. Patient age; comorbidities listed on the electronic medical record “problem list;” body mass index (BMI); type of reconstruction (delayed vs immediate); length of surgery; length of stay; and complications over a 30-day period were recorded (Table). The authors looked for documentation of preoperative imaging and unplanned returns to the OR within the 30-day period.

Of 3 full-time VA plastic surgeons on staff during the study period, 2 surgeons had advanced fellowship training in either microsurgery or hand and microsurgery. Plastic surgery fellows and general surgery interns participated in the surgeries and postoperative care. The service had 1 dedicated advanced practice registered nurse involved in the surgical scheduling and perioperative care.


A total of 11 abdominally based free flap breast reconstructions—6 muscle-sparing transverse rectus abdominus musculocutaneous (TRAM) and 5 deep inferior epigastric perforator (DIEP) flaps—were performed in 8 patients during the study period (Figures 1A, 1B, 1C, and 1D). Patient ages ranged from 31 to 58 years with a mean of 45.6 years. Six patients had preoperative computer tomography angiography (CTA) to define the location of the abdominal wall perforators. One muscle-sparing free flap was performed immediately after mastectomy; the other free flaps were performed as delayed reconstructions. Body mass index ranged from 24 to 35, with a mean of 30. All patients reported no tobacco use during the consultation; however, 1 patient later admitted to chewing tobacco. No urinary cotinine confirmation was requested. Two patients had 1 free flap reconstruction and 1 pedicle TRAM. This bilateral combination has been recently described in the literature and was chosen as a reasonable option to balance limited resources with abdominal wall morbidity.9 Operating room time ranged from 7 hours 50 minutes to 13 hours 3 minutes. All patients went to the ICU for hourly flap monitoring.

Length of stay ranged from 4 to 7 days, with a mean of 4.5 days. The longest stay was for a patient who had immediate reconstruction using a pedicle TRAM and muscle-sparing free TRAM. She was not a DIEP candidate because poor perforator quality had been noted during preoperative imaging.

Six patients had documentation of postoperative wound complications. One patient returned to the OR on the elective schedule 3 weeks postoperatively for a partial flap debridement. Her tissue transfer was > 1,000 g, and she required a matching reduction on the other side. There were no complete flap losses or postoperative thrombotic events; no cases went back to the OR emergently.

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