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Anika’s parents say she is “one in a million” – and she is, in more ways than one. She was born with a rare condition that caused some of her features to be underdeveloped. Her left hand looks different than her right, her eyes were cross-eyed requiring surgery when she was two, and her left foot was a club foot but weekly casting and a “tendon transfer” operation corrected it. The rare condition – which could be genetic but it’s not for certain – also caused paralysis on the right side of her face so she could only smile with one side of her mouth. When she was a baby, her family just called this her “Popeye face.” They didn’t learn until she was older it was part of her rare condition. Though Anika was verbal, it was difficult for her family to read her emotion on her face because of the paralysis. Her mom says it was like she was wearing a mask. Though of course she was beautiful just the way she was, Plastic Surgeon Dr. Harrop, who they had met when Anika was a baby, presented her with an opportunity to have a facial reanimation surgery that would give her a full smile. Her parents struggled with the decision about having the surgery, since she could still smile with one side, so they left the choice up to Anika. And she agreed to it – she said she wanted to smile more like Mommy.
In a 10 hour surgery, in December 2014, Dr. Harrop took a piece of Anika’s muscle and nerves from her upper thigh and inserted it inside her face, around her ear. Anika was told she would have to work on chewing and biting down to activate the muscle and make it stronger, so was given what any kid would want as part of their physiotherapy – gum! She continued to exercise her new facial muscles with the help of physiotherapists, and before too long she could show off a natural, spontaneous smile that is garnering compliments everywhere she turns.
Anika has never been afraid to stand up for herself and confront teasers about her appearance. And now thanks to an innovative and life changing surgery, she does it with a natural looking smile. Her family is so grateful for the specialists at the Alberta Children’s Hospital who gave her not only her signature grin, but hope for the future.