My Smile!

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During the time of Dad’s struggle with cancer Mom found an article in the newspaper about a new surgery for people with facial paralysis called Smile-Surgery. It was pioneered by two plastic surgeons in Toronto. I saw the surgeons in March, 1977, to find that I was a good candidate for this procedure. After the surgery I would be able to move the corners of my mouth outward and up to smile.

Smile-Surgery: One end of the gracilis muscle is attached to the chin and the other end to the cheek. The blood supply and nerve are connected to the jaw muscle. After 12 weeks the surgery heals enough for the “smile muscle” to start working. It contracts when the jaw muscle is tensed causing the corner of the mouth to move outward and up to smile.

“Is this the answer?” I wondered, “Would I finally have what I had dreamt of for so long?  Would I get my smile back?” I was afraid to hope. I didn’t want to be disappointed again and yet my intuition told me to have the surgery. I thought about it for months.

In October of 1997, I had Smile-Surgery on the right side of my face at the Toronto Western Hospital while Dad and Jeanne ran Tara.

The Smile-Surgery involved taking some gracilis muscle from my inner thigh and transplanting it into my face (right thigh for the right side of the face and left thigh for the left side).

The lack of a smile wasn’t my only problem. Since I didn’t have cheek muscles to support my lower eyelids they sagged. During this Smile-Surgery the surgeons made a sling for each lower eye lid from a tendon out of my left wrist to hold them up.

When I woke up after surgery the incision on my face went from my right temple, down past my ear, around the corner of my jaw and along it to my chin. I had an incision along the inside of my right thigh from my knee to my groin with drains sticking out. I had swollen, bloodshot eyes I couldn’t focus. They had taken a tendon out of my left wrist and there was an IV in my right hand. I was sore all over and all I could do was lie on my back and stare at the ceiling. Man was I ever feeling sorry for myself.

“Brian,” I said, “what on Earth were you thinking? You didn’t have to do this.” Wah wah wah.

Two days later I wasn’t as sore. I could focus my eyes again and I was glad it was over. Four days after surgery the drains came out and I could get up. Three more days in Toronto and I was back in Thunder Bay.

It took two weeks for the swelling in my face to go down. The surgeons gave me step-by-step instructions on how to strengthen my new muscle. I stood in front my bedroom mirror daily to practice twitching it by tensing my jaw muscles. There was no movement at all at first. The right side of my face looked to be more alive but, try as I might, the corner of my mouth wouldn’t budge. I was disheartened but I reminded myself that the surgeons had told me that the muscle needed time to heal before it would work. Of course I wanted the smile muscle to work right away. I kept practicing. Twelve weeks after surgery I was sure I could feel a tug in the corner of my mouth. It was also time for Smile-Surgery on the left side. In early January, 1998, I was back at Toronto Western Hospital.

Now I practiced twitching both corners of my mouth. To the surgeons practicing twitching the smile muscles every day was very serious business. I was like a kid with a new toy. Each day I stood in front of my bedroom mirror to practice twitching my smile muscles. At first I watched the corners of my mouth move slightly. The twitches got broader as the smile muscles became stronger. The joy in my heart grew and grew as I witnessed my motionless, expressionless face come to life. For the first time in 25 years I had movement in my face. I had my smile! It wasn’t the big, wide smile I would have liked but it was bigger than Mona Lisa’s.

“Why not have some fun with this too?” I thought. I discovered that, along with regaining my smile, I could make sounds again that I hadn’t made since I was a kid such as blow raspberries. Awesome!

The surgeons brought each smile muscle around under my lower lip as well. To have working muscles support my lower lip again proved to be a permanent solution to the problem of it curling down.

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