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Your Healthy Family: Surgeon helps young cancer survivor smile from ear to ear

Posted at 3:10 PM, Oct 04, 2018
and last updated 2019-07-09 11:27:42-04

COLORADO SPRINGS – Can you imagine living life, without the ability to smile? That’s exactly how 9-year-old Grace Cuellar was living life until her parents were referred to Dr. Fred Deleyiannis, a plastic surgeon with UCHealth Memorial Hospital in Colorado Springs.

Grace’s mom, Shelly, says Grace has never let her challenges get her down.  “She is our little fighter. At 2-and-a-half she was diagnosed with a brain tumor and had brain surgery.  Shortly after that, she had a mini-stroke that caused paralysis in half her face, and arm and legs.”

Grace eventually regained the feeling in her limbs and was cancer-free, but Shelly says she and her husband were told there was nothing doctors could do to help the lingering paralysis in her face.  “We prayed for a long time for a miracle and now seven years later we have our miracle.”

When the Cuellars moved to Colorado Springs, their miracle found them.  Shelly says, “Because of her brain tumor she was seeing an eye specialist for strabismus.  (The specialist) told us ‘I heard of this doctor at a conference and I think it would be great for you guys to go see him.’  That is how we were introduced to Dr. Deleyiannis.”

Dr. Deleyiannis explains, “If people can’t smile fully it will handicap them for life.”

Through revolutionary microvascular surgery, Dr. Deleyiannis has helped Grace be able to smile again by transplanting muscles, blood vessels and nerves from her leg.  “We came up with a solution which is the standard way to treat someone with facial paralysis. It involves taking a piece of muscle from the thigh, called the gracilis muscle, and then placing it under the cheek in the area basically that is responsible for facial movement.  The vessels that supply the muscle are then connected to the vessels in the neck and the nerve that makes the muscle contract in the leg is then connected to a nerve in the face that enables a person to smile.”

It’s a six- to eight-hour surgery that involves meticulous work under a microscope connecting tiny vessels and putting them in the correct place.  As with most surgeries, the results improve over time. Physical therapy is also ordered to help train the new muscles.

Shelly says she saw an immediate change in her daughter as soon as she came out of surgery.    “I broke down crying; just coming out of surgery her face was brighter. We are just so grateful because I feel like her future seems so much brighter.”


grace cuellar post surgery
Her mom says she saw a dramatic change in her daughter’s countenance when she came out of the O.R.

As for Grace, she says it feels good to be able to smile.  When I asked her how she felt before the surgery she told me, “It was good but I think it’s a little better that I smile like this.”

Dr. Deleyiannis explains, “She can move her whole face and engage the world now with what is considered almost a normal smile.  She has done great and will see improvement as the months and years go by. Smiling will become something she can do without much thought.”

grace cuellar smile
These days it’s hard to get the smile of Grace’s face

Shelly tells me she and her husband have raised Grace to be a confident person but getting her smile back has helped her to blossom in new ways.  “I didn’t think it was possible, but she is more confident now. She loves people and is very outgoing. We wanted to share our story because we know there are many people out there who have no idea that there is something out there to help with this.  We didn’t know, and our hope is that we give someone else hope.”

Dr. Deleyiannis says microvascular surgery is also routinely used for certain types of breast carcinoma and people who have cancer of the neck and face.  If you have any questions you can follow up with his office.

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