Capital Health making kids smile with unique surgery


Capital Health’s Stollery Children’s Hospital is the only hospital in Western Canada using a unique facial animation surgery to put smiles back on the faces of children with facial paralysis.

Dr. Jaret Olson, Assistant Professor of Plastic and Pediatric Surgery and Dr. Gordon Wilkes, Clinical Professor of Surgery at the University of Alberta have performed the complex, two-part surgery on a handful of children in the Capital Region with positive outcomes.

“With this facial animation surgery we are able to help children who have never had any kind of facial function due to facial paralysis,” says Dr. Olson. ” At this point we’ve assessed eight to 10 children and operated on four over the last year and a half.”

Depending on the type of paralysis, the first stage of the surgery usually involves a cross face nerve graft using a nerve from the leg that is transplanted into the face. It is connected to a normal facial nerve and then brought across through the upper lip to the weak or paralyzed side. After several months the nerve graft is strong enough to power a new muscle. Stage two of the surgery requires a muscle transplantation from the leg to the face. The surgeries last anywhere from 4 to 10 hours in length, depending on the severity of the condition.

“This combination of procedures is the most effective way to treat facial paralysis with minimal amount of scarring to the patient. In the children that we’ve seen since we began doing this surgery, the results have been very good and we are pleased with the outcomes,” says Dr. Olson. “Following the surgery, patients receive physical therapy in order for them to reap all the benefits of this procedure.”

One of the children that Dr. Olson and Dr. Wilkes have operated on is 11 year-old Evan Harden. Evan was diagnosed with Moebius Syndrome, two weeks after birth. Moebius Syndrome is a rare congenital disorder characterized by facial paralysis, inability to blink or move eyes laterally, vision problems, speech or swallowing disorders, club feet, hearing loss and limb abnormalities. Evan had his first surgery in July of 2003 and the second surgery in April 2004. Evan’s surgery did not involve the cross face nerve graft as he has a bilateral paralysis. As such, the muscle was transplanted directly onto the nerve that controls biting.

“Our physician, Dr. Mark Kumleben, referred us to the Stollery for the surgery. We noticed facial movement in Evan seven weeks after his first surgery and eight weeks after his second surgery. It was amazing to see. Evan’s smile is a dream come true and the best gift Dr. Olson and Dr. Wilkes could have given us, ” said Jodie Harden, Evan’s mother. “I would have to say that Evan is the bravest person I’ve ever met. He’s been through a lot but the long term benefits are amazing!”

Aside from Moebius Syndrome, facial paralysis can be due to tumors, infections such as Bell’s Palsy or local facial growths.

The Capital Health region’s population is currently over one million and it is expected to grow by more than 115,000 people by 2010. Strong economic development in northern Alberta will continue to contribute to population growth in northern Alberta communities.

Anticipated population growth and aging will result in an increased need for health services. This will help address access pressures which are the result of our growing population and high service demands of our region, which has one of the oldest and lowest income urban populations in Alberta, and also has a higher Aboriginal presence than many other Canadian urban communities.

Capital Health is one of Canada’s largest integrated academic health regions, providing complete health services to 1 million residents in the cities of Edmonton, Fort Saskatchewan, Leduc, Spruce Grove and St. Albert, and the counties of Leduc, Parkland, Strathcona and Sturgeon (and communities within their geographical areas), as well as the Town of Devon and communities in the eastern part of Yellowhead County. Capital Health serves a total of 1.6 million people across central and northern Alberta, providing specialized services such as trauma and burn treatment, organ transplants and high-risk obstetrics.