FRESNO, Calif. (KFSN) -- Ani Kalboune enjoys making her clients look good when they sit in her chair at a Fresno hair salon. But looking at her own reflection in the mirror has been difficult at times.
"When I was in elementary and junior high-- that was the worst time."
Ani was born to Armenian parents in Iran before her family immigrated to the US when she was five.
She was a preemie baby and doctors believe the nerves on the left side of her face didn't fully develop, causing her face to pull back on that side. Her left ear also didn't form an ear lobe.
Ani's family never let her think it was a disability. There's no physical discomfort or limitations with the condition, but her heart aches with an unseen pain.
"Emotionally and mentally it affects you. When you're little, kids make fun. It's difficult. Stuff like that sticks with you."
Ani kept smiling through the tears, to get through high school and start her life. While always conscious of the facial paralysis that people wondered about in whispers and out loud.
"Were you in an accident? What happened to your face? What's wrong with your face? Stuff like that. It's very hurtful, emotionally. It's there, everyday."
Until she met a guy who walked into a restaurant where she was a waitress. He was immediately charmed by the uneven smile she was trying to hide.
"He's the only guy that never saw that issue," said Ani.
They married and had two sons, but the birth of her children led to a new fear for Ani.
"As soon as I had that baby, like, I had two C-sections, as soon as he came out, I was like, 'oh thank God.' I was like, 'let me look at his face,' that was the first thing that I looked at. I swear, it was like, 'let me look at their face' and it was fine."
Still not knowing her exact condition, Ani discovered injections of botox lessened the lift in her face.
A friend gave her a gift card for the treatments at Athenix in Fresno, so Ani made an appointment and was seen by board certified plastic surgeon, Dr. Kevin Ciresi. She believes it was fate that led her to the doctor who finally diagnosed her condition.
"In her case, specifically, it's called hemifacial microsomia. Where half of her face, the hemifacial is smaller than the other half of her face," said Dr. Ciresi.
Dr. Ciresi told Ani he's treated other patients like her and he offered to correct her condition-- for free.
"I went into my car and started crying-- I couldn't move for 10 minutes. I just couldn't believe it. He's like an angel. Stuff like that doesn't happen to ordinary people like me. I'm very very very grateful," said Ani.
Dr. Cirisi and Athenix are donating the $20,000 surgery to Ani because her case touches the heart of medicine-- its ability to heal.
"It's giving her a more normal appearance so she feels better about the way she presents herself," said Dr. Ciresi.
Ani and Dr. Cirisi invite Action News to Athenix for extraordinary access to the procedure. As Ani gets prepared for surgery, her mind is filled with thoughts of her future face.
"I've always thought about it, I always dreamt about it, talked about it, but I never actually thought it's going to happen. So I'm pretty excited," said Ani.
Dr. Cirisi takes tissue from Ani's leg and uses it to create a sling in Ani's face to support the underdeveloped side, which will make her face more symmetrical. He'll also create an earlobe where one is missing using the skin behind her ear.
In just a couple hours of surgery time, the condition Ani struggled with her entire life will be corrected and she'll start a new phase of her life without the burden of explaining her condition.
"It's definitely a miracle. I feel very blessed to have this opportunity," said Ani. "I can't wait!"
Doctor offers to help Fresno woman with facial reconstruction to fix birth defect