Smiling is a fundamental part of how we interact with other people, but what if you were not able to do it?

Kevin Portillo practises smiling every day at home. Usually after brushing his teeth. Or when stopping by the bathroom, or anywhere with a mirror.
He hooks an index finger into each side of his mouth and pulls gently upward. He puckers his face into a kiss, then opens wide into an O, trying to limber up his facial muscles. He practises both the Mona Lisa – slight, closed-lip – and a wide, toothy smile.

At least, he’s supposed to do his exercises every day. Being 13, he sometimes forgets, though he understands their importance.

“I need to stretch my cheeks,” he says. “I do it for a couple minutes. I have to do it every single day.” He exercises so much that his jaw sometimes hurts.

Kevin was born in New Jersey with a rare malignant vascular tumour, a kaposiform haemangioendothelioma, covering the left side of his face, squeezing shut his left eye and pushing his nose to the right. Immediately after his birth, doctors whisked him away to another hospital in another state – the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. His mother didn’t see him again until he was eight days old.

The doctor told Kevin’s parents that the chance of him surviving was slim.

But survive he did. However, the large tumour and the damage from its treatment prevented him from being able to do one of the most fundamental things humans do.


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