"I looked at it as our Christmas gift to this little girl and her family," Dr. Ghali says of the pro-bono operation
Credit: Courtesy LSU Health Shreveport

Warning: Graphic image

A 3-year-old Brazilian girl received a life-saving surgery from a team of U.S. doctors who were moved by her parents’ pleas on social media.

Melyssa Delgado Braga of Sao Paolo, Brazil, is still recovering from the surgery that removed a 5-pound tumor from her face.

The rare and aggressive benign tumor, called a myxoma, had eaten away the young girl’s jaw, displacing her tongue and making it difficult to eat and breathe.

After learning that doctors in Brazil couldn’t operate, Melyssa’s family shared a video plea on social media asking for help getting to the U.S. for treatment.

Melyssa Braga before her surgery
| Credit: Courtesy the Braga family

The campaign caught the attention of Dr. Celso Palmieri Jr., a Sao Paolo native who now works as an assistant professor of oral and maxillofacial surgery at the Louisiana State University. He sent the plea his colleague and department chairman, Dr. G.E. Ghali, who said he could help.

“It was heartbreaking,” Dr. Ghali told PEOPLE of Melyssa’s condition. “She couldn’t even hold her head up the tumor was so huge. She could hardly swallow at all and she was beginning to have problems breathing.”

“Her tongue was pushed all the way back to her throat,” he continues, “it was just a matter of time before this thing was going to suffocate her.”

The family had been scraping together money for plane tickets to the U.S., but had no hope of paying for an operation of this kind, which can cost up to $400,000, Dr. Ghali says.

Dr. Ghali approached Willis-Knighton Health System President James K. Elrod, who agreed to provide housing and have the health system underwrite the cost of the hospital stay. A medical team agreed to donate their time for the procedure.

Melyssa Braga recovering from surgery with her mom Caroline
| Credit: Courtesy LSU Health Shreveport

Dr. Palmieri reached out to the family for the good news, and within one month they arrived at LSU Health-Shreveport. During the 8-hour operation on December 20, doctors removed the tumor and reconstructed the young girl’s jaw, mouth and tongue.

“All of the procedures were donated, everybody did everything pro bono and the hospital and healthcare system donated their space and equipment, ” Dr. Ghali says. “I looked at it as our Christmas gift to this little girl and her family.”

When Melyssa’s parents saw her for the first time after the surgery, they both burst into tears.

“They were so happy they were crying,” Dr. Ghali says. “They were very appreciative of what was done for them.”

Melyssa will need more reconstructive surgery in a few years, but as Dr. Ghali explains, the hardest part is behind her.

The Braga family expressed their gratitude to the healthcare team who have provided care since Melyssa’s operation
| Credit: Courtesy LSU Health Shreveport

“To be able to treat little kids like this and have an impact that’s going to be everlasting in their life is a great thing,” he says.

At a news conference last week, Dr. Palmieri translated a message of thanks from Melyssa’s father, Manasses Braga, to her medical team.

“I really to thank everybody for what all of you did,” Manasses said. “We had been waiting for help for such a long time and in one month everything happened.”