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Parents Were Told Their Baby Born Without a Nose Wouldn't Survive. 28 Surgeries Later, He's Thriving (Exclusive)

Before Gray Canales was born, doctors didn't know if he'd be able to breathe on his own. How he defied the odds — and is embracing his future with a surgically reconstructed nose.

<p><a href="https://www.instagram.com/cooperneill/">Cooper Neill</a></p> John, Mary Jo and Gray Canales at their home in Flower Mound, Texas

Cooper Neill

John, Mary Jo and Gray Canales at their home in Flower Mound, Texas

Gray Canales, who defied the odds 22 years ago when he was born without a nose, now has a whole new lease on life — and a new nose to go along with it.

In this week's issue of PEOPLE, Gray and his parents share his incredible story of survival, and how the love of his family and their unwavering Christian faith got him through the hardest times. "Nobody ever treated me any differently," Gray says of his tight-knit church community, where he's grown up with the same friends he's had since childhood.

Gray's arduous journey began when his parents, John, a minister, and Mary Jo, an office manager at their church, found out they were expecting their first baby in 2001. Mary Jo’s pregnancy seemed normal until her 20-week sonogram.

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“The tech kept taking longer and longer, then went to get the doctor,” Mary Jo, 53, recalls. “At that point we knew something was going on.”

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Even so, they weren’t ready for what came next. Doctors told the anxious parents that they couldn’t detect the baby’s nose, and the chances of their son being able to breathe on his own, let alone survive, were slim. Further testing confirmed the baby had no nose and would likely suffer from brain damage. He also had problems with his legs and feet.

<p>Courtesy Canales Family</p> Gray Canales at 4 weeks old, after surgery to graft skin where his nose should have been.

Courtesy Canales Family

Gray Canales at 4 weeks old, after surgery to graft skin where his nose should have been.

They decided against terminating the pregnancy. "It wasn't an option for us," says John. Adds Mary Jo: “We thought, ‘This baby is still our gift and our joy, and you don’t turn down a gift.’ But I cried constantly. I had no idea if I’d get to meet my son.”

Four months later Harrison “Gray” Canales was born five weeks early via emergency C-section. As expected, there was a gaping hole where his nose should have been, and he had no eyelids; his legs were turned in more than 90 degrees, and his feet were missing toes.

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Doctors also discovered he’d been born without the right frontal lobe of his brain, leaving his left side with partial mobility. But he was breathing on his own, and miraculously, after just a week in the NICU, was able to go home with his parents.

“Every hour of the day was filled up with something that we had to do for him. There was a lot of care,” recalls Mary Jo.

She and John exercised their son’s legs and feet (Gray wore casts on his legs until he was 2), cleaned and dressed his nasal area and kept his eyes constantly lubricated throughout the day and night until doctors were able to surgically give him eyelids when he was 6 months old.

<p>Courtesy Canales Family</p> Gray at one years old, with his mother Mary Jo

Courtesy Canales Family

Gray at one years old, with his mother Mary Jo

Now 22, he has endured nearly 30 surgeries (11 on his nose reconstruction alone). Despite the ongoing painful processes, Gray is a well-adjusted young man who loves watching baseball, listening to music, and helping out at his church. “I watch movies with friends, play video games,” he says from his family’s home near Dallas. “Nobody has ever treated me differently.”

<p>Courtesy Canales Family</p> Gray Canales at basketball camp at 13 years old

Courtesy Canales Family

Gray Canales at basketball camp at 13 years old

His parents, who home-schooled Gray, have devoted all of their time and savings to making sure their "gift" had the best and most normal upbringing possible. “People say, ‘God gives special-needs kids to special parents,’” says John. “But we were like every other parent, just dealing with each day as it comes.”

They instilled the same steady perseverance in their son. “We taught him not to feel sorry for himself,” continues John. “Because many other people deal with disabilities too. We told him, ‘This is the way God made you. That’s all.’”

Adds Mary Jo: “When Gray was younger, he’d engage with everyone. He’d go up to people and say, ‘I was born without a nose!’"

While the family has "drained their savings" over the years due to medical bills, "it was worth it," she says. (To help donate to Gray's nose reconstruction fund, please visit: https://www.gofundme.com/f/gray-canales.)

Rebuilding Gray’s nose has been a complicated process involving a number of painful procedures, including grafting cartilage from his ribs and skin from his thighs, and inserting a skin expander in his forehead so they'd be able to use the stretched skin during a reconstruction surgery.

<p><a href="https://www.instagram.com/cooperneill/" data-component="link" data-source="inlineLink" data-type="externalLink" data-ordinal="1">Cooper Neill</a></p> Gray Canales, who plays piano, only has two more "shaping" surgeries before his reconstructed nose is finally complete.

Cooper Neill

Gray Canales, who plays piano, only has two more "shaping" surgeries before his reconstructed nose is finally complete.

“Very, very few people have had to do total nasal reconstruction,” says Dr. James Thornton, a reconstructive surgeon at UT Southwestern Medical Center who first met Gray in July 2021. “Just to make the base [required] an 11-hour operation skin tissue transfer from his arm. It’s very difficult.”

Adds Thornton's colleague, Dr. Jessica May: “To see their dedication for over 20 years has been unbelievable. His mom is always right by his side."

With two final nasal surgeries ahead, Gray — who plans to pursue vocational training with the Texas Workforce Commission to help others managing disabilities — is ready for his future.

“I can’t wait to not have my life interrupted by surgeries anymore,” says the young man, who decided with his parents to shape his nose after his late paternal grandfather, who was a New York-based artist. “I can finally start planning ahead.”

To read more about Gray Canales and his arduous journey, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on stands now.

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