Health Check: Toddler undergoes reconstructive surgery

Two-year-old Avery Cicchitelli is naturally curious.

"She does whatever she wants to do. She tries whatever she wants to try," said Avery's mother, Alison Cicchitelli.

Like the puzzles in her doctor's waiting room. It was just a few months ago that Avery underwent brain surgery.

"This one was an eight-hour surgery," Cicchitelli said.

The third surgery since an accident at a baseball game about 18 months ago when a ball came right at Avery who was just five months old at the time.

Cicchitelli said it happened so fast.

"I think what happened was it kind of grazed the side of her head but because she was so little, it shattered the bone," she said.

Dr. Stephen Sullivan, a plastic surgeon at Rhode Island Hospital, performed two of her three surgeries.

"The original operation involved removing a piece of the skull to allow the brain to expand at a time of swelling because of the injury," he said. "The second operation involved taking the bone that was removed and putting it back in place and the third operation was reconstructing the areas of the skull that did not regrow on their own."

Avery's first two surgeries took place within the first few weeks of her injury. Sullivan said he wanted to wait until she was two years old for the third reconstructive surgery to allow the bone to heal and regrow.

Times have certainly changed since the plastic surgery department started 50 years ago.

"Many of the things we do today are safer and faster in the (operating room), but it was in the early parts of the century that we began experimenting with the use of the bone for the reconstruction of skull defects," Sullivan said.

Back then, Sullivan said bone was borrowed from a rib or hip. Now he said he can borrow from another part of the skull, carefully removing a layer then using it to reconstruct the damaged portion of skull.

And now Avery, who had to wear a protective helmet for 18 months no longer has to.

"Once she got the helmet off, her teachers have said she's talking more in school. She's interacting more just because I think her world opened up," Cicchitelli said.

More than 3,000 operating room cases require plastic surgery each year at Rhode Island Hospital, some even more extensive than Avery's reconstructive surgery.