Surgeon Creates Fingers for Toddler

Hand surgeryPlayABC News
WATCH New Hands: Creating Fingers

When Laura Azzopardi gave birth to her son Gavin three years ago, she did what many new parents do, counting his fingers and toes. Gavin had five toes on each foot, but was born with just a pinky and thumb on each hand.

"It was a total shock when I had him," Azzopardi told ABC News. Gavin was born with a congenital hand deformity, a condition with unknown causes.

Laura and her husband Keith were uncertain Gavin would ever have functional hands, until they found an article in People magazine. It was the very day they brought their newborn baby home from the hospital.

The article, "A New Hand for Ryan," introduced the family to the groundbreaking work of Dr. William Seitz, an orthopedic surgeon at Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, who was building fingers for another young boy.

After disappointing consultations with two other doctors near their home in Fair Haven, Michigan, the family called Dr. Seitz in Cleveland.

At just 9 months of age, Gavin began a series of treatments and surgeries at Cleveland Clinic aimed at building him two hands that would eventually help him in everyday life.

"He had a thumb and he had a pinky, but the problem was in between he had nothing in the way of fingers. The bone that was intervening between his pinky and his thumb was actually preventing him from getting his thumb and pinky together," Dr. Seitz told ABC News.

Dr. Seitz set out to build two new fingers for Gavin to increase his ability to pick up and grip items.

Creating two additional fingers per hand would require transferring bone for what was to be his middle and ring fingers and reshaping it into index and middle fingers. The new bones were attached to metal lengthening devices which helped them grow.

The process has been long and arduous, but Dr. Seitz said he sees results in his work. After two years of treatment, he said, Gavin's new fingers are "tubes of skin and bone. They've got muscle attachments to them and they've got some tendon attachments and they move."

Learning To Use His New Fingers

Gavin has responded well to the treatment. "He's pretty darn functional right now. There's not much he can't do," Dr. Seitz said.

"In terms of his ability to hold objects, use writing instruments, play sports or use musical instruments, whatever his skill set will lead him to, he should be able to do that in a much more enhanced and functional way than he could have with just two fingers that wouldn't come together," Seitz said.

"Even with the lengthening device on, you'll watch him and he'll turn pages in a book and pick up objects as small as a Cheerio."

Laura Azzopardi said she is pleased with the progress she sees in her son.

"To see a finger that was first created and lengthened for him – to see that wrap around a pop can and to see that move and just stabilize something that he's holding, is just confirmation that we know we went through this for a reason and it's totally helped him."

The Azzopardi family travels seven hours roundtrip for one visit to Dr. Seitz. On a recent drive to the Cleveland Clinic the family got a flat tire in a snowstorm. They fixed the flat in freezing weather and continued on to the see Dr. Seitz, late for the appointment, but still determined to get Gavin the care that's already changing his life.

"We wish we didn't have to go through it, but it's totally worth it," Laura said.

Gavin, who wants to be a baseball player, finds ways to do things with his new hands, even if it means doing it differently from others, his mother says.

"Nothing slows him down."