Baby's Skull Rebuilt 'Like a Jigsaw Puzzle' to Fix Fused Bones

Ryan Burke was born with the bones of his skull prematurely fused.

June 19, 2013— -- Ryan Burke was born with a misshapen head – a common consequence of natural birth. But when the lopsidedness lingered for three months, his parents got worried.

"His pediatrician recommended we go see a neurosurgeon," said Ryan's mom, Leah Burke, recalling the "terrifying" moment she heard her baby needed skull surgery.

Ryan was diagnosed with craniosynostosis, a birth defect that causes the bones of his skull to close prematurely.

"A baby's head is composed of different bones with spaces in between called sutures," said Dr. David Sandberg, a pediatric neurosurgeon at Children's Memorial Hermann Hospital in Houston, explaining how the sutures allow space for a baby's growing brain. "When the sutures close early, the brain keeps growing. But it can't grow in the direction of the closed sutures, so the child's head becomes very lopsided."

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Ryan had a fused lambdoid suture – a joint that spans the back of the skull. As his brain grew, his ears became lopsided.

"It will only get worse over time, not better," said Sandberg. "And it's very difficult to correct when kids are older."

Leah Burke dreaded the thought of surgery, but knew it was the right move. The family decided to relocate temporarily from Oklahoma City to Burke's hometown of Houston for the surgery, where they could be surrounded by family and friends.

"It's very, very scary to think about your little boy having to go through something so traumatic," she said, recalling through tears the moment the anesthesiologist sedated her baby boy. "But at the same time, we would do whatever we had to do to make sure he had a normal life."

During the four-hour surgery, Sandberg removed pieces of Ryan's skull and put them back together "like a jigsaw puzzle," leaving room for his brain to grow.

"This kid is going to look fantastic," Sandberg said of the results. "He's going to have a scar, but once his hair grows, you won't even be able to tell."

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Ryan is back home in Oklahoma City recovering from the surgery, which took place June 5. The bandages once wrapped tightly around his tiny head have been removed, revealing a long, wavy line of dissolvable stitches.

"This week things are starting to feel more normal," Leah Burke said, describing how her son, who would never cry, sobbed after surgery. "We're definitely still trying to get back in the swing of things."

On top of recovering from skull surgery, Ryan is cutting his first tooth, according to his mom.

"He's been great," she said, adding that Ryan will have to wear a helmet for at least three months to protect his pieced-together skull. "I know he won't even remember it, but it will be nice to be past this."