Sacramento surgeon George Picetti 'an angel' for Sicilian girl, 3, with scoliosis

12/23/2012 12:00 AM

12/23/2012 8:56 AM

It's the season for miracles, and Martina and Davide Siligato found theirs on the Internet.

The two were on a desperate hunt to correct a series of botched spinal surgeries and prevent possible paralysis for their young daughter. Their search, from Sicily's east coast, led to Sacramento orthopedic surgeon Dr. George Picetti III.

Early Friday at Sutter Memorial Hospital, the fate of 3-year-old Sofia lay in Picetti's hands. At the same time, already nightfall in the town of Taormina, Sicily – 6,400 miles away – loudspeakers were set up outside San Nicola Cathedral for an overflow crowd of the faithful who had come to pray on Sofia's behalf.

The good tidings would spread, some six hours later, the way much of the world's news travels these days: via Facebook. Sofia's spine was straightened and correctly fused. Her feet and legs were moving, and she was resting in the intensive care unit in an upper-body cast.

"He's an angel for us," said family friend and translator Roberta Russotti, who accompanied the Siligato family, including Sofia's 11-year-old brother Andrea, to Sacramento for the surgery.

"Sofia already looks taller to us."

The child was born with congenital scoliosis, a lateral curvature of the spine. Over time, the condition morphed into kyphosis, her spinal cord wrapped dangerously around a piece of bone protruding from her back. French doctors operated unsuccessfully four times.

By the time Picetti reviewed her charts and X-rays, and then examined her briefly in Bologna last fall – amid other pro bono medical care he routinely provides in Italy – he was not too optimistic.

"I realized this was really a mess, and was going to be a challenge," said Picetti, medical director of pediatric and adult spine deformities at the Sutter Neuroscience Institute, shortly after Friday's surgery. "I can honestly tell you I haven't slept in three nights. I was just going over and over every possible scenario in my head."

Martina, a stay-at-home mom since Sofia's birth, and Davide, top barman at an upscale Sicilian resort, braced for the worst.

"He told them the situation wasn't a good situation. It would be very dangerous. The spinal cord could collapse," said Russotti, who was at that first meeting in Bologna.

The family had already been through so much. Martina noticed something wrong when Sofia was 4 months old. Physicians confirmed a congenital scoliosis.

Dissatisfied with the level of care in Italy, the family went to Belgium, where relatives lived, for a second opinion. They were referred to a specialist in Marseille.

Sofia underwent her first surgery at 17 months. The doctor removed a vertebra and attempted to fuse her spine. She was ordered to wear a brace full time for the next six months and then, the doctor assured them, she would be fine. Instead, one of the screws came loose less than two months in. Sofia was rushed back to France for a second surgery, this time using a piece of her own rib bone to fuse the crooked spine.

Again, the screws came out. Sofia was in pain, particularly when she sat or reclined. The scoliosis had improved, but a new and troubling condition emerged: kyphosis, an outward spinal curvature that causes hunching.

For a third surgery, the doctor took a fragment of Sofia's leg bone to try to stop the twisting. She was 21 months old.

Sofia underwent a fourth and final procedure last spring as the doctor feared infection from the loosening screws. He could see that her vertebrae were cracked; the piece of bone used for fusion had broken.

That's when Martina turned to the Internet. She found a magazine article about Picetti, the grandson of Sicilian immigrants. Russotti helped make contact with him, and the group took the 90-minute flight from Sicily to Bologna last fall.

Picetti hoped to do the surgery in Italy to save the family the cost and hassle of travel, but none of his colleagues would agree to oversee the postoperative care because of the complexity and risks involved.

Friends launched a fundraising campaign, dubbed "A Smile for Sofia," and an active Facebook page, that has brought in $200,000, which the Siligatos expect to cover their medical and travel costs.

The group arrived from Sicily on Monday and settled into small but comfy quarters at the Ronald McDonald House, with a Christmas tree in the corner and donated gifts for the family. They arrived at Sutter Memorial Hospital before daybreak Friday. A Catholic chaplain prayed briefly with the Siligatos and Picetti, whom the couple respectfully call "professore." When the gurney rolled into the operating room, Sofia was holding onto the doctor's finger.

Then the wait began.

"There was just so much tension," Russotti recalled.

Meanwhile, the Facebook page hummed. Well-wishers posted prayers and photos of lit candles. Finally, word came.

Antonio Faraci, a friend and organizer of the $200,000 campaign, celebrated. "When we see Sofia take on the streets and squares of our city, we will understand that every breath and every step is due to our commitment and our small or large donations," he wrote. "Only then we will have made the best investment of our lives."


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