Toddler Attacked by Pit Bull Celebrates Birthday with Surgeon Who Rebuilt Her Face: 'Surreal'
A Long Island toddler was on the cusp of death after being attacked by a pit bull, but a surgeon gave her a second chance at life.
Alessia Sansotta-Ingrasselino celebrated her second birthday on Sunday, just four months after she was mauled by a pit bull and left with life-threatening injuries that required her to be on a ventilator and undergo multiple surgeries, according to a GoFundMe set up by her aunt Angela Sansotta.
Besides marking a birthday that was once uncertain, Sunday's occasion was also special due to the fact that Alessia was joined by Dr. Rachel Ruotolo, the pediatric plastic and craniofacial surgeon with Long Island Plastic Surgical Group, who performed the toddler's facial reconstruction surgery and saved her life.
"I'm very thankful I was able to make it," Dr. Ruotolo tells PEOPLE. "It was very special to see Alessia be a normal 2-year-old girl and have fun at her party... It was a really wonderful celebration of this little girl's journey and resilience."
Alessia's life changed in an instant on March 6 when a pit bull attacked, leaving her with "a fractured jaw, broken and shattered bones throughout her nasal passage," and a missing alveolar, "the bony ridge that contains the sockets of the upper teeth," the GoFundMe explained.
The incident also caused Alessia's tendons in the eye, eyeball, jawline and skull to be exposed and fractured, her family said.
The toddler immediately underwent a 12-hour surgery and was put on a ventilator to breathe as she suffered a series of health complications in both Good Samaritan Hospital and Stony Brook Children's Medical Hospital.
On March 13, she was transported to Cohen Children's Medical Center and hooked up to an ECMO machine, but later proved that she didn't need it when her heart rate, oxygen and blood pressure levels remained stable, the GoFundMe stated.
Though Alessia was showing signs of improvement, her family said this was only the beginning for her, as she would require more surgeries down the road, including one to reconstruct and rebuild her face with a prosthesis and implants — a procedure she was unable to have done in the two weeks following the attack due to her various health complications.
"As soon as her little body takes a break and starts healing her reconstructive surgery will begin," Angela wrote on the page, which has since raised over $49,000. "Again this is a long road to recovery but we are just so blessed and so thankful and so grateful that everyone’s prayers have been answered and kept Alessia safe and so strong!!"
On March 19, Alessia finally underwent the facial reconstruction surgery led by Dr. Ruotolo, who says she was initially contacted by Angela to perform the procedure.
"When she reached out to me and asked if I could help her niece, there was no question or doubt in my mind. If I was physically able to do it, I would," Dr. Ruotolo tells PEOPLE. "It was something I felt I could take care of with experience."
During the procedure, Dr. Ruotolo took a shaved piece of Alessia's rib and cartilage to rebuild her nose, fixed her fractures with resorbable plates, and reattached the tendon to realign her eye, according to the GoFundMe page.
The surgery was ultimately successful and Alessia continued to recover, receiving frequent check-ins from Dr. Ruotolo until she was officially discharged from the hospital on April 4.
"We are so happy to report that Alessia is doing GREAT!! She is back to her beautiful smiling self!!" Angela wrote of her niece in the days following her procedure. "If she’s not singing her favorite Frozen and Moana songs, we are most definitely singing to Lava... Whether she’s coloring, playing with stickers, playing on the iPad of course, Alessia is getting better and better every day!!"
While attending Alessia's Moana-themed bash on Sunday, Dr. Ruotolo tells PEOPLE she couldn't help but tear up at the little girl's happiness.
"It definitely was a surreal feeling. When I was standing there at the end, and Moana was there and dancing with Alessia, it was impossible not to get emotional watching that because of where she came from," she says. "It was very special to be able to be there."
"I have a very intimate connection with my patients. I'm not just their surgeon and I try to make myself as available to them as possible," she continues. "There's a huge emotional aspect of it and it's a very large part of what I do. As much as I can I try to be there for them and reassure them along the way."
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In the coming years, Alessia will require more surgeries since she's young and still growing, says Dr. Ruotolo. She plans on being there for the toddler every step of the way.
"It's for the long haul," she says, noting that she looks forward to seeing Alessia have "a normal life and be a happy, normal kid."
"That's my goal — and that's my goal for all my patients," she explains. "The goal is to make it look like it never happened. You can't take away the psychological aspects of this — which I hope she has no memory of — but if we can make her physically look like this didn't happen, then it's a home run."
Added Alessia's mother, Dianna Sansotta-Ingrasselino, to WABC: "[Dr. Ruotolo is] forever in our life. Anybody that looks at Alessia for the rest of her life is looking at what she's done, so forever I am grateful to her."
Those interested in helping Alessia with the costs of her upcoming medical procedures can do so here.
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