Baby's life saved thanks to 'miracle' surgery

There is no better testament to the miracle of the human body than Layton Akers. You would never know the sweet and smiling four-month-old had been through a thing.

His mom, Ricki, says everything was ready to bring her newborn son home. But soon after his delivery, she knew something was wrong.

"It was really scary," she said, "I was devastated. I waited so long for him to be here and they took him and I didn't know what was going on."

Nurses rushed Layton straight to the NICU. All they would tell her - all they knew - was that he had a cleft palate and couldn't breathe. Doctors told Ricki her son had a rare congenital syndrome known as Pierre Robin.

"You could see his jaw was very small and his lower lip was way back," Ricki explained.

He would need surgery almost immediately. Doctors at Brandon Regional Hospital called in Pediatric Otolaryngologist and Dr. Joshua Mitchell.

"What happens is the tongue obstructs the airway," Dr. Mitchell explained. "These kiddos are at risk for what's called 'failure to thrive' where they're burning so much calories just trying to breathe that we can't get them to gain weight. They just can't do it."

There was no alternative. To save Layton's life, Dr. Mitchell would perform a mandibular distraction: He would use the body's miraculous ability to heal itself to stretch Layton's jaw, strengthen his palate and tongue, and allow him to finally breathe on his own.

"In a young healthy kid, they actually lay bone down pretty quickly," Dr. Mitchell explained, "They want to heal that fracture and so we take advantage of that exuberant healing response."

Ricki was hopeful.

They would need two centimeters of new jaw bone. It would take nine days to get it. 

Every day, Dr. Mitchell would turn two tiny screws protruding from his neck ever so slightly-- a millimeter and a half at a time.

Those screws are attached to an internal device that creates a gap in Layton's jaw.  "What happens is the body lays down more bone in that gap. You create another gap, it lays more bone and so on, and you have to do it slowly," said Mitchell, "It's pretty amazing."

And it worked. His jaw is stronger. Layton can drink from a special bottle made for babies with cleft palates. He will still need corrective surgery for that. But it can wait.

At his last checkup, Layton weighed 12 pounds 4 ounces. That's a big deal. "He's really fun," Ricki said smiling, cradling him while she gives him his afternoon bottle, "He laughs a lot, he smiles and talks a lot more. He's a very happy baby!"

Today, Ricki says people tell her all the time that they'd never know he's been through a thing. That's the singular goal for Dr. Mitchell.

"He looks great," he said smiling, "Our goal as a surgeon to fix the underlying problem and try to make it look like we were never there."