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Back in action after successful cranial surgery

Thanks to his neurosurgery team at Cohen Children’s Medical Center, Mateo’s thriving and loving life.

Barefoot little boy in blue shorts and top shooting a basketball.
Mateo is all action—you’d never know he’s had multiple neurosurgeries.

Theresa Ventrudo and her husband, John, weren’t newbies at parenthood when they welcomed their third son, Mateo. Not only had the Malverne, NY, couple been parents for five years already, they both worked in health care, John as a sports medicine doctor and Theresa as an occupational therapist. They knew that Mateo’s constant crying—up to 18 hours a day—wasn’t just colic.

Over Mateo’s first year, they logged 127 doctor visits. He needed special formula. He was diagnosed with “failure to thrive.” At 6 months, he developed a lazy eye. It wasn’t for lack of trying, but no one could come up with definitive answers for his ailments.

At 13 months, Mateo collapsed on the kitchen floor, lips blue, requiring artificial respiration. That happened eight more times over the course of two years. He was also suffering from debilitating headaches that couldn’t be explained.

It was during this time that Theresa took her son to see a retina specialist to address his lazy eye. That physician suspected neurological involvement and sent the family to Cohen Children’s Medical Center, where they met Mark Mittler, MD, the co-chief of pediatric neurosurgery. “That was the turning point of getting a handle on Mateo’s mysterious health problems,” Theresa said.

An MRI revealed that Mateo had a blockage of cerebrospinal fluid, causing a buildup of pressure in the brain and optic nerves. A series of complex operations were needed to relieve the obstruction and reduce the pressure, ultimately saving his vision.

Then, just before Christmas when Mateo was about to turn 2, it became clear that more needed to be done. Mateo was again worsening as his skull growth appeared to be unable to keep up with his brain growth. While dealing with it was horrifying, that revelation “was the best thing that could ever happen to us,” Theresa said. Mateo’s diagnosis of multisuture craniosynostosis is extremely rare. It is a condition in which the normal cartilage connections between the bones of the skull are absent, compromising skull growth and restricting the growth of the brain.

To correct it, Mateo had to face the most important surgery of his young life: an eight-hour anterior cranial vault reconstruction (CVR) to expand his skull, performed by Dr. Mittler and craniofacial plastic surgeon Rachel Ruotolo, MD. “It was the scariest surgery we ever sat through,” Theresa said. “But we remained extremely calm because we knew our son was in great hands.” The procedure was a success, and Mateo’s headaches subsided.

Blonde-haired woman in blue holds little boy in blue on her shoulders.
Theresa’s always there for Mateo—as is the hospital staff, whom she calls “family.”

Mateo’s world of surgery is not over, but the saving grace for the entire family is that Dr. Mittler will always be a teammate. After Dr. Mittler left the room during a recent hospital stay, Mateo told his mother, “I love that man. He made me feel so much better because he took away my headaches.” 

Theresa also considers the hospital’s staff as part of the family. “We always laugh about being ‘frequent flyers’ there, just being constantly in and out of that hospital, for weeks at a time. The staff will joke with us, too: ‘You’re back again?’ The nurses are just spectacular at Cohen Children’s. You spend so much time there, you get to know them, especially at two in the morning.”

Years of physical, occupational and speech therapy have addressed both existing and expected issues stemming from Mateo’s condition. Theresa and John were particularly concerned about Mateo’s math and reading once he started school. They’ve been amazed to see their worst fears have been, so far, unfounded. “He reads beautifully,” Theresa reports, “and he’s doing advanced math in his head. We’re so fortunate we haven’t seen a deficit yet.”

Three young boys all in blue shorts with arms around each other.
It’s a race to see who can keep up with whom among Mateo and his brothers, Jack and JP.

“Dr. Mittler has been an absolute godsend to our family,” Theresa says. “He saved our son’s vision and took away his severe pain, which we will be eternally grateful for. Never once, over the course of these past five years, have we ever doubted him. The impact he has had on our son, as well as John and me and our other two sons, will resonate for the rest of our lives.”

The most recent wrinkle in Mateo’s health is that he’s developed epilepsy, so now the family is well-versed in seizure care and how to watch for them. But that, they can handle. What’s important is the baby who failed to thrive and suffered from massive headaches and the toddler they feared would lose his eyesight is now an active 6-year-old who can swing on monkey bars, ride a bike, ski and cannonball into pools.

“He wants to be an NYPD police officer. He only wears blue and camo,” Theresa says, laughing. “He just loves life.”