A Traumatic Brain Injury Can’t Stop Lalia Susini
After a Life-Threatening Injury to Her Skull and Brain, 12-Year-Old Patient Celebrates One Year Since the Life-Changing Accident
One year ago, 12-year-old Lalia Susini arrived at Cedars-Sinai's Ruth and Harry Roman Emergency Department with a traumatic brain injury and complete paralysis on the left side of her body.
Within moments, the preteen went from rising child actress and athletic powerhouse to fighting for her life. But thanks to the lifesaving expertise of her Cedars-Sinai medical team, Susini is preparing to close this chapter of her life, and instead, look ahead to her bright future.
“When I think about the accident and that entire day, I remember everything feeling so fast,” said Susini, a Hollywood Hills resident and avid actor, singer, dancer and athlete. “Although things moved quickly, I also remember the smallest of details . . . from the emergency department doctor with the red cellphone case to the face of the imaging technician who helped perform my scans before surgery. It was all a blur, but also very vivid.”
Right before the accident, Susini was, like other students in California during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, taking a short break from her online classes. She headed outside with her grandfather who began pushing her on a makeshift swing. Within moments, the metal bracket holding up the bungee swing snapped, flying into Susini’s skull and then, into her brain.
“The bracket essentially flew into Lalia’s head like a bullet,” said Nicolas Melo, MD, an acute care surgeon, associate professor in the Department of Surgery at Cedars-Sinai, and one of the first physicians to care for Susini. “When she arrived at the medical center, her skull was severely fractured, and her brain was exposed. It was a devastating injury, especially for a young child.”
Melo said that when Susini arrived, she was “swarmed like bees” by the Cedars-Sinai trauma team.
As one of just four Level I adult trauma centers in Los Angeles County, Cedars-Sinai receives the most severely injured trauma patients—like Susini—from throughout the county. The Level 1 designation, the highest level possible, allows Cedars-Sinai to provide the most advanced clinical care and technical expertise for trauma care 24/7.
After a thorough yet swift evaluation by the trauma team, inclusive of imaging and several blood transfusions, it became clear Susini needed emergency neurosurgery.
Melo made the call to Moise Danielpour, MD, director of the Pediatric Neurosurgery Program at Cedars-Sinai and the Vera and Paul Guerin Family Chair in Pediatric Neurosurgery. Within minutes, Susini was wheeled to the operating room.
“Time was really critical,” said Danielpour, also the medical director of the Center for Pediatric Neurosciences. “We had to stabilize her injury, debride the area of injury without causing further damage, repair the extensive vascular injury, and stop the extensive bleeding in order to save her life.”
A Second Surgery
Several months after her initial surgery, Danielpour performed a second surgery to replace the skull defect that was a result of her initial injury to better protect her brain during future athletic and adventurous activities.
“We quickly learned from her parents that Lalia was extremely active, often riding BMX bikes, skateboarding, playing competitive soccer and chasing around her three brothers,” said Danielpour. “While the initial goal of her surgery was to save her life, our subsequent care was focused on preserving her physical and mental function.”
Danielpour said that more of his conversations with the Susini family focused on what she could not do, rather than on what she could do—because her determined spirit aimed to accomplish it all.
Over the next several weeks, Susini began her healing process in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit, where she befriended the nurses, doctors, therapists, intensivists, technicians and administrators who made up her care team.
At Cedars-Sinai, these pediatric care teams work together with one goal in mind: healing children as quickly as possible.
Cedars-Sinai’s expertise in pediatrics covers more than 20 specialties, ranging from neurology and neurosurgery, transplant surgery, neonatology, trauma care, cardiology, oncology, urology and medical genetics.
“The nurses and doctors were funny and so fun to be around,” said Lalia, who plays Young Andy on ABC’s Station 19. “When my time at Cedars-Sinai was ending, I was really sad to leave all of the people caring for me who had become my friends.”
"Rooting For Her Success"
After nearly one month at Cedars-Sinai, Susini was discharged, continuing her journey toward healing with nine months of inpatient and outpatient rehabilitation.
“Cedars-Sinai is a very special place, and our pediatric patients are at the heart of our care,” said Danielpour. “Lalia will forever be a part of our Cedars-Sinai family and we will always be rooting for her success.”
Now, one year since her accident, Susini is preparing to start in-person school again and, for the first time since the accident, she went on a two-night camping trip. She plans to get back into acting, dancing and singing soon, and has high hopes for playing competitive soccer and BMX racing once again. She also has her hopes set on the Paralympics and is now training with a track and field coach.
“My ultimate goal used to be to go to the Olympics, but now my sights are set on the Paralympics,” said Susini. “I feel really proud of myself and like I’ve accomplished all that I could since my accident. Good things happen when you work hard.”
Read more from the Cedars-Sinai Blog: Faces of Cedars-Sinai: Dr. Moise Danielpour, Pediatric Neurosurgeon