Lexi Royer and her unborn baby have made history even before they have met each other eye to eye.
When she was 24 weeks pregnant, the two of them were on an operating table each undergoing an operation: Royer’s womb was being removed so surgeons could operate on her unborn baby!
Isn’t that amazing?
The life-changing surgery was first reported by the New York Times.
Royer’s baby boy was diagnosed with a spina bifida, a condition where the spine and spinal cord don’t develop properly in the womb, causing a gap in the spine.
The doctors lifted the woman’s womb out of her body and operated on the tiny baby without removing him from the womb.
Spina bifida occurs when the vertebrae don’t form properly around part of the baby’s spinal cord. Spina bifida can be mild or severe.
In the severe form of spina bifida, children may have little or no feeling in their limbs, and there can be fluid build-up in the brain, which may cause seizures, learning problems or visions problems and leave them unable to control their bladder or bowels.
Dr Michael Belfort, chairman of obstetrics and gynaecology at Baylor College of Medicine, and Dr William Whitehead, a paediatric surgeon, injected the baby with anaesthetic before moving skin over his exposed spinal cord and stitching it into place.
Spina bifida occurs in the early stages of pregnancy, at three to four weeks, when the tissue that forms the spinal column doesn’t close properly.
In the United States 1,500 to 2,000 of the more than 4 million babies born in the country each year are affected by the condition and there are an estimated 166,000 individuals living with the condition in the United States.
The exact cause of spina bifida is not known, but scientists suspect multiple factors including insufficient folic acid in the mother’s diet.
Pioneering an astonishing new treatment
Doctors have been performing foetal surgery to repair spina bifida since the 1990s, but those operations are difficult and risk premature birth.
This new procedure has come a long way. It was developed over two years by Dr Belfort and his colleague Dr Whitehead. They practiced on sheep and a rubber ball with a doll inside wrapped in chicken skin to mimic the defect in spina bifida, reports The Telegraph.
The new procedure allows the doctors to drain the womb of amniotic fluid, which eats away at the gap in the spinal nerve tissue.
This is how it all unfolded.
During the three-hour-operation Dr Belfort opened Royer’s abdomen and removed her whole womb through the hole. He then made two slits in the womb, one for a fetoscope – a tiny camera designed to light up and film inside – and another for surgical tools.
Once the womb was outside her body doctors could drain it of amniotic fluid, light it up and operate through tiny incisions after injecting the fetus with anesthetic. The womb was filled with carbon dioxide to keep the baby floating in the womb and anesthetic helped to keep it still.
The doctors pulled skin over the exposed spinal cord and stitched it in place. They then refilled the womb with saltwater and replaced inside the mother’s body it.
The team is now reporting on their work in the journal Obstetrics and Gynecology following 28 successful operations in which no fetuses have died, and only a few have needed shunts to drain fluid from the brain. Some of the mothers have also not needed caesarean sections.
Royer was initially offered an abortion when she was told about her baby’s condition but chose to take part in the experimental surgery instead.
“It sounded like we were looking at brain damage, feeding tubes, a breathing tube, a wheelchair, just a bad quality of life,” she told the New York Times.
“It’s not done by any means, but I definitely feel it’s the right thing for us. Seeing the ultrasound and how good he’s doing, moving his ankles and feet, it’s such a happy moment.
“I can’t imagine going on further in the pregnancy not knowing every day what damage is being done and if he’s getting worse. It’s such a relief to move forward.”
Royer’s baby is due in January.