In utero spinal surgery may reverse birth defects


The baby is doing well and may avoid some of the most devastating complications because of the early surgery.

Baby Faith was born on the Fourth of July. But it wasn't the first time she'd been born. In May, Colette Hagler had a C-section so fetal surgeons could operate on Faith, who has spina bifida.

"I think she's a miracle baby," Colette said.

Their miracle was a new five-hour surgery to repair Faith's spinal cord defect before she was born. Then the pregnancy continued.

"I knew this was a major surgery but again, when you want the best outcome for the child, you do what you have to do," Colette said.

"I could possibly lose her as well as the baby," said Faith's father, Ivan Hagler.

But they had hope from a new study that showed when the spinal cord was repaired before a baby was born, half the children with spina bifida walked without crutches, and many avoided a brain shunt.

"Some of the damage that results from spina bifida as the baby's developing neurologically can either be slowed down or potentially reversed," said Dr. KuoJen Tsao, a fetal surgeon.

"It is an incredible option to know there's something that can be done that has potential benefit," said Dr. Joan Mastrobattista with the UTHealth Maternal-Fetal Center.

A tiny incision on Faith's back belies the dramatic fetal surgery she had.

"Definitely healthier, weeks or months healthier than a normal baby who would not have had this surgery in utero would be," said Dr. Amir Khan, medical director of the Children's Memorial Hermann Hospital NICU.

"My hope and my belief is that we won't even be able to tell that anything was ever wrong," Colette said.

And that's why they named her Faith.

Now, most fetal surgeries are performed to save the baby's life. The spina bifida surgery is one of the first to be performed to improve life for a child whose life is not in danger. And as fetal surgery becomes more common, many believe we will see more life-improving surgeries like this one.

For more information on fetal surgeries, call 888-818-4818 or go to the Texas Center for Maternal and Fetal Treatment website.

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