Life changing fetal surgery now being performed at Barnes-Jewish Hospital

ST. LOUIS - An amazing life-changing surgery for children before those children are even born, is now available in St. Louis:  surgery in the womb on a fetus the size of an adult’s hand.

It can drastically reduce the effects of the birth defect, Spina Bifida, which impacts about 1,500 children born in the United States every year.

The surgery can mean the difference between walking and a wheel chair.

One of the largest “O-R” teams in Barnes-Jewish Hospital history gathered October 10th, to change a little boy’s life before he’s even born.

It was 25 weeks into the mother’s pregnancy, the fetus weighing a pound and a half.

Bone and skin failed to enclose spinal tissue in the womb.  So, the team went in and did the job in a four-hour surgery.

“We use ultrasound to check the positioning of the baby,” said Dr. Michael Bebbington, MD, a Washington University Medical School Maternal-Fetal Medicine surgeon, who was brought to St. Louis after performing these procedures in Philadelphia and Houston.  “This particularly baby – the part we wanted to operate on was down by the cervix, so we had to flip the baby around and then make an incision, a cut, in the back wall of the uterus…there’s a sac that sticks out where the defect is.  That sac gets resected.  It gets cut.  The nerve tissue that’s in the sac gets put back down around the spinal cord and then [we] close the muscle and skin over top.”

Spina Bifida complications also include a buildup of fluid in the brain with nowhere for the fluid to go, he said.  The surgery can reduce the need for the placement of a “shunt” after birth to drain the fluid by 50%, greatly reducing the impact of Spina Bifida in the life of child.

“They can certainly have significant handicaps. What we try to do with this is to reduce that burden,” Dr. Bebbington said.  “I can think of one case from Houston where you’ve got a little girl who runs and jumps and dances and is in normal school and is just like a vivacious child. There’s no question that for that family this has been life changing surgery…it can for many children mean the difference between being able to walk and not being able to walk.”

Only a small percentage of Spina Bifida diagnoses will qualify for the surgery.  It requires just the right timing and physical conditions for mom and baby.

After surgery, moms are on bed rest until delivery and need to be close to a major hospital.  Relocating for a couple of months is usually part of this. These parents are from Jefferson City.

Before now, their closest options were Denver and Houston.  So, they may have just had to go without this.

The baby boy is due in December.