Mike and Kasey Hilton found out that their unborn child had myelomeningocele spine bifida before they even knew the sex of their baby.
According to the National Institute of Health, myelomeningocele spina bifida is the most severe from of the condition and occurs when the spinal cord/neural elements are exposed through the opening in the spine, leading to partial or complete paralysis of the parts of the body below the spinal opening.
However, thanks to advances in medicine doctors in the United States can perform fetal surgery to partially correct the malformation while the baby is still in utero. Currently, 13 hospitals in the country perform this type of surgery and Hilton’s baby qualified for the procedure.
In 2003, the National Institute of Health founded the Management of Myelomeningocele Study (MOMS) and they found that closing the defect in utero reduced the need for shunts after birth and boosted the child’s chances of walking independently. Doctors are also hopeful that the procedure reduces the odds of learning disabilities as well.
The Hilton’s said the decision to choose surgery for their child was easy. The director of the Fetal Diagnosis Center at the University of Michigan, Dr. Marcie Treadwell, spoke with the Hiltons after tests confirmed what the ultrasound suggested. She told them, “Your baby boy would get the exact same surgery after he’s born, but (with this procedure) he would have the opportunity to heal inside the womb instead of outside it.”
On July 29th, Hilton and her baby underwent surgery at C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital at the University of Michigan.
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Surgeons first opened her abdomen and uterus. With Hilton’s vitals still steady, doctors then began the surgery on the 231/2-week fetus inside her.
Now separately anesthetized, the single-pound fetus was gently turned and held into place by gloved surgical hands. Its tiny spine was exposed to a pediatric neurosurgeon, who separated some of the abnormal tissue, then closed the skin over the exposed portion of the spine while making sure not to disturb the underlying nerve tissue in the spinal cord.
A specialist monitored the ultrasound for signs of fetal distress.
One anesthesiologist monitored mom; a second anesthesiologist — working with a pediatric cardiologist and maternal fetal medicine doctor — was responsible for the fetus.
It’s a “delicate, intensive, highly involved procedure,” said Dr. Julie Moldenhauer, who trained at Wayne State University. “It’s a bit tense, yes.”
As part of her work at the Center for Fetal Diagnosis and Treatment at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, one of the participating centers in the MOMS study, Moldenauer helped write the guidelines for the procedure.
In Ann Arbor last summer, with the baby tucked safely back inside his mother, Kasey Hilton’s uterus and abdomen were stitched closed in multiple layers — more so than in most other surgeries — to ensure a water-tight closing that would withstand the movements of a growing fetus.
Tragically, 68% of unborn children who are diagnosed with spina bifida in utero die from abortion. Their son, Carter, could have been one of these children if it weren’t for his mother’s decision to choose life for her son. Now Charter is four- month-old and doing better than expected.