The New York Times wrote an incredibly life-affirming, beautiful story a couple of weeks ago.
A pediatric neurosurgeon operated on a spina bifida patient … who was still inside his mother’s uterus!
Lexi Royer and her husband, Joshuwa, were high school sweethearts who’d always longed for children, but Mrs. Royer had health issues that made pregnancy unlikely for her. After going through a miscarriage, the couple continued struggling to conceive.
Finally, in May of this year they discovered they were pregnant. They were overjoyed.
And then through their happy tears at their 13-week ultrasound, they received bad news. After a series of tests and visits to see specialists, they discovered a birth defect, the result of which was the brain stem being pulled down into the spinal column.
“It sounded like we were looking at brain damage, feeding tubes, a breathing tube, a wheelchair, just a bad quality of life,” Mrs. Royer said. But even if he couldn’t walk, they argued, needing a wheelchair doesn’t ruin a person’s quality of life.
The Royers felt the doctors were pushing abortion as the best option. But they’d waited so long for this child… and he might be their only one.
So they set out to learn as much as they could about his condition. This search led them from their home in San Diego to Houston, to test and confirm their son’s spina bifida, and also to see if a newer procedure called fetoscopic surgery might help him. It was experimental, but they decided it was worth the risk to try to save their son and improve his quality of life.
According to the NYT article,
Introducing prenatal surgery for spina bifida was a bold step. In the early days, doctors were so worried about risk that they operated only for conditions that would be fatal if left unrepaired; if the surgery did harm, it would be to a fetus that would have died anyway.
Spina bifida is generally not fatal, so the standard practice was to operate after birth. But the results of postnatal surgery were mixed: most children could not walk and had other problems.
So, in an overheated operating room, ideal for the baby, the surgeons began. The doctors opened Mrs. Royer’s lower abdomen, but not her uterus. Instead, they lifted her uterus out of her body and conducted the surgery using a fetoscope and surgical tools through small slits.
After three hours, the surgery was complete. The traditional open operation, in which the mother’s uterus is slit open, is much faster, but the doctors believe the results will be better with the fetoscopic option. It will also make childbirth safer for women by reducing the risk of early labor, premature birth, or needing to deliver via C-section.
This approach demonstrates the power of looking outside the norm to come up with better alternatives. And in an age and society that’s obsessed with pro-life vs. pro-choice, we’re grateful for doctors who choose another option that is both life-affirming and innovative.
Parents and doctors alike have to make hard decisions. But the results of those hard decisions are joy, innovation, creativity, breakthrough, discovery, and a future with fewer life-threatening or debilitating diseases and handicaps.
We applaud the physicians who were willing to put in the hard work of seeking answers, pouring in hours of research, and performing non-human experiments that led to the breakthrough of this fetal surgery.