The Grapevine

How Womb Surgery Saved A Baby From Being Born With A Birth Defect

Spina Bifida, which is a birth defect that happens when the spine and the spinal cord do not form properly, is the most common neural tube defect in the United States. According to data from the National Organization for Rare Disorders, out of 4 million births each year, between 1,500 and 2,000 babies are born with it.

And so it didn’t come as big of a surprise when Allee Mullen’s baby was diagnosed with it 20 weeks into her pregnancy. Still, it was a definite cause for worry. There are, after all, various types of the condition, with different levels of mortality.

A pediatric intensive care nurse who takes care of critically ill boys and girls at University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Children’s Hospital, Mullen became the first ever patient in Pittsburgh to undergo fetal surgery in order to repair her child’s spina bifida.

“It’s a devastating diagnosis,” said fetal medicine specialist Dr. Stephen Emery, who teamed up with pediatric surgeon Dr. Stephanie Greene from Children’s Hospital to do the delicate surgery.

According to the pair, Mullen’s health and the way the baby was positioned made her the perfect first candidate, among other factors. Furthermore, Greene also said that it’s better to operate on the fetus while it’s still in the womb than to wait after birth for corrective surgery.

“But I think the main factor for Allee is that she’s, she’s a nurse in the PICU children’s hospital and she takes care of these kids. She knows what spinal bifida is,” Emery said.

Mullen hesitated at first, but in the end she still chose the best decision for her child. Two months later, the child was born kicking, quite literally.

“She had normal movement in her legs, except she can’t point her toes down quite all the way with one foot," Greene said. "To be fair, based on the anatomic level, she shouldn’t have had movement below her knees, so that’s fantastic.”

The baby’s back is also completely healed, with the neurological exam showing promising results.

To honor the pair of doctors who did the in-the-womb surgery, the child was named Emery Greene.

Newborn baby in the hospital. A paediatric nurse gives a newborn to his mother after she gave birth, at the hospital Saint-Vincent de Paul in Lille, on August 17, 2018. Apart from crying, a baby is sending messages through body language. PHILIPPE HUGUEN/AFP/Getty Images