by Cathy Deeds
December 22, 1999
As we celebrate the miraculous birth of Jesus 2000 years ago this Christmas season, we are reminded that every human life is special, even miraculous.
A modern "miracle birth" also deserves special attention this month. On December 2, Julie and Alex Armas's child, Samuel, was born without any apparent disabling condition. Samuel had been in the news the previous three months because of the remarkable in utero surgery and treatment he received at Vanderbilt University Medical Center to correct his spina bifida, usually a grave and disabling birth defect.
Although Samuel was not the first child at Vanderbilt to undergo this type of surgery (he was 54th), he is the youngest. The world was introduced to Samuel by the photo of his tiny hand, reaching out of his mother's womb to grasp the surgeon's finger when he was at only 21 weeks' gestation.
Following surgery, Samuel thrived a further 15 weeks inside the womb, before his birth in December.
Since April 1997, this delicate surgery, originated by the Fetal Diagnosis and Therapy Team at Vanderbilt, has been performed in the U.S. on 73 unborn patients with spina bifida, to correct the spine and help improve leg functions and brain development before birth. One of the most common neural tube defects, spina bifida affects about 1 in every 1,000 newborns and is one of the most frequently occurring permanently disabling birth defects, according to the Spina Bifida Association of America. The disability results from the spine failing to close properly during the first month of pregnancy. It can cause paralysis and other life-long disabilities. But today, measures can be taken to reduce the risk during pregnancy.
During the new surgery, the mother's uterus is literally lifted outside her abdominal cavity. All uterine contents are then "mapped" using a sterile ultrasound probe, and the uterus is opened. As Vanderbilt's director of Fetal Diagnosis and Treatment, Dr. Bruner, explains: "We simply squiggle the baby up into the opening so that the spina bifida lesion is outside the uterus. Then, my colleague ... steps in and does exactly the same repair that he would otherwise perform in a newborn." The whole procedure takes about 30 minutes. Thus far, many of the young patients are doing well, especially as measured by a reduction in the "shunts" needed to help control excess fluid on the brain (a condition known as hydrocephalus), common in spina bifida patients. Long term effects are not yet known.
Vanderbilt has arrangements with one insurance company, Aetna, to pay for the $35,000 surgery, and it is trying to encourage others to do the same. Sadly, the surgery raises a difficult legal issue because unborn children are not "persons" in the eyes of the law -- and therefore not patients according to some insurance companies.
This is ironic for those of us who saw the dramatic photograph of a tiny human hand during the surgery, as featured on websites and in national news stories. December's LIFE magazine carries a similar story. The photo itself became part of a public controversy when Fox News censored Internet journalist Matt Drudge, refusing to show the photo on his TV show because he planned to make an analogy to abortion. Mr. Drudge wanted to point out that some doctors are performing life-saving surgery on unborn children, while others are legally aborting unborn children of the same gestational age.
On December 2, prayers were answered when Samuel was born at 36 weeks, weighing 5 pounds, 11 ounces. He had no visible trauma and did not have to spend any time in the neonatal intensive care unit. A letter from his proud parents was circulated on the Internet: "After viewing an ultrasound of his brain, Samuel's neurosurgeon was very optimistic as he does not have any hydrocephalus and the brain malformation has been resolved ... Thank you for all your prayers and support. We are happier than we ever dreamed possible."
Instead of destroying a tiny life because of imperfection -- an all too common fate of spina bifida babies -- the Armas family accepted God's will, prayed for a miracle, and risked innovative medical care for their son.
Thanks to advances in medical and communications technology, millions have seen or will see the remarkable snapshot of Samuel's tiny hand holding on to his doctor during surgery. Hearts and lives may be changed, and even saved, because of it.
Because a picture is worth a thousand words, you can see the famous photo of the in utero surgery at: www.aciprensa.com/foto.htm.
May this trend toward a culture of life continue and escalate in the new millennium.
Cathy Deeds is a public policy analyst in the Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.