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Health Spotlight: Innovative surgery for birth defect that affects thousands of babies

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — Spina Bifida is a birth defect that affects 1,500 babies born each year in the U.S. It happens when the spine and spinal cord don’t form properly. It can cause a range of disabilities including paralysis.

Now, an innovative surgery done before the baby is even born is giving these kids a better chance at a normal life.

“When you first see Abigail Rose, all you see is that big grin and those pigtails, but this little girl has come a long way,” said Alisha Staton, mother of Abigail Rose.

Alisha Staton didn’t know what was wrong during her ultrasound at 18 weeks, but she knew something was wrong.”And he didn’t even have to say it, I knew. She was diagnosed with Spina Bifida. We were told she was not gonna walk, crawl, or stand. She might not talk, she might not be able to eat on her own.”

Alisha and her husband had three options; to terminate, to have surgery just hours after birth, or fix the problem before Abigail was born. They chose to do surgery while Abigail was still in the womb.

“We open the mother’s belly and then open the womb and expose the part of the child, the back that needs to be repaired. The repair is actually to cover and do a watertight seal of the back, of the defect in Spina Bifida,” said Dr. Stephen Fenton from the University of Utah Health.

In a recent study in the New England Journal of Medicine, researchers found fetal surgery for Spina Bifida results in better walking, bladder control, and cognitive development.

“It has proven to be the biggest blessing we’ve done for her,” Staton said.

Abigail Rose was born prematurely, at 29 weeks. Now, two years old, she is on the move and charming everyone along the way.

Although outcomes are good, the risks are high. Many babies are born prematurely and there is a risk of death before delivery. Complications for the mother include bleeding and infection. And surgery is not an option for everyone. Mother and child need to meet a list of health requirements to be good candidates for the surgery.