Unborn baby is operated on INSIDE the womb to correct spina bifida in pioneering surgery

Bethan Simpson is one of the first mums-to-be to have the pioneering surgery.

Surgeons cut into her womb to remove her baby girl, before operating on her back – to treat the defect spina bifida.

After the op, they placed the baby back inside Bethan's womb, before sewing her up.

Up until now the operation has only ever been performed in Belgium.

But Bethan, who is due to give birth in April, is one of a handful of mums who have been treated by a team of Belgian and British surgeons at Great Ormond Street Hospital.

"We were told our little girl had spina bifida," Bethan said.

"We were offered continuing with the pregnancy, ending it or a new option called foetal surgery – fixing her before she is born.

"We agreed to do it. Baby and I went through amniotic tests, MRIs and relentless scans."

I feel our baby kick me day in and day out, that’s never changed

Bethan and her baby were given the green light to have the surgery, then faced "a rollercoaster for the next few weeks".

At Bethan and husband, Kieron's 20-week scan, the couple were told their baby's head wasn't measuring right.

They were sent to Broomfield Hospital in Chelmsford, Essex, where their unborn baby was diagnosed with spina bifida.

A defect that causes a gap in the spine

SPINA bifida is where a baby's spinal cord and spine don't develop properly in the womb.

It's a type of neural tube defect.

The neural tube us the bit that eventually develops into the baby's brain and spinal cord.

It starts to form early in a pregnancy, and closes about four weeks after conception.

But in babies with spina bifida part of the neural tube doesn't develop or close properly.

It leads to defects in the spinal cord and vertebrae.

Babies suffering the most severe form of the condition have a spinal canal that remains open, allowing the spinal cord to poke out and form a sac on the baby's back.

In most cases surgeons can operate to close the opening in the spine.

But most of the time the nervous system will have already been damaged, which can cause problems like:

  • weakness or total paralysis of the legs
  • bowel or urinary incontinence
  • loss of skin sensation in the legs and around the bottom

To find out more, see the NHS info here.

The condition affects a baby's spinal cord, meaning it doesn't fully develop in the womb.

It can affect a child’s ability to walk causing paralysis of the limbs and the ability to go to the toilet normally.

The couple were told their first option was to terminate the pregnancy.

But after hearing about the option for foetal surgery, Bethan had their baby went into hospital at 24 weeks.

She became the fourth mum in the UK to have the op, with surgeons from University College Hospital and GOSH playing a key role.

She said: “I had the most recognised surgeons from around the world from University College London Hospital and Belgium looking after me.”

The surgery involved removing the baby from Bethan’s womb and repairing the spinal cord so the baby has a greater chance of a normal life.

The baby was then placed back in Bethan’s womb for the remainder of the pregnancy.

Thankfully, Bethan said the operation was a success.

Bethan, from Burnham, Essex, said: “Sadly 80 per cent of babies in England are terminated when their parents get told their baby has this condition.

“It’s not a death sentence. She has the same potential as every one of us.

“Yes, there are risks of things going wrong but please think more about spina bifida, it’s not what it used to be.

“I feel our baby kick me day in and day out, that’s never changed.

“She’s extra special, she’s part of history and our daughter has shown just how much she deserves this life.”


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