Inside this glowing red orb, surrounded by the sterile blue light of the operation theatre, an unborn child is undergoing life-changing surgery.
The stunning photograph by Béatrice de Géa shows a pioneering operation used to reverse a birth defect while the fetus is still in the mother’s womb. The 24-week-old fetus has spina bifida, a group of conditions where a baby’s spine and spinal cord don’t develop properly in the womb. Scientists are not totally certain what causes this condition, although it usually begins in the very early stages of pregnancy, eventually leaving the child with damage to their nerves, issues with bladder control, highly impaired walking, and a high chance of infection.
Time is of the essence when it comes to this surgery – typically, doctors repair the spine within 48 hours of birth. However, only 20 percent of patients who undergo this procedure can walk independently. While doctors have been trying to master fetal surgery for spina bifida for some years, the conventional technique is still not flawless.
Doctors from Baylor College of Medicine and the Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston are now fine-tuning an experimental method of fetal operation to reverse the damage caused by this condition by operating on the fetus while still inside the uterus, but the uterus is outside the body, as reported from the operation room by the New York Times.
“Fetal surgery is one of the few operations with a 200 percent risk of mortality,” assisting surgeon Dr Oluyinka Olutoye told the New York Times in a second article.
A seen in the photograph above, pediatric neurosurgeons Dr William Whitehead and Dr Michael A Belfort led the complex 3-hour surgery on Lexi Royer, 28, and her unborn son.
“Closure of the spinal defect before birth reduces the risk of hydrocephalus and may improve motor function in select patients,” Dr Robert Bollo, a pediatric neurosurgeon at Texas Children’s Hospital and assistant professor of neurosurgery at Baylor College of Medicine said in a statement from 2012. “Fetal surgery is an exciting new tool in our multidisciplinary commitment to the life-long care of patients with spina bifida.”
After the uterus was lifted out of her body, they inserted a miniature telescope, camera, and grasping tool into the womb, allowing doctors to see the tiny fetus. They also inserted a bright light, hence that deep red glow of the woman’s womb. Doctors drained the womb of its amniotic fluid and then inflated it with carbon dioxide to give them room to operate. Using the live video feed from the camera, they carefully “mended” the backbone and spinal cord of the 0.9-kilograms (2-pound) fetus.
After three hours passed, this revolutionary fetal operation appeared to be a success. However, they will only definitively know after the child is born.
All being well, the baby boy will be born on 14 January, next year.