ESSEX, United Kingdom — A mother-to-be is sharing her delight after seeing her unborn baby kicking her legs on a scan. What makes this story special is that her baby successfully made it through a tricky spinal surgery while she was inside the womb.
Sarah Copeland had three miscarriages before becoming pregnant again, but her 20-week scan revealed the baby girl had spina bifida. The special educational needs teacher says doctors told her the child would be born paralyzed from the waist down if they didn’t act fast.
So, Sarah had a rare surgery in April 2023, which saw surgeons fix a hole in her baby’s spine while she was still in Sarah’s womb. After the operation, a scan showed the baby wriggling her little legs, confirming it had been a success.
Spina bifida is a neural tube defect where a baby’s spine and spinal cord does not develop properly in the womb, causing a gap in the spine. Sarah, 36, and partner Christian Rayner, 43, are due to welcome the girl on July 22.
“She’s my little miracle, and I’m so relieved the op went well,” Sarah says in an online video. “We felt truly blessed to see her moving her legs. It was very overwhelming.”
“They scanned her straight away and she’s dancing around happy as Larry. She’s using them fully, and you can see the scar on her has healed already. It’s so lovely to be home and for my baby to be doing fine. I couldn’t fault the NHS and the hospital at all. The care and the cleanliness was outstanding. I’ve not known care like that before. They were so friendly and supportive which made it as pleasant as it could be,” the mother-to-be continues.
Sarah and Christian lost a pregnancy at 10 weeks last July. Sarah, who also has an 11-year-old daughter, had two other miscarriages before and found out she was pregnant in November 2022. Sarah was five months pregnant when medics at Basildon Hospital detected the spina bifida. Doctors referred her to a specialist team at a hospital in Southend, and then King’s College Hospital in London, for surgery on April 26.
According to the parents, the baby’s nerves had gone through a hole at the bottom of her spine and were being damaged by exposure to spinal fluid. If left untreated, her baby would not be able to move her legs after birth. Luckily, the surgery did not pose a danger to her baby’s brain.
Sarah was 27 weeks pregnant at the time of the operation, which gave her baby a 90-percent chance of gaining movement in her lower body. Doctors made a cut like a C-section, then used keyhole surgery to go into the protective amniotic sack. They put the nerves back into baby’s spine and closed the hole with a skin patch. Sadly, scans showed damage to some nerves so her bladder and bowel might still be affected.
“I’m just so glad that she can move, there will be so much more she’ll be able to do now than if I hadn’t had the op,” the mother says in her video. “She’s moving her legs fully, but we’re not sure yet if she’ll have the muscle tone to stand or walk, and if she does it will take her longer. We’re getting the garden flattened so we can get a hot tub and she can have private therapy there.”
Surgery inside the womb is not uncommon
Recently, doctors in the United States performed successful brain surgery to prevent potentially deadly damage to blood vessels, saving the unborn infant from suffering heart failure and stroke after birth. This particular procedure in the womb was the first of its kind.
The rare prenatal condition is known as Vein of Galen malformation (VOGM), which occurs when arteries carrying high-pressure blood connect to one of the main veins deep at the base of the brain. In normal fetal development, these arteries should link to smaller capillaries, slowing blood flow and delivering oxygen to surrounding tissue.
The U.S. team performed the successful procedure at 34 weeks and two days gestational age using ultrasound-guided transuterine embolization. Due to the rupture of membranes, doctors induced labor, allowing the mother to give birth two days later. That child is now home safe.
South West News Service writer Kate Pounds contributed to this report.