SQUEALING with delight as her mum tickles her feet, little Verity Tugwell is the picture of a healthy ten-month-old baby.
And that is thanks to a pioneering operation carried out on the tot while she was still in mum Sophie’s womb.
For after a scan, at 23 weeks’ gestation, Verity was diagnosed with spina bifida — a condition where the spinal cord and spine do not develop properly. It can cause paralysis, incontinence and learning difficulties.
Just a week later, Sophie, 33, and her husband Dan, 31, from Bideford, Devon, went to Leuven in Belgium, for a new surgical technique trialled by just a handful of hospitals globally.
And now Verity is showing no signs of the condition.
Sophie, an insurance adviser, said: “Verity is doing amazingly. She is the absolute light of all our lives. She is such a happy, contented baby.”
Sophie and Dan, a chef, had gone in for the scan hoping to learn the baby’s gender. Sophie recalls: “The nurse told us she had early signs of spina bifida. We were heartbroken.
“We were given three options: terminate the pregnancy, have a postnatal spine closure — which didn’t really help any potential problems — or try fetal surgery.
“We didn’t want to terminate the pregnancy and wanted to give our baby the best chance at life.
“There wasn’t guaranteed success with the surgery once she was born, so my motherly instinct kicked in and I decided I wanted to do all I could for her while she was still in my tummy.”
They were told of a new operation in which surgeons cut through the mother’s abdomen and womb.
Then a neurosurgeon cuts around the spinal cord protruding through the baby’s back and places it in the baby’s spinal canal, creating a tube of muscles and skin to protect it.
The baby’s back, and mum’s uterus and abdomen are then sewn up and the pregnancy allowed to progress.
Sophie and Dan — who also have four-year-old twins Connie and Bertie — needed to act fast as the procedure has to be done before 26 weeks’ gestation.
NHS doctors planned to carry out the surgery in London, but the position of Sophie’s placenta made it especially difficult, so they transferred her to medics in Belgium, who had greater experience of the operation.
Sophie says: “I was just over the moon to be able to have the surgery.
“It was a very stressful and nerve-racking time.
“I was terrified about the operation and that something could go wrong for her — or both of us.
“I couldn’t bear the thought of leaving my twins without their mummy.”
Sophie underwent successful surgery at 24 weeks’ pregnant last November — and gave birth to Verity in January 2019, at 34 weeks.
She says: “Other than being premature. Verity was born really healthy.”
And ten months later, Verity has all feeling in her legs — something doctors feared would never happen –— and giggles every time she is tickled on her feet.
Almost a year on from the surgery, there have now been seven women operated on in London and 15 in Leuven, Belgium.
Spina bifida affects 700 babies born in the UK every year. Following her experience, Sophie set up a Facebook group, Fetal Surgery, for Spina Bifida UK to help other families in the same situation.
Sophie adds: “Verity has just started rolling and sitting independently. Her brother and sister adore her and always get the biggest laughs out of her.”
Spina bifida explained
By Carol Cooper, Sun Doctor
THERE are several kinds of spina bifida, some severe, others less so. In all, the neural tube that runs from brain down the length of the spine doesn’t form properly when the baby develops in the womb.
In the most severe types there is damage to the nervous system, leading to symptoms that can include paralysis, incontinence, and loss of sensation.
Now pioneering treatment can prevent that, by operating on the baby while still in the womb to patch the defect in the spine and protect the nerves. This gives the nervous system a far better chance, though it’s not a guarantee all will be normal.
When surgeons first did this op in the UK last year, they used a conventional incision through the mother’s abdomen, much like a caesarean. But soon they switched to a keyhole procedure.
Nobody knows what causes most cases of spina bifida, but the condition can usually be spotted at the 20-week scan.
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