Lindsay and Kendall were living a nice life in Temple, Texas, in the spring of 2017. They had careers they loved—she’s a dermatologist; he’s an ophthalmologist. They had a 15-month-old boy named Hays and a new baby on the way. Still, the couple felt that this pregnancy was going to be different.
Their baby had spina bifida. A portion of her lower spinal cord was exposed. The long-term effects could be seizures, bowel and bladder control issues, and difficulty walking. She might also need a special shunt to regulate her brain’s fluid levels.
“It was gut-wrenching,” said Lindsay. But she knew in her heart they would find their way through.
Early in-utero spinal repair offered hope. Lindsay and Kendall met with specialists at two prominent centers in Houston, including The Fetal Center at Children’s Memorial Hermann Hospital. The Fetal Center is a national referral center and an international leader in fetal diagnosis, fetal intervention and comprehensive fetal care for infants with congenital anomalies or genetic abnormalities. In collaboration with affiliated pediatric sub-specialists at McGovern Medical School at UTHealth Houston, the team offers patients a complete range of prenatal testing and fetal interventions with a coordinated program for mother and child before, during and after birth.
During their visit to The Fetal Center, the couple met with KuoJen Tsao, MD, Stephen Fletcher, DO, and other members of the team to learn about their approach to performing spina bifida repair in utero. Dr. Tsao is The Children’s Fund, Inc. Distinguished Professor in Pediatric Surgery at UTHealth Houston, a co-director of The Fetal Center and a pediatric surgeon at Children’s Memorial Hermann Hospital. Dr. Fletcher is a professor in the Department of Pediatric Neurosurgery at UTHealth Houston and a pediatric neurosurgeon at Children’s Memorial Hermann Hospital.
Dr. Tsao and Dr. Fletcher were part of the physician team affiliated with The Fetal Center that was the first in Texas to perform fetal surgery for the repair of myelomeningocele, the most severe form of spina bifida, in May 2011. This procedure followed the published results from the seven-year multicenter clinical trial, the Management of Myelomeningocele Study (MOMS), in March 2011, which aimed to improve outcomes in fetal spina bifida patients. Overall, The Fetal Center’s patient outcomes data mirrored or were better than those reported in the MOMS trial.
After exhausting interviews, tests and scans, the couple chose The Fetal Center’s approach, which involved two C-sections, one to repair the spinal cord defect, the second to deliver their baby girl, Eliza. It would be difficult on Lindsay, but she accepted that.
“Children’s Memorial Hermann felt more comfortable to us, more like home,” Lindsay said.
“They spent so much time with us, answering all our questions,” Kendall added.
At 21 weeks, the results of a fetal MRI, extensive 3D ultrasounds, echocardiograms, EKGs and blood tests were more encouraging than expected. Eliza’s brain growth was still an issue, but she was moving her legs a lot and showed no signs of club feet, which was very promising.
“While none of this is a guarantee, she may be able to walk!” Lindsay blogged to friends and family.
At a day shy of 25 weeks into Lindsay’s pregnancy, Dr. Tsao, Dr. Fletcher and the affiliated surgical team performed the repair procedure at Children’s Memorial Hermann Hospital on what Lindsay describes as the “single scariest day of her life.”
The surgery went smoothly. Lindsay spent the next 77 days on bed rest. Eliza made steady progress.
On August 24, 2017, mere hours before Hurricane Harvey hit Houston, Eliza was delivered, weighing 5 pounds, 9 ounces. After 13 days in the Level IV Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at Children’s Memorial Hermann Hospital and 10 days recovering in Houston, all four members of the family headed home to Temple, eager to enjoy their miraculous “new normal” together, something they could hardly imagine when their journey began.
Five years later in 2022, the family is doing great. Eliza started kindergarten this year and is thriving. Not only is she walking independently, but she is also running and jumping. While she does face some challenges, she has never needed a shunt to regulate her brain’s fluid levels and she continues to meet her milestones. “You would never know Eliza has a special story,” Lindsay says. “She is a smart, happy kindergartner, has many friends and loves her big brother. We are incredibly grateful to The Fetal Center team for all they did to help her and our family.”
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Located within the Texas Medical Center, The Fetal Center is affiliated with McGovern Medical School at UTHealth Houston, UT Physicians and Children’s Memorial Hermann Hospital.