Orlando Health is celebrating its 5-year milestone of successful in-utero surgery to repair Spina bifida, a spinal defect developed by the fetus during the early stages of pregnancy. To date, the hospital system has performed 36 cases on mothers and their unborn babies from across the state of Florida, as well as some from Puerto Rico, Alabama and Hawaii.

This week, more than 80 people joined together to commemorate the program, including 21 fetal surgery families. The fetal surgery program at Orlando Health began with the recruitment of Samer Elbabaa, MD, a pediatric neurosurgeon who has performed more than 100 of these procedures in his career.

“We’re thrilled to celebrate five incredible years of our fetal surgery program and reunite with many of the mothers and babies we’ve had the privilege to care for,” said Samer Elbabaa, MD, chief of pediatric neurosurgery at Orlando Health Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children. “We see an average of 13,000 births a year and this program is truly meeting an important need here in Central Florida and across the country.”

Orlando Health Winnie Palmer Hospital for Women and Babies was the first and remains the only hospital in the state of Florida to offer this unique and life-changing procedure. While fetal surgery is not a cure for Spina bifida, studies show that it can significantly reduce the need for a spinal shunt at birth and can improve the child’s mobility and leg function.

Emily and Erich Ziegler of Lakeland, Florida are one of the more recent families to undergo the complex procedure at Orlando Health. Their son Chance was “twice born” in 2021 and is now walking unassisted. “The doctors all said that walking might not be a possibility with Spina bifida and every case is different,” Emily recalled. “The fact that he can walk just made me sure that doing fetal surgery was the right choice.”

Pregnant mothers must go through a robust screening process to determine if this surgery is the best option for them. Once the screening is completed, the surgery must be done within a tight window between 19 to 26 weeks of pregnancy to offer the best outcomes for both the mother and her baby. During the procedure, a maternal fetal medicine physician opens the mother’s uterus to expose the baby’s spine so the fetal surgeon can perform the repair.

“It’s fitting that we are recognizing this milestone so close to Mother’s Day,” said Cole Greves, MD, director of complex fetal care and co-director of the Fetal Care Center at Orlando Health Winnie Palmer. “Our fetal surgery mothers are truly the heroes of this story. They are putting their bodies though two major surgeries, with an intense recovery, just so they can give their babies a better quality of life.”  

Following their birth (now referred to as “twice born”), children who had fetal surgery for Spina bifida can continue to receive multidisciplinary care through the Leon Pediatric Neuroscience Center of Excellence at Orlando Health Arnold Palmer. For more information about fetal surgery and the Fetal Care Center, click here.