PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — Surgeons at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia have pioneered a fetal surgery that’s turning lives around. Their ground breaking research has just been released.

Fetal surgery on babies before they’re born can significantly improve the lives of those diagnosed spina bifida. It’s one of the most common birth defects that typically leaves patients confined to a wheelchair, but not anymore.

Brett Hallman is a very active 7-year-old. You could never tell his medical history by watching him bust a move. But when his mother Tara Hallman was 23 weeks pregnant she was told he had spina bifida.

“When we got the diagnosis we were devastated. We thought we’d have to sell our house, and buy a house that could be wheelchair accessible,” said Tara.

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Instead at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, Tara had surgery. It was part of a clinical trial where the baby’s damaged spinal column is repaired, while it’s still in the womb.

“For the first time in mankind, we can help babies with a spina bifida problem when it’s diagnosed before birth. That’s wonderful,” said Dr. Scott Adzick, who pioneered the surgery at Children’s Hospital says the new research shows babies with spina bifida do better when the surgery is performed in the womb, rather than waiting until after their born.

“The results are extremely gratifying if you see a child could walk who otherwise might not have been able to walk. I mean how cool is that.

Children who had the fetal surgery also had a reduced need for shunts to drain fluid from the brain.

“I think it improved his quality of life more than I think I’ll ever be able to imagine. More than he could ever know. I can never thank them enough for what they’ve done,” said Tara.

This is not a cure. Brett still does have some issues related to the condition, but they’re manageable.

Fetal surgery comes with some risks. It’s an operation for the mother, and because of scarring she can only have c-sections for future pregnancies. And on average, the babies are born three weeks prematurely.


CHOP Center for Fetal Diagnosis & Treatment
Spina Bifida Study Information

Reported by Stephanie Stahl, CBS 3

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