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Baby With Spina Bifida Nears Big Milestone, Her First Birthday

Posted June 29, 2001

— An experimental surgery in the womb on babies with spina bifida is giving parents new hope. The daughter of one family, who had the procedure, is nearing her first big milestone, her first birthday.

Standing is a challenge for a lot of 10-month-old babies, but Anna Williamson faces more obstacles than most. She was born with spina bifida. Unlike many other kids with spina bifida, Anna has some feeling and movement in her legs.

Also unlike others who have the birth defect, she does not need a shunt to drain fluid from her brain. Anna's family links her progress to an experimental in-utero surgery performed at Vanderbilt University when her mother was five months pregnant.

"The fact that she has been able to avoid having a shunt or needing a shunt, that's definitely the result of a surgery," says Anna's mother, Susan Williamson.

Susan and her husband, Jason, did not have a lot of time to decide whether or not to have the surgery.

"You've got a very small window from the time you're slammed with the news that life isn't going to be the way to think," Jason says. "You've got only a few weeks to decide whether or not to do a surgery that may or may not help your child."

Only four hospitals in the United States, including UNC-Chapel Hill, have performed the type of surgery on babies like Anna. Doctors warn it is not a panacea and the risks are great.

"Are we going to lose the child? Are we going to lose the mother? Then once everyone was sewn back up, we had to stay pregnant. It was really a many-month, breath-holding situation," Jason says.

"We had prayed so much over this little girl and anticipated so much her arrival," Susan says. "Still today, I cannot believe that they went in while I was pregnant and did this operation. It's just amazing."

Anna's progress has also been amazing. Her parents believe spina bifida will not hold their daughter back.

"She has it, but it doesn't define her. I think that is what I hope for her. I hope it molds her character, and she can be a better person for it," Jason says.

"It's so minor compared to her life and how much she'll accomplish, the way that she's touched our lives and many others' lives." Susan says.

The Williamsons are the 90th family to have the surgery at Vanderbilt University. Doctors say taking folic acid before you get pregnant can help prevent spina bifida in about 70 percent of the cases.


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