Open fetal surgeries offered in Minneapolis

The Midwest Fetal Care Center in Minneapolis was a marvel when it opened a year ago, offering life-saving fetal surgeries to babies in utero, including twins. 

Now the center has expanded its services to include open fetal surgeries with a special emphasis on treating spina bifida.

Literally meaning “split spine,” the condition (which begins about four weeks after conception) can cause traumatic injury to the spinal cord, a buildup of fluid in the brain and other lifelong physical and neurological challenges. Spina bifida affects 1 out of every 3,000 pregnancies in the U.S. each year.

In open fetal surgery, the fetus is partially removed from the womb (in a procedure similar to a C-section) to allow for corrective surgery. Afterward, the fetus is returned to the womb to gestate until birth. 

If it all sounds too crazy to be true, you need only look at the center’s first success story — 1-year-old Clara Carlin of Coon Rapids. She was diagnosed at 16 weeks in utero with a severe form of spina bifida. At 25 weeks, she and her mother, Nicole, both went under general anesthesia for a simultaneous two-hour surgery. 

It was a success! And at 36 weeks, Clara was delivered via a planned C-section and joined her mom, dad (Bobby) and her brother, Conner. 

Coon Rapids residents Bobby and Nicole Carlin and their son, Conner, 3, welcomed baby Clara in April 2016. Clara, pictured here at 9 months old, underwent open fetal surgery at Abbott Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis when she was 25 weeks in utero. Photos by Lynsey Tjaden Photography.

Today, Clara is healthy, happy and doing well. And, though it’s too early to say how she’ll develop as the months and years go by, many of the major complications related to her diagnosis seem to be reduced or reversed.

She has no significant fluid in her brain, moves her legs well with good sensation in her lower extremities and is able to empty her bladder and bowels without any major problems. 

Fewer than a dozen centers in North America routinely perform open fetal surgeries.

So far, eight open fetal surgeries have been completed at the center, which is an outpatient clinic located in The Mother Baby Center in Minneapolis adjacent to Abbott Northwestern Hospital, where surgeries are performed.

The fetal care center offers a wide variety of care, including fetoscopies — endoscopic procedures done during pregnancy that give doctors access to the fetus as well as the amniotic cavity, umbilical cord and the fetal side of the placenta. 

Mothers having high-risk pregnancies involving congenital conditions or abnormalities may be referred to the fetal care center, which is a collaboration between Children’s Minnesota and Allina Health. 

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