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New fetal surgery available in Utah is saving lives

Posted at 5:25 PM, Apr 28, 2022
and last updated 2022-04-28 19:25:01-04

In-utero fetal surgery is now available in Utah thanks to a partnership between University of Utah Health and Intermountain Primary Children’s Hospital.

The complex, often life-saving surgery is available at only a few hospitals nationwide and now includes the Utah Fetal Center. The procedure is performed only by specially trained pediatric surgeons, with extensive planning and care for the mother and unborn child. Fetal surgeries are a game-changer in expert care that can significantly improve health outcomes for newborns.

“The surgery is so complex that only a handful of hospitals in the country can perform it,” said Stephen Fenton, MD, a pediatric surgeon with University of Utah Health and Intermountain Primary Children’s Hospital and director of Utah Fetal Center. “We now have the partnership, expertise, and facilities to perform these fetal surgeries here in Utah so families don’t have to travel across the country to access this innovative procedure.”

The surgery is often used to treat spina bifida, a condition that leaves an area of the spine open and nerves exposed. There’s a greater chance the child will walk and have fewer issues later in life if surgery is done while still in the womb.

Now that in-utero surgery is available in Utah doctors can expand it to treat other fetal conditions. For example, twin-twin transfusion syndrome happens when twins share a placenta in the womb, but abnormal vessels unevenly distribute blood between the two which can be life threatening.

Surgeons can now do a procedure which fixes the blood vessels, so they distribute evenly and save the fetuses. Fetal surgery can also be used to fix other abnormalities in the heart and lungs.

Martha Monson, MD, fetal surgeon and co-director of fetal surgery at Utah Fetal Center, says there are a lot of new possibilities now that these surgeries are underway. The center is also building a fetoscopy program which will allow doctors to do these procedures using minimally invasive techniques.

“This highly specialized surgery being available in Utah is going to save lives and offer more choices to families,” said Dr. Monson. “Conditions that once seemed impossible to handle now have a verity of options to fix them.”

Alisha Keyworth of Victor, Idaho, and her unborn baby were the first to undergo the surgery one year ago, on April 6, 2021. During an ultrasound, doctors discovered her fetus had spina bifida.

At the newly created Utah Fetal Center, doctors performed surgery on the fetus to address the anomaly between 24 and 25 weeks of gestation. The fetal spine then was able to heal as part of its natural development. A month after her surgery Keyworth needed an emergency c-section and gave birth to her daughter Abigail, who is now 11 months old.

“I’m so excited to celebrate the one-year milestone of Abigail’s surgery, and to see her doing so well. I still can’t believe what a miracle it is to have this type of surgery available and not have to travel across the country to get it,” said Keyworth. “Abigail now has a better shot at a healthier, happier life because of this procedure.”

Fetal surgery is part of Intermountain Healthcare’s “Primary Promise” to create the nation’s model health system for children. This multi-faceted plan and investment of at least $500 million in children’s health will be shared by Intermountain Healthcare and community philanthropic support through an emerging campaign organized by Intermountain Foundation.

“Fetal surgery provides life-saving treatments and care coordination to expectant mothers and their unborn babies, giving children greater opportunities to grow and thrive,” said Katy Welkie, RN, MBA, CEO of Primary Children’s Hospital and vice president of Intermountain Children’s Health. “By receiving this care all in one place it helps relieve the stress and anxiety that comes with a life changing diagnosis.

Spina bifida occurs in 1 of every 3,000 U.S. births, but is slightly more common in Utah. In the past, Utah women had to travel long distances to have the procedure and stay in a city far from home for months to receive the care that they needed.

In many cases the burden was so great, women chose to wait until the after their baby was born to have surgery to fix the condition. Doctors note waiting to fix spina bifida isn’t optimal either because there’s more room for complications to arise.

Keyworth says her daughter has had some setbacks since her birth, but for the most part is happy and doing well. Abigail will need more follow up care throughout her childhood.

Intermountain’s effort to create the model health system for children is designed to help children like Abigail with the help of an emerging philanthropic campaign.

This campaign is led by four civic and community business leaders: Gail Miller, owner and board chair of Larry H. Miller Group of Companies and chair of the Intermountain Healthcare Board of Trustees; Crystal Maggelet, chair and CEO of FJ Management Inc. and Intermountain Healthcare trustee; Steve Lund, co-founder and executive board chair of Nu Skin Enterprises; and most recently, Spencer Zwick, co-founder and managing partner of Solamere Capital and former senior advisor to Utah Sen. Mitt Romney.