Canadian healthcare professionals offer unborn babies hope through coronavirus crisis

A team of healthcare professionals in Canada have provided continuous support and reassurance to parents of unborn babies with spina bifida during the coronavirus pandemic.

Expecting parents, like Amanda and Devon Allenby, were concerned their unborn babies wouldn’t receive corrective treatment for the condition when the outbreak of COVID-19 placed elective surgeries on hold.

Speaking to CTV News, Amanda said: “We were told because of COVID, we were not going to be able to have fetal surgery.”

However, the Ontario Fetal Centre medical team at Mount Sinai Hospital – the only place in Canada that performs corrective treatment for the condition – had a plan.

To overcome the challenge, the medical team started virtual appointments to help prepare expectant mothers for the in-womb surgery. It meant mothers could be fully informed on the procedure and meet the healthcare professionals who would be involved before arriving at the hospital.

With the help of these virtual appointments, Amanda became the first patient to have the in-womb surgery on her baby after the COVID-19 pause.

Amanda and Devon said although their son isn’t out of the woods yet, he is doing well and will be born at the end of July.

Father Devon added: “It’s one less procedure he’s going to have to go through and I’m super thankful to the doctors and physicians who were able to accept Amanda and get it done for her. A huge weight was lifted off our shoulders.”

Dr Greg Ryan, head of the fetal medicine program at Mount Sinai Hospital, told CTV news the in-womb surgery for spina bifida involves opening the mother’s stomach and taking the baby out of the womb.

A pioneering new surgery

Three years ago, two-year-old Eiko was the first baby to undergo the pioneering surgery in Canada.

Eiko’s mother, Romeila Son, was told her daughter faced paralysis, living in a wheelchair and brain damage without the surgery.

“Now she’s doing great. She’s walking around, chasing her brothers around the house, talking, knows her abcs, her shapes,” Son said.

Babies diagnosed with spina bifida in Canada and the UK can be aborted right up to the point of birth.

In the UK, it is estimated 80 percent of unborn babies diagnosed with spina bifida each year are aborted. In Canada the termination rate is over 65%.

However, pro-life campaigners are hopeful that the relatively new option of in-womb surgery, which has been made routinely available on the NHS, will decrease the number of unborn babies being terminated each year.

Mothers misinformed

Earlier this year, a baby girl, who had the surgery whilst still being in her mother’s womb, celebrated her first birthday at home.

After diagnosing Elouise with the condition last year, doctors offered her parents a termination saying the outcome was “bleak”.

However, Kieron and Bethan Simpson refused to have an abortion, and now Elouise, who is described as “happy and smiley” by her mother, is thriving.

Bethan also raised concerns that pregnant women are being misinformed on spina bifida.

“Since becoming a mum I’ve had the chance to reflect on that traumatic time. My only option was to fight. But most importantly, it was about being informed.

“There is a lot of negative information around spina bifida.

“Without being fully informed as parents, Elouise would not be where she is now.”

Her concerns were shared by a mother who described the relentless pressure she faced to have an abortion after doctors diagnosed her baby with spina bifida last year.

Natalie Halson, who refused an abortion ten times, said doctors “made out like an abortion was my only option and explained that if I went ahead with the pregnancy my baby would be wheelchair bound and have no quality of life.”

“When I got off the phone I went and did tonnes of research and found out that there were options for my little girl – I felt suddenly really angry that they had made out I had none.”

Speaking about her daughter, Mirabelle, who has since had corrective surgery on her spine, Natalie said: “I look at Mirabelle now and think ‘I wouldn’t even have known you.’ It doesn’t bear thinking about.”

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