Orlando Health becomes first hospital in state to perform in-utero surgery

Orlando Health’s Dr. Samer Elbabaa led a team that performed successfully in-utero surgery to repair spina bifida defects.

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  • | 2:00 p.m. September 27, 2018
Performing the procedure required a whole team of medical professionals with varying specialities.
Performing the procedure required a whole team of medical professionals with varying specialities.
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Orlando Health now offers a life-changing procedure that could impact the lives of mothers and babies throughout Florida.

The local hospital recently became the first in the state to perform in-utero surgery to repair spina bifida, a spinal defect that develops in the fetus during the early stages of pregnancy. The most common and severe form of spina bifida, Myelomeningocele, occurs in about one in every 3,000 births in the United States. The team that performed the procedure has performed it successfully on three patients to date, according to a release.

Dr. Samer Elbabaa, medical director of pediatric neurosurgery and the director of the pediatric neuroscience center of excellence for Orlando Health’s Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children, was the surgeon who performed the procedure along with a team of other medical professionals.

“Being the place (that offers) this fetal surgery option for parents — not only in the region but in the whole state — is a great addition (to Orlando Health),” Elbabaa said. “Unfortunately, only a few programs in the country are able to offer this meticulous fetal surgery option, because it requires a lot of program building, many specialties involved and requires a very comprehensive and multidisciplinary program to offer this operation safely for both the mother and the fetus.”

According to the release, this procedure is only offered in 12 medical centers throughout the country, with the closest centers in Tennessee and North Carolina.

Elbabaa has performed this procedure more than 60 times during his career. He was recruited by Orlando Health more than a year ago and immediately began building the program to be able to offer this surgical procedure when he started with the hospital.

“When I came here, my first job was to build a team around (a) goal, which is performing (the procedure) safely for both the mother and the fetus and to be able to offer this treatment option to the families here in the Central Florida region and the whole state,” Elbabaa said. “There are a lot of risks involved, a lot of moving parts, a lot of factors playing in (regarding) the safety of the surgery.”

Elbabaa said one of the major risks of the procedure is premature birth. He added the surgery is challenging and the program is so difficult to build because the procedure requires a team comprising medical professionals with multiple disciplines and specialties. Moreover, that two individuals are undergoing surgery in the procedure also presents a challenge. 

“We’re technically doing two surgeries on two human beings — a mother and a fetus — at the same time under the same anesthesia,” Elbabaa said. “So, there are many specialties involved (such as) pediatric neurosurgery, internal fetal medicine, anesthesiology, immunology, pharmacy (and) ultrasound. There’s a long list of specialist and technicians who are involved in this meticulous surgery to perform it safely both on the mother and the fetus at the same time.”

Although fetal surgery is not a cure for spina bifida, studies have shown the procedure can reduce the need for a spinal shunt at birth and improve the child’s mobility and leg function.

“We are thrilled to have this innovative and life-changing surgery available at Orlando Health,”  President and CEO of Orlando Health David Strong said. “Orlando Health is always advancing to meet the needs of our patients. We are pleased to be able to offer moms across the southeastern U.S. access to this service.”


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