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Barcelona doctors save 26-week-old fetus through pioneering respiratory surgery

Unborn girl would have died if procedure wasnt done, says physician

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Alaitz, a 16-month-old girl, smiles during a news conference in Barcelona. Doctors performed an historical procedure that saved her life. Reuters

"If we hadn’t operated on her, she would have died,” says Doctor Julio Moreno, a neonatologist at Sant Joan de Déu hospital in Barcelona. Moreno was the man in charge of a pioneering procedure that saved the life of a 26-week-old fetus, which weighed just 800 grams inside her mother’s womb at the time of the operation.

“It was a delicate procedure but the results are satisfactory,” Moreno said at a press conference with the now-16-month-old Alaitz. The girl is expected to live “a completely normal life,” according to the medical team that took part in the surgery.

This was the first time that a doctor anywhere in the world had tried to operate on the bronchial tubes of an unborn fetus, according to Moreno.

Alaitz, whose name means happiness in Basque, was on the verge of dying because of a genetic defect preventing the fetus from getting enough oxygen. It is a rare condition that blocks the bronchial tube to the lung. Doctors say that in approximately 90 percent of such cases, the fetus dies.

Because of this birth abnormality, the bronchial tube is paralyzed and begins to swell, preventing the lungs from properly developing, according to the medical team, which included specialists in fetal medical and therapy from the Barcelona Clinic led by Eduard Gratacós and Josep Maria Martínez, and surgeon Montserrat Castañón, as well as Moreno, the neonatologist. “It is a complicated procedure because you lose a lot of liquid and the heart can stop and you have to get it beating again,” said Gratacós. The entire procedure lasted 30 minutes.