I first met Lily Estrada and her identical triplets almost a year ago. The three babies, who were nearly ready to go home from Lucile Packard Children's Hospital Stanford, looked pretty ordinary. In fact, that's why I love the photo at the right, which was taken at the time. Baby Pedro, in blue, was gazing at his mom; Ayden, in orange, was wiggling; and William, in grey, was sucking contentedly on his pacifier.
But they had survived an extraordinarily complicated and rare prenatal disorder. The single placenta that connected all three boys to their mother during pregnancy developed a vascular problem called twin-to-twin transfusion syndrome. Blood flowing through the placenta was not being shared equally between the fetuses, straining their hearts and putting all of them at risk of dying before birth.
When Estrada was diagnosed in late 2013, she and her husband, Guillermo Luevanos, faced a difficult decision. A surgery on the placenta might help save the babies, but it was by no means a sure bet. And, at the time, no one at Stanford performed the procedure, although a new partnership between our maternal-fetal medicine experts and their counterparts at Texas Children's Hospital, in Houston, provided an opportunity for Estrada to be treated there. In the Stanford Medicine magazine story I wrote about the case, Estrada described how her family felt:
“We were saddened and sort of confused,” Estrada says, recalling the first reactions that she and her husband had to the news. “It was: We could wait and see what happened, but the likelihood was that we were going to have no baby, or we could terminate one and see what happened with the other two, or take the risk, go to Houston, have the surgery and hope it worked for all three. But they didn’t guarantee anything.”
One piece of background that helped inform the couple’s decision was the fact that when the surgery worked, research had shown it helped moms stay pregnant about four weeks longer, allowing their babies more time to develop before birth. (Because the uterus gets so crowded, twins and other multiples are almost always born early, but a less premature delivery makes a huge difference for the babies’ health.) Sealing the connecting blood vessels also seemed to protect surviving fetuses in the event that one died. “We’re separating, or attempting to separate, their fates,” [Estrada's obstetrician] Yair Blumenfeld, MD, says.
After a lot of counseling and discussion with the Stanford team, “we decided to go for it and do surgery,” Estrada says.
Once they had made the choice, they had no second thoughts. “My husband was a little bit stronger,” Estrada recalls. “He just wanted me to go for it, and see what happened.”
The surgery, performed at Texas Children's by Michael Belfort, MD, PhD, was a success. And, as my story describes, the collaboration between the two institutions is going well, too. Stanford researcher Christopher Contag, PhD, and colleagues are studying how to make better and safer surgical tools for future maternal-fetal surgeries, while surgeons here have advanced their capabilities and now offer the surgery for twin-to-twin transfusion here in Palo Alto.
Meanwhile, William, Ayden and Pedro are doing well. My favorite moment in preparing the story was when I got to see our new photo of them, above. As their mom told me, "They're really happy babies."
Previously: NIH puts focus on the placenta, the "fascinating" and "least understood" organ, Stanford Medicine magazine reports on time’s intersection with health, Placenta: the video game and Program focuses on the treatment of placental disorders
Photo of triplets as infants by Norbert von der Groeben; photo of triplets as toddlers by Gregg Segal