A surgeon’s secret: As she operated on babies’ birth defects, a doctor hid her own diagnosis

June 19, 2017

HOUSTON — For many years, Dr. Mary Austin could count on one hand the people who knew.

There was her close friend through middle school, who helped her pee by pushing on her lower abdomen. Years later, during her surgical training at Vanderbilt University, she confided in a mentor. Her husband knew, of course.

But until now, she hadn’t told even some of her close colleagues — or her patients.

Sometimes these patients are pregnant women, wrestling with a daunting decision: Whether to consent to a delicate surgery on their babies, in utero, to try to close a hole around the fetus’ spinal cord.

The birth defect is called spina bifida. Untreated, it can cause a range of disabilities, from incontinence to learning difficulties to an inability to walk. But the surgery carries some risks, too; it can send the mothers into premature labor, months before their due dates — and there’s no guarantee it will prevent physical disabilities in the baby.

Austin, a pediatric surgeon, helps counsel couples through that agonizing decision. She walks them through the potential risks and benefits. She describes each step in the hours-long surgery, from slicing open the uterus to closing the gap around the spinal cord with tiny stitches through developing fetal tissue so fragile, it’s almost “like tissue paper,” she said, vulnerable to tearing.

What she doesn’t tell them: She herself has spina bifida. Read full story