"My daughter's organs were outside her body"
In March 2000, Grace Helle was born with a rare large tumor -- called an omphalocele -- that contained most of her liver and intestines. Because of a flaw in the development of her abdominal wall, her organs had grown outside her body with only a thin membrane and skin over them. By the time Grace was 3, the omphalocele was the size of a volleyball. "I'd never seen one so big in a child that age," says Robert Foglia, MD, who was surgeon-in-chief at St. Louis Children's Hospital.
Omphalocele tumors are usually corrected at birth, but Grace's case was complicated by the fact that she also had a hole in her diaphragm that required surgery. "She was in the hospital with breathing problems six times in her first year," says her mother, Carol. "Our pediatrician recommended delaying the surgery to reinsert her liver and intestines until she was 5, so her body could grow stronger." For four and a half years, Grace wore an elastic bandage over her protrusion to protect her organs.
Grace's abdominal cavity was so small -- because of the missing organs -- that Dr. Foglia thought she'd need several operations to repair the defect. But he and a plastic surgeon devised a new procedure: They placed a tissue expander in her abdomen, and her parents added fluid to inflate it slowly over a month's time to make room for her organs.
In November 2004, Grace had surgery to remove the expander and put back her organs. The operation took only three hours, and she was home two weeks later, in time to celebrate a truly meaningful Thanksgiving.
Robert Foglia, MD, now a professor and chief of pediatric surgery at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas.