Fri, Jun 03, 2005 - Page 6 News List

Infant with rare `mermaid disease' undergoes surgery

AP , LIMA, PERU

Thirteen-month-old Milagros Cerron was stable, awake and taking in liquids 15 hours after doctors, in a nationally televised surgery, separated her fused legs in the second such successful operation on record to correct a rare deformity known as "mermaid syndrome."

The lead physician said Cerron's 11-surgeon medical team believes she could be walking within two years, but cautioned the bright-eyed girl will need years of surgery to reconstruct her internal organs.

"In accordance with the anatomic findings that we have encountered, it is possible that she will walk," Dr. Luis Rubio told reporters late Wednesday. "There is extraordinary capillary flow. The reflexes are now independently evident in each foot."

The girl -- whose name means "miracles" -- was born with her legs fused together from her thighs to her ankles inside a seamless sack of skin and fat.

Rubio said Tiffany Yorks, a 16-year-old American girl was the only other person known to have undergone a successful surgery to correct the rare congenital defect, which occurs in one out of every 70,000 births and is almost always fatal within days of birth.

He said there is a third person in Asia who suffers from the deformity, which is known as sirenomelia. But he did not provide details or identify that individual.

Doctors had planned to begin correcting Milagros' deformity by separating her legs up to her knees. But the 4 1/2 hour, pre-dawn surgery Wednesday progressed better than the medical team had expected and they were able to seperate the entire length of her legs.

Milagros' father, Ricardo Cerron, 24, broke into tears as Rubio made the first incision. Her mother, Sara Arauco, 20, put her hand to her mouth. A nurse standing behind her chair put her hands on Arauco's shoulders as tears welled up in her eyes.

During the first 90 minutes of the surgery, Rubio granted several live interviews on Peru's Tuesday late-night newscasts. He provided a running commentary on the operation's progress as he and the other surgeons carefully cut through bone and muscle, cauterizing blood vessels along the way to control bleeding.

They removed four silicone bags inserted months earlier to make Milagros' skin more pliable.

The first sign the surgery was going well came 30 minutes into the procedure, when Rubio announced that they could cut past a major artery that had connected both legs without performing a complicated bypass.

At midnight, they separated Milagros' fused heels, and for a little more than an hour continued upward, slowly separating the legs toward the child's groin.

Her parted limbs were gaping wounds, but the ghastly appearance was quickly transformed as the medical team stitched the pre-stretched skin around each leg.

Just before 3am, Rubio held up the girl's legs in a V-shape, displaying the line of stitches extending up from her heels to her inner thighs.

"This is the final result that we have come to in this extraordinary surgical intervention," he announced. "This surgical intervention has been a true success."

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