A Windsor couple is hoping a cutting-edge surgery in the U.S. can help their unborn baby eventually lead a better life, but the procedure is costly and they're not sure if OHIP will pick up the entire bill.

A recent ultrasound in the doctor's office had Rachel and Pat Strong believing they were having a boy, but a more thorough ultrasound a week later shook things up a little. Not only are the new parents having a girl instead of a boy, but their unborn daughter has been  diagnosed with spina bifida.

Spina bifida is a birth defect in which parts of the spinal cord protrude from their protective vertebral column causing mobility and bowel issues, and sometimes learning disabilities.

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Spina bifida is a birth defect in which parts of the spinal cord protrude from their protective vertebral column causing mobility and bowel issues, and sometimes learning disabilities. (Courtesy: Children's Hospital of Philadelphia)

So the Strongs went to work researching the possibilities for improving their baby's chances at future physical health.

"The only thing we decided to do is we've got to give this baby every chance we can," Pat Strong said.

What they found, was a hospital in Philadelphia that now offers an in-utero surgery to help correct the problem. Elsewhere that surgery normally happens after birth, said Pat.

OHIP first

The Strongs were the first Ontario couple to apply to OHIP to cover the out-of-country surgery.

"It prevents any further damage from happening," said Rachel Strong. "It won't correct it, it gives her a better chance of possibly walking one day."

For two weeks they waited — bags packed — to find out if OHIP would cover the procedure, knowing that every moment they waited could cause further damage to their baby's spine. 

"That's what was constantly on my mind," said Pat.  "And there's something that we can do to stop this damage right now."

Then, on Wednesday, they got the news they were hoping for.

"I think it was the first happy tears that I have cried since we got this news," Rachel said. "I've done a lot of crying but this was totally different to get this news. It's such a relief."

OHIP agreed to cover the $100,000 surgery and a normal hospital stay, but it's not clear what happens if there are any complications.

One of the risks of an in-utero surgery is preterm labour. Rachel said an emergency caesarian section, and a stay in the neonatal intensive care unit for her little one, could cost another $310,000 — something the Strongs can't afford on their own.

Rachel would like to proceed with the surgery — hoping that everything will work out okay — but she's not sure what the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia will agree to.

Right now, she said CHOP is entertaining the idea of moving her to Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto for a C-section and NICU stay if necessary, but the hospital has to be sure she and the baby would be stable enough to travel.

In the meantime, the Strongs are heading to Philadelphia to meet the people they feel are offering them some hope for the future of their special needs child.