At 25 weeks pregnant, Sam Drinnon learned that her unborn baby had a tumor compressing the heart — and doctors would need to perform surgery to keep the fetus alive.
"Everything was perfectly fine," Drinnon told NBC News correspondent Kate Snow. "It wasn’t until our second anatomy ultrasound, which was April 27. That’s when we found out that there was something wrong."
Drinnon and her husband, David, were told that she needed surgery to remove the tumor, which was pressing on the left side of the fetus' heart and causing issues with circulation.
"It was hard. Even after the day we found out about him I had to go to work and take care of other people and act like nothing’s going on," said Drinnon, who works at a hospital. "When in my head I’m like, 'I have this child in me that is very sick and could die at any moment.'"
Just 36 hours after meeting with specialists at the Cleveland Clinic to discuss her options, Drinnon underwent surgery.
The surgery, which had only been performed successfully once before, presented plenty of its own challenges.
"There’s not tons of medical literature about this. You know, it’s a handful of cases," Dr. Darrell Cass, director of fetal surgery and the Fetal Care Center at Cleveland Clinic, told TODAY. "We want to be sure that we’re going to do the right thing. The tumor was growing."
Dr. Hani Najm, chair of pediatric and congenital heart surgery at Cleveland Clinic Children’s, was the lead surgeon on the team. Upon learning about the case, Najm's first response was that "I could do this procedure, but you have to get me to that fetus in the uterus so I can do something about it," he said.
To remove the tumor, the team had to surgically open Drinnon's abdomen and uterus. Then, they were able to lift the fetus' arms, enter the chest cavity, remove the tumor and restore blood flow. The surgeons then repositioned the fetus in the womb to continue the pregnancy.
Although Drinnon wasn't able to hold or console her baby immediately after the surgery, she talked to him every day. "I would talk to him all the time," she said. "I would just tell him that everything’s gonna be okay, and I got you. We’re gonna get through this and come out strong."
Drinnon delivered baby Rylan 10 weeks after the surgery on July 13, 2021. He was delivered by cesarean section nearly full term.
Looking back, the surgery is "wild to think about," David Drinnon said. "We tell the story to people and they’re just like, 'Wait a minute. They did what?' Like, yeah, they did that. They saved him. And it’s amazing. It’s a miracle."