Martin Mejia  /  AP
Milagros Cerron was born with a rare congenital defect known as sirenomelia, or 'mermaid syndrome.' There are only three known cases of children with the affliction alive in the world today.
updated 2/8/2005 1:46:32 PM ET 2005-02-08T18:46:32

Milagros Cerron smiles, babbles and fidgets in the arms of her mother like any healthy nine-month-old, but she is no ordinary baby. Milagros was born with her legs fused in a tight coating of skin — giving her the appearance of a mermaid.

“When I saw her for the first time, I felt pain,” said Milagros’ mother, 19-year-old Sara Arauco. “In that moment I thought, 'What will she do with her life? Was God going to take her away or not? Was she was going to live or not?”’

A team of Peruvian doctors believe Milagros is the perfect candidate for surgery to separate her legs — something that has never been tried before in Peru.

They plan to attempt the operation on Feb. 24 and hope that after a few years of treatment, Milagros will be able to live a normal life.

“Our dream is for Milagros to be able to run, walk and play like every normal child,” said Dr. Luis Rubio, the leader of the medical team.

Serious internal defects
Milagros, who looks months younger than her actual age, was born with a rare congenital defect known as sirenomelia, or “mermaid syndrome.” The condition occurs in one out of every 70,000 births and there are only three known cases of children with the affliction alive in the world today.

The deformity is almost always fatal within days of delivery due to serious defects to the vital organs. But Milagros — whose name means “miracles” in Spanish — has survived.

Although most of Milagros’ internal organs, including her heart and lungs, are in perfect condition, she was born with serious internal defects, including a deformed left kidney and a very small right one located very low in her body.

In addition, her digestive and urinary tracts and her genitals share a single tube.

Sirenomelia is usually fatal because of complications associated with abnormal kidney and bladder development and function.

Milagros’ doctors have managed to stave off kidney and bladder infections, allowing her to continue to gain weight and grow, Rubio said.

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His medical team has been studying the case of Tiffany Yorks, a 16-year-old American girl born with sirenomelia whose legs were successfully separated when she was a baby. Rubio said Yorks’ surgeon, Mutaz Habal, has provided invaluable advice to the Peruvian doctors.

“There is not a great amount of experience with this in the world,” Rubio said. “It is also unique in our country.”

Preparing for surgery
The operation will be performed by a group of physicians, including trauma surgeons, plastic surgeons, cardiovascular surgeons, neurologists, gynecologists and a pediatrician, he said.

During a recent hospital checkup, Arauco and Milagros’ father, Ricardo Cerron, 24, watched with tenderness as their child was placed on a hospital bed and instinctively made her way toward them.

First, she sat, leaning on her two hands, struggling to maintain balance. Then she twisted around and fell to her side. Lying face down, she slowly pulled herself with her arms across the length of the mattress until she reached them.

“The truth is when I saw my baby when she was born I was filled with desperation,” Cerron recalled.

Cerron, an electrical technician, was unemployed when his wife gave birth to Milagros in a hospital in Peru’s Andes.

He left Arauco at their home in the mountain region of Chupaca to recover from childbirth and brought the baby by bus 125 miles west, to Lima to seek help.

Milagros was admitted to one of Lima’s public hospitals, where the operation will take place.

“Right now the child has extraordinary psychomotor development,” Rubio said. “She has a marvelous relation with her environment, with her parents. She babbles words and has her own personality.”

To prepare Milagros for the surgery, silicone bags will be gradually inserted between her ankles and knees to slowly separate the two fused legs and stretch her skin to close over the incisions at the end of the surgery.

The operation is expected to last about five hours, Rubio said, and will begin with disentangling the internal network of arteries and veins that surround her fused legs.

Milagros will require additional surgeries over the next 10 to 15 years to properly rotate her feet forward and reconstruct her genitals and urinary tract.

“I have great faith that my daughter will come out okay and be well,” Arauco said, “that she will stay with me, that she will be like a normal child.”

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