Doctor Rubio holds Peruvian baby girl Milagros in Lima
Pilar Olivares  /  Reuters
Dr. Luis Rubio holds 13-month-old Peruvian girl Milagros Cerron next to her parents, Ricardo Cerron and Sara Arauco, just before an operation at a hospital in Lima.
updated 6/1/2005 5:28:43 PM ET 2005-06-01T21:28:43

Doctors successfully separated the fused legs of a Peruvian baby during a risky, nationally televised operation Wednesday, and said they hoped the vivacious, bright-eyed girl would be walking in two years.

But they cautioned that 13-month-old Milagros Cerron, who was born with a rare congenital defect known as sirenomelia, or “mermaid syndrome,” will need years of reconstructive surgery before she is fully healed.

The successful 4½-hour operation was fitting for a baby whose name Milagros means “miracles” in Spanish.

Rare birth defect
Milagros, affectionately called “the little mermaid” by Peruvians, was born with her legs fused together from her thighs to her ankles.

Doctors had planned to begin repairing the birth defect only up to the child’s knees, but Wednesday’s procedure exceeded their expectations and they separated the entire length of the legs.

“This is the final result that we have come to in this extraordinary surgical intervention,” said Dr. Luis Rubio, holding up Milagros’ legs in a V-shape, displaying the line of stitches extending up from her heels to her inner thighs. “We have mobility of the independent knee joints.”

“This surgical intervention has been a true success,” he said.

Walking within two years
At a news conference later Wednesday, Rubio said Milagros had moved one of her legs since the operation. He said her legs would be kept bound together for five to 10 days so that she does no harm to them while they heal.

“After that we will begin to flex the knees,” he said. “We’re hoping that within two years the little girl will be walking.”

He said only one more operation, instead of the expected additional two, was needed to fully reconstruct her hip area to allow her to walk.

But Rubio said Milagros would need up to 15 years of corrective surgery to repair her reproductive, digestive and other internal organs. Among other problems, she has a deformed left kidney and a very small right one located very low in her body.

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Lima Mayor Luis Castaneda, who has become Milagros’ godfather, visited her Wednesday morning and said he was pleased with her progress but saddened by the pain she must face in recovery.

“I’m especially happy because of the affectionate relationship I have developed with little Milagros,” he said.

City of Lima to pay for surgery
The Lima municipality is helping to pick up the costs of her treatment. Castaneda said it was a long-term commitment to help her parents, who are from a poor village in Peru’s Andes mountains.

Hours before the surgery, Milagros giggled and played on her hospital bed while Rubio, leader of a team of 11 surgeons who performed the operation, looked on.

Milagros weighs 14.75 pounds and measures 25 inches long, about the size and weight of a normal 6-month-old.

But her intellectual development has been remarkable, Rubio said.

“Happily our little girl relates well to her surroundings, including speaking words, even giving orders, and that delights us all,” he said.

“Mermaid syndrome” occurs in one of every 70,000 births. There are only three known cases of children with the affliction alive today, according to Rubio.

Operation televised live
The surgery was televised live and was watched by the child’s parents on video monitors at the hospital.

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

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. The medical team then stitched the pre-stretched skin around each leg.

Milagros’ father, Ricardo Cerron, 24, broke into tears as Rubio made the first incision at the start of surgery. The baby’s mother, Sara Arauco, 20, put her hand to her mouth. A nurse standing behind her chair put her hands on Arauco’s shoulders.

But later, as the surgery progressed, Arauco said her prayers had been answered.

“Yes, this is a miracle,” she told The Associated Press. “I know, even though I am a sinner, God has paid attention to me, maybe not for my sake, but for my daughter’s.”

Asked about the difficulty of watching the graphic images, she said: “I am strong. I am young.”

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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