Published onChildren's View
By Theresa Everline
A pandemic had swept the world, halting nearly everything, but Whitney and Will couldn’t delay. In late spring 2020, they were 18 weeks pregnant with their second child, Henry, when they learned he had myelomeningocele, the most severe form of spina bifida. The news that their child had a birth defect causing the spinal column to not form properly was devastating. Doctors near their Virginia home told them they had three choices: take no action, allowing the defect to progress and treating the condition after the baby’s birth; travel to a hospital that offered fetal surgery; or terminate the pregnancy.
Needing to decide quickly, they researched their options and discovered that Children's Hospital of Philadelphia has the world’s greatest depth of experience managing pregnancies diagnosed with spina bifida and had developed the fetal surgery techniques to treat the defect.
“Getting the diagnosis was really, really hard,” says Whitney. “I was crying all the time. But as soon as we found CHOP, I felt so much better. Everyone was so kind, caring and compassionate — it made everything less scary. I knew we were at the best place in the world for this.”
Making the impossible possible
Surgery on babies before birth was once considered impossible. CHOP made it a reality, and the hospital recently celebrated the birth of its 2,000th fetal surgery patient.
The Wood family, founders of the convenience store chain Wawa, have been longtime CHOP supporters and recognized the groundbreaking work of the Center for Fetal Diagnosis and Treatment. In celebration of the program’s 25th anniversary, the Wood family has made a transformational gift of $25 million, and the Center has been named for Richard D. Wood Jr., Chairperson Emeritus of Wawa.
The Wood family’s gift will build on the program’s astonishing success. CHOP has performed a quarter of all fetal surgeries ever done — removing tumors, repairing birth defects, and correcting conditions that threaten twins, all while children are still inside their mother’s womb. Doing so can minimize and, in some cases, even prevent the damage caused by birth defects. With the Wood family’s support, CHOP is poised to make the next generation of fetal medicine breakthroughs and offer world-class care to more families like Whitney and Will’s.
“It is a great privilege and honor to name the hospital’s Center for Fetal Diagnosis and Treatment after Richard D. Wood Jr.,” says N. Scott Adzick, MD, MMM, Surgeon-in-Chief, founder and Director of the Center, and holder of the C. Everett Koop Endowed Chair in Pediatric Surgery. “The Wood family’s generous philanthropic support will allow for a major expansion of infrastructure, patient services, research and recruitment that will categorically be pivotal to our hospital and the patients and families we serve worldwide."
Fetal surgery, then a ‘really easy baby’
After careful consultation with their CHOP team, Whitney and Will decided to proceed with fetal surgery. In June 2020, a multidisciplinary team led by Adzick performed the delicate surgical procedure, opening the uterus and repairing the hole in the baby’s back.
Three months later, Henry was delivered via c-section in CHOP’s Garbose Family Special Delivery Unit, the world’s first birth facility in a freestanding children’s hospital specifically designed for healthy mothers carrying babies with known birth defects. Henry weighed 6 pounds, 2 ounces, and both he and his mom recovered well. While advanced spina bifida can cause lower-body paralysis requiring leg braces or a wheelchair, Henry has good range of motion in his hips and knees.
“He’s doing really well,” says Whitney. “He’s eating well, gaining weight, not fussy. So far, he’s been a really easy baby. Very cute and snuggly.”
A family and a hospital: history intertwined
The Wood family’s commitment to the health and well-being of children began with CHOP’s founding in 1855 as the nation’s first children’s hospital. George Bacon Wood, MD, was among the signers of CHOP’s articles of incorporation, and a Wood family member has been involved with the hospital ever since that time. Richard Wood Sr. led CHOP’s move from its former South Philadelphia site to its current location in West Philadelphia. From establishing an endowed chair to providing free coffee and beverages to patient families on a daily basis, the Wood family and Wawa have helped improve the lives of countless CHOP patients and their families.
“Across eight generations and for more than 165 years, the Wood family and Wawa have been invaluable partners to and champions of our hospital,” says Madeline Bell, President and CEO of CHOP. “This generous investment from the Wood family will undoubtedly help advance the translation of promising science into new therapies that will benefit our tiniest patients.”
“Supporting the mission of CHOP has long been a part of the Wood family and Wawa DNA, and we are sincerely honored to continue supporting the hospital’s mission through the Center for Fetal Diagnosis and Treatment,” says Richard D. Wood Jr. “It’s been incredible to witness our partnership flourish over the decades. We are truly proud to be part of the legacy of a world-renowned fetal medicine program.”