The Hand of Hope for Spina Bifida

Apr 14, 2011
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At Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, during a fetal surgery in 1999, Dr. Joseph Bruner was correcting spina bifida on a baby still in his mother’s womb and photojournalist Michael Clancy captured an image that changed his life – The Hand of Hope. According to Clancy, the 21-week unborn fetus reached out from his mother’s womb and grabbed the surgeon’s finger. The very inspiring photo has been championed by pro-life groups.

The Hand of Hope photographed by Michael Clancy

During the surgery, Dr. Bruner did a C-section and made a small incision on the uterus to operate on the baby. The miracle was “tarnished” after the doctor said the tiny hand “fell out” of the mother’s womb and reflectively squeezed his finger when Dr. Buner grabbed it to replace in the womb. That’s according to Snopes, but the surgeon gave a different version of what happened to Channel 4 news in 1999. Dr. Bruner further fueled the debate of what happened during that photo by telling The Tennessean that he pulled Samuel’s hand out of the uterus.

The tiny hand and little guy in the famous photo is Samuel Armas. Twelve years later, he’s a healthy boy who believes all babies have a right to life. When asked what the stunning photograph means to him, Samuel told Fox News, “When I see that picture, the first thing I think of is how special and lucky I am to have God use me that way. I feel very thankful that I was in that picture.” With the help of lower leg braces, Samuel can walk. He’s been a decorated Cub Scout and first place winner in swimming events.

Clancy was a freelance photographer for USA Today when he snapped the inspirational shot. At the time, Clancy was pro-choice, but the photo so changed him, that Clancy is now a pro-life motivational speaker.

Right after the surgery, Samuel’s parents “wept for days.” Samuel’s mother Julie then said, “The photo reminds us pregnancy isn’t about disability or an illness, it’s about a little person. Samuel was born in perfect health, the operation 100 percent successful.”

Nowadays, Julie says that she doesn’t care about the story behind the photo. Her son Samuel is thriving and leading the way for his little brother, Zachary, who also has spina bifida. Julie Armas told Fox News, “What I felt the picture showed is that this is a child engaging in some form of interaction. I’m a labor and delivery nurse, so I understand that Samuel was anesthetized to some degree. So if he reached out, I don’t know. If Dr. Bruner reached out, I don’t know. The fact of the matter is it’s a child with a hand, with a life, and that’s meaningful enough.”

Samuel was the 54th fetus with a spina bifida lesion that was operated on by the medical team at Vanderbilt. LiveScience recently reported on a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine that concluded babies who have surgery to repair spina bifida, while they are still in the womb, do much better than babies who have surgery for spina bifida after they are born. Fetuses who have the surgery before they are born are twice as likely to walk without assistance by the age of two. Of the 158 women pregnant with fetuses with spina bifida and who received surgery while the baby was still in womb, “after 30 months, 42 percent of children in the fetal surgery group could walk unassisted, compared with just 21 percent in the post-birth surgery group.”

Dr. Joseph Madsen, a professor of neurosurgery at Children’s Hospital Boston, said, “We’re all very excited that there may be some real advance in treating patients with spina bifida. I’m sure many places will being doing this procedure much more regularly once we can figure out how to broaden the scope.”

A commenter, jgs826, in the CNN article about the spina bifida surgery in womb wrote, “I was born with Spina Bifida, myelomeningocele (the severe form) in 1970. I am lucky 1) to be alive and 2) lucky to be as mobile and independent as I am. I have had 50 surgeries (honestly) to get me to the life I live every day. This is a great procedure and offers unbelievable hopes for children who did not have these options when I was born.”

The Hand of Hope photograph during such a surgery is still inspiring and with the positive results of surgery in the womb, the picture still stands the test of time to amaze and to offer hope.

Image used with permission of photographer Michael Clancy.

Author: Tessa



  • Santos

    This is such an amazing story and procedure. At the moment I have tears of joy running down my face because I know that there is hope that future children with spina bifida won’t have to endure so many physical and emotional challenges.

  • http://twitter.com/Myth_of_heartz ♠Mithun Mathew John♥

    Amazing,, this little fellow is really a hope for thousands.. HAND of HOPE

  • Cmheuer158

    This is so great, i’m so glad he was there for both mother and baby.

  • BobLujano

    Perhaps this was God’s way of saying that medical science is here to assist and preserve the life process.

  • gyt

    fox news…