When you think of mermaids, Ariel comes to mind. Ariel is the lovable star of the Disney animated movie, “Little Mermaid.” It all sounds kind of fun and romantic, but when mermaids are born in real life, the syndrome is anything but romantic, never any fun, and the prince never shows his face.
Rare congenital defect
It is a rare congenital defect that occurs in one out of 70,000 births, about the same odds as the occurrence of conjoined twins. This malformation is more common in twins. The most visible symptom of this malady is the fusion of the infant’s legs from the hips to the ankles with the feet jutting out at an angle. The whole effect suggests a mermaid’s lower body, the jutting feet resemble flippers.
Most of these cases are mild, with the legs and feet well formed with independent bones and arteries. The legs are only joined in one or two places, usually at the ankles, often with a band of skin. Simple surgery to separate the legs works well and the child leads a normal life if no internal organs are involved.
They are the lucky ones; most children suffer from such grievous internal malformations that, if they survive, cause trouble their entire lives.
Much confusion abounds as to the cause. Radiation exposure seems to be a factor as well as stress and illness in the mother. Genetic mutations, disorders, and poor maternal care round out the suspected reasons, but no definitive answer exists.
This birth defect starts with the abnormal formation of the umbilical cord blood vessels. In normal pregnancies, two umbilical arteries form but in cases of Mermaid Syndrome, there is only one or the second one is blocked. The one vessel grows abnormally large, takes blood and nutrients from the lower extremities, and carries it back to the placenta.
The legs, which are undernourished, fail to grow normally and do not separate into two limbs. Often, the entire leg has only two bones, or sometimes no bones at all and doctors are unable to separate them. Sometimes the feet have few bones, no bones, or they are deformed and/or one or both are missing.
Experts sometimes use the term caudal regression, sirenomelia, and mermaid syndrome interchangeably. New research suggests that caudal regression may be a different syndrome. Caudal regression is a malformation of the spine with accompanying abnormal organs depending on the nature and location of the injury.
Internal organs also suffer from the syndrome. One long-term survivor was born without a bladder. Often one tube suffices for elimination and genitals. The heart, liver, lungs, kidneys, intestines and other organs may be abnormally formed or missing altogether. Survivors need life long surgeries that correct defects and allow a more normal existence.
Philippe Jeanty, MD, Ph.D., who is currently based in Tennessee, is an expert in obstetrical ultrasound and founder of www.fetus.net a resource for doctors world wide.
He describes the fetus of one mermaid child pregnancy. The child, a boy,showed facial abnormalities, an imperforate anus (closed or no natural opening), a partial lower bowel, a short colon, lung abnormalities, a cystic kidney, and a fused foot. The legs pointed above the head. Dr. Jeanty said, that since the child could not live after birth, the parents decided to abort the pregnancy.
Most of these pregnancies end with miscarriage, still birth, or death shortly following birth. Only three children born with the severe form of the syndrome ever survived the postnatal period. One of these has since died.
One famous case of this was Shiloh Pepin (August 4, 1999-October 23, 2009) born in Kennebunkport, Maine. She lived until the age of ten although doctors thought she would last for a few days at the most. She died from complications of pneumonia.
She had a quarter of one kidney. The vagina, uterus, and bladder were missing. She had a successful bladder implant, and endured two kidney implants. Doctors did not try to separate her fused legs.
She brought nationwide attention to and promoted better understanding of this congenital injury when she appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show and the newsmagazine 20/20.
Shiloh went to a regular school and appeared quite happy in spite of her condition.
Born in the Andes Mountains of Peru on April 27, 2004, a girl named Milagros (miracle in Spanish) is one of two children who had successful leg separation surgery. She walks with the aid of crutches. She suffered from other internal problems and like the others, underwent many surgeries. Most of her treatment came from the Peruvian government.
Tiffany Yorks, born in May of 1988, had fused legs, a heart defect, improperly performing kidneys and a missing bladder. Her normal lungs helped in her survival. She also endured many surgeries, many at the Shriner’s Hospital for Children. At the age of 26, she underwent surgery to separate her legs. She can walk but her legs are fragile and she uses a wheelchair or crutches to get around. She is still alive as of this writing.
It comes as a shock when you find out that a loved one gave birth to a baby with the syndrome and it did not live. Perhaps nature is extending a kindness to the family as well as to the infant. Each case brings more knowledge to doctors and other experts, hope lives that prevention, and early detection will lead to even fewer cases of this rare condition.
Author’s note: I recently learned that the daughter of a friend had a stillborn child with mermaid symdrome. This knowlege sent me scurrying to find out more about this birth defect.
*Internet sources give two spellings for Tiffany’s last name. Many use York while others go with Yorks. I was unable to verify which spelling is correct.http://www.sonoworld.com/fetus/page.aspx?id=441