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A Flash of Life

by Jonathan Imbody, MA
Today's Christian Doctor - Spring 2004

Flashing an impish grin, three-year-old Samuel Armas quickly ducked behind a chair as a photographer tried to capture his picture at a recent Senate hearing in Washington, D.C. Samuel hadn’t seemed quite so shy during his first photographic session. A photo of his tiny hand, grasping a surgeon’s finger during in utero surgery, traveled around the globe and stunned a world that had tried to hide its face from the reality of life in the womb.

Samuel’s parents, Alex and Julie Armas of Villa Rica, Georgia, had traveled to Washington, D.C., on September 25, 2003, to testify before the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Science, Technology, and Space about the photo and their experience with in utero surgery. They were joined at the hearing by Dr. James Thorp, a maternal-fetal medicine specialist at the University of Florida Pensacola, and by Michael Clancy, the photographer who captured Samuel’s awe-inspiring grasp.

Dr. Thorp testified that in utero surgery, while still in the experimental stages and posing significant risks, offers incredible promise to parents of unborn children with birth defects. Alex and Julie explained that their surgery, initiated to treat spina bifida, remarkably
changed the course of Samuel’s life and of theirs, as well.

Alex testified, “Today, Samuel is nearly four years old and has not had to endure the surgeries that are common for most children
with spina bifida. He’s walking with leg braces, is cognitively normal and loves looking for bugs.”

Sitting behind his father who was testifying, Samuel wore a tee shirt displaying a few of those bugs. Committee chairman Senator Sam Brownback (R-Kas.), himself the father of five children, called Samuel up to join his parents at the witness table for a few questions. He pointed to the large-scale version of the photograph and asked if Samuel knew what it was.

“Baby Samuel,” the boy replied.

Asked what the doctors had done that day, three-year-old Samuel succinctly summarized the sophisticated surgery.

“They fixed my boo-boo.”

Julie recalled in her testimony the moment they heard the results of the prenatal tests that revealed Samuel’s “boo-boo.”

“The first words my doctor said were, ‘This is really bad.’”

In his testimony, Alex noted, “We were devastated. It’s every parent’s worst nightmare to learn that something is very wrong with your child. The doctor painted a grim picture for us and stopped just short of suggesting an abortion.”

As Alex explained in an interview after the hearing, “Our view was that after years of trying to conceive, this was the baby God chose to give us. Julie and I are both Christians. Scripture is clear on the sanctity of life in the womb, so ending the pregnancy was never an option for us.”

Spina bifida, a sometimes fatal and typically severe brain and spinal cord anomaly, results from the spine failing to close properly during the first month of pregnancy. If the baby survives, spina bifida often leaves debilitating defects including accumulation of
fluid in the brain (hydrocephalus), bowel and bladder complications, paralysis and a host of devastating physical, emotional and social secondary conditions.

Julie, an obstetrics nurse, decided after hearing the diagnosis to research treatments and discovered a pioneering program of maternal-fetal (in-utero) surgery for spina bifida at Nashville’s Vanderbilt University Medical Center. After intensive consultations with the medical staff, Julie and Alex not only gave the go-ahead for surgery on 21-week-old Samuel; they also agreed to let USA Today photograph the event as a way to increase awareness of the new procedure.

USA Today assigned photojournalist Michael Clancy to capture the surgery on film. Michael had no idea that the shoot would change his life forever.

As he explained in an interview, “Before the picture, I felt that as a man I could never be pregnant and alone, so it wasn’t for me to decide whether abortion was right or wrong. I was indifferent.”

Michael described for the Senate hearing the details of his experience during the surgery: “The tension could be felt in the operating
room as the surgery began. The procedure would take place within the uterus, and no part of the child was to breach the surgical opening. The entire surgical procedure on the child was completed in one hour and thirteen minutes. When it was over, the surgical team breathed a sigh of relief, as did I.

“As a doctor asked me what speed film I was using, out of the corner of my eye I saw the uterus shake, but no one’s hands
were near it. It was shaking from within.

“Suddenly, an entire arm thrust out of the opening, then pulled back until just a little hand was showing. The doctor reached over and lifted the hand, which reacted and squeezed the doctor’s finger.

“As if testing for strength, the doctor shook the tiny fist. Samuel held firm. I took the picture. Wow!”

When the USA Today photo editor later phoned Michael to confirm the photo’s publication, the editor declared, “It’s the most
incredible picture I’ve ever seen.” The photo appeared in the newspaper in September 2000 and spread at warp speed across the globe—leading USA Today to subsequently refer to it as the “hand of a fetus [that] touched the world.”

Meanwhile, Samuel’s surgery had delivered the results for which his parents had hoped and prayed. “Immediately after surgery,” Alex
recalls, “the hydrocephalus stopped progressing and started to slowly decrease. By the time Samuel was born, fifteen weeks later, his brain malformation had reversed and the hydrocephalus had mostly disappeared.

Alex and Julie shared during an interview the impact that the surgery and photo have had on their own lives. “The combined trials of infertility followed by Samuel’s spina bifida and fetal surgery made for a roller coaster ride that dramatically matured our marriage and each of us individually,” Alex confided. “We’ve experienced God’s hand at work in two ways. First, Samuel clearly benefited from the surgery, and we’re thankful for his progress and the absence of many problems that typically accompany children with spina bifida.

“Second, we’re humbled by God’s use of the hand photo as a ministry. The article and photo were shown all over the world and have been used extensively by pro-life and Christian organizations to illustrate life inside the womb.”

Since the publication of Samuel’s “hand of hope,” images published in Britain of a “smiling fetus” (a remarkable image captured by a new ultra sound scanner) are again challenging the world to open its eyes to the wonder and reality of nascent human life. The stunningly detailed three-dimensional images reveal developing babies smiling, blinking, sucking their fingers, scratching their nose, hiccuping and crying.

As Senator Brownback observed during the hearing, “There is little debate about whether the child in utero is alive; the debate is over whether or not the child is a life worthy of protection.”

By bearing witness to the divinely knit wonders within the womb, extraordinary scientific technology is challenging many to reconsider that question.


Jonathan Imbody, MA