Few things are more precious, more poetic, and more vulnerable than the beating heart of a newborn baby. The thought of an infant leaving the womb with its heart not confined within the safety of its chest is hard to conceive, but eight babies per 1 million are born that way. Called ectopia cordis, 90 percent of babies born with the rare condition are either stillborn or die within the first three days of life.

But Audrina Cardenas is defying those odds.

Audrina’s malformation was discovered during an ultrasound 16 weeks into her mother’s pregnancy. The mom was given three options: End the pregnancy, opt for comfort care, or go through with the birth and try a very risky surgery as soon as the baby was born.

Audrina's mother opted to have the baby and try the surgery, at which point she was referred to the Fetal Center at Texas Children’s Hospital.

You can see video of Audrina’s heart beating outside of her chest in this Texas Children's Hospital video below. (Warming: Not for the faint of heart; the video is a bit graphic.)

The operation for such an unusual condition necessitated specialists from an array of medical disciplines, including cardiovascular surgery, plastic surgery, general surgery and more. The surgery was performed right after her birth, and now, three and a half months later, Audrina is going home.

Dr. Charles D. Fraser Jr., surgeon-in-chief, chief of Congenital Heart Surgery and cardiac surgeon-in-charge at Texas Children’s Hospital, wrote this about five weeks after the surgery: “Although her future prognosis is still uncertain, Audrina is currently thriving and making progress each day. She will continue to be carefully followed by a multidisciplinary team and will require specialized care by a pediatric cardiologist for the rest of her life.” In the video below, the surgeons discuss the case.

She goes home sporting an external heart shield that she will be required to wear to protect her heart as she grows. In a few years, Audrina will require another surgery to have a more permanent protective shield placed inside her chest.

“Audrina is a true fighter, and we are hopeful that she will continue to progress,” says Fraser. “I am also hopeful that Audrina’s case marks the beginning or our ability to care for more children diagnosed with ectopia cordis in the future.”

To see updated photos of Audrina, visit the hospital’s Facebook photo gallery.

Related story on MNN: World's smallest artificial heart implanted in Italian baby

Baby born with heart outside of body leaves hospital
Only 8 in 1 million babies are born with the rare condition known as ectopia cordis, few survive.