An Update on Samuel Armas: A Flash of Life

Editor’s note. This is one of my favorite stories, which appeared in the October 2003, edition of National Right to Life News. We have since run other updates on Samuel Armas, the subject of photographer Michael Clancy’s historic photo. As you recall, doctors operated in utero on Samuel and Mr. Clancy caught Samuel’s tiny hand grasping the surgeon’s hand. Hard to imagine a better candidate for our year-long “Roe at 40” series in which we are bringing you stories from NRL News going all the way back to 1973. If you are not a subscriber, please call us at 202-626-8828.

Samuel Armas in 2003 with his mother.

Samuel Armas in 2003 with his mother.

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. (The photo can be viewed at www.michaelclancy.com.)

Samuel’s parents, Alex and Julie Armas of Villa Rica, Georgia, testified September 25 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 their own lives.

Sitting behind his father who was testifying, Samuel wore a tee shirt displaying a few of those bugs. Committee chairman Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Ks.), 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.”

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 pre-natal 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 to NRL News 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), and a host of devastating 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 spine 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 to NRL News, “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 13 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 its 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, 15 weeks later, his brain malformation had reversed and the hydrocephalus had mostly disappeared.

Alex and Julie shared with NRL News the impact 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 publishing of Samuel’s “hand of hope,” images recently published in Britain of the “smiling fetus” – – a remarkable image captured by a new ultrasound scanning machine – – are again challenging the world to open its eyes to the wonder and reality of nascent human life. The stunningly detailed four-dimensional images reveal developing babies smiling, blinking, sucking their fingers, scratching their noses, hiccupping, and crying.

As Sen. 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.