Movies and books romanticize the life of a mermaid: she’s a gorgeous undersea creature, but all she wants is to walk on land. Usually, her wish comes true by the end and she lives her life happily ever after, with two legs and two stable feet.
All Milagros Cerron’s parents wanted for her was the same: two legs and two feet so that she could someday walk. The only difference between Cerron and the mermaids on the silver screen? She was a real-life child born with her legs fused together as though she, too, were meant for a life underwater.
Her doctors couldn’t believe the baby had survived longer than a few days — most babies in her condition die within their first three days. But Cerron was ready to fight, so her medical team came up with a plan to give her a chance at life that a real mermaid could only ever dream of.
Milagros Cerron came into the world in April 2004, in Huancayo, Peru, her fused legs a shock to everyone in the delivery room. Her mother had never gone for an ultrasound prior to the baby’s birth, so she had no idea what her baby would look like.
Doctors, on the other hand, couldn’t believe the baby had survived birth. Infants born with her condition, known as sirenomelia or “mermaid syndrome,” have a very high mortality rate. That’s because the condition causes complications in the kidney and bladder, too.
Still, Cerron’s doctors knew they had to try and give the girl a chance at a normal, healthy life. That task would be a very difficult one. Her legs were, of course, joined together all the way to the feet. Her digestive tract, urinary tract and genitals were all using a single tube. One of her kidneys was deformed, and the other was very small.
But the baby did have a strong, healthy heart and lungs. She also had the support of her country behind her: the city of Lima promised to pay for the many operations she would need as she grew from baby, to child, to teen. Multiple procedures would be required to give her the normal life everyone wanted for her.
So, in June, 2005, Milagros went in for the first of many surgeries. This one was designed to give her separate legs, creating a gap from her ankles to just the other side of her knees. Dr. Luis Rubio led the medical team who carried out the procedure, likely with a few butterflies in his stomach — the surgery had only been attempted a few times before.
Despite the risks, Dr. Rubio — who had been overseeing Milagros’ treatment since two days after her birth — successfully completed the surgery. In fact, he and the team were able to do even more than they initially thought: they separated her legs from her ankles all the way up to her thighs.
By December of that year, Milagros was still defying the odds. Dr. Rubio reported to the BBC, “Milagros’ condition is stable, but she’ll need continued treatment and surgery for the next 10 to 15 years.” The long list of treatment she still needed included separation of her legs up to her pelvis, internal organ reconstruction and surgery on her feet.
Dr. Rubio continued to lead the charge on making Milagros’ life a better one. In September of 2006, she headed into the hospital for another surgery, managed by her lifelong doctor. As she walked into the medical center, she blew kisses and waved to the crowds that had gathered to wish her luck.
Her country — which had nicknamed her the “little mermaid” — waited to see if the two-year-old would survive a second surgery. Afterwards, Dr. Rubio decided to show and not tell of the surgery’s success: he held her legs up for the parents, to show they had been completely separated.
“There were no problems,” he told the Associated Press. “There were no complications from anesthesia or from hemorrhaging.” Though Cerron had at least 10 more years of medical treatment ahead of her, Dr. Rubio divulged a dream he had for the near future. “I expect to be walking the streets of Lima holding her hand in December, which would be a Christmas gift for her family,” he said.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, her father’s wish was just as simple. “In a few years, she will be going to kindergarten,” Ricardo Cerron said. “I hope she can walk like the other children so that she can learn and be a normal child.”
Milagros did, indeed, make that very simple dream come true. In March, 2008, the four-year-old walked on her first day of kindergarten. Her happy demeanor was mirrored by all of those who had supported her throughout her journey. “We never thought she would go to school,” Dr. Rubio told Reuters.
Her father said the smile she wore on the first day was representative of his daughter’s mood all of the time. “She’s a very happy child who likes to play with her friends,” Ricardo said. Even then, though, he feared for his daughter’s future: she might need a kidney to replace the ones with which she was born.
In 2012, Ricardo’s fears were realized when Milagros needed an urgent kidney transplant. As usual, though, the seven-year-old persevered through surgery and she came away with a working kidney, as well as a reconstructed urinary tract.
And, while most of Milagros’ surgeries are behind her, she may need three to four more procedures when she’s older. For example, doctors have to wait until she’s 18 years of age or older — so, until the year 2022 or beyond — to correct her bowing feet.
Still, Milagros’ healthy life makes her extremely special and rare among those born with mermaid syndrome. Dr. Rubio said only one other person, American Tiffany Yorks, has undergone and survived surgery for the same defect. It seems as though Milagros has truly lived up to her name — the word “milagros” means “miracles” in Spanish.