The failure of doctors to recognize the urgency necessary when dealing
with hyperbilirubinemia can extract a tremendous cost on the life of a child
Jaundice is a medical condition that many parents are aware of due to their
child having been diagnosed with the condition, perhaps immediately after
their birth. It can often be quickly resolved in most babies by use phototherapy.
In many cases, it clears up after therapy and the child is fine. In cases
where it is not dealt with appropriately, however, it can lead to severe
brain damage and a life-long injury.
The injury can be catastrophic. Jaundice can lead to hyperbilirubenia and
kernicterus, which damages the basal ganglia of the brain, and can lead
to loss of hearing, impaired eye movement and loss of balance and coordination
of the muscles of the body. This can be manifested in cerebral palsy,
leaving a child with involuntary muscle movement or abnormal muscle tone.
A child who is left untreated with hyperbilirubinemia can suffer a laundry
list of terrifying conditions, including athetoid cerebral palsy, dystonia,
encephalopathy and quadriplegia and in the most severe cases, death.
These children are likely to be facing a lifetime of being wheelchair-bound,
requiring 24-hour medical care. They may need to be fed with a feeding
tube and are unlikely to ever be capable of even basic life skills.
What is most shocking about kernicterus is that it is often easily prevented
and, what is more, the treatment is very economical in most cases.
Unlike many medical conditions or injuries, that require expensive surgery
or astronomically priced drugs or other exotic treatments, hyperbilirubinemia
often can be treated with phototherapy, which in the world of hospital
emergency treatments is very inexpensive. Medical malpractice involving
this condition carries immense consequences for the child and their family.
Hyperbilirubinemia Often Occurs with Newborns
Hyperbilirubinemia is caused by the body’s inability to cleanse the
blood of bilirubin and is yellow in color. It is the product of old red
blood cells. It is often diagnosed because a child will exhibit a yellow
cast to their skin, the whites of their eyes and even their teeth. It
sometimes happens in newborns, especially those who are premature, due
to the inability of their tiny liver to adequately remove the bilirubin
from the blood.
Initially, if the condition is left untreated, the baby can develop a reduced
startle reflex and they may not eat very well or suck poorly. They can
then develop a high-pitched cry, be lethargic and lack muscle tone.
When Doctors Fail to Recognize the Seriousness of the Problem
When any child exhibits signs of jaundice, it is imperative that any physician
or nurse be alert and treat the symptoms as a medical emergency. The child
should immediately be placed in phototherapy under a bilirubin light as
soon as possible. Because damage is cumulative, it is better that a child
is exposed to phototherapy, which has little risk other than their eyes
must be shielded from the intense light, than to wait until a blood test
confirms excessive bilirubin.
The price the child will pay for negligent handling of this condition is
staggering. If the blood test does confirm hyperbilirubinemia, an exchange
transfusion may be necessary to instantly remove the tainted blood with
fresh donor blood, and this transfusion should be ordered at the same
time as the phototherapy begins.
As one woman, whose child suffered this negligence and who developed kernicterus
stated that life care for her child would cost tens of millions of dollars.
And all of this likely could have been prevented with the use of a few
hours of phototherapy, had the doctors recognized the severity of this