Jaundice and the Risks of Permanent Brain Damage for Infants
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 dangerous condition.
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