Kernicterus is a devastating, but preventable, form of brain injury that occurs in newborns when medical care providers fail to diagnose and treat jaundice (icterus) at birth. Many parents aren’t even made aware of the official diagnosis until years after the injury occurs. By then, it’s far too late to do anything other than provide ongoing support and around the clock care. The most tragic part of kernicterus is that it is easily avoided when the proper blood tests and treatment are offered to the baby when jaundice is present.
Jaundice is Caused by Elevated Bilirubin Levels in the Blood
Elevated bilirubin in a newborn is common. Often, bilirubin levels are elevated following a prolonged delivery. The additional stress a baby endures during a difficult labor and delivery can cause the newborn’s bilirubin levels to rise. Elevated bilirubin can lead to a yellow-tint of the skin, eyes, face and body as the baby tries to break down the extra bilirubin. However, jaundice can also appear in newborns for no apparent reason – even after what seemed like a relatively normal labor and delivery.
It’s important to mention that not all babies who have elevated bilirubin levels will have yellow skin. This is especially true for babies who by nature have dark skin or complexions. As a result, the yellowish color may not be obvious which can cause the condition to be misdiagnosed by untrained doctors or medical staff. Finally, it is important to note that the brain injury (kernicterus) isn’t caused by the jaundice, but instead by the excess of bilirubin in the baby’s blood (called hyperbilirubinemia).
Elevated Bilirubin is Diagnosable with a Simple Blood Test
Testing for an elevated bilirubin level is straight forward. When doctors take blood from a baby’s heel after birth, one of the things they routine test for is whether or not the baby has bilirubinemia – elevated bilirubin levels in the baby’s blood. If bilirubinemia is present, the treatment is often both simple and curative. Babies with jaundice (bilirubinemia) are placed under special lamps – called phototherapy. In almost all cases, phototherapy will cure the bilirubinemia and prevent the child from ever suffering kernicterus. Generations ago, parents were told to place their baby’s bassinet in front of a window in the sunlight. Exposure to the sun, or artificial lights which simulate the sun, are all that’s needed to help the body safely rid itself of the excess bilirubin.
Today, all hospitals are required to re-test babies who are known to have elevated bilirubin levels at birth. When a hospital fails to re-test a child, it could have catastrophic consequences for the baby. For that reason, it is equally important that a child’s pediatrician re-test the baby’s bilirubin levels at the first pediatric appointment, and every appointment thereafter for as long as the baby is jaundiced. Skilled practitioners are very familiar with the fact that the devastating brain damage that can occur from hyperbilirubinemia far outweigh the quick and simple procedure of drawing a tiny amount of blood for testing from the baby’s heel.
Unfortunately, when health care providers fail to follow these straight-forward rules for treating jaundice, catastrophic injuries occur. Other times, the fact that a child has dark skin and doesn’t appear to be jaundiced gives these health care providers a false sense of security that bilirubinemia isn’t present.
It’s important to note that not all babies who have elevated bilirubin levels have yellow skin. This is especially true for babies who by nature have dark skin or complexions. That is why it is always important for doctors to test the child’s blood. You should contact The DiPietro Firm at (800) 215-1003 if you know someone whose child has been diagnosed with kernicterus.
Signs and Symptoms of Elevated Bilirubin & Jaundice:
- your baby had an elevated bilirubin level – this is done by a common heel-stick blood test
- parts of your baby’s body has a yellow to orange tinge
- the most common location of the yellow-skin color can be on the face, chest, arms, legs, or any other part of the body
- the whites of your baby’s eyes are yellow or have a yellow staining
- your baby won’t latch on to breastfeed
- your baby won’t drink enough formula or milk
- your baby sleeps a lot and is difficult to awake for feedings
- your baby may not be stooling often
- there may or may not have been a prolonged or difficult vaginal delivery or cesarean section
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Most parents are not aware of the serious nature of this condition. Therefore, it is up to doctors and other care providers to always test a baby’s bilirubin levels when there is any doubt. The risks of brain damage from bilirubinemia require that medical providers be extra-vigilant and ensure that no child be injured by this devastating – yet completely avoidable – condition.
If you know of anyone who was injured by jaundice or suffers from kernicterus, call The DiPietro Law Firm for a free consultation at (800) 215-1003 or submit the information through our confidential and free case evaluation form.