Medical Negligence Can Lead to Infant Jaundice, Other Complications

Shay Morrigan | January 15th, 2013 | Posted in Recent Settlements

Bilirubin NewbornIn 2009, a baby girl and her family, represented by their birth injury attorney, received $1.5 million in a lawsuit settlement. The family had brought a medical malpractice lawsuit against the hospital where the baby was born and the doctor present at delivery. The family alleged the healthcare professionals had failed to properly treat high bilirubin levels in the newborn, resulting in permanent hearing loss.

When bilirubin levels in newborns are high, the baby is said to have a condition called “hyperbilirubinemia,” or more commonly, “jaundice.” Typically, infant jaundice is easily treated, but in some cases—particularly when medical professionals act in a negligent manner—the condition can lead to more serious complications like hearing loss and even brain damage. If there is evidence of medical negligence, a birth injury attorney may be able to help.

What causes high bilirubin levels in newborns?

Hyperbilirubinemia or infant jaundice is caused when there is too much bilirubin in the baby’s blood. Bilirubin naturally results when the body breaks down old red blood cells. In adults, the waste material is typically processed and flushed away by the liver and digestive system, but in newborns, the liver is not yet fully developed enough to fully cleanse the bilirubin from the bloodstream.

Hyperbilirubinemia is common in babies born early (before 38 weeks gestation) and in breast-fed babies who become dehydrated or have a low calorie intake. In some cases, another health condition like Rh disease, internal bleeding, liver malfunction, enzyme deficiency, red blood cell abnormality, or an infection may also cause infant jaundice. Mothers with diabetes are more likely to have babies who develop the condition.

Risk factors for high bilirubin levels in newborns include premature birth, bruising during birth, blood type (if the mother’s blood type is different from the baby’s), and breastfeeding.

Symptoms of a high bilirubin newborn

Symptoms of high bilirubin levels include a yellowing of the skin and eyes that usually appears between the second and fourth day after birth. If the condition progresses, the baby may display the yellow color in his or her chest, abdomen, arms and legs. The baby may also seem listless, feed poorly, or make high-pitched cries.

Hospitals typically check to see if you have a high bilirubin newborn before you take the baby home, and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends the infant be examined at least every 8-12 hours while in the hospital.

Potential complications of infant jaundice

Infants with high bilirubin levels are typically treated with phototherapy, which exposes the infant to a special light source that changes the structure of bilirubin so that it can be easily excreted in urine or stool. In more complex or severe cases, a treatment called “exchange transfusion” may be used, which removes the infant’s blood and replaces it with blood that is free of bilirubin.

Without treatment, high levels of bilirubin in newborns can become dangerous. Bilirubin is toxic to brain cells, and can cause permanent brain damage—also called “kernicterus.” Kernicterus can result in hearing loss, intellectual impairment, permanent upward gaze, and involuntary and uncontrolled movements.

In the case mentioned at the beginning of this article, the baby girl developed jaundice while still in the hospital. She received phototherapy, but no follow-up testing was done until two days later, when her mother demanded it. The bilirubin level at the time was three times the normal level. The baby required two exchange transfusions to bring her levels down to acceptable levels, but it was too late—she now suffers from permanent hearing loss and has speech problems.

When a birth injury attorney can help

A birth injury lawyer understands that kernicterus is often the cause of untreated hyperbilirubinemia—and is often an indication of medical malpractice. In most cases, kernicterus and other complications of high levels of bilirubin in newborns could have been avoided with proper medical treatment.

If your child suffers from complications of jaundice, contact a birth injury lawyer at Balkin & Eisbrouch. We understand how to put together the strongest possible malpractice case, and will work to make sure that you recover the most damages possible for you and your child.