Did a Doctor’s Negligence Cause My Baby’s Kernicterus?


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Jaundice is a term that many parents are familiar with, as it’s relatively common in newborns. However, when jaundice is severe and remains treated, it can cause a condition known as “kernicterus.” When a doctor’s negligence causes kernicterus in a newborn, the results can be devastating to that child and their family.

What Is Kernicterus?

Kernicterus, also called bilirubin encephalopathy, is a type of brain damage that can occur soon after birth. Some infants only experience mild symptoms and go on to live relatively normal lives. However, if nobody recognizes the signs and treatment is not given, some babies can develop severe, irreversible brain damage. In the most critical cases, death is a possibility.

The exact number of infants who develop kernicterus is unknown, but researchers estimate that it occurs in fewer than 3 out of every 100,000 births (in countries where healthcare is readily available). While this makes it extremely rare, even one instance of kernicterus is inexcusable.

What Causes Kernicterus?

When a baby is born, its fetal blood cells break down and are replaced with normal blood cells. This breakdown of cells releases large amounts of a yellow chemical called bilirubin. When bilirubin builds up faster than an infant’s body can eliminate it, jaundice (yellowing of the skin) occurs. An estimated 60 - 80 percent of all babies experience jaundice after birth, but only around 5 percent of babies develop a case severely enough to require treatment. When bilirubin levels become too high and appropriate treatment is not provided, this chemical can enter the brain and cause extensive damage.

Can Kernicterus Be Prevented?

Fortunately, kernicterus is entirely preventable. With routine newborn screenings for jaundice and swift treatment, no infant should ever reach the point where kernicterus becomes a possibility. Babies are typically checked for jaundice every 8 - 12 hours for the first 48 hours after birth and then again when the baby is between 3 and 5 days old. The best way to accurately measure bilirubin is with a small blood sample. If bilirubin is elevated, then treatment is typically started. Repeat blood samples are often taken throughout treatment to ensure that bilirubin levels are decreasing.

The typical treatment for an infant with elevated bilirubin is to put them under a special type of light. This treatment is usually done in the hospital but can be done at home if a baby presents with jaundice after they’re discharged. Increasing the baby’s milk intake can also help them to eliminate bilirubin through their urine and stool. In the rare instance that these treatments don’t work, a blood exchange transfusion can be performed. This is repeated until the bilirubin level is down to a normal level.

While bilirubin levels are routinely monitored in the hours and days after birth, each baby is different and may develop jaundice later than what is typical. If you believe your baby has jaundice, you should contact your doctor right away. If jaundice is confirmed and they’ve been prescribed a light therapy treatment at home, it’s important to take it seriously and follow the treatment plan exactly. If follow-up appointments are recommended, it’s critical to keep those appointments.

The big takeaway here is that jaundice is easily treatable when diagnosed early. However, once kernicterus has occurred, the resulting brain damage and associated problems later in life are usually permanent. 

Who’s Most At Risk for Kernicterus? 

While any baby can develop jaundice (and potentially kernicterus), there are some risk factors that make a baby more prone to having elevated bilirubin levels. Babies with any of these risk factors should be closely monitored:

  • Premature birth: A preemie’s liver is not developed enough to eliminate bilirubin.
  • Black or brown skin: While it doesn’t make jaundice more common, darker skin makes the “yellow tint” of jaundice more difficult to recognize visually. After discharge from the hospital, parents should be instructed to monitor the color of the baby’s gums, inner lips, and eyes. If there’s any doubt, a bilirubin test should be done.
  • East Asian or Mediterranean descent: These babies are genetically predisposed to jaundice.
  • Feeding difficulties or inadequate milk production: Newborns must eat frequently to eliminate bilirubin effectively.
  • A sibling with jaundice: Jaundice can run in families.
  • Bruising: Bruises release bilirubin as they heal.
  • Blood type: Women with an O blood type or who are Rh-negative are more likely to have babies with jaundice.
  • Aspirin: Giving an infant aspirin can rapidly increase bilirubin levels to a life-threatening level.

What Are The Immediate And Long-Term Symptoms of Kernicterus?

High levels of bilirubin can cause irreversible neurological damage. The initial symptoms of brain damage in babies include:

  • poor feeding
  • irritability
  • a high-pitched cry
  • lethargy (difficulty staying awake)
  • apnea (pauses in breathing)
  • poor muscle tone, causing the baby to become “floppy”

As kernicterus progresses, additional symptoms can occur, such as seizures and muscle spasms that cause arching of the back and neck.

Once kernicterus has occurred, there’s not much that can be done to correct the damage. That said, it’s still essential that treatment be started to prevent the kernicterus from getting worse. In most cases, the symptoms of any brain damage that’s been sustained aren’t fully evident until a child has made it through their toddler years.

If significant brain damage has occurred, a child can develop permanent problems such as:

  • cerebral palsy, which affects movement and coordination
  • hearing loss, ranging from mild to severe
  • learning disabilities
  • involuntary movements
  • problems maintaining normal eye movements
  • poor tooth development

Is My Child’s Brain Damage Due To A Doctor’s Negligence?

Suppose your infant or toddler has been diagnosed with brain damage, and you have reason to believe that untreated jaundice or elevated bilirubin levels are the cause. In that case, it’s critical to find an attorney who can represent you and your child. There’s no excuse for a baby to develop kernicterus due to a healthcare provider’s negligence.

Why Contact Ross Feller Casey?

If your child was diagnosed with kernicterus, the experienced legal team at Ross Feller Casey is here to help. We have Ivy League-trained doctor-lawyers on staff, so we know that the true effects and lifelong impact of kernicterus may not be apparent for several years after a diagnosis is made.

Contact us today for a free consultation, and we’ll do everything we can to get you the compensation you and your family deserve for the damage that has already been done and for whatever the future may hold for your child.

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