In 2007, a new mom and her infant son were set for discharge from the hospital less than 48 hours after the birth. That’s not uncommon. The baby had a case of jaundice, which characterized by yellowing skin and eyes caused by the build-up of a naturally-occurring blood product called bilirubin, which some babies can’t metabolize at first. That’s also not uncommon. In ordinary cases, it’s easily treated with exposure to UV light and goes away after a couple of weeks.
In this case, it didn’t. The new mom says she told hospital staff that her baby seemed sick, with yellowing skin and eyes, but they told her it would get better in a few weeks. It didn’t, but instead developed into a complication called hyperbilirubinemia, which can cause brain injury and cerebral palsy. He survived, but was left with permanent, completely disabling brain injuries.
His parents are grateful that the hospital was able to save his life as an infant when the jaundice had progressed to a point where he was vomiting and needed two blood transfusions to survive.
“They couldn’t save my son’s brain, but they saved his life,” his mom told reporters. Today, the little boy is 6, but he hasn’t yet been able to say “mama” or “dada.” He can’t hold up his head or sit up by himself, much less walk.
While mild jaundice occurs in about half of infants, it does require treatment. In this case, a jury decided earlier this week, a New York hospital released the boy without a proper evaluation of the jaundice his mom had reported and without any treatment. That jury has awarded the family $26 million for the 24-hour-a-day care the boy will need for the rest of his life.
“I don’t know if I’ve seen a more preventable case,” said the family’s lawyer. “It’s heartbreaking to see a child like this.” The hospital denies any wrongdoing and plans to appeal.
If your baby suffers from jaundice, talk to a doctor about treatment — and insist on it. You should call a doctor immediately to avoid the risk of brain injury if the jaundice begins spreading, if your baby’s rectal temperature is above 100° F (37.8°C), or if he or she looks or acts sick.
- New York Daily News, “Disabled Brooklyn boy awarded $25 million in untreated jaundice case against New York Methodist Hospital,” Doyle Murphy, Nov. 19, 2013
- KidsHealth, “Jaundice in Healthy Newborns,” The Nemours Foundation, 2013