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Untreated jaundice may lead to brain injury

Michael Becker

Jaundice is a fairly common condition that a number of newborn babies in Ohio experience. Jaundice is relatively harmless as long as it is diagnosed and treated promptly. When it is not properly treated, it can lead to serious complications.

Elevated levels of bilirubin in the blood are what causes the most recognizable symptom of jaundice, yellowing skin. If left untreated, excess bilirubin, or hyperbilirubinemia, can ultimately lead to kernicterus, and this may cause brain damage and even death.

Obstetric caregivers should be very familiar with symptoms of jaundice and hyperbilirubinemia. When they fail to diagnose and treat these conditions, the results can be tragic.

In a case that recently made headlines, a mother sued a hospital for medical malpractice after her son suffered a brain injury and permanent disability as a result of untreated jaundice.

The boy was born in 2007, and although the mother asked nurses about her newborn’s rapidly yellowing skin, the baby was quickly discharged from the hospital just 48 hours after birth without undergoing a follow-up exam from a doctor.

After leaving the hospital, the boy began to vomit and his parents took him to the emergency room at another hospital. There, he was diagnosed with hyperbilirubinemia, a severe form of jaundice.

Although doctors performed blood transfusions, it was too late to stop the brain injury. The child is now 6 and he cannot speak; he requires 24-hour care.

A jury awarded the family $25 million last month. Of course, no amount of money can undo the pain and suffering that this family continues to experience. The jury award will, however, help the family to take care of the child.

In most cases, doctors are able to treat jaundice with phototherapy, placing babies under special lights. When the condition is more severe, a blood transfusion may be necessary in order to keep the bilirubin from causing a brain injury. In many cases, newborn baby jaundice is very mild and it does not require treatment, but health care professionals must follow the expected standard of care in order to safely evaluate the condition.

Source: New York Daily News, “Disabled Brooklyn boy awarded $25 million in untreated jaundice case against New York Methodist Hospital,” Doyle Murphy, Nov. 19, 2013

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