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What is Kernicterus?

Information About Kernicterus

What is Kernicterus in Newborns?

Kernicterus is a type of brain damage caused by very high levels of bilirubin in newborn infants. In the United States it should now be considered a preventable medical tragedy.

What causes Kernicterus?

As part of the body’s natural function, individual red blood cells die on a regular basis. Bilirubin is created from the breakdown of these red blood cells. Normally, the liver breaks down bilirubin so that it can be eliminated from the body. However, in the newborn period, more red blood cells break down, and sometimes more bilirubin is created than the baby’s immature liver can handle. Bilirubin, which is yellowish in color, can then build up in the body, causing a condition known as jaundice. Jaundice is yellowish staining of the skin and eyes due to high bilirubin levels. Most jaundice occurring in newborns is harmless and typically clears up without treatment within a short period of time. However, some forms of jaundice pose a severe threat to the baby, because very high bilirubin levels can result in bilirubin crossing into the brain, causing devastating damage to occur. When this happens, the condition is referred to as kernicterus.

Kernicterus is a medically preventable event

Bilirubin levels in the blood should be carefully monitored in the newborn. There are several methods which can be used by pediatricians to prevent bilirubinlevels from becoming dangerously high, including but not limited to phototherapy, a fiber optic blanket, and blood exchange transfusion.

The American Academy of Pediatrics has provided guidelines which if correctly followed by medical personnel should prevent the occurrence of kernicterus. The National Quality Forum is a non profit organization that is a private/public collaboration formed for the purpose of improving the quality of health care in the United States. It includes kernicterus among a group of occurrences that are referred to as “never events”. Never events are medical outcomes that are serious and largely preventable – in other words, they should never happen.

What kinds of medical mistakes can result in Kernicterus?

Any failure to carefully follow recommended guidelines in treating jaundice by the nurses and doctors caring for a newborn could potentially result in kernicterus. However, here are some specific mistakes pediatricians sometimes make when confronted with newborn jaundice:

  • Ordering repeat testing to confirm a high bilirubin level before beginning treatment.
  • Delaying or interrupting treatment while diagnostic tests are performed.
  • Allowing bilirubin to reach dangerously high levels before acting.
  • Using the indirect bilirubin level instead of the total serum bilirubin.
  • Failing to examine the baby for signs of acute kernicterus.
  • Failing to consider the precise age of the newborn when assessing bilirubin levels, since the same bilirubin level may be normal at one hourly age but abnormal at another.

What to Do if Your Child Suffered Kernicterus

If you suspect that your child may have suffered kernicterus or brain damage from excessive levels of bilirubin, get medical attention for your child right away. Proper and timely treatment will maximize the chances that your child will survive with as little damage as possible under the circumstances. Unfortunately, many children will nevertheless require a lifetime of expensive medical care. Many will need to be followed by several different types of pediatric specialists and participate in ongoing physical and occupational therapy. In some cases, care at home is beyond the best capabilities of even the most committed and capable parents and placement in a specialized institution becomes the only viable option.

It is in your child’s interest to be in a position to benefit from the very best and most advanced treatment available. There may be a significant difference in the treatment and services that private medical insurance or such programs as Medicaid will cover, and the most desirable state of the art treatment. If your child has suffered kernicterus, getting the compensation that you deserve may be the only way to provide the care and services needed to maximize your child’s recovery and potential.

Collectively, Michael L. Weiss, Esq. . and Robert E. Paarz, Esq. have litigated over a dozen medical malpractice cases involving damages to a newborn as a result of kernicterus. They are committed to using their knowledge and experience to help the victims of preventable birth injuries obtain fair compensation.

If you believe your child may have experienced such an injury, contact Weiss & Paarz, P.C. today.

*The firm handles cases in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. For cases outside those states, Weiss & Paarz works with local attorneys in the state where the medical care took place, at no additional cost to the client.