Infant Injuries Caused by Jaundice

In the first few days after childbirth, you watch your child closely and try to cherish every memory. So should doctors and nurses, since any injuries during the first week of a newborn’s life can lead to serious outcomes. One of the most common adverse conditions is jaundice, which can result in a serious condition called kernicterus if not carefully monitored and treated properly.

If your child suffered kernicterus as a result of medical negligence, then you should not hesitate to pursue a medical malpractice claim against the hospital. Kernicterus can lead to lifelong medical conditions. At Wingate, Russotti, Shapiro, Moses & Halperin, LLP, our New York kernicterus attorneys have more than 50 years of experience advocating for injured newborns and their families. We can sit down with you in a free consultation and explain how to get compensation for your child’s injuries. Call us today at (212) 986-7353 to get started on your birth injury claim.

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What Is Kernicterus?

Kernicterus is a type of brain damage that occurs when newborns have a large amount of bilirubin in their bloodstream. Bilirubin is a natural chemical that develops when red blood cells break down. Our bodies are designed to process bilirubin through our livers, which will filter it out through stool and urine.

Having a large amount of bilirubin in the blood can lead to a condition called jaundice. Bilirubin is a yellow pigment. It is easy to spot jaundice by a patient’s yellow skin tone. Jaundice is common among individuals who have liver failure as the result of prolonged alcohol use. However, with newborns, it is a natural occurrence. The majority of newborns develop jaundice after birth as their livers begin to process blood on their own without their mother’s help.

In the first few days after birth, doctors should carefully monitor newborns’ bilirubin levels to ensure their livers are functioning well. Too-high bilirubin levels can result in kernicterus, which can damage the brain and lead to long-term disabilities.

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Diagnosing Jaundice and Kernicterus

While jaundice occurs in roughly 60% of all newborns, there are certain risk factors that lead to severe jaundice and kernicterus, including:

  • A premature birth that limits a newborn’s ability to process bilirubin (typically before 38 weeks)
  • Bruising during birth, which can cause an increase in bilirubin
  • Differences in mother and newborn blood type, which can cause a rapid breakdown of red blood cells
  • A lack of nutritional breast-feeding or low caloric intake can cause a newborn to develop jaundice
  • Newborns of East Asian or Mediterranean descent have a higher rate of jaundice as newborns
  • If a sibling had jaundice, the newborn has a higher chance of developing it as well

The most obvious sign of jaundice is a yellow tint to the skin and the whites of the eyes, which may develop as earlier as 48 hours after birth. Newborns have the highest levels of bilirubin in their blood between the third and seventh day after birth, which is why parents are encouraged to schedule an appointment within that time period.

The real danger with jaundice is that it can develop into kernicterus and cause brain damage. You should take your newborn to see a doctor if he/she:

  • Has a yellow or orange pigment to the skin
  • Is lethargic
  • Has trouble waking up or falling asleep
  • Refuses to breastfeed
  • Acts fussy
  • Does not have four to six wet diapers in the first 24 hours after birth
  • Does not have three to four dirty diapers by the fourth day after birth

The CDC also recommends seeking emergency treatment if your newborn:

  • Is crying at a high pitch and is inconsolable
  • Has an arched back where the head, neck, and heels are bent backward
  • Feels stiff or limp
  • Experiences sudden and strange eye movements

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Brain Damage Caused by Kernicterus

The major risk of kernicterus is the build-up of bilirubin in the brain. A newborn’s brain is extremely fragile, with the first few days heavily impacting long-term development. A high amount of certain chemicals can cause severe brain damage that affects the child for the rest of his or her life.

Brain damage caused by kernicterus can cause a newborn to suffer from:

  • Athetoid cerebral palsy, which will lead to involuntary and uncontrolled movements
  • Eye damage, including a permanent upward gaze
  • Hearing damage
  • Damage to teeth and enamel

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How Doctors Should Respond to Jaundice

Jaundice may be common, but kernicterus is 100% preventable if doctors and nurses follow proper procedures. Hospital staff should know the signs of jaundice and check for it regularly in the first few days after birth. If a newborn presents with jaundice over a long period of time (multiple days), then it may be a sign that he or she will develop kernicterus.

Doctors can easily check for high bilirubin levels with a light meter called a bili light. They shine it over the newborn’s skin to check the levels and develop a plan of action. Doctors can also order blood and liver enzyme tests to confirm high levels of bilirubin. If the newborn’s bilirubin levels do not naturally go down or the newborn begins experiencing the symptoms of kernicterus, doctors should begin treatment immediately.

Treatment for jaundice involves undressing the baby and placing it under special lights that will help break down the bilirubin. Doctors may also recommend increasing the newborn’s breastmilk intake to help break down bilirubin faster. In extreme cases, a doctor may order a blood transfusion to filter the bilirubin out of the infant’s system.

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How Medical Negligence Causes Brain Damage

If jaundice is treated early enough, brain damage can be prevented. Unfortunately, this all depends on the skill and expertise of the doctor treating your newborn. Kernicterus is often the result of medical negligence, which can include:

  • Delays in testing for jaundice, leading to a delayed diagnosis
  • Misreading bilirubin levels
  • Not checking a newborn for jaundice in the first few days after birth
  • Ignoring the risk factors or test results for kernicterus
  • Taking too long to treat jaundice
  • Performing a test incorrectly
  • Performing treatment incorrectly
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    Recovering Compensation in a Birth Injury Claim

    If your newborn developed brain damage because of medical negligence, you may be able to file a birth injury claim against the doctor or nurse who caused your child’s injuries. Kernicterus can be prevented if hospital staffers follow proper procedures, and no one should be allowed to cause a severe disability without paying for it.

    Our team at Wingate, Russotti, Shapiro, Moses & Halperin, LLP, knows how devastating it is to see your child push through a disability like cerebral palsy, hearing loss, or other forms of brain damage. We are dedicated to helping families recover compensation and can use all of our resources to investigate your case. We can comb through medical reports, review your child’s condition with experts, negotiate with hospital liability insurance adjusters, and advocate for your child in a courtroom.

    To speak to a dedicated New York medical malpractice lawyer in a free consultation, call Wingate, Russotti, Shapiro, Moses & Halperin, LLP, at (212) 986-7353.

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    Additional Information

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