My child, born in Pennsylvania, has poor motor control, can’t walk or stand and the doctor diagnosed him with kernicterus. What is kernicterus and could it have been prevented?

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Anthony T. DiPietro - Personal Injury - Medical Malpractice - Super Lawyers

Answered by: Anthony T. DiPietro

Law Office of Anthony T. DiPietro, P.C.
New York, PA
Phone: (800) 215-1003

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Kernicterus is a physically devastating condition that is caused by jaundice in a baby that was left untreated by the child’s doctors and pediatricians. Kernicterus is almost always preventable when proper and attentive medical care is provided. However, when jaundice is not properly treated, it can cause permanent damage to the areas of the baby’s brain that control motor function. When a doctor fails to treat jaundice, the doctor can often be held liable for medical malpractice.

Jaundice is a fairly common condition at birth, especially after a prolonged delivery, and is caused by elevated bilirubin in the baby’s blood (bilirubinemia). Jaundice can also appear for no apparent reason.

Typically, jaundice will cause a yellowish-green or orange tint to the baby’s skin. Jaundice can also cause the white part of a baby’s eyes to appear a bit yellow. It is crucial that a baby who has jaundice receives proper monitoring and treatment in order to prevent the excess bilirubin from damaging the baby’s brain.

Blood tests taken from a newborn’s heel are routinely performed immediately after birth to check the child’s bilirubin levels. Additional blood tests should also be done after birth to ensure that the levels are not rising. If the baby’s bilirubin level is too high, or if it’s elevated for several days in a row, damage to the child’s brain can occur. That is why close monitoring and observation is so important.

What is the treatment for Jaundice?

 The treatment for jaundice is usually simple. Phototherapy (or light therapy) is typically all that is needed to help the baby’s body break down and rid itself of the excess bilirubin. Unfortunately, the simple diagnostic and treatment rules are not always followed by doctors and nurses.

Even the most seemingly accomplished doctors - in major cities like Philadelphia - do not always pay close enough attention to babies who have jaundice. This is especially true in newborns who naturally have a darker skin tone since a dark complexion can mask the visual signs (darkening or yellowing of the skin) that happen when a newborn’s bilirubin levels are elevated.

What kind of injuries does kernicterus cause

The human brain performs two major functions: motor movement and cognition. When a person experiences brain damage, the damage can occur to either - or both - of the two areas. Sometimes if the injury is only in the area of the brain which control motor function, it may appear that the cognitive function is injured as well. But that is not always the case. When an injury is suspected, it is important to see a qualified medical professional to identify the precise nature and area of the damage. Just because a person cannot speak, it does not mean that their cognitive abilities have been injured. Instead, some people may have normal to superior intelligence but simply cannot communicate because they do not have the motor control necessary for speech. Kernicterus is know to primarily, if not exclusively, affect only the area of the brain responsible for motor function while leaving the intellect intact.

It is also important to note that it can doctors several years to diagnose brain damage caused by kernicterus. While the symptoms may be present much earlier, often a child’s parents and doctors (such as neurologists and orthopedists), either forget the child had jaundice at birth, or fail to make the connection between the jaundice at birth and the motor deficits the child starts to exhibit later on as a toddler. Therefore, it is not uncommon that it will take a while for the parents and doctors to actually connect the dots and link the jaundice to the injury.

Did your child have jaundice? 

There are many signs of jaundice that may be present before kernicterus develops including: yellow-tinged skin, yellow-tinged eyes, elevated bilirubin levels on blood work or lab reports, the baby may not latch on while breastfeeding, the baby doesn’t drink enough milk or formula, or the baby seems to not have much or an appetite or get tired quickly while feeding. When doctors fail to properly diagnose and treat jaundice, those doctors can be held accountable if the child is later diagnosed with physical limitations caused kernicterus.

If you have questions and need help with a child who has been diagnosed with kernicterus, call us at (800) 215-1003.

Disclaimer: The answer is intended to be for informational purposes only. It should not be relied on as legal advice, nor construed as a form of attorney-client relationship.

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