Kernicterus is a severe type of brain injury that can occur in newborn babies who experience severe jaundice. Jaundice is a yellowing of the skin, eyes or other tissue and is often reversible when treated promptly.
Kernicterus can occur as a result of elevated levels of bilirubin, which transfers from the baby’s blood into its brain tissue, where it quickly causes severe and irreversible brain damage.
If you or someone you love has given birth to a baby that sustained a birth injury such as kernicterus brain damage as a result of a doctor’s failure to diagnose severe jaundice, please give our team of experienced birth injury lawyers a call today to discuss your legal rights and next steps for your potential case.
What is Kernicterus and how serious is this birth injury?
When an infant’s levels of bilirubin, the yellow pigment in skin that leads to jaundice, progresses unfettered, infant jaundice can develop. Jaundice can sometimes go away on its own or can be easily treated when caught in time. This yellowing of the skin can also be a sign of a blood disorder or certain types of liver disease. If a significant amount of bilirubin builds up, a condition known as hyperbilirubinemia, jaundice may result in severe and permanent brain damage, known as kernicterus. Kernicterus brain damage can lead to permanent hearing loss or total deafness, physical defects, cerebral palsy, developmental disabilities, muscle damage, or death.
Risk factors for kernicterus brain injury include:
- Preterm delivery
- Certain medications given to Mother or baby before birth
- Genetic disorders
- Lack of oxygen to the brain
- East Asian or Mediterranean descent
- Poor feeding habits or complications
- Siblings who were born with jaundice
- Evidence of bruising after delivery
- Type O or Rh negative blood type in the Mother
The early stages of bilirubin build-up that leads to kernicterus, known as acute bilirubin encephalopathy, can be immediately treated and even wholly reversed. When identified and addressed quickly and thoroughly, damage to the brain caused by kernicterus can be corrected. Unfortunately, it is only a matter of time before the brain is adversely affected and the brain damage caused by kernicterus becomes permanent and irreversible. This condition is known as chronic bilirubin encephalopathy.
Signs and symptoms of kernicterus in an infant include:
- Unusually high pitched crying
- Difficulty waking up
- Frequent and unexplained sleeping, inability to stay awake
- Lack of response to physical touch
- Arched bow-like back
- Neck hyperextension
The extent of brain damage suffered by the infant is dependent mainly on the amount and duration of the brain’s exposure to the increased bilirubin levels.
How Medical Malpractice can Lead to Kernicterus Brain Damage
Doctors and nurses can commit any number of post-delivery errors that can result in a baby developing kernicterus brain damage, including:
- Failure to respond to initial lab results that suggest heightened bilirubin levels, unnecessarily delaying treatment while waiting for further tests
- Failure to actively check for signs of acute kernicterus
- Failure to use total bilirubin levels, not just indirect bilirubin levels, as a basis for treatment-related decisions
- Failure to treat jaundice before bilirubin reaches critical levels
- Failure to measure and compare bilirubin levels at hour-specific intervals
There is no cure for kernicterus brain damage once the condition develops, though it can be prevented by prompt treatment of jaundice with minimal intervention. The correct treatment of the initial onset of jaundice can include leaving the infant under UV lights, monitoring the baby’s blood and bilirubin levels, and observing the baby for behavioral abnormalities. All too frequently, the doctor’s failure to act per the standard of care for treating jaundice or suspected kernicterus brain damage can lead to devastating results.
What Happens to Infants With Kernicterus Brain Damage?
In the short time following the onset of acute kernicterus, parents will be able to notice unusual mannerisms and behavioral changes in their baby. Often times, symptoms are detectable within 24 hours of labor and delivery and may manifest themselves before the baby has made it home from the hospital. The resulting brain disorders will be primarily based on the severity of the brain damage and may take months or years to diagnose. Permanent effects of kernicterus brain damage can range from mild disorders in which the child can live a full, healthy life, to severe complications in which the child will require total medical support and complete co-dependence with their families.
Chronic kernicterus results in varying degrees of injury, including:
- Cerebral palsy
- Partial hearing loss or total deafness
- Mental retardation
- Gaze and vision abnormalities, especially upward gaze paralysis
- Abnormalities of the baby teeth
In some cases, babies who sustain kernicterus brain damage shortly after birth suffer from mental retardation or are otherwise mentally challenged. There may be signs of long-term physical and emotional needs, including physical therapy, speech therapy, long-term medical treatment, implantation of medical devices, and special education services depending on the severity of the baby’s brain damage.
Brain damaged infants usually require special assistance to help them become as independent and healthy as possible as they grow into adulthood. The medical and educational component is only one aspect of the equation, as adults raising mentally challenged children often face mounting financial burdens. The economic ramifications of long-term medical care, various therapies, and special schooling can often cripple families regardless of their income.
What should I do if my baby suffered from kernicterus after birth?
If you or a loved one gave birth to a baby diagnosed with kernicterus brain damage, give our team a call. The experienced birth injury lawyers at the Eichholz Law Firm have the experience and resources necessary to investigate your case and determine if medical malpractice caused your child’s birth injury. Our team of attorneys and staff is available to answer your questions and help you secure adequate compensation for your child’s medical care and future related costs.