Although jaundice is not a welcome trait for a newborn, it’s not uncommon. About 6 in 10 U.S. newborns are at least mildly jaundiced — they have a tell-tale yellowish cast that signals elevated blood levels of bilirubin. It’s a naturally occurring reddish-yellow pigment in bile and blood, but if levels that are too high are left untreated, it can cause brain damage.
Usually, the danger is effectively neutralized with light therapy that turns toxic bilirubin into a water-soluble form the bodily easily eliminates. More difficult cases might need blood transfusions to rid the tiny body of its poison.
Six years ago, New York Methodist Hospital discharged a newborn without a proper exam despite his symptoms of jaundice. Even though his mother reported his yellowing skin, his doctor, Ioanis Atoynatan, did not follow up.
Six years later, Jaelin Sence, brain-damaged and permanently handicapped, received a $26 million judgment from a jury for the tragic case of malpractice.
“I don’t know if I’ve seen a more preventable case,” said his attorney, Thomas Moore, on the DailyNews.com. “It’s heartbreaking to see a child like this.”
Jaelin can’t use his arms and legs, and has never said “mama” or “dada.”
Fewer than 48 hours after he was born, Jaelin was sent home from Methodist Hospital despite rapidly yellowing eyes. Nurses apparently disregarded his mother’s concerns, and told her the problem would resolve on its own.
But Jaelin grew worse, and when he began vomiting, his parents rushed him to Kings County Hospital, where was diagnosed with hyperbilirubinemia (kernicterus) — the severe jaundice that causes brain damage and cerebral palsy.
Doctors performed two blood transfusions, but they couldn’t save Jaelin from the dire damage.
“They couldn’t save my son’s brain, but they saved his life,” Myrtho Sence told the Daily News.
The defense said it plans to appeal the jury’s award, but if it stands, it will allow the Sence family to provide 24-hour-a-day care for Jaelin.
All newborns are at risk for jaundice, but certain factors can predispose a baby toward it, including premature birth, incompatible mother-child blood groups and bruising.
To learn more about this kind of preventable brain injury, see our backgrounder.