Thursday, October 1, 2009

Viability-Through the Eyes of a NICU Nurse

(an update about us will be coming soon... I promise)

The following post was written by a NICU nurse, who blogs anonymously at Reality Rounds.

Is Letting a 21 Week Premature Baby Die, Considered Health Care Rationing?

Posted by realityrounds on September 15, 2009

No, it is not. Let me explain. There is an inflammatory article published in the UK Mail Online; Ms. Capewell, a 23 year old mom is claiming English doctors let her 21 5/7 week infant die only because they were following national perinatal guidelines. If only he was born at 22 weeks, she insists, they would have tried everything to save him and admitted him to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU). Ms. Capewell, who has had five miscarriages, said the guidelines had robbed her son of a chance of life. She said: “When he was born, he put out his arms and legs and pushed himself over.” The article mentions the 2006 case in the United States were a 21 6/7 week infant, Amillia Taylor, survived after doctors mistakenly resuscitated her, thinking she was actually 22 6/7 weeks gestation. The infant is now two years old and living with her family in Florida. Ms. Capewell states, ‘Thousands of women have experienced this. The doctors say the babies won’t survive but how do they know if they are not giving them a chance?” Following her experience, Ms. Capewell has set up a web page Justice for Jayden urging a change in the British legislation:

article-1211950-0655C917000005DC-243_468x400The website states:

I had a little baby boy called Jayden on 3rd of October 2008. Sadly I had gone into labour too soon and he was born just halfway through my pregnancy. When I went into labour I was told he would be born dead, disabled and his skin would most likely be peeling off, in actual fact he was perfect. As you can see from his pic he was born alive, he was responsive and lived without help for nearly 2 hours. ReguardleJss of this doctors refused to come and see him let alone consider helping him. This is down to government legislation stating that babies born before 22 weeks are not viable and are not to be helped. Now I’m asking for your help in changing legislation so other families don’t have to suffer unnessisarily.

My heart goes out to this mom who lost her infant and suffered multiple miscarriages. I can’t imagine the pain she must have felt when she lost her child. As a NICU nurse I must disagree with her on her assumptions of care for an infant born with such extreme prematurity. The doctors were just in their actions. It would have been an extreme injustice to Jayden to attempt to resuscitate one so premature. There is a term in medical ethics called Benevolent Injustice. Below is an abstract of an article written by Brenda Barnum, BSN, RN, for Advances in Neonatal Care, that talks about this concept:

There is a little-recognized cohort of NICU patients whose outcomes are the result of a benevolent injustice in their healthcare course. Many of these infants are saved by technology; however, they are left both medically fragile and medically dependent, and many of them are required to live in a medical facility. Many of these babies never get to go home with their parents. This emerging cohort of patients may evolve from the difficult ability to prognosticate outcomes for neonates, overtreatment, and acquiescing to parental demands for continued aggressive care. Neonatology is an unpredictable process and one that is never intended to harm, but carries with it the potential of devastating consequences, thus creating a benevolent injustice.

From reading the UK Mail Online article, and more importantly reading the over 600 comments on this topic, it has made me painfully aware of the ignorance, naivete, and anger the public perception is of caring for infant’s at the edge of viability. Nowhere in the world, including the United States( which arguably had the most advanced technologies when it comes to NICU care), is it routine to resuscitate infants below 23 weeks gestation. In the United States, guidelines for initiating resuscitation vary from 23-24 weeks, and 450 to 500 grams. These guidelines vary by state. Contrary to what Ms. Capewells web page states, it is not “government legislation” that dictates whether an infant born before 22 (really 23 weeks) will be resuscitated and admitted to the NICU. It is the physicians and staff at the delivery. If we are called to a delivery for unsure dates between 22-23 weeks, (the NICU team does not attend deliveries between 21-22 weeks) we first counsel the mom on what will happen and give her as much information as possible, regarding outcomes and survivability. Her choices are to do nothing and provide only comfort care, to start resuscitation until the baby “declares” himself, either by improving or decompensating, or request a full blown resuscitation. The physician’s at the delivery will assess the infant and it is ethically and legally appropriate to withhold or stop a resuscitation on such an extremely premature infant based on how the infant presents himself.

Infants born at 22-23 weeks gestation have a 1-10% chance of survival, with the high end requiring the most advanced NICU care possible. Of those survivors, greater than 95% will suffer profound neurodevelopmental impairment NICHD/NIH. By profound neurodevelopmental impairment, I do not mean the child will have a learning disability, or need to walk with canes, or have mild cerebral palsy. I mean the child may suffer from intractable seizures, need a feeding tube because of being unable to swallow, have varying degrees of blindness and deafness, have spastic quadraplegia and be wheelchair bound, never speak, never crawl, never walk, never run, etc.

I have cared for many infants at the edge of viability. It is always emotionally draining. There is no justice to it. The extreme measures involved to keep a 22-23 week infant alive is staggering, and it is ugly. I once had a patient who had an IV placed on the side of her knee due to such poor IV access. When that IV infiltrated, I gently pulled the catheter out, and her entire skin and musculature surrounding the knee came with it, leaving the patella bone exposed. I have seen micro-preemies lose their entire ear due to scalp vein IV’s. I have watched 500 gram infants suffer from pulmonary hemorrhages, literally drowning in their own blood. I have seen their tiny bellies become severely distended and turn black before my very eyes, as their intestines necrose and die off. I have seen their fontanelles bulge and their vital signs plummet as the ventricles surrounding their brains fill with blood. I have seen their skin fall off. I have seen them become overwhelmingly septic as we pump them with high powered antibiotics that threatened to shut down their kidneys, while fighting the infection. I have seen many more extremely premature infants die painful deaths in the NICU, then live.

Ms. Capewell claims her 21 6/7 week preemie was able to “push himself over,” and was “born perfect.” An infant born this prematurely does not have the musculature to expand their chest wall in order to breathe, let alone “push” themselves over. Jayden may have been “born perfect” for a fetus, not for a viable neonate. His eyes were still fused and his skin was gelatonous. He was born too early. We do not have the technologies to save an infant as young as Jayden. Trying to save him would be an experiment in futility. An experiment on an actual human life.

What really struck me most in the UK Mail Online story, was the comments left by readers. Many of them were Americans. They tried to twist this story as a fight against health care reform and that not saving a 21 weeker was rationing care. I will not go into politics here. I will say that comparing not saving a 21 week fetus to rationing health care is a ludicrous argument. It has nothing to do with trying to save money. It has everything to do with humanity, and morality, and justice.



And, as expected, the author received nasty comments, which prompted this post.

I wrote a controversial post about resuscitating infants at the edge of viability……and now, I am paying the price for it. Being a NICU nurse is hard. You could probably tell from many of my posts that caring for infants, especially those with unknown outcomes and prognoses, can be an ethically and emotionally draining experience.

I love my job. I love saving the lives of neonates. I love the skill it takes to care for the most critical of patients. I love being a part of groundbreaking treatments that impact the lives of infants. I love nurturing the tiniest of human lives to slowly grow and blossom and thrive due to my expert care and touch.

Yet to those who do not know, who can not possibly understand, I am nothing but a baby killer.

Because I, with my many years of experience caring for the extremely premature, do not believe that extraordinary measures should be taken to resuscitate infant’s below 23 weeks gestation, I am labeled a heartless baby killer by the anonymous punditry of the internet bloggers.

It is disheartening to think that there are people out there who believe NICU nurses ,who do not advocate that every premature baby be resuscitated no matter the gestational age, are inhumane, insensitive bureaucrats who only think about the reimbursement of a bed space.

For us NICU nurses on the ground, this is a disgusting load of crap to have to hear. Below are some comments left on various blogs and threads regarding my post and how I felt about resuscitating infants at the edge of viability:

“Perhaps we should ask the opinions of some people who were once babies who were preemies and survived and see what they think about the whole business.
I have a feeling they will tell you they don’t remember a thing. And if they do, I am willing to bet they are glad they went through it.
It is all a ploy. Playing on peoples’ fears of pain and suffering to, as Scrooge said, “decrease the surplus population.

I am scared for the future.”

“It sounds to me as if some of you are looking for an excuse not to spend the time, effort and expense on children who “probably won’t make it anyway”. I don’t believe it’s about compassion at all. I think it’s about inconvenience and money.”

“This is just disgusting….he was moving, breathing, and those little bastard doctors did nothing? They should all go to prison for murder and assault on the mom!”

“Some, no, MOST families want to try, and YES we know preemies need a lot of care, at first. So, you and the NICU nurse say set them aside and let them die. Cruel and unethical?Sorry but your extravagant links show the exception and NOT the rule. YOU are cruel and unethical to deny care to these little ones.”

“Sorry it means more work for the doctors and nurses but this is Life at its most innocent and helpless and deserves a chance. We defib flat liners over and over, we try and save life, not set it aside to wither away and die.”
I have dedicated my life’s work to the care of infants. I have invested blood, sweat and tears in the care of infants, including those at the limits of viability. I , like all NICU nurses, have real, hands-on experience of caring for these micro-preemies. We know what caring for these babies entails, and what the outcomes will most likely be. We deserve a voice.

Because the majority of NICU nurses do not agree with the concept of resuscitating any infant born alive, no matter what the gestational age, this does not make us heartless baby killers. It makes us realists. It makes us compassionate. It makes us heroes.



Thanks to Kevin MD for posting it on his blog.