Heart test that saved baby now recommended for all newborns

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by JEAN ENERSEN / KING 5 HealthLink

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KING5.com

Posted on December 20, 2011 at 9:44 AM

Updated Friday, Jan 4 at 10:44 AM

"Look how big and strong you are!" new mom Lindsay cooed to her infant. 

Baby Charlie is the apple of his mother's eye. A little more than three months ago he was born, seemingly healthy, at Tacoma General Hospital. Lindsay explains what happened as the family prepared to leave the hospital for home with their newborn.

"We were packed ready to go literally on our way out the door," she said.

But Charlie still needed two newborn screens. One, the heel prick is mandatory. The baby's heel is poked, drawing a spot of blood. The sample is then tested to detect rare genetic disorders. The other newborn test is voluntary.

"Because we'd done it with our first we decided to do it with Charlie as well," Lindsay said.

It's called pulse-oximetry. There's no pain, no poke, just a reading of the oxygen level in a baby's blood. If a newborn baby's reading is above 95, it signals a healthy heart. When Charlie got his test, at first no one believed the oxygen levels.

"Nurses thinking he was fine too, they were switching feet, going to his hands, and they just kept registering in the 60s. I remember at that point looking at my husband and thinking, there's something wrong," Lindsay said.

The test had picked up a life-threatening defect in Charlie's heart. Dr. Matthew Park, a pediatric cardiologist with Northwest Children's Heart Care, said pulse-oximetry has been studied at Tacoma General since 2008 and is offered to all newborns at the hospital.

"It tells us there could be a problem. And the number one problem we're looking for is congenital heart disease," Dr. Park explained.

The babies are given the pulse-oximetry test at a day old. It's a crucial window of time before a baby would show heart defect symptoms, such as breathing or feeding trouble, or blue skin.

"My big passion comes from babies that do not have this test that show up in our emergency room or clinic, very sick or very ill with serious heart disease that could have could have been detected earlier," said Dr. Park.

After his pulse-oximetry test baby Charlie was rushed the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at Tacoma General Hospital. He was then transferred to Seattle Children's, where, at just six days old Charlie had open heart surgery.

"I feel very lucky that we decided to do the test. I feel very lucky that we were at Tacoma General," Lindsay said.

"I think the stars aligned. Somebody was looking out for us, for him, and it essentially saved his life," she said.

"Because of research at Tacoma General and other sites, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius has now recommended pulse-oximetry for all newborns nationwide. It will likely take time for the newborn screen to be adopted at all Washington state birthing hospitals. In the meantime, parents of newborns can ask for the test if a hospital doesn't routinely offer it.

According to experts, undetected heart defects are the number one cause of infant death from birth defects.

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