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Fetal Distress Syndrome and Medical Malpractice     

Fetal distress syndrome is a dangerous situation during childbirth that requires immediate intervention by the labor and delivery team. When caregivers fail to recognize the signs of fetal distress or fail to take timely and appropriate action, the baby can suffer prolonged oxygen deprivation that can have permanent catastrophic consequences for the newborn, including cerebral palsy. If you believe that a hospital, nurse or doctor’s negligence caused harm to your child by failing to manage fetal distress syndrome appropriately, you may be able to take legal action with help from a Philadelphia birth injury attorney at Youman & Caputo.

What Is Fetal Distress Syndrome?

Fetal distress syndrome is when a baby in utero experiences changes in oxygen levels, movements or heart rate that indicate that the infant is in trouble and at risk of serious injury. Although “fetal distress” has been largely used to describe the specific issue of brain hypoxia, or a lack of oxygen getting to the infant’s brain, it can refer to a wide range of fetal problems. Thus, this term has recently been changed to “non-reassuring fetal status” (NRFS).

What Can Cause Fetal Distress Syndrome?

Fetal distress resulting from a lack of oxygen to the baby may be caused by any of several conditions. . A lack of blood flow reaching the baby, for example, can starve the infant’s developing brain of oxygen and cause permanent conditions such as cerebral palsy. Potential causes of fetal distress before or during childbirth, include:

  • Low oxygen levels in the mother’s blood
  • Maternal anemia (low red blood cell count)
  • Reduced blood flow due to umbilical cord complications
  • Gestational hypertension (high blood pressure)
  • Low levels of amniotic fluid
  • Post-term pregnancies (beyond 42 weeks)
  • Meconium in the amniotic fluid

Can Harm Resulting From Fetal Distress Be Prevented?

Fetal distress itself often cannot be prevented. The role of the health care provider is to make sure that the baby in utero is appropriately monitored to look for signs of fetal distress, to promptly recognize the signs that the fetus is trouble, and to act immediately to minimize the risk of injury to the child. If at any point the potential signs of fetal distress are noticed, the doctor should take immediate action to remedy the problem. Potential solutions include changing the mother’s position, making sure she has adequate oxygen and hydration, alleviating compression of the umbilical cord, intrauterine resuscitation and ordering an emergency C-section in a timely manner.

It is always better to prevent fetal distress than to try to remedy it after the fact. While it is not always possible to prevent fetal distress, the mother’s obstetrician should look for risk factors and warning signs ahead of time. If a mother is at a higher-than-normal risk of fetal distress, her doctor should take proactive steps to reduce the odds of distress as much as possible. For example, in a high-risk situation, it is often appropriate to plan a delivery by Cesarean section (or C-section) rather than a vaginal delivery.

Proving That Negligent Management Of Fetal Distress Caused Harm To The Newborn Child

Lack of oxygen (anoxia) or low levels of oxygen (hypoxia) can result in permanent brain damage, including the development of Cerebral Palsy. But Cerebral palsy and similar conditions have many other causes.  Proving that harm to a newborn was caused by negligent management of fetal distress as opposed to one of these other causes relies on both objective and subjective data surrounding the birth and newborn’s condition at birth, including things like APGAR scores, arterial and venous blood gas measurements, glucose measurements, and the results of other laboratory studies.  The timing of the development of the newborn’s brain injury as seen on radiology studies such as head CT or brain MRI can also provide an important data point on the issue of when the injury or insult resulting in that brain injury occurred.

Filing a Medical Malpractice Claim for Harm Caused by Fetal Distress Syndrome

If your child experienced fetal distress syndrome at any point during your pregnancy, labor or delivery, it does not necessarily mean that you are a victim of medical malpractice. However, if your doctor, midwife, or nurse reasonably should have done more to recognize, prevent or respond to fetal distress, this could be a basis for a medical malpractice claim if the failure exercise reasonable care caused serious harm. In this case, your family may be able to recover financial compensation to help pay for the extensive medical care that your child will require by filing a medical malpractice claim.

If your doctor failed to properly monitor your infant’s vital signs for symptoms of fetal distress (such as abnormalities in a baby’s heart rate), he or she may have caused or contributed to birth injuries, including cerebral palsy. Furthermore, if there is evidence that your doctor should have foreseen the possibility of fetal distress and taken reasonable steps to prevent it, this could also be medical malpractice. If you suspect malpractice associated with your child’s fetal distress syndrome, act quickly to contact an attorney to ensure that your rights are protected.