A significant number of birth injuries occur when a baby in-utero suffers from a lack of oxygen and/or blood flow to the brain. This is known as hypoxic-ischemic or anoxic injury. Hypoxic ischemic encephalopathy (“HIE”) occurs when the brain lacks sufficient oxygen (hypoxia) and blood flow (ischemia). When brain cells are deprived of oxygen (anoxia), they begin to die within minutes often causing permanent damage to a baby’s brain and in some cases can be fatal.
When contractions occur during delivery, the baby will naturally be exposed to reduced oxygen and blood flow. However, when a doctor fails to monitor a baby’s heart rate properly, uses excessive amounts of oxytocin (the generic name for “Pitocin”) or other medications to induce artificial contractions, or allows labor to go on for too long, the baby is deprived of oxygen and vital nutrients. At this point, the baby can sustain irreversible brain damage.
A baby can experience HIE if he or she is deprived of oxygen prenatally, during labor or after birth. A number of events can lead to oxygen deprivation and cause serious injury, including, but not limited to:
- Maternal hypertensive disorders, such as preeclampsia
- Compression of the umbilical cord
- Uterine rupture
- Prolapsed cord
- Placental abruption
- Injury from cephalopelvic disproportion (“CPD”).
The effects of HIE are sometimes noticeable immediately after birth. For example, a newborn may be jittery, have seizures or organ dysfunction. In some cases, however, a child may display signs of cognitive and/or motor impairment later in life, and the extent of his or her injuries from oxygen deprivation is only evident months or sometimes years after childbirth.
The extent of a child’s disability generally depends on how long he or she was deprived of oxygen. If the hypoxic-ischemic event occurred over hours of negligent labor, the body has a coping mechanism that will shunt oxygen from parts of the brain that control higher cognitive functioning over to parts of the brain that will keep a baby alive, such as those that control breathing and heart rate. This type of injury is called a partial-prolonged hypoxic-ischemic injury. In such case, the child may develop conditions such as cerebral palsy, blindness, hearing impairment, problems with physical coordination, or behavioral problems.