Meconium aspiration syndrome occurs when a baby inhales meconium in the womb or during delivery. Meconium is the baby’s first stool and is made up of material swallowed in the womb. Typically, babies pass meconium after birth. Under stress, the baby may expel meconium while still in the uterus or during delivery. When that happens, the meconium mixes with the amniotic fluid surrounding the baby and the baby may breathe it in, which can cause serious breathing problems. While most cases of meconium aspiration syndrome do not cause long-lasting effects, some cases can result in brain damage and other serious side effects of oxygen deprivation.
In some cases, the effects of meconium aspiration are unavoidable. Even if your doctor and medical team was carefully monitoring the fetus’s vital signs and did everything they could to ensure no meconium made it into the baby’s lungs and airways, meconium aspiration can still occur. However, this condition is often preventable. If the negligence of a medical care provider resulted in your child suffering from meconium aspiration syndrome, you may have a claim for compensation.
General Medical Malpractice Claims
A claim against a medical care provider for meconium aspiration syndrome is a type of medical malpractice claim. In general, medical malpractice claims have three parts. First, you must show the existence of a “doctor-patient relationship.” That’s a legal term that means the doctor or care provider agreed to care for you and your child. Second, you must show that the care provider was negligent in caring for you and your child. This usually involves having an expert witness (typically another doctor in the same field) testify about the care provider’s behavior. The expert witness will describe the accepted standard of care in the medical field and show that your care provider’s actions did not meet that standard.
Finally, you must show that the care provider’s negligence actually caused the injury your child suffered. For example, a doctor is liable if your baby suffers a broken bone because the doctor yanked on the baby’s arm in a dangerous way. If your doctor yanks on the baby’s arm in a dangerous way but the baby isn’t injured, the doctor isn’t liable. If the doctor yanks on the baby’s arm in a dangerous way and the baby is injured due to an unrelated cause, the doctor isn’t liable. There has to be a clear link between the doctor’s negligence and the injury.
Meconium Aspiration Claims
A malpractice claim related to meconium aspiration syndrome must meet the same three basic requirements of any medical malpractice claim. The existence of a doctor-patient relationship is easy to prove; the fact that a doctor worked on your delivery is typically enough to show that aspect. The second two parts are more complicated. Medical negligence leading to meconium aspiration syndrome can occur either during the delivery or after birth.
Negligence During Delivery
Fetuses typically expel meconium as a result of stress, most commonly due to oxygen deprivation. The fetus may be oxygen-deprived as a result of an aging placenta, compression of the umbilical cord, prolonged and difficult labor, or various health issues in both mother and child. During delivery, your medical care team will place fetal heart rate monitors on your belly. If the baby’s heart rate drops, that’s a sign that the baby isn’t getting enough oxygen and is experiencing distress. In addition, your medical care team should check your amniotic fluid when your water breaks. If it has streaks of darker material in it or if it is green, that’s a sign that your baby has already expelled meconium.
The appropriate course of action will depend on the unique circumstances of your labor and delivery, but doctors will typically attempt to speed up labor to minimize the amount of time the baby is deprived of oxygen. In some cases, a Cesarian section may be required to remove the baby immediately. If your medical care team ignores signs of fetal distress or fails to appropriately monitor the baby’s heart rate, the baby may expel meconium and suffer meconium aspiration syndrome or other permanent damage due to oxygen deprivation.
Negligence After Birth
Meconium aspiration can occur even after delivery. If the fetus is in distress (as shown by the heart rate monitors) or if there is meconium in the amniotic fluid, your medical care team should suction out the baby’s mouth, nose, and airways immediately after birth to clear out any meconium and prevent the baby from inhaling meconium deeper into the lungs. Failure to clear out this meconium can lead to meconium aspiration syndrome. One study shows that this could be a big difference between life and death — about 1 in 3 hospitalized babies in Pakistan died after being diagnosed with meconium aspiration syndrome; however, the overall mortality rate in the United States for children diagnosed with meconium aspiration syndrome is much lower at 1.2%.
If your baby has already aspirated meconium, your medical care team will need to administer the appropriate treatment to ensure that the baby is receiving enough oxygen. Your doctor will examine the baby immediately after birth to make sure the baby is breathing normally, has a healthy heart beat, has pink skin (indicating sufficient blood oxygen levels), and has healthy muscle tone. If your baby is crying and breathing normally, no treatment is required. If your baby is struggling to breathe, meconium aspiration syndrome may be at fault and your medical care team will need to give the proper treatment. In addition to suctioning out the airways, treatment may include administering oxygen or using a ventilator or ECMO. Failure to treat meconium aspiration syndrome promptly can cause serious and permanent brain damage – depriving the brain of oxygen for even a few minutes can have lifelong consequences.
In addition to the direct effects of meconium aspiration, your baby may suffer injuries as a result of medical negligence during treatment for secondary effects. Meconium aspiration can cause lung collapse and chemical pneumonitis. If your baby’s doctors act negligently in treating these issues, your baby may suffer permanent lung damage or brain damage due to oxygen deprivation.
What to Do
If you believe that negligence by your medical care team may have caused your child’s meconium aspiration syndrome or failed to prevent its secondary effects, contact an experienced local attorney for a case evaluation and consultation. No amount of money can undo the pain of an injured child, but it can ease the burden of big medical bills and any ongoing care requirements.