Point of View

NC lawmakers need to find a heart for helping babies

March 19, 2013 

Grace was 18 weeks old when her parents found out she had a heart defect

COURTESY OF ERIC SANCHEZ

‘Don’t panic, but I’m sending your daughter to Duke Children’s Hospital.” Though those words were spoken to me some seven years ago, I remember them as though I heard them yesterday.

At 6 weeks old, my daughter, Grace, began tugging at her ear. Thinking she had an ear infection, we took her to the doctor. As it turned out, her tugging was just a cute little habit – unfortunately, what the doctors discovered when they listened to her heart was much worse.

My baby was rushed to the hospital, where she was diagnosed with a congenital heart defect that required open-heart surgery when she was 18 weeks old.

Grace is not alone. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, heart defects account for nearly 30 percent of infant deaths due to birth defects.

The N.C. General Assembly has been discussing two bills, House Bill 105 and Senate Bill 98, that would mandate potentially life-saving testing for newborns. On March 4, the House bill passed unanimously. Discussion continues in the Senate.

Pulse oximetry, or pulse ox, is a simple, non-invasive test that monitors the amount of oxygen in a baby’s blood and the baby’s pulse rate. Low levels of oxygen in the blood can be a sign of a CHD.

If you have ever been in the hospital, you may recall a painless clip placed on your finger – that’s pulse oximetry in action. Without screening, some newborns with CHDs can be missed because the signs might not be evident before an infant is discharged from the hospital.

This is what happened to Grace. It should never happen again.

All children born in our state are required to have their hearing tested; certainly we should monitor our newborns for CHDs. A pulse-ox screen would cost consumers less than $5. That’s a bargain of life-saving proportions.

Last year, New Jersey passed similar legislation, and the very next day a baby was saved. North Carolina can wait no longer.

Today, Grace is a happy, healthy little girl. She is well aware of the “zipper” scar on her chest – a mark all survivors bear. She has four scars below her belly button where chest tubes evacuated excess blood from her heart. Imagine watching those coming out of your newborn; it is as horrific as it sounds.

In many cases, the key is early detection and intervention, the earlier the better.

The work is not yet done. A bill is not law until passed by both the House and the Senate, ratified and signed by the governor.

Mandating pulse oximetry in North Carolina will save lives. As I wrote recently to our representatives and senators: “There are so many things wrong with politics, but passing HB 105 along with SB 98 – ultimately making this law – is truly all that is right.”

Eric Sanchez, a legal executive,

lives in Durham.

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