The Eyes Have It or Do They

The Eyes Have It or Do They

Every now and then I come across an instance when I discover that something that I have known for some time truly is not as well appreciated as I might think.

Twice in my career I have come across the following situation which has been generalized to eliminate any specific details about a patient.  In essence this is a fictional story but the conclusions are quite real.

Case of the Flat Baby

A mother arrives at the hospital with severe abdominal pain and in short order is diagnosed with a likely abruption at 26 weeks gestational age. Fetal monitors are attached and reveal a significant fetal bradycardia with a prolonged period of minutes below 100 and sometimes below 60 beats per minute.  She is rushed to the OR where an emergency c-section is performed.

A live born infant is handed to the resuscitation team after cord clamping is stopped at 30 seconds due to significant cyanosis and no respirations.  After placing the infant in a polyethylene wrap and performing the initial steps of ventilation there is no respiratory effort and the baby is given PPV.  After no heart rate is noted chest compressions commence followed by intubation and then epinephrine when a heart rate while detected remains below 60.  The team gives a bolus of saline followed by another round of epinephrine and by 10 minutes a pulse of 80 BPM is detected.  While a pulse is present it remains borderline and the baby shows no sign of any respiratory efforts.

The care providers at this point have a decision to make about continuing resuscitative efforts or not.  One of the team members performs a physical exam at this stage and notes that the pupils are unresponsive to light with a 3 mm pupillary diameter.  The team questions whether based on this finding irreversible neurological damage has occurred.

Pupillary Reactions in Preterm Infants

It turns out that much like many organs in the body which have yet to fully mature the same applies to the eye or more specifically in this case the pupil. Robinson studied 50 preterm infants in 1990 and noted that none of the infants under 30 weeks gestational age demonstrated any reaction to light shone in the eye.  After 30 weeks the infants gradually realized this function until by 35 weeks all infants had attained this pupillary reaction to light.


Isenberg in the same year when examining 30 preterm infants under 30 weeks noted that in addition to the lack of pupillary constriction to light, as the gestational age decreased the pupillary diameter enlarged.  The youngest infants in this study at 26 weeks had a mean pupillary diameter of 4.7 mm while by 29 weeks this number decreased to 2.9 mm.  This means that the smaller the infant the larger the pupillary size and given that these are also the highest risk infants one can see how the appearance of a “fixed and dilated pupil” could lead one down the wrong path.


Deciding when to stop a resuscitation is never an easy decision.  Add to this as I recently wrote, even after 10 minutes of resuscitation outcomes may not be as bad as we have thought; Apgar score of 0 at 10 minutes: Why the new NRP recommendations missed the mark.  What I can say and obviously was the main thrust of this piece is that at least when you are resuscitating an infant  < 30 weeks gestational age, leave the eyes out of the decision.  The eyes in this case “do not have it”.



Getting it right.  Diagnosing true infections in the NICU.  It matters!

Getting it right. Diagnosing true infections in the NICU. It matters!

The scenario is often the same.  Faced with a child born to a mother with risk factors for sepsis you decide to start antibiotics.  The time comes closer to 36 – 48 hours when you must decide whether or not to continue.  Each time we examine our results and look at cultures and try to do what is right.  Yet defining right is sometimes hard for so many.  If we had 100% sensitivity and specificity for all our tests it would be easy but we don’t.  So what can we do?

If I had to have one wish though it would be that we could improve upon our diagnostic accuracy when it comes to treating suspected infections in the newborn.  As health care providers we have an extremely loud inner voice trying to tell us to minimize risk when it comes to missing a true bacterial infection.  On the other hand so much evidence has come forth in the last few years demonstrating that prolonging antibiotics beyond 48 hours is not just unwise in the absence of true infection but can be dangerous.  Increased rates of necrotizing enterocolitis is just one such example but other concerns due to interfering with the newborn microbiome have arisen in more recent years.  What follows are some general thoughts on septic workups that may help you (and myself in my own practice) as we move ahead into the New Year and may we cause less harm if we consider these.

The Role of Paired Blood Cultures

Although not published by our centre yet, we adopted this strategy for late onset sepsis a couple years back and have seen a significant reduction in work-ups deemed as true infections since adoption.  While the temptation to do only one blood culture is strong as we have a desire to minimize skin breaks consider how many more there will be if you do one culture and get a CONS organism back.  There will be several IV starts, perhaps a central line, repeat cultures etc.  If you had done two at the start and one was positive and the other negative you could avoid the whole mess as it was a contaminant from the start.  On my list of do no harms I think this may have the greatest benefit.

The Chest X-Ray Can Be Your Friend

While I am not a fan of routine chest x-rays I do believe that if you are prepared to diagnose an opacification on a chest x-ray as being due to a pneumonia (VAP or in those non-ventilated) that you need to follow this up with a repeat x-ray 24 – 48 hours later.  rdsIf the opacity is gone it was atelectasis as a true pneumonia will not clear that easily. Well worth the radiation exposure I say.

If You Are Going To Do a Work-up Make It A Complete One

We hear often in rounds the morning after a septic work-up that the baby was too sick to have an LP and that we can just check the CSF if the blood is positive.  There are two significant problems to this approach.  The first which is a significant concern is that in a recent study of patients with GBS meningitis, 20% of those who had GBS in the CSF had a negative blood culture.  Think about that one clearly… relying on a positive culture to decide to continue antibiotics may lead to partially treated GBS meningitis when you discontinue the antibiotics prematurely.  Not a good thing.  The second issue is that infants with true meningitis can have relatively low CSF WBC counts and may drift lower with treatment. Garges et al in a review of 95 neonates with true meninigits found that CSF WBC counts >21 cells per mm3 had a sensitivity of 79% and specificity at 81%.   This means that in those with true meningitis 19% of the time the WBC counts would be below 21 leading to the false impression that the CSF was “fine”.  If antibiotics were effective it could well be by 48 hours that the negative CSF culture you find would incorrectly lead you to stop antibiotics.  Message:  Do the CSF sampling at the time of the septic work-up whenever possible.

If We Aren’t Prepared To Do a Supra Pubic Aspirate Should We Not Collect Urine At All?

This provocative question was asked by a colleague last week and is based on the results of a study which was the topic of the following post: Bladder Catherterizations for UTI: Causing more harm than good?  The gist of it is that it would appear that in many cases the results of a catheter obtained urine cannot be trusted.  If that is the case then are we ultimately treating infections that don’t actually exist when the only positive culture is from a urine.  I believe using point of care ultrasound to obtain specimens from a SPA will be the way to go but in the meantime how do we address the question of whether a UTI is present or not?  May need to rely on markers of inflammation such as a CRP or procalcitonin but that is not 100% sensitive or specific either but may be the best we have at the moment to determine how to interpret such situations.

Lastly, Slow Down And Practice Good Hand Hygiene

So much of what I said above is important when determining if an infection is present or not. The importance of preventing infection cannot be understated. Audits of hand hygiene practice more often than not demonstrate that physicians are a group with some of the lowest rates of compliance. Why is that? As a physician I think it has nothing to do with ignorance about how to properly perform the procedure but rather a tendency to rush from patient to patient in order to get all the things done that one needs to do well on service or call. If we all just slow down a little we may eventually have less need to run from patient to patient as the rate of infections may drop and with it demand for our time.

If slowing down is something that you too think is a good idea you may want to have a look at the book In Praise of Slowness by Carl Honore (TED Talk by Carl Below)  which may offer some guidance how to do something that is more easily said than done. Here is hoping for a little slower pace in the new year. We could reap some fairly large benefits!


Pushing the Envelope in NICU: Are we ready?

Pushing the Envelope in NICU: Are we ready?

Another year has passed and another World Prematurity Day is upon us.  I thought about what to write for this day that draws attention to premature infants worldwide and was hit with many ideas which no doubt will form the basis for many posts to come. There was one thought that struck me though as being so important to think about as we push forward, striving to improve survival across the globe for our smallest patients.  There is no doubt that you will have heard the expression “just because we can do something, should we?”  In 2015 I don’t think this applies more than at this very moment.

At a Tipping Point

You see we are at a tipping point as Malcolm Gladwell explained so brilliantly in his book by the same name.  Tipping-PointIn April of 2015 Rysavy et al published the results of survival and morbidity data for infants born in 24 US hospitals between the ages of 22 – 26 weeks.  The nearly 5000 infants included demonstrated two very important things.  Firstly, survival is possible at 22 and 23 weeks and there is a chance, albeit less than 50% that these infants will survive without moderate or severe disability.  Secondly, at these gestational ages 75% of hospitals included provided active resuscitation to these infants.  Given that this is the largest study out there and shows that survival is possible and we can expect to see some good outcomes it would seem logical to move forward with universal resuscitation of these infants would it not?

You Are Going To Practice on What?!

As the saying goes though, “Perfect Practice Makes Perfect”.  Not all hospitals have equal performance at these gestational ages which is demonstrated in the ranges of outcomes across hospitals as shown in the Rysavy paper.  To even suggest that we need to practice on premature babies will no doubt leave many of you feeling queasy but in essence that is what is truly needed to improve our outcomes further.  An infant born at 22 – 24 weeks is vastly different than one born at a later gestational age.  Their skin is extremely fragile and prone to breakage with resultant risk of infection.  Their lungs are in a stage of development that has yet to produce any real abundance of gas exchanging alveoli and their brains lacking the sulci and gyri that are to come many weeks later.  They are in need of meticulous “best practice” care and without that their outcomes are certainly to be influenced.  Depending on the centre though, you may see 5, 10, 15, 20 patients a year at these ages.  How can a team possibly gain enough experience in treating these children appropriately if they see 1 or 2 every two months?  Add to this that you may have 10 different Neonatologists so on average each of you may take care of one patient a year at birth.  This is a recipe prone to poor outcomes if you ask me.

The Evolution of the Small Baby Unit

The answer no doubt will lie in creating smaller teams; so called “Small Baby Units”.  Such units have small groups of health care providers dedicated to treating such infants thereby increasing the frequency of individuals exposure to these babies.  There is some recent evidence published in Pediatrics that supports this notion.  Small Baby Unit Improves Quality and Outcomes in Extremely Low Birth Weight Infants.  In this study a period of two years before and four years after opening such a unit were compared across a number of measures. The findings were as follows “There was a reduction in chronic lung disease from 47.5% to 35.4% (P = .097). The rate of hospital-acquired infection decreased from 39.3% to 19.4% (P < .001). Infants being discharged with growth restriction (combined weight and head circumference <10th percentile) decreased from 62.3% to 37.3% (P = .001). Reduced resource utilization was demonstrated as the mean number per patient of laboratory tests decreased from 224 to 82 (P < .001) and radiographs decreased from 45 to 22 (P < .001).”   I hope you would agree that achievements such as these are worth the effort to create such an environment.  Future studies I believe will confirm these findings although having the gold standard RCT may be difficult to achieve as I suspect we will have lost equipoise.

This brings me to the final point though and that is whether we are ready as a health care system for the increase patient load that this change will bring about.  Based on an expected stay of 4 months for a baby born at this age and knowing the average number of such babies delivered per year, we would be looking at about 600 patient days per year added to each hospital’s occupancy in our two centres.  photo-meet-MacThis represents about a 5% increase in patient bed days per year.  Five percent may not seem like a large increase at first blush but when we like many hospitals have been trying to deal with staffing issues and many days in which we are at or near capacity, this is not an insignificant challenge.  It is a challenge though that we must face head on.  Resources must be found, and space provided to accommodate for these children.  We live in a world now where it is not solely up to us but to the family as well who must be integral to any such decision to either pursue or withdraw care.  News of such infants surviving has spread to the public and I have no doubt that many families will have heard stories of such survivors.  The next phase of care for these infants must address the shortcomings in care at the moment.

How do we educate families about what to expect in the long run?

How do we support these families when they make such difficult decisions either way?

How do we support our front line staff who may hold quite discrepant viewpoints about what is “right” yet expect them to function as one team moving clearly in a direction that supports the family?

How do we ensure that our focus on our smallest infants does not distract us from the attention needed by those born at later gestational ages?

I could go on but these are just some of the questions that I hope the next year begins to tackle.  We are in the midst of an evolutionary point in Neonatology and we owe it to ourselves and the families we care for to navigate this change as best we can.

All Things Neonatal is Evolving

All Things Neonatal is Evolving

Something kind of big happened today.  I received a notice on my Facebook Page that there were now 3000 “likes” for this little community that I started back in February of this year.  imagesI was asked early on what the purpose of this blog and Facebook page were and in response I wrote the piece Inside the mind of a Neonatal Blogger. Why am I doing this?.  If you are curious, this gives you a good glimpse into my motivations.

Truth be told though I wasn’t really sure what this would become and early on my goal was to have 300 likes and then when that was passed 1000.  What has happened since has been quite the surprise.  I could not have imagined the growth in the page and the blog since that time.

Screenshot 2015-11-06 21.37.45

The map above actually represents all the countries that have read posts from this blog.  The red colour aside from being Canada indicates the top country in terms of views, the USA is second in orange and then yellow being the rest of the countries on the map.  The white areas are as of yet countries that have not read a piece but who knows what will happen given a little more time!

An interesting shift though has occurred on the Facebook page and that is over the last month a real community has evolved.  Up until recently a given post might generate one or two comments but I have noticed something quite special evolving on this site.  That is that not only have the comments increased with each post but you the readers are beginning to use this site as I had envisioned.  Comments are being made and you are responding rather than leaving it all up to me.  Don’t take this the wrong way though, I am more than happy to respond but I am enjoying reading your own thoughts as well.  We come from such a wide variety of backgrounds and experiences and these differences are beginning to express themselves in your written words.

As much as I enjoy finding interesting Neonatal content to share with you, I equally enjoy seeing how you respond.  An additional complement is that the interactions are almost always respectful, productive and generating of even more dialogue.  I learn from you just as you learn from me so let me say thank you for that!

Lastly, I have come to understand that “All Things Neonatal” really does have to be just that.  Try as I might I have not been able to unlock the secret of what truly interests the reader.  Topics that I would have predicted would “go viral” have been put out into the internet only to produce a sound “thud” as they fall flat which others that I might have thought would generate mild interest have exploded.  It is this unpredictability that keeps me excited about putting out each post as I continue to be fascinated by my inability to predict what leads to a boom or a bust.

In case you are wondering though the top three posts have been:

  1. Winnipeg hospital now resuscitating all infants at 22 weeks! A media led case of broken telephone.
  2. Automatic adjustments of FiO2. Ready for prime time?
  3. Marijuana Coming Soon To An NICU Near You!

If you haven’t read these then you may be missing out as your fellow readers seemed to think these were a big hit.

Thanks to each of you for following and keep the comments coming.  Also if you try something out that you see on this site and adopt it in your hospital please let me know how it has gone.  We can all learn plenty from each other.  As our base grows so does our collective knowledge and in my opinion that is a good thing.

Winnipeg Hospital About to Start Resuscitating Infants at 23 weeks!

Winnipeg Hospital About to Start Resuscitating Infants at 23 weeks!

This piece is a short follow-up to the blog post originally posted on June 20th of this year entitled:

Winnipeg hospital now resuscitating all infants at 22 weeks! A media led case of broken telephone.

Since that post, an incredible shift has occurred in the way that we as a team view attempts at resuscitation at 23 weeks.  It took a great deal of dialogue among all health care providers and a deeper understanding of concerns of both Obstetrical and Neonatal colleagues to come to a mutual understanding that could yield a path to move forward.  Through dialogue, the damage that had been done by the development of a “broken telephone” was repaired and trust emerged across disciplines which was the only way forward from the beginning.

Why not 22 weeks?

Yes, gestational age is so much more than just a number and must include estimates of fetal size, certainty of dates, parental wishes and several other factors to arrive at a decision that incorporates the wishes of the family.  There are certainly significant challenges to informing families during a time of incredible stress as to the options that lay before them but we have to do our best in the time that we have.

When you are crossing that barrier of 24 weeks gestation, despite the caution above about the uncertainty surrounding gestational age dating there is a significant mental leap to move to 23 weeks.  The leap to consider 22 weeks is even larger and I would suggest several fold.  Is it possible that we would resuscitate such an infant?  Absolutely if the dating was uncertain, the family had strong wishes and the team was on board with such a decision but for now this will not be advocated for at all in our city.  I suspect similar discussions are happening all over North America and it will be fascinating to see where we land in 5, 10 and more years into the future.

What was the most important change to practice to enable progress?

Prior to 2015 we had one survivor at 23 weeks in a five year period.  This year out of five actively resuscitated 3 have survived and at early assessments seem to be doing well.  The overwhelming consensus was that skin care needed to be of paramount importance in this process. new  cord procedure To that end we began a new process for cleaning the umbilical cord for line insertion with the goal to minimize skin burns on the abdomen.  I am proud to report that since we change our technique there have been no skin burns found where once this was commonplace.

The process can be found in this short video here.

For now though, we are about to embark on a new journey in our city and I look forward to the continued collaboration with Obstetricians, Ethicists and all members of the Neonatal team as we explore this new frontier together.

I thought you may find it useful to see how this journey began and where we think it may go by watching this video of myself, Dr. Craig Burym (Obstetrics) and Dr. Aviva Goldberg (Ethics) presenting the approach to resuscitation at 23 weeks from the Neonatal, Obstetrical and Ethical standpoints.  The video is about 50 minutes in length but truly addresses issues from multiple vantage points so if you missed it or are interested in how these issues were dealt with please have a look.

(If you are watching this on an Apple computer please use Safari to view)