I couldn’t think of a better topic for World Prematurity Day 2021 than what constitutes the edge of viability. Thinking back over my career, when I was a resident and fellow infants born at 25 and 26 weeks were deemed about as low as “we should” go but we certainly resuscitated infants at 24 weeks but this was considered heroic. Jump ahead to the last decade and we began caring for infants at birth at 23 weeks so commonly that the thought of offering comfort care only to infants at 24 weeks became almost unthinkable for many health care providers. Before I get jumped on, let me say that I am not saying I agree or disagree with that sentiment but it is something that is felt by many.
The Shared Decision Model
In the last few years a rethink again has occurred whereby the concept of the treating team knowing best has been replaced by the “shared decision model”. In this line of thinking, it is not up to us as health care providers to “tell the parents” what to do but rather come to a shared decision based on an assessment of the wishes and values of the parents in conjunction with hearing about both short and long term problems their infants may face if resuscitated. This concept was central to the statement by the Canadian Pediatric Society that I am proud to have been part of with respect to its development. The statement for those that are interested is Counselling and management for anticipated extremely preterm birth
What’s next? Going below 22 weeks?
The challenge of the shared decision model is that there comes a point where the answer is simply “no”. If for example a family at 19 weeks gestation demanded an attempt at resuscitation I would have to inform them that survival is not possible (assuming ultrasound confirmed anthropometric measurements consistent with that age). The question though becomes a little more difficult to answer at 21 weeks and was the subject of a recent article in the New York Times about a survivor at 21 weeks gestation.
Even with the best gestational age dating the estimate can be off by up to 5 days so it’s possible that the infant in this story was closer to 22 weeks or even midpoint between 22 and 23 weeks in reality. Regardless it does raise the question about what to do at 21 weeks and I suspect we will begin to see more stories about this now that the glass ceiling of 22 weeks has been breached. What about below 21 weeks? Sounds impossible I know but with research that remains at the stage of animal studies this may become possible. Maybe not in the next 5-10 years but it could happen in my lifetime in this chosen field.
The Artificial Placenta
This made headlines a few years ago with the news that the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia had successfully kept a lamb alive for a period of 4 weeks using an artificial placenta and amniotic fluid.
You might think that this was a one-off experiment that will never see the light of day but similar work is being done in Toronto, Canada where they have been able to do similar work with preterm piglets in their paper Achieving sustained extrauterine life: Challenges of an artificial placenta in fetal pigs as a model of the preterm human fetus. Incidentally as my colleague Dr. Ayman Sheta worked on this project while in Toronto I am particularly pleased to share this research. Similar to the experience in CHOP the team in Toronto has been able to keep piglets alive for progressively longer durations. My understanding is that despite the best efforts infectious complications over arise limiting how long one can sustain such animals.
This leads me to my final thoughts on where we might be able to go. I see a future where we apply such technology to humans but not in the way that people might have thought. Keeping a fetus after delivery at 21 or 20 weeks on an artificial placenta for many weeks is not likely a realistic goal. What if we could get 1 or 2 weeks though and allow the fetus to be oxygenated without using positive pressure on their developing lungs and transition them at 23 or 24 weeks gestation? We may in this way be able to allow for postnatal maturation in a artificial uterine environment and give babies a chance who would otherwise never had the opportunity for a shared decision with medical staff.
Sound like science fiction? Well the beauty of the internet as my friend told me today is that once it’s out there it out there for good. Let’s see how this post stands the test of time and to all the babies out there in NICUs and to their families I wish you all a good and uneventful World Prematurity Day wherever you may be!
Extubation is a regular occurrence in the NICU. We do our best to predict who will succeed and who will fail but it isn’t always easy to figure out who they are in advance. We use techniques such as looking at oxygenation histograms and using thresholds for PIP, PEEP or MAP but in the end sometimes it works and other times it doesn’t. In an effort to improve on intubation success, some creative researchers in Switzerland employed a technique called end-expiratory lung impedance or EELI to measure lung volume before, during and after the extubation process. The use of EELI is based on the impendance of the lung changing with the distribution of tissue and air and by placing electrodes one can generate a cross sectional volume that has been shown in neonates to be representative of total lung volume. The EELI technique creates an image like this which is use to generate the estimate of lung volume.
The researchers in this study were seeking to do a quality improvement project and use EELI to estimate lung volume at different time points in an extubation. The time points were all 30 seconds including, immediately before first handling of the infant (baseline), tracheal suctioning (suction), start and end of adhesive tape removal (adhesive tape begin and adhesive tape end), pulling the endotracheal tube (extubation), initiation of non-invasive ventilation (NIV), immediately before and after turning the infant to prone position (supine and prone, respectively), and 10 min after turning to prone position (prone10). As per unit policy all babies were ventilated with Draeger VN500 ventilators and if <28 weeks went on to NIPPV when extubated or if 28 weeks or more straight CPAP. The purpose of this quality initiative was to determine using EELI at what point in the extubation process infants might be losing lung volume and then based on the information see if they could ultimately use this to improve the chances of successful extubation in the future.
What makes this study interesting is that the infants were found to lose volume but at a time when I would not have expected it.
Below is a graphical depiction of EELI and estimates of FRC during the different time points. The changes in electrical impedance by EELI were converted on the right Y axis to an FRC in mL/kg.
What is surprising at least to me here is the loss of volume occurs not with extubation but rather when the tape removal process happens. With the placement of the prongs on the infant at extubation the FRC gradually rises and recovery occurs. Moreover as shown in the 12 patients included in this study, the recovery once non-invasive ventilation is provided is quite rapid and evident within 1-2 breaths.
A couple other things to note. The loss of FRC during tape removal was about 10 mL/kg and if typical FRC in a preterm infant is 20-25 mL/kg you can see the impact this would have on lung volume and reserve. As this was a small study it could not detect a threshold at which extubation would fail but one infant who developed a pneumothorax and required reintubation did not get back to their baseline FRC.
What is this signaling?
Yes this is a small study but it did look at about 3000 breaths so there is a fair amount of data to look at. What the paper demonstrates I think is that there is a vulnerable time during tape removal where likely due to the fact that we use uncuffed ETTs in neonatology it is possible for these infants to lose lung volume. It may be that as they strain and bear down the ventilator may not be as effective at delivering volume to them. Measures that might help during this time could be skin to skin care, breastmilk drops or scent, sucrose or a variety of other non-pharmacologic measures to keep them calm. This might help to minimize such volume loss. Secondly, knowing the significant risk of volume loss it underlines the importance of placing nasal prongs on as quickly as possible during the transition from invasive to non-invasive ventilation as recovery of lung volume is possible. It think it also suggests that if we are “peepaphobic” and use an insufficient amount of support at extubation these infants may be vulnerable to experience significant volume loss as well.
While EELI may not be perfect, this study is the first of its kind and may shed some light into why some infants fail after extubation. While usually I say less is more, I do wonder if in the case of extubation, this study gives some evidence to support starting with a higher PEEP than you think you need non-invasively and then backing off after one has successfully extubated. This may be the first study I have seen on this but I am certain it won’t be the last.
The journey from conception to the labour floor and then for some to the NICU is not a straight one. There are times of joy, interspersed with sadness, denial, anger and eventually acceptance, as initial news of being pregnant leads to complications in pregnancy and then eventual admission of an infant to the NICU.
Much has been said in recent years about the building of partnerships with parents and in fact there is a new catchphrase attached to the concept “shared decision making” (SDM). There is no question that in the perfect world this is exactly the relationship that we should be striving for with all of our patients. The world however is not perfect and although this may not be the most popular opinion I have given, I question how applicable this really is in many situations.
A Reality Check
Take for instance the parents who present to the labour floor of their local hospital in advanced labour at 24 weeks. Proponents of this SDM model would suggest that a meeting take place and pertinent information be given to a family and together with the assistance of literature applicable to their situation (possibly a pamphlet) the health care providers and families come to a mutually agreeable decision as to what the best course of action is for them and their unborn infant. This all sounds wonderful but examining the real life situation a little more closely is it actually reasonable to assume we can obtain this? I have not been, nor will I ever be pregnant and certainly have never experienced contractions and felt the veil clouding my vision as the first dose of analgesia enters my veins to deal with the discomfort a woman experiences during labour. Not to mention there are people admitting this couple, taking histories, establishing IV access, scanning bellies and a whole host of other pokes and prods along the way.
My Role Better Defined
Then I come in. Among all this chaos I deliver the information, pass along a pamphlet and do the best job I can to inform said couple of the upcoming decision. The trouble of course is how do we come to this mutual decision in the 15 – 30 minutes I spend with them during this crisis? The answer sadly is we do our best but don’t for a minute think that SDM has occurred. I don’t believe this is possible unless the family has prior experience with a preterm birth or perhaps is a HCP working with newborns or children with disabilities themselves. In fact Boss RD et al in their own research on the subject identified that in hindsight religion, spirituality and hope are what motivated parents rather than what was said at the time. In essence their minds are already made up. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive for the SDM but at least in my opinion, unless their contractions settle, a calmness ensues, they have time to digest the information being given and then meet again under less stressful circumstances, the SDM is a nice idea but for many not a reality.
Shifting To The NICU
I recall a significant moment in my training when I saw how the SDM model can actually cause more grief than help. Dr. Keith Barrington a fellow blogger (if you haven’t discovered him, his work is fascinating over at Neonatal Research) published one of the most impactful pieces of research of the decade during my fellowship. The adverse neuro-developmental effects of postnatal steroids in the preterm infant: a systematic review of RCTs. Following this analysis there was a near moratorium on the use of post natal steroids. The issue this created was that to now receive them you had to be close to the end of the limits of care. At this point you either died (thereby concluding they are of no help) or you survived with disability that was due in part no doubt to how sick you had become (thereby concluding they are dangerous).
The moment I am referring to was a conversation with a family in which the attending managing the unit presented the risks and benefits of postnatal steroids to the family when the FiO2 was at 40% one day. The language used was non directive and the parents asked for another day to decide. The next day and each of the following two days they were unable to choose between giving the steroids and the perceived risk of brain damage versus not and watching the FiO2 climb by about 10% per day. By the time the FiO2 several days later was at 80-90% they were distraught, teary and feeling helpless. What they needed was direction; someone to give them some advice or more simply an educated opinion.
We can strive to share in the decision making but I continue to believe there is a time and place to help our families by taking a stance or side. We can equip them with as much information as we want but is there really any replacement for actually taking care of these infants, experiencing the ups and downs and hearing how they have done in follow-up? We simply can’t expect the average parent to understand the true long term consequences of their decisions. I am not saying we go back to a paternalistic time in medicine but I am saying that one size does not fit all.
We owe it to our families to pursue SDM when we can but we have an equal obligation to recognize when this ideal state is simply not possible. At this point we have to use the experiences and knowledge we have to provide them with the best advice we can. We have gone through medical training, and gone down these paths so many times. We can avoid biased opinion and rely on the facts as they are in our institutions but to not take a stand when it is needed at least for me is doing a disservice to those we are so eager to help.
If you are reading this and have a baby in the NICU with respiratory distress syndrome (RDS) otherwise known as hyaline membrane disease you might be surprised to know that it is because of the same condition that modern NICUs exist. The newspaper clipping from above sparked a multibillion dollar expansion of research to find a cure for the condition that took the life of President Kennedy’s preterm infant Patrick Bouvier Kennedy. He died of complications of RDS as there was nothing other than oxygen to treat him with. After his death the President committeed dollars to research to find a treatment and from that came surfactant and modern ventilators to support these little ones.
What is surfactant and what is it’s relationship to RDS?
When you take a breath (all of us including you reading this) oxygen travels down your windpipe (trachea) down into your lung and goes left and right down what are called your mainstem bronchi and then travels to the deep parts of the lung eventually finding its way to your tiny air sacs called alveoli (there are millions of them). Each alveolus has a substance in it called surfactant which helps to reduce the surface tension in the sac allowing it to open to receive oxygen and then shrink to get rid of carbon dioxide that the blood stream brings to these sacs to eliminate. Preterm infants don’t have enough surfactant and therefore the tension is high and the sacs are hard to open and easily collapse. Think of surface tension like blowing up those latex balloons as a child. Very hard to get them started but once those little balloons open a little it is much easier! The x-ray above shows you what the lungs of a newborn with RDS look like. They are described as having a “ground glass” appearance which if you recall is the white glass that you write on using a grease pencil when you are using a microscope slide. Remember that?
Before your infant was born you may have received two needles in your buttocks. These needles contain steroid that helps your unborn baby make surfactant so that when they are born they have a better chance of breathing on their own.
Things we can do after birth
Even with steroids the lungs may be “sticky” after birth and difficult to open. The way this will look to you is that when your baby takes a breath since it is so difficult the skin in between the ribs may seem to suck in. That is because the lungs are working so hard to take breath in that the negative pressure is seen on the chest. If your baby is doing that we can start them on something called CPAP which is a machine that uses a mask covering the nose and blows air into the chest. This air is under pressure and helps get oxygen into the lungs and gives them the assist they need to overcome the resistance to opening.
Some babies need more than this though and will need surfactant put into the lungs. The way this is done is typically by one of two ways. One option is to put a plastic tube in between the vocal cords and then squirt in surfactant (we get it from cow’s or pigs) and then typically the tube is withdrawn (you may hear people call it the INSURE technique – INtubate, SURfactant, Extubate). For some babies who still need oxygen after the tube is put in they may need to remain on the ventilator to help them breathe for awhile. The other technique is the LISA (Less Invasive Surfactant Administration). This is a newer way of giving surfactant and typically involves putting a baby on CPAP and then looking at the vocal cords and putting a thin catheter in between them. Surfactant is then squirted into the trachea and the catheter taken out. The difference between the two methods is that in the LISA method your baby is breathing on their own throughout the procedure while receiving CPAP.
Even if no surfactant is given the good news is that while RDS typically worsens over the first 2-3 days, by day 3-4 your baby will start to make their own surfactant. When that happens they will start to feel better and breathe easier. Come to think of it you will too.
Recent statements by the American Academy of Pediatric’s, NICHD, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), the Society for Maternal-Fetal Medicine (SMFM), and recommend selective approaches to mothers presenting between 22 0/7 to 22 6/7 weeks. The decision to provide antenatal steroids is only recommended if delivery is expected after 23 weeks. Furthermore the decision to resuscitate is based on an examination of a number of factors including a shared decision with the family. In practice this leads to those centres believing this is mostly futile generally not resuscitating or offering steroids while other more optimistic hospitals having higher rates of proactive (steroids and resuscitation) rates. Then there are other centres where the standard approach is proactive such as one in Uppsala, Sweden where this approach is used almost exclusively.
What would happen then if one compared the outcome for infants born at 22 weeks between this hospital and another where a selective approach is generally offered. In this case you would have a lot of experience with resuscitating infants at 22 weeks and the other a fraction of all presenting as a few to many would receive compassionate care. This is exactly what has now happened.
The authors examined a period from 2006-2015, dividing this time into two epochs with the first being 2006-2010 to account for differing practices and resources over time. Given that Uppsala took a proactive approach to all of their 40 live born infants during this time, it provided an opportunity to look at the 72 infants who were live born in the Ohio and examine their differences. In Ohio the approach was as follows; 16 (22%) received proactive care, 18 (25%) received inconsistent care (steroids but no resuscitation), and 38 (53%) received comfort care. In other words, although the total number of infants live born in Ohio was almost double that of Uppsala, only 16 were proactively treated in Ohio compared to all 40 in Uppsala.
The differences in outcome are striking
Survival in delivery room: (38/40, 95% vs 12/16, 75%; P = 0.049)
Provision of delivery room surfactant: (40/40, 100% vs 9/16, 56%; P<0.01)
Survival at 24 h (37/40, 93% vs. 9/16, 56%; P < 0.01).
Survival to 1 year (21/40, 53% vs. 3/16, 19%; P < 0.05).
Among the infants treated proactively, median age of death (17 postnatal days at range 0 h–226 days vs. 3 postnatal hours at NCH, range 0 h–10 days; P < 0.01).
All surviving infants had BPD All infants surviving to initial hospital discharge were alive at 18 months’ postnatal age.
With respect to long term outcome the authors note:
“Outpatient follow-up (qualitative or non-qualitative neurodevelopmental testing) was available in 26 out of 27 infants (96%) Eleven of the 26 (42%) were unimpaired, and all unimpaired infants were in the UUCH cohort. Among the 15 infants with impairment at UUCH, 3 had mild impairment and 12 had moderate or severe impairment. All surviving infants at NCH had moderate or severe impairment.”
A word about antenatal steroids as well. In Uppsala 85% of mothers received 2 doses of antenatal steroids vs 25% in Ohio. People sometimes question whether ANS at this age are effective. It is interesting to note that 44% of babies in the Ohio group vs 3% p<0.01 received chest compressions +/- epinephrine in the delivery room. Might this explain the better state of some of these infants at birth?
The Power of Belief
When I do rounds I often remark that try as we might we can’t will babies to do better. I also commonly say however that we need to be optimistic and although I am accused of seeing the world through rose coloured glasses I think there is an important lesson to be learned from this study. This comparison is really a contrast between a system that believes they can do a good thing for these families by actively promoting a proactive approach vs a system in which I imagine a reluctant approach exists even for those infants where a proactive plan is enacted. One sign of this might be that in Sweden 100% of these deliveries had a Neonatologist present vs 75% in the US. It could be due to other factors such as ability of the Neo to get in within time of the delivery however rather than a sign they didn’t feel they were needed due to futility.
There is evidence as well that the aggressiveness of the proactive approach also differs between the two sites based on a couple observations. The first is the rate of surfactant provision in the delivery room which was 100% in Sweden but only 56% in the US. The other thing of note is the time of death for those who did not survive. The median time of death in the US was 3 hours vs 17 days in Uppsala. What does this tell us about the approaches? I would imagine (although the numbers are small) that the teams in the US were much more likely to lose hope (or faith) and withdraw early while the other centre possibility motivated by their past successes pushed forward.
Remarkably, although one might think that the teams in Uppsala were simply creating significantly impaired survivors, 42% of the survivors were unimpaired from a developmental standpoint in follow-up. All surviving infants though from Ohio had moderate to severe impairment.
What this story may also really be about is practice. The reality is that the team in Sweden had over twice the exposure to such infants over time. Although the number presenting at this GA was higher, the ones that actually were resuscitated and given steroids was less than half. One cannot take away though that Uppsala in the end demonstrated that a proactive approach is definitely not futile. Not only can these children survive but almost half will be developmentally intact.
We must acknowledge as well though that since this is a retrospective study there may be factors that may have affected the results. As the saying goes “Individual results may vary”. Are the teams the same in both centres in terms of number of Neonatologists? Are there more residents caring for these infants vs fellows? Are the resources the same? What about proximity of the Neonatologist to the hospital? There are other factors such as cohesiveness of the team and communication between team members that may be influencing the results.
In the end though, this is a story of a team that believed it could and did. Perhaps seeing the world through rose coloured glasses is not such a bad thing in the end.