A slightly yellowish tinge to the skin in newborns, especially in preemies, is a medical emergency, according to the medical literature and McGuinn. It is a sign that a baby's tiny new liver is not eliminating toxins. Gone untreated, the toxins, or billirubin, literally poison the brain resulting in what doctors call Kernicterus—or permanent brain damage.
Baby Jessie was born one day early. She was healthy, but her parents noticed
her dusky African American-Hispanic skin looked a bit yellow. What the hospital suggested next might work in some cases. However, without doing a billirubin test there is no way to be sure how serious the problem is.
"This child was visibly jaundiced in the first 2 days of life," explains McGuinn. "Her parents brought her jaundice to the attention of the nurses and the doctors. The nurses and the doctors reassured her parents: 'Lots of babies are jaundiced, take her home and put her in the sun,' they said."
When her parents returned to the hospital the next day, baby Jessie's color had changed to a slight orange. This time the hospital did blood tests, and told the Champions to take their daughter home and they would call with the results. "There is no doubt that she was jaundiced in the hospital. The discharge note that the doctor signed has a note that says 'icterus (jaundiced) down to her chest'," says McGuinn, her voice on the rise.
"I am just totally disgusted that this happened," says McGuinn. "It could have been resolved by doing a very inexpensive test on Jessie while she was still in the hospital. That would have given the medical professionals a reading of her bilirubin level and they would have known to initiate basic treatment. She would have recovered completely and there would be nothing wrong with that child today–not a thing."
This is not the first medical malpractice suit connected to Kernicterus and jaundice in newborns filed by Cynthia McGuinn. In 2002, McGuinn won a substantial victory on behalf of another California child with similar circumstances. The case also resulted in a professional letter being sent to doctors reminding them of both the medical and the legal consequences of overlooking jaundice in babies.
"Jessie needs 24-hour care in terms of a certified nurse practitioner or some medical person," says McGuinn. "She also needs a child advocate to advocate for her in terms of services. She has a cochlear implant. She is in a wheelchair, she cannot stand, walk or feed herself. She responds if someone speaks to her but she herself cannot speak."
The lives of Jessie's parents and siblings are forever changed too. "They are wonderful people," says McGuinn. Thomas Champion quit his job at UPS 4 years ago to look after Jessie. "Like most parents he can love her and watch her and try to feed her, but really he is not capable of giving Jessie the kind of care she needs."
On September 26, Jessie Champion's 5th birthday, McGuinn's firm filed a medical negligence suit against Alta Bates Summit Medical Centre, Kaiser Permanente Oakland Medical Centre and others, seeking compensation for her lifelong medical care and special needs.
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"I don't want to see this ever happen to another child," says McGuinn.
Cynthia McGuinn graduated from the Golden Gate University School of Law in San Francisco (1981). McGuinn oversees the McGuinn|Cooper Trial Team, a 10-person division of The Veen Firm that focuses on prosecuting and trying to verdict large damage exposure, complex injury, and consumer cases. A number of her cases have resulted in jury verdicts in excess of $10 million. Her community-based service work is devoted to developmentally disabled children.