Babies Deaths: Heads Must Roll

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Alicia Chamely
By Alicia Chamely

“The NICU at Port-of-Spain General Hospital is unfortunately a victim of its own success.”

These were the sentiments of a medical professional during a discussion regarding the deaths of seven infants due to infection at the Port of Spain General Hospital (POSGH) Neonatal Intensive Care Unit between April 4 and 9.

On April 11, the Northwest Regional Health Authority (NWRHA) issued a release stating that seven pre-
term infants had passed away due to bacterial infections during that period. My brain just simply shut it out, because I knew reading that release would crush me, as a mother, as a woman, as a decent human being.

It took me three days to sit down and read it, to catch up on what had happened, what was unfolding and to try to understand how this can happen. To date the parents of four other infants have come forward alleging their babies were victim to the same bacterial infection during their time at the NICU.

For years the NICU at the POSGH has been one of our nations most respected and successful medical institutions. I have friends whose children are here today because of that NICU. I also have friends who lost their children at that NICU, but despite their loss will always praise the dedication and hard work of the team at the NICU who fought tirelessly for their child.

What went wrong? How does this happen? And where do we go from here? The medical professional, who asked to remain anonymous and whom I shall refer to as DMS, explained globally infections in NICUs are not uncommon, sighting an article where research showed that NICUs account for 38% of all outbreaks in Intensive Care Units.

They explained NICU infections protocol first dictates “not to let it happen” and if it does the ward needs to lock down, identify the infection, clean, and treat.

Discussing a source, it could have originated from an infant who was contaminated at birth, it could have been someone forgetting to wash their hands, a piece of equipment, contaminated water, a whole series of things.

DMS said, “The unfortunate part is that the true cause may never be known.” Even with investigations being done by the NWRHA and the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), the source may never be identified.

There are questions that do need to be answered. Was the NICU overcrowded and understaffed?

According to countless studies, these are two of the main contributing factors to NICU outbreaks. While it has not been confirmed, in my opinion for bacteria to spread as fast as that did and infect as many babies as it did, I am sure there was some overcrowding. Again, my opinion, but let’s be honest the writing is on the wall.

DMS said the truth is we have an “exceptional” team of doctors at the POSGH NICU who all are
specialised in neo-natal care. Unfortunately, we need more.

They emphasised the issue that we simply do not have enough NICU’s, so our wards become overwhelmed and our medical staff becomes overworked. However, even if we went on to build more NICUs and paediatric hospitals, we would not have the staff to run them. They pointed out this was the main issue with the repurposed Couva Hospital, that was originally built to be a pediatric facility.

They said doctors become disenchanted, over worked and are left unsupported with issues arise, often being left to take the full brunt of an angry public ire.

DMS said in these cases, doctors are not offered any psychological support and their emotional wellbeing is rarely seen as something that should be acknowledged.

“Losing one patient is terrible, seven isn’t something you get over,” they said, “and we forget they are
human, they receive no counselling, no help and are just expected to get back up and keep going.”

This is a major problem we have in our healthcare system, and a reason why we see so many doctors leaving the public system or leaving the country.

What needs to happen? We need to relook at our system. We need to make it easier for sub-specialty
nurses (like neonatal nurses… none of which we have) to integrate into our system. We need to look at ways to ensure our doctors do not burn out and at the same time encourage specialty doctors to come into our hospital system.

When we have our staffing, then we can go ahead and build more NICUs. We all want justice for those babies. And upon looking into this unfortunate situation the heads that need to roll are the decision makers that have systematically neglected our healthcare system and allowed our medical staff to take the blame.

Medical staff may not always be perfect, but they are the ones pumping tiny chests, intubating barely formed lungs, fighting their hardest for these babies to have a shot at life and doing so without any expectation of public praise.

The heads that need to roll are the ones crying at press conferences, politicising the loss of life, piggybacking trauma for relevance and the ones who take credit for the good but disappear when it goes bad.

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