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Case of brain-damaged girl spotlights difficult issues

An article in the New York Times tells the story of a brain-damaged, two-year-old girl whom doctors describe as “neurologically devastated,” and used her story as an example of the difficult issues surrounding the expensive care of patients who will never recover.

The girl, Portia Davis, has virtually no brain, the story says.

Portia’s mother, Venita Davis, was 27 weeks pregnant and had started having labor pains when her doctor gave her a drug to stop uterine contractions and ordered a sonogram, to take a look at the fetus.

Although an earlier sonogram showed no problems, this one showed a sack protruding from the back of the fetus’s head. Doctors said most of the brain was in the sack, where it could not function. The condition is called encephaloceles.

Portia’s brain function, if she survived, would allow her only to breathe and to control such things as heartbeat and blood pressure.

Her parents asked that the pregnancy be terminated, and the obstetrician began administering an intravenous drug, pitocin, to induce labor. But the obstetrician changed his mind, reportedly because he consulted with other doctors who said they thought the fetus might be born alive.

The obstetrician sent Portia’s mother home to wait for the pregnancy to come to term, not telling her that several doctors in the United States specialize in third-trimester abortions of fetuses with severe abnormalities.

Portia was born at Columbia Hospital in Washington, D.C. The hospital staff handling the delivery seemed unprepared for the condition of the baby. A resident supervising the delivery laughed at the sack when Portia first started to emerge from the birth canal, and said: “What is this?”

No one expected Portia to live long, yet she continued to survive and doctors at the time of the story’s publication were saying she might live for years.

Her parents, meanwhile, were caught in limbo. The hospital wanted them to take their daughter home, yet they could not afford to take care of her if they did.

The report quotes Dr. Norman Daniels, an ethicist and health care expert at Tufts University in Boston, as saying said that many doctors would have terminated the pregnancy, and story illustrates the capriciousness of medical practice.

“What we’ve got here is an important issue of policy being decided by the luck of the draw,” Daniels says.

If you or a loved one have suffered a traumatic brain injury, check with Lopez McHugh for a free consultation to see what your legal options are.

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