Doctors now have a suite of advanced tools to detect health problems weeks or months before an infant is born.
That early warning gives many families peace of mind.
The common ultrasound test, uses “jelly on the belly” and sound waves to track fetus development.
Newark, Del., mom Lillian Fendell was just 20 weeks pregnant when specialists noticed a cloudy area — a cataract — on her baby’s eye.
“Not even being a doctor, you could see that something was different, it looked kind of like a Lifesaver on the eye, you could see an extra dark circle going around,” Fendell said.
The sonogram from an ultrasound can look like a bunch of fuzzy blobs of grey and white, but a fetal MRI or a fetal echocardiogram can reveal more.
Dr. Sharon Lehman is a pediatric at Wilmington’s A.I. duPont Hospital for Children. She says advanced screening tools give her a head start on counseling.
“The family has time to absorb the information, when they can absorb it, get educated, and get ready to be an advocate for their child, when the child is born,” Lehman said.
“It [sometimes] means surgery on your newborn, back and forth to the doctor’s,” Lehman said. “You’re going to be under anesthesia a couple of times in the first years of life, it is a big deal.”
Surgeons removed the cataract when Fendell’s daughter was four weeks old, and today, at age 10, Kay sees well using a replacement lens.
DuPont hospital nurse coordinator Mary McCaffrey is a go-between for families when screening shows an anomaly. She says 30 years ago, doctors often discovered problems in the delivery room.
“The parents weren’t prepared. The staff wasn’t prepared and it was always uncomfortable and difficult,” McCaffrey said.
These days A.I. duPont gathers it own doctors and others from neonatology and genetics from the region to pour over images from the most challenges cases.
“These moms now have a team of physicians listening to wants going on with the baby,” McCaffrey said.
Second-step screening is more widely available today, and Fendell said she’s happy it was available for her family.
“Knowing … OK, there’s something that’s going to be a little bump in the road, a roadblock that we can deal with, and what we were going to actually have to do once she was born, was actually reassuring,” Fendell said.
Still, not everyone chooses advanced screening.
“We have had some moms who have said: ‘No, I don’t want to know.’ Sometimes it’s a denial, sometimes it is that it doesn’t matter what the problem is, they don’t need to know in advance, just a choice, just like knowing if it’s a boy or a girl,” McCaffrey said.
Ultrasound, fetal MRI and fetal echo do not use radiation. Doctors say those tests, when used appropriately are safe, with no significant medical side effects.
A fetus grows rapidly and sometimes a potential health condition resolves on its own, so specialists often wait until after a baby is born to make a final diagnosis.
For more on fetal monitoring, check out Taunya’s story on our Delaware TV news magazine, FIRST. It airs tonight at 5:30 p.m. and again at 11 p.m.