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Local mom advocates heart testing for newborns

Wyatt Hatcher, 3, is the inspiration for a study to determine if pulse oximetry screenings should be conducted on newborns.  - Special Photo

Wyatt Hatcher, 3, is the inspiration for a study to determine if pulse oximetry screenings should be conducted on newborns. - Special Photo

COVINGTON -- A Newton County mom has made strides in getting state officials to consider requiring that hospitals test for heart defects in newborns.

The Georgia Department of Public Health is beginning a study on pulse oximetry screenings, following an attempt by Jessica Hatcher to have legislation passed mandating the test for all newborns.

Hatcher's son Wyatt, 3, was born with a congenital heart defect that required him to have a heart transplant. Fortunately, Wyatt's heart defect was discovered while he was still in the womb, due to prenatal testing that was conducted because Hatcher's husband, Kevin, was born with a heart defect.

If that testing hadn't occurred, Hatcher doesn't know if doctors would have diagnosed Wyatt after his birth, as he exhibited no symptoms. That's why pulse oximetry screening is so important, she said.

Pulse oximetry screenings measure the blood oxygen level and heart rate by placing a small device on a newborn's toe or finger. The test takes less than a minute and is painless.

Prenatal ultrasounds and clinical exams identify less than one half of all cases of congenital heart defects. Pulse oximetry screenings are more effective at detecting critical heart conditions that are often missed during routine examinations.

While larger hospitals run pulse oximetry screenings on newborns, most outside the metro area do not, Hatcher said. The test is a standard part of triage care for adults.

Hatcher approached state Rep. Andy Welch, R-McDonough, about getting legislation passed to require the testing in all of Georgia's hospitals. But she learned that requiring a mandate in this economy would be a tough sell; so instead, Welch introduced a bill calling for the Department of Public Health to study whether pulse oximetry screening should be a standard test for newborns.

The bill passed in both the House and Senate, but because the Senate passed it on the last day of the session and made a small change, there wasn't time to get House reapproval as required. Nevertheless, the Department of Public Health has agreed to go ahead with the study without the legislation.

And, because of Hatcher's efforts, several hospitals have implemented the test on their own. That includes Northside Hospital, which delivers more than 18,000 babies a year -- the most in the state.

The study will look at the benefits of testing, the potential cost of testing and implementation and what exactly would have to happen for all Georgia hospitals to be equipped to conduct the test and how the data would be compiled and used, Hatcher said.

Depending on the results, the Department of Public Health may recommend that hospitals do pulse ox screening, which is stopping short of making it a mandate. However, eventually, the department could include pulse ox in its newborn screening panel, which would make it a requirement for all hospitals. That would mean insurance companies would be required to cover the test. The cost per child for the screening, adding in the cost of potential EKG and/or Echocardiogram if the test detects a critical heart condition, is around $4 per child.

Hatcher said that hospitals already screen for a number of obscure ailments that aren't life threatening, but congenital heart defects, if not treated, are 100 percent fatal. So, she's gratified that her efforts have been rewarded with tangible results.

Wyatt is currently recuperating from another surgery; eventually he will have to undergo another transplant, when his body rejects the new heart. It's Hatcher's hope that her son's plight can give other children a chance at life.

"We are so humbled this is actually happening. We have the opportunity to help children. We feel like Wyatt is here for a reason and this may very well be it. What we can do for other people is why he is here," she said.

Congenital heart disease affects seven to nine of every 1,000 live births in America and Europe, according to the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Advisory Committee on Heritable Disorders in Newborns and Children. Congenital heart defects are the leading cause of infant death due to birth defects, according to the Centers for Disease Control.