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Newton County mom gets bill passed in House and Senate for newborn heart defect testing

COVINGTON – A Newton County mother has gotten her long-awaited wish, as the Georgia Department of Public Health is revising its newborn screening guidelines to include testing for Critical Congenital Heart Defects using pulse oximetry.

When Jessica Hatcher gave birth to her son Wyatt in 2008, the left side of the infant’s heart was not functioning. Wyatt, who is currently healthy, was placed on a waiting list in March of 2010 for a transplant and was able to get one in September of that year.

“He’s doing really good,” said Hatcher. “We’re three years post-transplant and he’s been doing really well.”

Although Hatcher got the chance to know about her son’s condition during prenatal testing, not all parents are fortunate enough to know about their baby’s heart defect before giving birth.

About one out of every 125 babies born each year in the U.S. has a heart defect, according to the March of Dimes. Heart defects are the most common form of birth defect as well as the leading cause of birth defect deaths. These defects can be detected in newborns using a technique known as pulse oximetry.

Pulse oximetry screenings, which measure the blood oxygen level and heart rate by placing a small device on a newborn’s toe or finger, take less than a minute and cause no pain for the infant.

Hatcher said she feels obliged to not only maintain the health of her son, but to prevent other parents from experiencing the loss of an infant due to heart defects.

“It would be worth it even if it could only save one life,” she said.

She approached state Rep. Andy Welch, R-McDonough, in 2011 in an attempt to get a bill passed that would require pulse oximetry screenings of newborns in all Georgia hospitals.

Although Welch was unable to get the bill mandating the screenings passed through the state Legislature, he was able to introduce a bill calling for the Department of Public Health to study whether pulse oximetry screenings should be a standard test for newborns.

Because the Senate passed the bill on the last day of its session and made a small change, there wasn’t time to get House reapproval as required before that year’s legislative session expired. However, the bill did pass both the House and Senate, and the DOPH agreed to proceed with the study without legislation.

“I’m really excited,” said Hatcher when asked about the bill’s passing. “It was an interesting process, but I had Andy with me the whole time to guide me through it.”

The Georgia DOPH anticipates these screenings to be implemented by July 1 of this year, and to have all birthing hospitals in the state to be in compliance by July 1, 2015.

The DOPH has recognized the Newborn Screening and Genetics Advisory Committee and advocates like Hatcher for supporting this cause and vital recommendation regarding the health of newborns.

Several hospitals in Georgia have already utilized the test on their own — without legislation — including Northside Hospital in Atlanta, which has the highest birthing rate out of any hospital in the state with more than 18,000 babies born annually.