Anne Hart December 20 2010
The Chatham County parents of a 10-month-old baby boy fully understand that shaken baby syndrome is a real and dangerous public health problem.
They in no way want to downplay the fact that shaking an infant can cause severe and irreparable damage to a child.
What they do want people to realize is that sometimes a baby showing some signs of shaken baby syndrome may be suffering from a different, unrelated medical condition, one that does not involve abuse.
They believe this because that's what happened to them.
The parents are sharing their story as a cautionary tale. They say there's a need for closer scrutiny when making such a harsh diagnosis as shaken baby syndrome.
Their names are being withheld to protect the privacy of their son.
The parents say that earlier this year, their only child - the child they call their "miracle baby" because they had tried for a year and half to conceive - was misdiagnosed with shaken baby syndrome.
This commenced a nightmare that included temporarily losing custody of their then 5-month-old son for 56 days and spending roughly $60,000 in the legal battle to regain custody.
The case was eventually dismissed, and the baby was returned to his parents.
"There is abuse of children out there," said the baby's father. "But we are not that family."
Their son turned out to be suffering from chronic subdural hematomas, which they say is a possible complication of being born one-month premature. The baby weighed 3 pounds, 4 ounces at birth and spent a month in the neonatal intensive care unit.
Today, the baby is doing well. His parents take him regularly to Atlanta to be treated for the hematomas.
The parents are also dealing with the emotional and financial fallout caused by the case and worry about other children being misdiagnosed with shaken baby syndrome.
About 1,500 babies younger than age 2 in the United States are diagnosed with shaken baby syndrome each year, according to MedicineNet.com.
Since the early 1990s, many hundreds of people have been imprisoned on suspicion of murder by shaking.
But according to media reports, there is some question regarding the science behind diagnosing SBS.
According to a Sept. 20 New York Times Op-Ed: "For the past 30 years, doctors have diagnosed the syndrome on the basis of three key symptoms known as the "triad:" retinal hemorrhages, bleeding around the brain and brain swelling. The presence of these three signs (and sometimes just one or two of them) has long been assumed to establish beyond a reasonable doubt that the person who was last taking care of the baby shook him so forcefully as to fatally injure his brain. But closer scrutiny of the body of research that is said to support the diagnosis of shaken baby syndrome has revealed methodological shortcomings. Scientists are now willing to accept that the symptoms once equated with shaking can be caused in other ways."
Pediatric neurosurgeon Dr. David M. Wrubel of Children's Healthcare of Atlanta sees about 50 babies a month, if not more, who show the signs of shaken baby syndrome. He said it's rare that the cases turn out to be something else.
"Unfortunately, with the majority of cases, it's shaken baby syndrome or some other type of abuse,'' Wrubel said. "There are always the unusual cases, such as chronic subdurals. That does happen, but not frequently."
Wrubel is now treating the Chatham County child for the hematomas. Neither Wrubel or Children's Healthcare of Atlanta were involved in the initial treatment.
Wrubel said the system is set up to make sure the child is protected. He said it's a tough situation because the parents or caregivers are considered guilty until proven innocent to protect the safety of the child.
"There's not an epidemic (of misdiagnosed shaken baby syndrome cases),'' Wrubel said. "But unfortunately, sometimes innocent people get swept up in the process to protect the safety of the child."
Contact Anne Hart at firstname.lastname@example.org.