Parents Say Hospital's Baby Formula Led To Daughter's Brain Damage
By Eric Flack
(LOUISVILLE, November 5th, 2004) -- It seems as innocent as the mouths it is fed to: powdered infant baby formula. But WAVE 3 has uncovered evidence powdered formula could lead to serious health problems -- even death -- in some infants. One local family is now suing University of Louisville Hospital because of what happened to their daughter. WAVE 3 Investigator Eric Flack has the exclusive story.
From the day she was born, Ashley Hill has been her mother's best friend. "I talk to her every day and I tell her how special she is," said her mom, Rhonda Smith.
To her father, Bert Hill, Ashley is daddy's little girl. "I mean when she came out, we was in tears," he said.
Ashley was born 9 weeks premature in December of 1999.
She weighed just one pound, 13 ounces.
But after two months in the neo-natal intensive care unit at University of Louisville Hospital, Rhonda Smith says her daughter went home in good condition.
Her parents thought Ashley's struggles were over.
But they were just beginning.
Ashley, now four years old, may never walk, talk or feed herself. The result of severe brain damage caused by meningitis she got days after leaving the hospital.
Her parents blame University Hospital for what happened.
"They robbed her of her life," Rhonda Smith said.
A baby gift pack given to them by the hospital contained powdered baby formula.
"She was on the powdered formula when she got sick," Smith said.
Now, Attorney Nick Stein says there was clear cut evidence before Ashley was born, that bacteria in powdered formula can cause serious illness, including meningitis, in babies with weak immune systems.
"Sure it's not an everyday occurrence, but it is a known risk," Stein said. "And for these people its been catastrophic."
An article on powdered formula risks appeared in one medical journal way back in 1989, a decade before Ashley was born.
A letter to the editor published in the Pediatric Infectious Disease Journal in May of 1990, linked powdered baby formula to outbreaks of meningitis and other illnesses in premature babies in the United States, Iceland and the Netherlands.
"The literature was there," Stein said. "It's happened around the world, and the medical community knew about it. They played Russian Roulette with this child."
Dr. Kris Bryant, Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at U of L, disagrees.
"In general, one case report doesn't offer a lot of strong evidence for changing practice," Dr. Bryant said, "because case reports come out all the time."
But in 1992, two years after Ashley was born, the FDA validated those initial reports, by putting out its own health alert warning health care providers of powdered formula dangers.
The warning came after a premature baby in Tennessee died of meningitis linked to powdered baby formula.
Ashley's parents are now suing University Hospital for negligence, claiming the hospital should have known the risks.
"I don't want this to happen to nobody," said Ashley's father. "I want it to stop."
But Dr. Bryant says giving powdered formula to premature babies was a common practice when Ashley was born.
"Hospitals are obliged to do the best they can with the information they have at the time," she said.
In fact, powdered formula is still being given to some premature babies at University, and other neo-natal intensive care units in Louisville, because in some cases, doctors say there is no alternative.
"Some of the specialty formulas can only be made through this powdered formula process," Bryant said. "They're just not available in any other form."
But because of the risks, University says it no longer gives powdered formula to babies that don't absolutely need it.
Ashley Hill's parents claim their daughter is proof of what can happen.
"She'll never get married. I'll never have a chance to walk her down the isle," Bert Hill said. "As her dad, that hurts."
The FDA says there is no powdered baby formula threat to normal babies. It's only the babies with weak immune systems that are at risk.
And the dangerous bacteria is not present in liquid formula because it is produced in a different way.
As for that lawsuit against University Hospital, it will be up to a jury to decide if University was negligent in the Ashley Hill case.
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