Monica Thompson had given birth to her first child, a baby boy, and was almost ready to take him home from the hospital.
It was nearly midnight one Sunday in the summer of 2012 when Thompson, who had undergone a Caesarean section a few days earlier, was given a cocktail of narcotic painkillers and sleep aids.
A nurse took the newborn to his mother for breast-feeding and put the child next to her in her hospital bed at Adventist Medical Center in Portland, Ore.
An hour later, Thompson, “still drowsy and groggy,” realized that her son, Jacob, was not moving.
The disturbing account comes from a lawsuit filed in Multnomah County Circuit Court in which Thompson’s attorneys describe how she tried to wake her unresponsive child, who had been born just four days earlier:
She called for a nurse while she tried on her own to help him.
She touched his eyes.
She poked his tiny body.
She talked to him, to try to get him to wake up.
“When no nurse came to help, Mrs. Thompson carried her son to the hallway and frantically yelled for help,” according to the lawsuit. “A nurse noticed the situation, examined Jacob and called a Code Blue.”
Jacob was not breathing; once he was stabilized, he was placed on life support and transferred to the neonatal intensive care unit at nearby Randall Children’s Hospital.
Six days later, he died.
Thompson “unintentionally suffocated her baby boy, causing him severe and permanent brain damage,” according to the lawsuit. Doctors determined that her newborn had gone without oxygen too long, suffering severe and permanent brain damage.
Thompson is suing Adventist Medical Center for negligence, which the lawsuit alleges caused Jacob pain and suffering.
The lawsuit, which seeks more than $8 million, states that the incident also caused Thompson emotional distress.
Thompson now has a daughter, her attorney said. But Thompson said in a statement that “Jacob was a true miracle baby. My firstborn and only son. I am sharing our story in the hopes that no mother or family will ever have to suffer through a preventable tragedy such as this.”
The lawyer, Diego Conde, called the death “senseless” and said in a statement that “a hospital doesn’t get to load a breast-feeding mother with narcotics and sleep aids, drop a newborn child on the same bed to breast-feed, and abandon them to their luck.”
Portland Adventist Medical Center spokeswoman Kristi Spurgeon Johnson called it a “tragic situation” and said that “our thoughts and prayers continue to be with the family.”
“Adventist Medical Center is committed to providing quality, compassionate care to all of our patients,” she said in a statement. “We are reviewing the claims being made and we are unable to provide any additional information at this time.”
About 3,500 babies die each year in the United States because of “unsafe sleep environments,” such as suffocation or strangulation; some die of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. Experts say babies who share a bed with their parents are at risk because parents can roll on top of them, or the babies can get trapped in blankets and bedsheets.
In a 2016 report, the pediatric association noted that evidence shows skin-to-skin care (SSC) and “rooming-in” helps foster breast-feeding and mother-child bonding — but said the practices may also “pose safety concerns, particularly with regard to sleep. There have been several recent case reports and case series of severe and sudden unexpected postnatal collapse in the neonatal period among otherwise healthy newborns and near fatal or fatal events related to sleep, suffocation, and falls from adult hospital beds.”
Mothers will be naturally exhausted and potentially sleep-deprived or may sleep in short bursts. They may also be unable to adjust their position or ambulate safely while carrying a newborn. The postpartum period provides unique challenges regarding falls/drops and is understudied compared with falls in the neurologically impaired or elderly patient. Checklists and scoring tools may be appropriate and have the potential to decrease these adverse events, particularly if geared to the unique needs of the postpartum period, such as short-term disability from numbness or pain, sleepiness or lethargy related to pregnancy and delivery, and effects from medication.
Even though mothers and family members may be educated about the avoidance of bed-sharing, falling asleep while breast-feeding or holding the newborn during SSC is common. Staff can educate support persons and/or be immediately available to safely place newborns on a close but separate sleep surface when mothers fall asleep. Mothers may be reassured that they or their support persons can safely provide SSC and that staff will be available to assist with the transition to a safe sleep surface as needed. Mothers who have had cesarean deliveries are particularly at risk because of limited mobility and effects of anesthesia and warrant closer monitoring.
The American Academy of Pediatrics said it cannot make recommendations on “in-bed sleepers” until further research is available.