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Doctors ‘Freeze’ Baby to Save Newborn

Photodisc/Thinkstock(LONDON) -- When Claire Ives was seven months pregnant with her third child, she used a handheld device to listen to her unborn son’s heartbeat.  As she turned the machine on, she thought something had malfunctioned.

“I thought I wasn’t listening right or something,” Ives, a nurse in London, told ABC News.  “I didn’t believe his [heart] rate could be that fast.”

Ives’ son had a heart rate of about 300 beats per minute, nearly double the normal 160.

After doctors were alerted to the baby’s elevated heart rate, Ives delivered her son, Edward, five weeks early via emergency cesarean at the University College London Hospital.

Edward was born with supraventricular tachycardia (SVT) and was given a 5 percent chance of survival.  SVT is caused by improper electrical impulses in the heart that lead to an irregular rapid heartbeat, which then can lead to heart failure or affect internal organs.  When the heart beats too quickly, it can’t fill up properly and then distribute blood to vital organs correctly.

“I just thought he was going to die,” said Ives.

A few hours after Edward was born, his heart started to race again.  Doctors attempted to reset his heart rate by shocking his heart and giving him different medications, but when that failed, they were left without many options except one they had never tried for SVT: They would lower Edward’s body temperature to protect his vital organs and slow his heart rate.

“We’d gone through all the usual maneuvers that usually work in babies, giving drugs … trying to shock the heart, the baby and get [a healthy heart rate back],” said Dr. Nicola Robertson, who works in the neonatal unit at the University College London Hospital.

Over a period of hours the doctors used a cold gel blanket to lower Edward’s body temperature to approximately 91 degrees, which both protected his organs and slowed the electrical circuit in his heart.  Unfortunately, over the next day, as Edward was warmed up, his heart began to race again.  So the team again cooled his body temperature, three days after they had initially lowered it.

“That was one of the worst nights,” recalled Ives.  ”I asked one of the nurses if he was going to die and she said he might.”

Ives was sent out of the room when the doctors again attempted to slow his heart rate down by not only cooling but administering medication.  Eventually, they came to tell her that his heart rate had slowed, although he would again need to be warmed up to see if his heart rate was stable.

Doctors then began the slow process of warming Edward, this time going at a slower rate as they carefully raised his temperature only half a degree every 12 hours.  This time his heart rate remained stable.

It wasn’t until 10 days after giving birth that Ives was able to hold her son.  A month later, she and her husband were able to bring Edward home to join his two older siblings.

Now a healthy 6-month-old, Edward has an excellent prognosis and is unlikely to need further hospitalizations for SVT although he is being closely monitored to see if the irregular heartbeat returns.

Copyright 2013 ABC News Radio

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