State officials: No pattern on infant deaths at Plains Regional

CNJ staff photo: Liliana Castillo Shelly Chaparro of Clovis gave birth to 6-pound, 12-ounce Abbey Isabella Montoya on Aug. 20 at Plains Regional Medical Center.

By Sharna Johnson: CNJ Staff Writer

Any fears sparked by a recent cluster of infant death reports at Plains Regional Medical Center are unfounded, according to the state health department.

Dr. Alfredo Vigil, cabinet secretary for the health department, said research done by his agency indicates there is no pattern or related causes of death in eight cases he has evaluated.

In June, obituaries for four infants listed as dying at PRMC the day of their birth were printed in the CNJ during a two-day period. Other infant deaths were reported in April, July and August.

Because of public concerns, Vigil said his department pulled the charts of those seven and one additional deceased infant during the time frame and reviewed them for commonalties.

“We always raise an eyebrow anytime there’s a cluster of anything, (but these cases) are not connected. There is no information so far that there’s anything in the world for anybody in the community to be concerned about (regarding these cases),” he said.

Though prevented by confidentiality rules from discussing individual cases, Vigil stressed, “There’s no reason why women in the community should think of leaving the community or going to (outside doctors or hospitals).”

PRMC Administrator Hoyt Skabelund said the hospital studies each death at the facility carefully, even the expected ones, to evaluate what led to the death and what if anything could have been done differently

“Death, unfortunately, is something that we see everyday,” he said.

“When it comes to infant mortality, even if it is unavoidable, it is a personal tragedy for the family, and our caregivers take that very personally.”

Expecting her second child in September, Lindsey Gerzon said lately when she goes to the obstetrician for her appointments, conversation among the expecting mothers in the waiting room has been a flurry of worry and fear.

As a result, the 24-year-old said she plans to keep her baby by her side at all times after she delivers at PRMC and will have someone with her to watch the baby when she can’t.

“I’m worried,” she said.

“If it’s something that they’re doing (at the hospital), I don’t want that to happen to my baby. … You know, you’re pregnant for nine months and then you lose your baby, that’s crazy. I want to know if it’s something they could have prevented.”

But the majority of the recent Clovis cases were not full-term pregnancies and some could be classified as early-term miscarriages or had other contributing issues, according to experts.

Clovis obstetrician Dr. Bruce Cross, who utilizes PRMC’s labor and delivery ward for his patients, said he too was compelled to investigate what appeared to be a spike in deaths of Clovis newborns. Like Vigil, Cross found each death had a unique cause that had no correlation to the others.

Cross, who is in private practice, said if he believed there was a problem at the hospital placing newborns at risk, he would be one of the first to bring it to the hospital’s attention.

But Cross classified all but one of the recent deaths as “fetal deaths,” meaning the mothers delivered deceased babies.

In those cases, the greater majority go into labor with or come to the hospital to deliver a fetus that has already died, he said.

There is a gamut of causes of fetal demise — infections, uterine abnormalities, placenta abnormalities, premature labor, trauma, illicit drug use and more, he said.

Nationwide every year, approximately five to 10 out of every 1,000 births result in fetal deaths, otherwise known as “stillborns,” Cross said.

Given those odds, at a hospital that averages about 1,200 births a year, it is not surprising the recent cluster of infant deaths would draw attention, he said.

But Cross, who has practiced in Clovis more than 20 years and has “stopped counting” all the babies he has delivered, said he believes it is just a naturally occurring anomaly.

“I’ve looked over what’s been going on and I see absolutely no pattern. We have seen examples of each and every one of those (causes) but nothing environmental,” he said.

“A lot of these fetal deaths did not occur in the hospital; they just delivered here but the fetus died prior even to arrival at the hospital.”

Skabelund said the choice to publish infant obituaries is a new trend in the way families mourn the loss of a pre-term or miscarried baby.

“One thing is true, is it’s becoming more and more common that when there’s a loss, they’re listing the loss in the paper. Years ago people wouldn’t be listing (the death of) a 31 week-old (pre-term) baby,” he said.

But the community should understand the dynamic and not be alarmed, he said.

“Do I feel that this is a safe place to have a baby? Absolutely. The vast majority of deliveries go very well and when those deaths occur it’s a tragedy for the family and our hearts go out to the families.”