BUENOS AIRES, Argentina – An Argentine newborn who survived nearly 12 hours in a coffin in a morgue after hospital workers gave her up for dead is in critical condition suffering from sepsis and convulsions along with signs of neurological damage.
Tiny Luz Milagros, or "Miracle Light," is suffering from a series of complications common among infants born three months premature, said Dr. Diana Vesco, neonatology chief at the Perrando hospital in Resistencia in northern Chaco province. She said the baby is on a ventilator and being treated with antibiotics.
Her mother, Analia Bouter, said she got a supportive call from President Cristina Fernandez on Wednesday asking to see the baby once she's out of intensive care.
That could be a while.
Luz Milagros, whose weight has dropped from 800 grams to 750 grams (1.8 pounds to 1.7 pounds) since she was born 10 days ago, faces a "risk of death commonly associated with her weight and gestational age at birth," said Vesco.
Pronouncing somebody dead has to be done fairly carefully.
- Edward Bell, a University of Iowa specialist in premature infants
The case became public Tuesday when Chaco's deputy health minister, Rafael Sabatinelli, announced that five medical professionals had been suspended pending an official investigation of what happened.
Bouter told the TeleNoticias TV channel that doctors gave her a death certificate just 20 minutes after the baby was born and the baby was quickly put in a coffin and taken to the morgue's refrigeration room. Twelve hours passed before she and her husband were able to open the coffin to say their last goodbyes.
She said the baby trembled and let out a little cry when she touched its face. She thought it was her imagination — then realized the little girl was alive and dropped to her knees on the morgue floor in shock.
The baby was so cold that "it was like carrying a bottle of ice," Bouter said.
The hospital's medical director, Jose Luis Meirino, said the facility has strict procedures and the girl was born "with no apparent vital signs." The newborn was attended by obstetricians, gynecologists and a neonatologist, he said.
"About what happened afterward, we have no explanation," he said.
Edward Bell, a University of Iowa specialist in premature infants, called it "a remarkable story."
While there are many unanswered questions about the case, Bell offered a few theories about how it might have happened.
Babies born after only 26 weeks "aren't considered to have much of a chance" of surviving in many parts of the world, he said. So, "perhaps justifiably," that might have affected how they treated the baby.
"Pronouncing somebody dead has to be done fairly carefully," Bell said. "It does raise questions about how careful they were in assessing the baby."
Still, he said, declaring death isn't always as straightforward as some people think. Metabolism and heartbeat may slow down gradually and the body stops moving. Most of the time, when movement has stopped and there's no detectable heartbeat, the person is declared dead.
"Ordinarily when you get to that point it's hopeless," even if there is still some electrical activity in the heart, he said.
Bell said there are no standard guidelines on how long to wait until declaring death.
"There are very unusual cases where somebody has been declared clinically dead and then signs of life return," he said.
Under ordinary circumstances, a premature newborn would need immediate care to survive. But Bell said in this case, the morgue's refrigeration may have saved the baby's life because it likely cooled down the infant's metabolism and reduced the need for oxygen.
Bell said parents should not worry that the same mistake might happen with their children.
"It's such an extraordinary thing, that's why it has made the news worldwide."
Based on reporting by the Associated Press.