Four-year-old Renna Linn plays with some other young heart patients at the General Assembly Tuesday.

By Rose Hoban

Mandatory heart disease screening for newborns seems to be on the fast track to becoming law in North Carolina, as a bill to require infant testing for blood oxygen levels moved through a House of Representatives committee Tuesday without skipping a beat.

Four-year-old Renna Linn plays with some other young heart patients at the General Assembly Tuesday.

The bill got help from a bevy of families with children who have heart defects attending the legislature, including Carolina Panthers tight-end Greg Olsen, who told the committee about his family’s struggle with his son’s heart defect.

Approximately one in 100 children is born with some kind of heart defect. Some are simple problems, such as murmurs, which often resolve with time and monitoring. But some defects are life threatening.

Most of those heart problems can be detected easily by a non-invasive test called pulse oximetry, which involves wrapping a sensor around an infant’s hand or foot for several minutes. The test measures the saturation of oxygen in a patient’s blood. Children with heart defects don’t always show visible symptoms, but the pulse oximetry test can detect the decreases in oxygen that could mean trouble.

The bill would require hospitals to perform the test on infants before they leave the hospital.

Four-year-old Renna Linn didn’t receive the test after she was born. Just as she was about to leave the hospital for her home in Salisbury, an ultrasound test found she had a serious heart defect that required surgery.

“They would have diagnosed her defect earlier if they’d done pulse ox earlier,” her mom, Stephanie Linn, said.

Renna’s father, Joel Linn, who went to college with the bill’s senate sponsor Andrew Brock (R-Davie), said the hospital where Renna was born wasn’t mandated to do the pulse oximetry test.

“Several friends of ours did not find out there was a heart issue until the six-month checkup or the nine-month checkup. So if they can check it, and it costs a buck, when the baby is born, it makes a whole lot more sense,” Joel Linn said.

According to Rep. Jim Fulghum (R-Raleigh) who co-sponsored a companion bill in the House the measure would end up saving the state money because defects would be detected and treated earlier.

The bill would also require that the monitoring be performed on children born at home or at a birthing center.

“We already had one for the moms, so we bought one for the babies,” said nurse-midwife Maureen Darcey, who heads the Women’s Birth and Wellness Center in Chapel Hill.

“Sometimes folks who have home births come to us to get the screen, because physicians don’t have it in their office,” she said.

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Rose Hoban

Rose Hoban is the founder and editor of NC Health News, as well as being the state government reporter. Hoban has been a registered nurse since 1992, but transitioned to journalism after earning degrees...