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A Helping Hand Along the Way

  • Your little one is born—crying, flexing, breathing strongly. A superstar on the Apgar scale. A standard vitamin K injection and a couple examinations later, your baby is ready to leave the hospital and glimpse the world outside. You may not realize, however, that while you are enjoying your family’s new addition, an entire team of healthcare professionals is working behind the scenes to process and review results from your baby’s first battery of tests.

    Angela Wittenauer, a registered nurse and nursing coordinator of newborn screening at Emory University, is one of these professionals. Wittenauer and her team are responsible for calling out abnormal metabolic, endocrine and other results from the heel-prick blood draw, carried out between 24 and 72 hours after birth to test for more than 30 serious, but treatable, medical conditions. Mostly the team notifies the babies’ primary care providers of out-of-range results, but when such a provider is unavailable, the team contacts patients directly.

    Mom to two strapping young boys, Wittenauer understands the importance of reassuring the families she calls. “We try to answer [families’] concerns as much as possible and try to link them to resources they’ll need. And we follow every case to resolution, whether that be treatment or further testing,” Wittenauer said.

    Reassurance, she said, is especially important because an abnormal result does not always mean the child has the condition, just that follow-up precautions are crucial.  “If I have any data on the condition or the results, whether they are borderline or cause for great concern, I try to let families and providers know to best prepare them for the journey.”

    As newborn screening coordinator, Wittenauer also attends numerous contract meetings, maintaining relations between Emory University and the state of Georgia. In these meetings as well as in her day-to-day responsibilities, she sees both the admirable efforts made toward more effective and efficient newborn screening and the areas in which the screening still has ample room to grow.

    “The most vocal mothers I’ve met are those raising children with NBS conditions,” Wittenauer said. “A lot still has to be done to increase newborn screening awareness in the
    population-at-large, as well as better the methods by which Ob/GYNs and primary providers educate their patients, for example—and to shore up money and resources so that Georgia can start providing testing for severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID) and critical congenital heart disease (CCHD).”

    She mentions colleagues that wear hats of not only clinical geneticists but also of advocates. “Many of my coworkers are involved with March of Dimes,” Wittenauer said. “I want families affected by newborn screening conditions to know that they truly have voices outside disease-specific support groups.”

    Wittenauer is just one of many professionals passionate about improving and streamlining newborn screening. Together, they add to the community of advocates working tirelessly, as she put it, to “everyday literally save babies’ precious lives.” 

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