Proptosis in a Baby

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After 27 years of working in a big, urban hospital, I switched to a small, community hospital. The biggest adjustment for me is the difference in access to resources. In the big city, we had access to all the equipment and specialists that might be needed. We rarely had to transfer patients out to other facilities for additional care. Now, I do not have all those supports and it can be stressful.

For example, a young Hispanic couple brought their 1-year-old daughter to our small, community hospital at three o’clock on a Sunday morning. They were concerned about bruising and swelling around her right eye. She had been born with a clouding of the cornea – the clear part on the front of the eye. However, the parents had been told their daughter’s eye was otherwise normal.

The parents said the bruising and swelling started the day before and had gotten worse. She had not been injured and appeared to be in no distress. The father even pointed out that it didn’t seem to hurt her when he pressed on it. She was behaving completely normally.

Looking at her eye, I could see that the cornea was, indeed, cloudy. The conjunctiva, the white part, was also a bit red. There seemed to be no pain or tenderness although there was bruising, as the parents had noticed. Bruising and swelling often indicate trauma. However, I did not detect swelling and there was no reason to suspect child abuse based on the way the parents and big sister behaved.

All that aside, there was clearly something wrong. She had proptosis. Her right eye was bulging out farther than the left one. Neither did it seem to move normally, though that was a bit hard to test in a one-year-old.

Acute proptosis may be caused by infection. If you get infection around your eyeball, the swelling causes the eye to push forward abnormally. In this situation there was no history of fever or other signs of infection. And, again, the kid was acting perfectly fine. It seemed impossible she had an infection severe enough to cause proptosis and still feel well enough to play normally with her sister.

My dilemma was: “Does this kid have something acute going on that needs me to transfer her to another hospital for care tonight? Or, is this something that can wait until Monday morning when she can see her primary care doctor and be referred to a specialist?”

I decided the only way to know was to scan her. This presented another challenge. A CAT scan would probably give me the information I needed, but we try to avoid CAT scans in kids because of the ionizing radiation it exposes them to. The earlier in life you get radiation, the more likely it will end up causing cancer many years down the road. An MRI scan would be a safer test since it would not cause exposure to radiation, but there was no MRI in our small hospital at night or on weekends. In order to get that test, I would need to transfer her to a bigger hospital where they had MRI available. However, the whole purpose of getting the scan in the first place was to help me decide if she needed to be transferred!

I finally decided it was important enough to justify getting the CAT scan done at our hospital. It showed a mass behind the eye that the radiologist said could be either a hemangioma or a sarcoma. A hemangioma is an abnormal and benign wad of blood vessels that you are born with. A sarcoma is a tumor that is usually malignant. Either of of the two would cause the baby’s eye to be pressed forward.

My impression was that if the baby was born with a hemangioma, the doctors would probably have picked up on it when they evaluated her cornea. I think the mass was a tumor that had been developing slowly. As it gradually pushed the eye forward, a little vein ruptured causing the non-tender bruising the parents noticed.

Though the situation was serious, there was no reason to transfer her to a higher level of care in the middle of the night.

The poor parents. Though I did my best to explain the situation, I don’t think they really understood what they were up against. They took off to put the baby back to bed.


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