During my first clinical rotation in medical school, I found myself at the pediatric nurse station one afternoon waiting for a patient to arrive from the emergency department. An adorable older infant was there sitting in a bouncy chair, smiling and drooling as babies tend to do, and looking rather well for an inpatient. The nurse watching her explained that she had come a long way since first being transported to the facility by ambulance after being admittedly shaken (and almost certainly also beaten) by her mother’s new boyfriend one evening when she wouldn’t stop crying.
Now, cortically blind and facing a lifetime of disability, the child was awaiting placement by social services. I had experienced my first exposure to child abuse, a scourge of pediatric medicine that I hadn’t thought of at that point despite having decided on a career in pediatrics well before being accepted into medical school. I’ve since had many more opportunities to care for abused children, some of which involved considerably more visually disturbing findings and a couple that resulted in a child’s death. But I will never forget her and the feeling of utter revulsion I felt that day.
Child abuse is common and it comes in many forms that can involve physical abuse as well as neglect. Children under the age of 4 years are the most frequently affected, but children under a year tend to suffer the most severe manifestations. Head injuries make up the bulk of physical abuse in this age group, and they are often fatal. Roughly 40% of child abuse-related deaths occur in the first year of life and there is frequently both a history of abuse prior to the fatal event as well as missed opportunities for medical professionals to have intervened.
The head injuries that children suffer at the hands of abusive caregivers, if not fatal, are frequently still devastating. It is not uncommon for these children to suffer permanent neurologic injury which can include persistently altered mental status, cognitive impairment, cerebral palsy, blindness and recurring seizures. In addition to the child’s injuries, the psychosocial impact on the family can also be quite severe. I’ve seen families torn apart because of guilt and anger. (more…)