A government-funded research study further endangered the lives of premature babies, and some parents claim that they didn’t know. “I remember them telling me they were a support group who would pretty much hold my hand through the developmental process,” says Sharrissa Cook, who gave birth to a critically ill baby boy just 25 weeks into her pregnancy. Her son, Dreshan, is now 7-years old and has myriad health problems. She thought she was doing what was best for her son, but it turns out that she played into the hands of some shady researchers.
In reality, the study was a national experiment on 1,316 extremely premature infants that more or less left their fate up to the figurative flip of a coin. The study, SUPPORT (Sufactant, Positive Airway Pressure, and Pulse Oximetry Randomized Trial), was conducted at 23 academic institutions from 2005 to 2009 under the National Institutes of Health (NIH), part of the Department of Human and Health Services (HHS). The goal of the study was to find the best oxygen levels for extremely preterm babies (born before 25 weeks). It is routine to provide supplemental oxygen to premies, but too much can result in severe eye damage and too little can lead to brain damage and death.
To identify the best level of oxygen, researchers arbitrarily assigned infants in the study to high or low levels of oxygen. Researchers argue that they were still giving the infants the same “standard of care” because the levels were within the limits of the generally accepted range. However, there was a crucial difference in babies who were in the study and those who were not.
Typically, medical personnel will constantly adjust the oxygen levels based on the individual premie’s needs. The SUPPORT study was designed to keep the babies at their assigned level. In a move that shocked seasoned researchers when they learned of it, the oxygen monitors of the infants in the study were altered so that they would give false readings. This was done so that medical personnel wouldn’t be tempted to adjust the oxygen levels to the individual needs of the infants.