Sunday, June 04, 2000

Mom determined to spread information on birth injury

        When Elizabeth Ritz was born two years ago, her parents knew the drill. Karen and Christopher Ritz had already experienced the births of two healthy babies. Like her brother and sister, Elizabeth was a large baby — weighing nine pounds, nine ounces, despite arriving two weeks early. And she had another experience in common with her siblings: she was born with a broken collarbone.

        Elizabeth was also born with a broken right arm, and, her mother would eventually learn, was one of three or four babies in every thousand who have Erb's Palsy, due to an injury during the birth process.

The Erb's Palsy Family Picnic will be held in suburban Columbus, at Wyman Woods Park, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. June 11. Although a five-person medical team from Texas Children's Hospital will be on hand to conduct medical evaluations, there will also be children's activities and family fun. There is no cost for information or evaluations, but there will be a charge for the catered lunch. Contact Karen Ritz, (614) 486-3320.

        At an eight-week well baby checkup, Karen Ritz was thrilled when a visiting physician at her pediatrician's office said Elizabeth had Erb's Palsy. “It has a name!” she recalls exclaiming to herself, and she began that day to search the Internet for answers.

        Large infants, she learned, sometimes become stuck on the mother's pubic bone, causing what's called shoulder dystocia. The force needed to move the child through the birth canal can result in broken collarbones, dislocated shoulders or broken arms.

        Sometimes Erb's Palsy is caused when nerves have been damaged to the point that the arm or hand or fingers may not have typical strength or ability. Without treatment the injury can result in chronic pain, disfigurement, scoliosis, a shortened limb, diminished or lost sensation, as well as varying degrees of paralysis.

        On the Internet, Ms. Ritz found an Erb's Palsy Web site that immediately drew phone calls and e-mail messages from other mothers offering help. They, along with a psychiatrist at Children's Hospital in Columbus, Dr. Rosalind Batley, who officially diagnosed Elizabeth's condition, all encouraged the couple to take their daughter to Baylor College of Medicine/Texas Children's Hospital in Houston, the premier medical facility for evaluating and surgically improving the nerve damage characteristic of Erb's Palsy.

        When Elizabeth was five months old, the surgery so little known among families and pediatricians, was performed.

        “The window of opportunity for the nerve grafting is before age one,” Ms. Ritz explains, “with optimal results at between four and six months.”

        Ms. Ritz has become so determined to educate the public about Erb's Palsy and brachial plexus injuries that more than 60 families from across Ohio and nine other states are coming to Columbus next week, where they will be evaluated by the Texas medical team at the Erb's Palsy family picnic organized by Karen and Christopher Ritz.

        “The tragedy is that so many people have been told to just go home and deal with it,” Ms. Ritz says, “because there is so little information available even to pediatricians that there is surgery available that can help.”

        While most families are bringing babies — some who have had initial surgeries and others who have just been diagnosed — other families are bringing teen-agers and even a few adults who have lived with limited arm or hand function and never known that a procedure to repair the damaged nerves was available.

        Two-year-old Elizabeth Ritz had one surgery at five months, but she still reaches for toys and food with her unaffected left arm. Her parents encourage her to hold things in her right hand, and she is in physical therapy three times a week, but another surgery may be in her future.

        Cincinnati writer Deborah Kendrick is a nationally recognized advocate for people with disabilities. Write her at Cincinnati Enquirer, Tempo, 312 Elm St., Cincinnati 45202. E-mail:        

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