In response to an Associated Press article Nov. 19, 2011.
November 22, 2011
I write to correct the inaccuracies and false claims that permeated a recent Associated Press story regarding a delicate medical training procedure that saves the lives of infants who are on the verge of ceasing to breathe.
The story about the use of cats to teach residents and first responders how to perform tracheal intubation on infants failed to include critical facts about the training procedures at the University of Virginia.
As background, more than 1 million newborns either die or are seriously injured from perinatal asphyxia each year, but the majority can be successfully resuscitated if an adequate airway can be secured – in less than a minute after the breathing difficulty has been detected.
While we use simulators whenever possible, we have carefully determined that in the case of infants weighing less than four pounds, no current simulator provides adequate training in tracheal intubation – insertion of a tube into a baby’s airway when he or she is in distress. At the same time, we continue to work actively on an adequate simulator substitute.
Here are some important facts about this life-saving procedure at the University.
• We conduct two or three training sessions a year here in Charlottesville, with approximately 10 trainees per session.
• Three cats are used in rotation, never all of them in one session.
• During a session, cats are anesthetized and carefully monitored. The session stops if a cat shows any sign of trauma. They are watched carefully afterwards and treated for signs of pain.
• No cats have died or suffered permanent injuries as a result of this training.
• After the cats retire, they are adopted, most often by our animal care staff.
• The USDA regularly inspects our facilities and procedures. The Association for Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care accredits our program.
According to our physicians in the program, the benefits of intubating a live animal have not been successfully duplicated in a mannequin. Our training is invaluable in the seconds one has to successfully intubate a sick newborn.
In contrast, our doctors say, they have seen sick newborn babies who had undergone intubation attempts by those who received different training and the infants had suffered “irreparable damage to their pharynx, vocal cords, and trachea, sometimes resulting in the need for palliative/reconstructive surgeries, tracheostomyinsertions, prolonged mechanical ventilation and most obviously pain and emotional distress.”
The expertise gained in intubating cats in a carefully supervised setting, and with no harm to the animals, prevents the damage done to babies by inexperienced responders.
Our physicians believe that the approach we take is far more humane than sending physicians into practice to have their first real-world experience with this life-saving procedure occur on someone's critically ill newborn baby.
Our goal in training physicians is to save the lives of their tiniest patients. We take great care of the three cats that have become our working partners in training physicians to help us reach that goal. They are an integral part of our team and are treated as such.
Associate Vice President for Public Affairs