False Alarm: The failed promise of Apnea Monitors ...
This is a lengthy article
published electronically on the Syracuse Online
electronic newspaper. It is very interesting to read. The first part starts below.
Please honor the copyright of the article. Thank you to Timothy D. Bunn,
Deputy Executive Editor,
The Post-Standard, tbunn@Syracuse.com, for allowing this reprint.
Syracuse Herald American
Sunday, May 5, 1996
BYLINE: By Todd Lighty, Charles B. Hickey and John O'Brien Staff Writers
HOW A SYRACUSE STUDY DOMINATED SIDS RESEARCH AND
HELPED HIDE SOME INFANT HOMICIDES IN THE U.S. FOR A GENERATION
Rarely has a researcher revolutionized medicine the way Dr. Alfred
Steinschneider did in 1972 when he suggested he could predict which
babies might die of sudden infant death syndrome, or SIDS.
SIDS was every parent's nightmare: A mysterious killer that struck
thousands of apparently healthy babies without warning while they slept.
Based on his study of babies at Upstate Medical Center in Syracuse,
Steinschneider found that otherwise healthy infants could experience
pauses of breathing during sleep -- a condition called apnea. He
theorized that prolonged apnea spells could lead to SIDS. As if to prove
Steinschneider's point, two babies he had diagnosed with apnea -- a
sister and brother from a family that had already lost three children --
died after he sent them home from the hospital. Steinschneider's
research, published in a leading journal for pediatricians, repesented a
stunning breakthrough: If doctors could predict which babies were at
risk of SIDS, then they might be able to save their lives. And the way
to prevent SIDS, Steinschneider believed, was to keep vulnerable babies
wired to monitors that would sound an alarm when an infant stopped
The article catapulted Steinschneider to the forefront of SIDS research,
led hundreds of thousands of anxious parents to wire their babies to
apnea monitors, and shaped the way a generation of doctors, police and
prosecutors looked at the sudden, unexplained deaths of healthy infants.
But two years ago, a mother's arrest on murder charges rewrote the
history of the medical revolution: Waneta Ethel Hoyt -- the mother of
the two babies whose deaths figured so prominently in the 1972 study --
told the state police her children had not died of SIDS, she smothered
them. She also confessed to smothering her three other children nearly a
Hoyt was tried last year in Tioga County, found guilty and sentenced to
75 years to life in prison. In an interview afterward, Steinschneider
said the jury had made a legal judgment, not a medical one.
``If I made mistakes in that paper, they were honest mistakes,'' he
said. ``If I made errors of omission, it was honest errors. I'm not
embarrassed by that paper, quite the contrary.''
But an in-depth look at Steinschneider's work reveals the hollow ring of
a false alarm. The Syracuse Newspapers reviewed 35 years of medical
research; examined thousands of pages of court documents, government
files, police reports and hospital records; and interviewed nearly 200
doctors, nurses, parents and others. The newspaper found the SIDS
revolution Steinschneider triggered was based on questionable research,
that parents and pediatricians still rely on apnea monitors although
there was no proof the machines prevented SIDS; and that an unknown
number of multiple infant deaths in families - including serial
homicides - were mislabeled as SIDS.
This is the story of that revolution. Part 2 is next.