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 second 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
PAINFUL QUESTIONS MUST BE ASKED
SOLVING THE RIDDLE OF SIDS
There is no more profound joy than bringing a new life into the world.
And there is no more bitter sorrow than the death of a child; it is a
parent's worst nightmare.
Sudden infant death syndrome kills about 6,000 American babies a year.
It is an enigma that defies science's efforts to penetrate it. Earnest
attempts to solve the heartbreak of SIDS have led to bad science. That,
in turn, apparently has helped an unknown number of people literally get
away with murder.
We call your attention to "False Alarm, the Failed Promise of Apnea
Monitors," a series of stories that begins today in the Herald American
and continues Monday and Tuesday in The Post-Standard and the
Herald-Journal. It describes how a generation of SIDS researchers,
doctors and prosecutors were guided by the work of a Syracuse scientist,
Dr. Alfred Steinschneider. That work led to the widespread use of apnea
monitors as tools to combat SIDS. For that purpose, they are tools of
dubious value; there is no proof that they save babies from SIDS.
The research that brought national attention to Steinschneider in the
early 1970s was based, in large measure, upon the case of the Hoyt
family, which had lost five children. The last two of those babies -
Molly and Noah - were Steinschneider's patients. Like their three
siblings, they had left the hospital seemingly healthy in all respects.
They later died at home.
Steinschneider attributed their deaths to SIDS. He said his research
showed breathing pauses known as apnea could be a warning sign for SIDS.
By using the Hoyt case as an example, his work supported the theory that
SIDS runs in families. Based on his research, hundreds of thousands of
parents and doctors attached sleeping babies to monitors that would
sound an alarm when the babies stopped breathing.
Steinschneider's theories were cast into critical doubt two years ago
when Waneta Ethel Hoyt, mother of the five Hoyt children, was arrested
on murder charges. Hoyt confessed to police that her babies had not died
of SIDS. She had smothered them. She was found guilty of murder in Tioga
County Court last year. She is serving a prison sentence of 75 years to
The Hoyt case is unusual, but not unique. Marybeth Tinning of
Schenectady lost nine children to mysterious causes during the '70s and
'80s. She later confessed to killing three of them. She was convicted in
1987 of killing the last one, Tami Lynne. Prosecutors around the country
are examining several other cases in which families lost multiple
children whose deaths were attributed to SIDS.
In preparing this series for publication, reporters Todd Lighty, Charles
Hickey and John O'Brien examined 35 years of medical research. They read
thousands of pages of court documents, government files, medical records
and police reports. They conducted nearly 200 interviews of doctors,
parents and others.
None of this is intended to worsen the pain of parents who have lost
children to SIDS. Nor is it meant to suggest that they are killers. The
overwhelming majority of them are victims. Our hearts go out to them.
Still, society has a duty to its children. It cannot let a natural
empathy for grieving parents, a reluctance to intrude upon their grief,
keep the critical questions from being asked when more than one baby in
a family dies of SIDS. It is the job of prosecutors and doctors, on
society's behalf, to think about what most of us instinctively regard as
Beyond that, there is the question of apnea monitors and their
usefulness in combating SIDS. They may provide a balm for parental
anxieties, a false sense of well-being. But the evidence that they save
babies from SIDS is, at best, flimsy. Worse, well-intended reliance upon
apnea monitors may have had the unintended consequence of abetting
What everyone wants most, of course, is to solve the SIDS riddle. To do
that, science must be willing to challenge conventional thinking and,
yes, hurt some feelings. Keeping babies alive is worth it.
Part 3 is next.