Dr. Bettina Paek, pictured at Victoria Jubilee Hospital in Jamaica, performed the county’s first-ever ultrasound-guided intrauterine transfusion July 20. Photo courtesy of EvergreenHealth

Dr. Bettina Paek, pictured at Victoria Jubilee Hospital in Jamaica, performed the county’s first-ever ultrasound-guided intrauterine transfusion July 20. Photo courtesy of EvergreenHealth

Kirkland physician flies to Jamaica, performs country’s first-ever intrauterine transfusion on fetus

Dr. Bettina Paek likely saved a life after flying more than 3,200 miles to preform the first ultrasound-guided intrauterine transfusion in Jamaica in late July.

Paek, 49, is an attending physician for maternal fetal medicine at EvergreenHealth in Kirkland, chair of the obstetrics and gynecology department and co-director of the fetal therapy program at EvergreenHealth. She’s been working for EvergreenHealth for 10 years.

On July 20, Paek performed the transfusion on an expecting Jamaican mother of four at Victoria Jubilee Hospital in Jamaica.

The mother, who was 29 weeks pregnant with her fifth child, had been diagnosed with Rh-Isoimmunization early in her pregnancy. At 29 weeks, she found out the baby was anemic.

Rh-Isoimmunization is potentially life-threatening for the fetus. It occurs when the mother has an Rh-negative blood type and the baby has an Rh-positive blood type. In this case, the mother begins to make antibodies that are absorbed by the fetus through the placenta. The baby then becomes anemic.

Only about 10-15 percent of the human population has an Rh-negative blood type. It’s not that common to have Rh-Isoimmunization, but it’s not rare either, Paek said. Additionally, there are only about 15 centers in the United States that have a fetal therapy program that specializes in dealing with high-risk pregnancy complications; EvergreenHealth is one such center.

No one at Victoria Jubilee Hospital had the expertise or experience to perform the necessary transfusion. The closest facility that could perform the transfusion was in Miami.

But the Jamaican family didn’t have insurance that would work in the United States. It would cost $10,000 for the procedure, assuming there were no complications, and that was not including travel and living expenses to get to the states.

The family’s other option was delivering the baby prematurely, but since Jamaican facility did not have a neonatal intensive care unit, which specializes in caring for premature newborns, the chances of the baby’s survival was less than 50 percent, Paek said.

Luckily, Dr. Clayton Kelly, based at the Jamaican hospital, knew who to call.

Kelly had trained with Paek last fall and knew Paek was an expert in this field.

“They couldn’t come to the U.S., so I decided, well, I’m going to donate my time and my expertise and fly out to Jamaica,” Paek said. “It was unusual, but I felt it was the best thing for the family.”

Paek took an eight- to nine-hour flight July 18 and landed in Jamaica on July 19. She met with the family July 19 to talk about the procedure, potential risks and complications and she and the Jamaica medical team prepared for the procedure that afternoon. On July 20, she performed the ultrasound-guided intrauterine transfusion, which Paek has performed at least a hundred times, she said.

“We do this on a regular basis (at EvergreenHealth),” Paek said. “I’ve been doing this for 15 years.”

The procedure causes no pain to the fetus, as it requires going through the umbilical cord, which has no nerve endings. For the mother, it’s the equivalent to a blood draw.

Paek used a local numbing medicine on the mother’s stomach and gave the fetus medicine that stops the baby from moving during the procedure.

Paek uses the ultrasound to guide her to the umbilical cord, which involves penetrating the mother’s stomach and the umbilical cord to administer blood to the baby.

“It’s pretty tricky to do,” Paek said, but she felt pretty comfortable in her abilities.

The real trick was doing it by herself. Normally there are a couple other experts in the room helping her, but in Jamaica the team assisting was completely new to the procedure.

“It was a little tricky doing it all by myself, but we got it done,” Paek said.

Paek hopes that the Jamaican medical team will set up a simulation so they can practice the transfusion so in the future, “they’ll be able to fly solo,” Paek said.


In consideration of how we voice our opinions in the modern world, we’ve closed comments on our websites. We value the opinions of our readers and we encourage you to keep the conversation going.

Please feel free to share your story tips by emailing editor@kirklandreporter.com.

To share your opinion for publication, submit a letter through our website https://www.kirklandreporter.com/submit-letter/. Include your name, address and daytime phone number. (We’ll only publish your name and hometown.) We reserve the right to edit letters, but if you keep yours to 300 words or less, we won’t ask you to shorten it.

More in News

File photo
As new COVID-19 variant looms, vaccination disparities linger in King County

County data shows gaps among age, geography and race.

Garbage at the Cedar Hills Regional Landfill in Maple Valley. FILE PHOTO
King County and Port of Seattle to collaborate on waste-to-fuel study

The study is aimed at identifying logistics of developing aviation fuel out of municipal garbage.

file photo
Department of Health announces QR code verification program to prove vaccination status

WA Verify is intended to make vaccine verification simpler and more efficient.

Patti Cole-Trindall
King County Executive appoints Patti Cole-Tindall as interim sheriff

Cole-Tindall has a background in the sheriff’s office and county government.

courtesy of PropertyShark
State’s richest zip codes are all in East King County, according to home value study

Medina zip code ranks among top 10 most affluent in the nation.

Dish from Arleana’s (photo credit: Kat Young)
Owners of Seattle’s Island Soul rally community to help open Caribbean soul restaurant on the Eastside

Owners Theo and Gaelyn Martin turn to Kickstarter to crowdfund their restaurant Arleana’s in Kirkland

Redmond’s Silver Cloud Inn, purchased by county to become permanent supportive housing for the chronically homeless (photo credit: Cameron Sheppard)
King County councilmember proposes a public comment period before county establishes homeless shelters

In some cities, hotels bought to homeless shelters have been constroversial among residents.

Pixabay image
Man dubbed “the sweatpants robber” arrested by Bellevue police

Antonio Aaron is supected of nine different robberies across East King County.

Abusive power and control diagram (Screenshot taken from Zoom meeting with advocates against domestic violence)
For domestic violence survivors, petitioning for a protective order can be an uphill battle

New state law intends to remove barriers to protection, but advocates say it may not do enough.

Left: Dow Constantine, Right: Joe Nguyen (screenshot from King County website)
Constantine leads in vote count for King County Executive

Incumbent Dow Constantine is challenged by State Sen. Joe Nguyen.

file photo
Two Eastside high schools recognized for their collective academic success

Redmond HS and Newport HS both honored, Newport had three different sports teams win.