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

King County assessor wants Legislature to fix laws to help small businesses

Changes needed because of COVID-19 impact on commercial properties

King County could be in Phase 2 in two weeks

The county is also hoping the state lets them reopen several businesses by Friday.

Exterior Kirkland City Hall. Blake Peterson/staff photo
City: Businesses in downtown, other commercial areas encouraged to remain closed through June 2

Update: Phase 1 businesses are now encouraged to reopen but remain vigilant.

Downtown Kirkland. Staff photo/Blake Peterson
Update: Kirkland officials strongly encouraging residents to stay out of downtown area, waterfront parks after 1 p.m.

The recommendations are in response to a potential protest in Downtown Kirkland at 2 p.m.

Businesses asked to close by 1 p.m., visitors to avoid commercial shopping areas

The City of Kirkland states it has received reports of being a possible target for looting

Downtown Kirkland. Blake Peterson/staff photo
How is COVID-19 impacting Kirkland?

King County has released city-specific data on case rates, unemployment filings and more.

Kabal Gill, owner of East India Grill in Federal Way, wears gloves to hand over take-out orders at his restaurant on March 23. File photo
New guidelines for Phase 2 reopenings in King County

All workers will need to wear masks as restaurants, retail shops and other businesses reopen.

This undated file photo provided by U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows CDC’s laboratory test kit for the new coronavirus. Courtesy photo
Inslee wants nursing home residents and staff tested by June 12

Governor says state will pay for test kits and personal protective equipment.

Most Read