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This month... COVID-19, Chapter 2

Cortney Davis

It was a Wednesday in late spring, 1972. I was a nursing student in my final months of training, eagerly awaiting graduation.

When I arrived on the maternity ward that morning, my nursing instructor told me that I'd be caring for a baby, only hours old, with special needs.

I thought she'd send me to the neonatal ICU. Instead, to my surprise, she motioned toward the linen closet, its doors closed tight.

"The baby was born without a complete brain," she said. "A condition called anencephaly. He can't see or hear. And," she added, "they don't expect he'll live out the day. So try not to get attached."

The nursing-care plan was concise: "You don't need to do anything other than observe his breathing, turn him occasionally, change his diaper and bathe him."

Hearing these instructions, so different from the nursing care I'd seen given to other special-needs infants, I felt both curious--why is this baby hidden away in a linen closet?--and a bit frightened.

Cautiously, heart pounding, I opened the closet door.

The steel linen rack had been shoved aside to make room for a single isolette. It held a sleeping newborn boy. There was no card proclaiming his birth date, weight or name.

I had expected to see a monster. Instead I saw an infant with a compressed forehead, tightly closed eyes and perfectly chiseled lips and chin. His skull was steeply sloped and covered with blond hair.

I stood and watched him sleeping. From some angles, he looked like an elderly man. If I turned him just a bit, he looked like a perfect, beautiful infant. My apprehension melted away. I touched his cheek and smoothed his hair. Maybe he would die within the day, but for now, I would pretend he was like any other newborn.

As I bathed him, I named him Baby Boy, trying to acknowledge the reality of his life, even if, as my instructor's cool instructions implied, his life was worthless. At the same time, I struggled not to "get attached," although keeping an emotional distance was already beginning to seem impossible.

After his bath, I picked him up and rocked him, although that wasn't in the care plan. I sang to him, even though I knew he couldn't hear.

When I returned from my break and found the linen-closet light turned off, leaving Baby Boy alone in the dark, I felt a stab of anger and went in search of the charge nurse.

"Shouldn't we leave a light on?" I asked, hoping that my tone didn't reveal my agitation.

"Do you think a light would make any difference?" she replied.

"Might his mother want to hold him?" I persisted.

"Enough," she said. "It's a tragedy."

One by one, the other students stopped by to see Baby Boy. Some wanted to hold him. A few shook their heads and said that it would be a blessing if he died. We all wondered about his mother--why wasn't she involved in his care? We decided to do a bit of snooping.

We discovered that his mother's room was just down the hall. One of the delivery-room aides told us that the baby had been whisked away at birth, before his mother awoke from anesthesia. At her husband's urging, the doctors had told her that the baby was stillborn. She'd never seen or held him. She didn't know that he was only a short walk away.

We students ambled past the mother's room, peeking in to see her face. Her cheeks were flushed and her eyes puffy. She looked as if she hadn't stopped crying.

"What if she could hold him?" one student asked our instructor. "Would that help to give her some closure?"

"Or would it simply increase her sorrow?" she responded.

As the afternoon wore on, I wondered if I'd been assigned to Baby Boy because he was considered a lost cause--even a bumbling nursing student couldn't harm him. Wanting to do something, I asked if I might offer him some water.

"I suppose you could try," my instructor said, "but I doubt there will be any sucking response. Remember, the doctors don't expect him to live."

Did he respond to the water bottle I offered? It seemed to me that he did: I saw his lips close around the nipple. Did he respond to my rocking? I thought that he did: he settled into my arms like any newborn might. A part of me hoped that the doctors were wrong.

Again, I approached the charge nurse.

"Could I try some formula?"

She rolled her eyes. "Really, I doubt the doctors would want to prolong the inevitable."

On Thursday, when I returned for my eight-hour shift, Baby Boy was still alive. As I opened the linen-closet door, he began to cry, a high-pitched, agonizing whine.

The charge nurse saw me coming.

"Okay," she said. "Try some formula."

His lips smacked, and his cheeks tried to suck, but the formula just dribbled out of his mouth. I tried again and again, but there was no further response. I gave up and held him, rocking him as he cried. In that moment, I resigned myself to Baby Boy's certain death, but I couldn't close my heart.

When his keening persisted, the nurses worried that his mother might hear and, responding to some primal recognition, try to investigate. They moved her further down the hall, and that afternoon the doctors sent her home.

I wondered how long it would take her to stop crying over a baby she'd never seen, or how her husband lived with the knowledge that he'd left his boy in the hospital to take, in one doctor's words, "way too long to die."

On Friday, Baby Boy settled into a resigned stupor. His mouth worked in the pantomime of nursing. His fists curled and uncurled. His eyelids--did I imagine this?--opened, and his unseeing eyes seemed to search my face.

The following Monday, when I returned to the maternity floor, the closet held only linen. Baby Boy had died, alone, sometime on Saturday afternoon.

He died before the advent of grief counseling, before the time when his parents would have held him, taken his photograph and tied a lock of his hair in a blue ribbon. He died before we understood how necessary it is for families to gather together to welcome such a child and then to accompany him gently to his death.

Back in 1972, despite my own reaction to Baby Boy's situation, I accepted that such disregard for life, secrecy and denial of grief was the norm. Here I am, all these years later, writing about Baby Boy.

Through his birth, his short life spent in the dark, and his death, he surely touched his parents' lives--and that of an awkward nursing student as well.

Looking back, I know that we couldn't have saved him. I only wish that we'd known then what we know now about honoring the impact of even the smallest, briefest lives upon our own.

About the author:

Cortney Davis, a nurse practitioner, is the author of five poetry collections, including Leopold's Maneuvers, winner of the Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Poetry. Her nonfiction publications include When the Nurse Becomes a Patient: A Story in Words and Images, and The Heart's Truth: Essays on the Art of Nursing, both from Kent State University Press. Cortney began writing about her nursing experiences when one of her young cancer patients died. "I didn't know what to do with my grief. Then I found that writing about this patient helped me to hold on to her, but also allowed me to let her go. As caregivers, we are privileged to share transcendent moments with patients. Writing about these moments is a sacred pursuit." Cortney's website is cortneydavis.com.

Story editor:

Diane Guernsey


# Jaclyn Nguyen 2015-05-12 21:39
Beautiful, tragic, and so moving. Thank you for sharing.
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# Joy Fallek 2015-05-11 11:53
Very moving. Thanks so much for sharing.
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# martin kohn 2015-05-05 13:34
Just beautiful Cortney! So good to see your work on Pulse-- and looking forward to seeing you soon. best, mk
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# Ellen Kolton 2015-05-04 12:37
Thank you, Courtney. I was also deeply touched by your story. We have come a long long way since 1972--the year in which I also had, as they say, "a bad outcome:" losing premature twins. I was whisked away from other moms, told not to look, told not to cry and told to forget it. It would have meant so much to have been able to see the babies so I could have tried to better understand what happened. The only person who helped me (of course!) was a nurse. Like you, she made a difference. That experience drove me years later to become a patient advocate, speaking up for patients who might not otherwise.
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# Scott Newport 2015-05-04 05:40
Hey Courtney loved the story. Last Sunday I went to the annual hospital memorial. We were encouraged to share the name of our loved ones with the person next to us. “How long did your child live?” I asked. The mom’s eyes echoed the pain as the dad replied, “Ninety minutes.” For me there was a bit of beauty in his words. Just wanted to share my thoughts on their Linen Closet.
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# Janice Mancuso 2015-05-03 13:59
A heartfelt story by a gifted writer and compassionate nurse... I've saved this quote from the bio portion as one of the most articulate reasons to write I've ever read: "I didn't know what to do with my grief. Then I found that writing about this patient helped me to hold on to her, but also allowed me to let her go."
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# Yehudit Reishtein 2015-05-02 14:05
What a sand yet beautiful story. Even if Baby Boy had no brain, or not enough of a brain to enable him to live, he had a soul, which surely your caring and compassion touched in his few days of life.
Thank you for sharing his life and your reactions to it.
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# Sarita Roy 2015-05-02 13:54
This brought back a painful, similar memory for me. In 1970, my 5 year old daughter was very ill for two weeks, and I stayed with her in the pediatric wing at Mt. Sinai Hosp. in NYC. A baby cried in the room next to ours, and I asked a nurse about him. She told me that the baby's heart was "outside his body," that he couldn't survive. The husband had made the same request as Baby Boy's dad. I was instructed not to go and hold him. "The sooner he dies the better." I just couldn't stand hearing that little cry, so I'd sneak in and hold him when my daughter was sleeping. Part of me thought it wrong. The loving touch can never be wrong. What a sad story, and how misled we were back then. Thank you.
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# Fred Adler 2015-05-02 13:02
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# Joanne Clarkson 2015-05-02 11:54
Thank you for writing this. The instinct for compassion that you describe reminds me why I am grateful I am a nurse. Every time I think about that cupboard I start tearing up again. I wish the mother had got to hold him. Thank you for letting all of us hold him in our minds and hearts.
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# Sheila Turken 2015-05-02 11:49
A very thoughtful piece
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# Ginna Crowe 2015-05-02 10:49
Thank you Courtney for sharing this story .. it touched my heart and head. And although so very sad... I was also encouraged that we have moved from such a narrow and - albeit probably unintended- harmful world view. I was so touched by this story and your work I shared your website on my FB page for all my nurse and writer friends and family to view - hope that is all right thing to do from here :-)
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# Judy Schaefer 2015-05-02 10:01
Oh what a rich historic story. Love! When there is nothing left to do! Love! We do seem to do it better today in some places and some times. We could write a book of what-goes-on-in and what-went-on-in the "Linen Closet",couldn t we? Thank you to Cortney Davis for sharing this profound narrative!
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# leslie 2015-05-02 09:51
Wrenching story. 1972 doesn't seem that far away to me, and yet, this was an accepted response back then?
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# Lois gerber 2015-05-02 09:02
Poignant story reminding us of the thin line between life and death and the opportunities we as nurses have to show compassion to those patients in our care.
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# Maria Romanas 2015-05-01 23:26
Very touching. Thank you for sharing this important story.
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# Margaret Fleming 2015-05-01 22:03
I sorrow for this baby. I sorrow for all of us who dare to assume we know what is going on inside someone - baby or not - who can't tell us.

If holding a baby in intensive care can make a difference, I believe Cortney made the right choice. Yes, a baby deserves honor, and care.

And I wonder if the law would now protect the rights of such a mother. What if we learn someday that the baby would have recognized the mother in some way?

I sorrow.
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# Stephanie Friedman 2015-05-01 21:26
Strange that this memory should return to the author so long after the event had occurred. But she is right: We risk being hurt when we love, but if we don't risk the pain, we deprive ourselves of the richness of the feelings, both of loving and of grieving. As Tennyson said in In Memoriam:27, 1850:

I hold it true, whate'er befall;
I feel it, when I sorrow most;
'Tis better to have loved and lost
Than never to have loved at all.

The courage of the author to venture into the painful realm of grief enriches us all.
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# Hannah thomassen 2015-05-01 20:26
Unbearable sorrow.
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