Observations: The Border Babies

The San Francisco Chronicle’s “Top of the News” front page summary one day last month reported that Miwok, the rare baby porpoise, died in the arms of her caretakers at Marineworld in nearby Vallejo, California. Miwok, named for the northern California beach she had washed up on six days before, died from complications resulting from pneumonia.

The news report, full of details of the necropsy (an “animal autopsy”), is nearly a parody of itself. Granted, whales and such may be dear to the hearts of San Franciscans, but it is still difficult to read that “one woman offered to nurse Miwok with her own milk,” an offer apparently declined mainly because human milk has too much sugar for porpoises.

All of which reminded me of Bellevue Hospital in New York. I don’t know if the nice people in San Francisco have ever heard of Bellevue. Located on New York’s tough Lower East Side, Bellevue is perhaps best known as the city’s public nut house. Its psychiatric and prison wards are routine receivers of the dregs of the city’s problems. Even so, there is a new and growing population at Bellevue which deserves at least as much attention as a thirty pound porpoise.

A week or so ago a young girl had a baby at Bellevue. It seemed to the nurses on duty she was not terribly interested in the child. She did receive him at feeding time, but didn’t bother much about him. In fact, some of the volunteers noticed that this new mother wasn’t even feeding her baby. They hoped against hope that she would change her mind, reverse the attitude she seemed to have for her child. The old timers knew better, having seen this tale unfold before at Bellevue, the public repository of the hopeless helpless.

One day, not long after the child was born, this new mother left the hospital. She said she had to get things ready for her son. She needed clothing. She needed a crib. She would be back, she said, when she had a place ready for him. And, oh yes, she left her address just in case anything happened.

She never came back. The address she gave turned out to be an empty lot on 43rd Street. Her young son is now another of the growing legion of border babies, children too bound up in illness or red tape to be adopted quickly or easily. He now spends his days and nights in the newborn nursery there at Bellevue, along with five or six of his fellows, depending on a kindly practical nurse or a volunteer to give him a hug or a smile.

He is such a small fellow, it is hard to think that he will never know precisely who he is. Of course, since he is apparently normal he is really one of the lucky ones at Bellevue. He at least does not have AIDS.

As for the others at the hospital, and there are many, their futures are somewhat more bleak. One young man, now all of two months old, is a cocaine addict. He gained his addiction in the womb, and now receives two methadone shots a day. They calm him for a time, but they wear off all too soon for him to have more than brief comfort from the volunteers who hold him in their anonymous arms against the horror and the pain his tiny body must endure.

He, too, is one of the healthy ones. In other wards on other floors this hospital houses the tragic reminders of precisely what AIDS can mean. These are the discarded children of AIDS patients, AIDS carriers, AIDS victims. Like their cocaine-addicted confrere they are the flesh of their parents’ flesh, the bone of their bone. Most will be dead within two years. Many are already abandoned by their parents. Most will spend their entire short lives in cribs as border babies at this or at another hospital, depending on a passing nurse for a pat or a smile.

None of these children will ever make the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle. Some won’t even get to weigh the thirty pounds Miwok weighed when she washed up on that California beach. No human mothers have volunteered to nurse them with their own milk.

They will die as they have lived, alone and unknown in a downtown public hospital. They may live long enough to learn a few words, perhaps to recognize the voice or touch of a volunteer or nurse before their final illnesses render them deaf and blind. They may be recognized some day as the victims of our own excesses, but at this point all we can hope for is that they receive half as much attention as a baby porpoise.

By

When Crisis was originally published in 1982, Phyllis Zagano was Assistant Professor in the Department of Communications at Fordham University.

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