Fear screamed from my sister-in-law's eyes,
as she watched the respiratory therapist work on her newborn son.
A tiny little oxygen mask covered his expressionless gray face.
"Sandy, what's wrong with the baby?" Shellie whispered.
"Is he like Donna's baby was?"
"No," I lied.
God, forgive me, but I had to lie. Little Jacob was so gray. "Dusky"
they called it. Dusky nothing the newborn was a deep, dark
bluish-gray The doctor said there was a heart murmur. They were
trying to raise his body temperature. And yes, Shellie, that was
what they had said about Donna's baby.
Four months ago, I had stood over my best friend's daughter's
grave and, now, my nephew was showing signs of a similar
Donna's pregnancy had been hard. Bedridden for months, premonitions
haunted her. She knew something was terribly wrong with her baby.
I tried to comfort her, but the joys of having a baby were marred
by a fear which threatened to consume her.
After months of waiting and praying, little Jenny was born. Absolutely
beautiful, she was perfection in a baby. Except. . .except for her
tiny fragile heart.
The cardiologists tried valiantly. They did their best. It just
wasn't enough. Jenny died on the operating table. She was just
six days old.
Four months later, my healing had just begun. I could finally look
at a baby without crying. I no longer avoided the infant section
in the department store. When my sister-in-law asked me to witness
her baby's birth, I was thrilled! This would be a big step
in my healing process, too. It would offer proof that life does
indeed go on.
Shellie's pregnancy was textbook normal. No sign of problems,
until that little gray baby sent hospital staffers scurrying.
My worst nightmare returned. Airlifting the baby to Seattle Children's
Hospital. Waiting for the doctors' opinions. A grim prognosis.
Tears and prayers. Déjà vu.
Two days later, I sat in the same hospital waiting room, as I had
four months earlier. The same doctors, who operated on Jenny, were
performing the same operation on Jacob's newborn heart.
As I stood looking out the hospital window on that dreary April
day, in 1990, I wondered why I was so immersed in both of these
In the weeks following Jenny's death, Donna and I talked a
lot about why this had happened. What possible purpose could the
death of her little girl have in God's grand scheme of things?
I had tried to come up with some possibilities: things He might
want Donna to do. At the time, it was all so philosophical
just brainstorming really.
But now, sitting in that waiting room, everything took on a different
light. The only two pregnancies, beside my own, I had ever been
deeply involved in had ended in heartbreak literally. Why
Jacob survived his operation. By the time he was eight
months old, he was dubbed the "miracle baby" by doctors
at Children's Hospital. That he had survived even his first
month of life amazed them. Coupled with his heart problem was the
lack of a spleen, which kept him on antibiotics every day of his
During the next few years, Jacob spent many months in the hospital
with Shellie at his side as he battled heart problems
and respiratory illnesses.
In the months that followed Jacob's birth, I would discover
Jenny and Jacob were not alone. Between early 1989 and May 1990,
five babies in the Port Townsend, Washington area were born with
heart defects severe enough to require surgery. Four of these babies
were born within the seven-month span from October 1989 to May 1990.
That's four out of approximately 90 babies.
At the time of Jacob's birth, a staffer from Children's
Hospital said the average for that serious of a cardiac defect
one requiring surgery was one in 400 births.
A 1990 study done by Washington state epidemiologist
Dr. Bob Davis was inconclusive. While all of the mothers either
worked or lived in the Port Townsend area during their first trimester
of pregnancy, there were "no common agents that the mothers
or fathers were exposed to," the report noted.
Davis stressed very little is known about what causes these specific
defects. Alcohol, lithium, genetic disorders and rubella are the
only proven causes.
The report erroneously stated there was no herbicide spraying within
the county, while both Garlon and 2,4-D were used. (To date, no
studies had linked 2,4-D with this specific birth defect.)
The study made no mention of a local paper mill, which was responsible
for self-reporting any toxic spills. Nor was the local U.S. Naval
ordnance facility noted. (A dump site at that facility has since
been declared a hazardous waste site by the Department of Ecology.)
Davis concluded the rash of defects may have been just a quirk in
"In all honesty, we don't know a whole lot about what
causes these defects. These types of investigations are like trying
to find a needle in a haystack," Davis said, at the time. "We
did a very complete evaluation as complete as can be done
with what we know today about birth defects."
Reading the report, my hands shook. "So, that's
it?" I barked at Shellie. "A glitch in the statistics?"
Rage, grief, disgust all boiled inside me. A control freak out of
control, I felt so helpless. I had to do something. People needed
to know about this. That was it. The people, who lived in our small
town, needed to know this had happened and I would tell them.
Through the next month, I attacked the story; calling anyone and
everyone in search of answers.
In November, 1990, I walked into the office of Scott Wilson, then-editor
of the Port Townsend Leader newspaper. When I handed him
my story, Wilson thanked me and said, "If nothing else, we'll
run it as a letter to the editor. Is that okay?"
"No," I replied. "If it's a letter to the editor,
it's my opinion. If it's an article, people will recognize
By the time I returned home, there was a message from
Wilson on my answering machine. I quickly returned the call.
"You're right. It is a story. I've given it to one
of my reporters to do some more work on it," Wilson said, again
adding, "Is that all right?"
Tears streaming down my face, I said, unquavering, "If you
don't like the writing style, then fine. But, if the story
just needs some more work, I'd like to do it." He agreed.
My story ran on the front page of The Leader. It won a Washington
Newspaper Publishers' award and launched me into the
career for which I was created.
Jacob died three years later.
For more than a decade, I've battled with the
reality that, if these babies had not died, I would not be immersed
in this writing life that I love so much.
While I've written millions of words through the years, I've
repeatedly postponed putting this story on paper because I've
had no earth-shattering revelation to make sense of it all.
Maybe there is none. Maybe that's all there was to it. Maybe
it was indeed a glitch in the statistics of my life. I just happened
to be one of the players in those babies' short little lives.
These children are dead. Families have been devastated.
And I am a writer.
and Jenny's names have been changed