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This is indeed a true story. . .dedicated to my precious little nephew, Jacob Craig Anderson (1990-1994).
 
Writing for Jacob
  Jacob Craig Anderson

By Sandy Hershelman

 

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 heart defect.

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 families' lives.
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 me?

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 life.
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 the statistics.
"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 it's fact."

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.

 

Note: Donna's and Jenny's names have been changed

 

 

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Date Last Modified:9/23/03
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