Patrick Kennedy and Me

Today is my 54th birthday. And I just don’t feel that old. I definitely feel older, but not old.

October 16th, 1963 is my birthdate. It was also the 1,000th day of John F. Kennedy’s presidency.

Just 71 days earlier, JFK and his wife had a baby boy, Patrick Bouvier Kennedy. He was a preemie, like their son John, Jr. Patrick came five and a half weeks early.

He was born August 7, 1963.

39 hours and 12 minutes later, on August 9, 1963, he died.

Sandwiched in between those days was my sister’s third birthday. My mother would have been about four or five months pregnant with me. I’m sure my parents followed the story, read the newspaper, watched the news, wondered if the Kennedys’ baby would live, and were saddened when he did not.

Sixty-nine days later, as I understand the story, my mother went in for a regular doctor’s appointment. Her doctor told her, “You’re dilating. You need to get upstairs, immediately.” My mother’s OB’s office was right next to the hospital.

I was born at 3:29 p.m., October 16th, 1963, after natural childbirth. The doctor feared killing the baby if he gave my mother anesthesia. (This proves that I have been a pain to my mother since before I was born. :-) )

Would the Kennedy baby have crossed my mother’s mind? After all, his brief life and death was still fresh in the public’s mind. He was a preemie. I was a preemie. He was born five and a half weeks early. I think I was born about that early. I’ve never known what my real due date was. Patrick was in an incubator. So was I. Did it cross my parents’ minds that I, too, would meet the same fate as the Kennedy baby?

Despite a race to Boston Children’s Hospital — an ambulance took Patrick from his birthplace at Otis Air Force Base, 70 miles away, in 90 minutes — and despite the best medical care available at the time, Patrick died of hyaline membrane disease, known now as infant respiratory distress syndrome. All they could do for him at the time was put him in a hyperbaric chamber and treat him with hyperbaric oxygen therapy.

Did my parents think, the Kennedy baby had the best medical care in the world, and he died. Will the same thing happen to our baby?

Thankfully, no. I stayed in the hospital about six weeks and came home right around Thanksgiving.

Maybe, because Patrick was so fresh in people’s minds, maybe the doctors and nurses at the hospital paid special attention to a preemie? I’d like to think so.

Patrick’s death did lead medical researchers to aggressively search for a way to effectively manage hyaline membrane disease. Today, we know of a branch of medicine, neonatology, that saves the lives of thousands of babies yearly. At least one of those babies, born at 2 lbs. 2 oz. (half my birth weight) attends my church as a healthy preteen. A set of triplets born four years ago yesterday also thrive; they are the children of our children’s minister. A friend of mine works as a neonatal nurse.

During JFK’s last trip, which ended on a dreadful day in Dallas, he made a brief stop in San Antonio, where the base commander at Brooks Air Force Base invited him to briefly speak to a group of men in a space simulator.

One of JFK’s questions: “Is it possible your work might help improve oxygen chambers for premature babies?” He was thinking of Patrick.

The next day, he joined Patrick in death.

I don’t understand the mysteries of life and death. Why did one preemie, born to the most famous family in America at the time, whose parents could get him the best of medical care, die in a big city hospital, despite the availability of multiple doctors and state-of-the-art medicine?

And why did another preemie, born in the small mountain town of Harlan, Kentucky, to a teacher and his wife, who were far from wealthy, and in a hospital that was far from state-of-the-art, live?

I don’t know.

Yesterday was National Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Day. It is a day set aside to honor and remember children loss to miscarriage, stillbirth, and early death. (My grandmother lost a baby when she was three months old.) One slogan used to remember these children is, “There is no footprint too small that it cannot leave an imprint on this world.”

Patrick Kennedy, born August 7, 1963; died August 9, 1963, had a small footprint that left a lasting impact on the care, treatment, and survival of other preemies.

I’d like to think that I was one of the people on which his footprint left a lasting impression.