Relationships

A Special Child

She was born with no heartbeat, so we gave her ours

It was Election Day night, 1978. Earlier that morning, I had taken my pregnant wife, Karyn, for her ninth month checkup at the obstetrician's office. Her regular ob-gyn, Dr. Anscher, was unavailable so an associate just brought into the practice examined her. There was some bleeding. The associate said it was "normal," something called the "bloody show" and Karyn would probably start experiencing mild contractions later that night.

He was wrong. The blood was the result of the placenta tearing from the uterine wall. The baby was in distress, the result of losing oxygen. A correct diagnosis would have sent Karyn to the hospital for an immediate C-section. Instead we went home and waited. Doctor's orders, you know.

When the contractions came, they did not come regularly as we had practiced in Lamaze class. And the pain was sharp, intense. In the morning, I rushed Karyn to meet Dr. Anscher at the hospital where he placed a fetal heart monitor on her abdomen. "We need to do a C-section immediately," he said, while assuring me everything was fine. Everything was not fine. There was no fetal heartbeat detected; vital information the doctor deliberately withheld from us.

So as I stood outside the OR door, eagerly awaiting the arrival of our first child, I was ignorant to the dire situation. At about 11:25 AM, our baby emerged in an incubator tended by a nurse. It was a girl! Her name would be Jacklyn, in memory of my father, Jack.

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I tried to get a closer look at my new daughter, but the nurse told me to meet her in the nursery in a little while. I noticed the baby was covered with a dark greenish substance but figured it was the afterbirth I had read about. It was not. It was meconium, which is fetal waste mixed with amniotic fluid. Jacklyn had been swallowing it in utero struggling to breathe, the direct result of the partially detached placenta. She was born with no heartbeat. Miraculously, it started beating shortly after delivery, the first sign this was a special child.

I spent the next half hour making calls from the pay phone announcing the "good news." I told Karyn's sister, Diane, that I was going to move the family to Los Angeles, in order to pursue my dream of becoming a television writer. After toiling for eight long years as a New York City schoolteacher, I had managed to have one of my scripts submitted to Garry Marshall, the prolific Hollywood producer. Jacklyn was now the impetus to make my dream a reality.

When I got to the nursery, the nurse was just returning with Jacklyn in her incubator. There were no longer signs of the dark greenish fluid. The nurse took her out and placed her in my arms. She looked up at me with these incredible blue eyes, compliments of a recessive gene from my grandmother. After this initial bonding, the nurse took her from me and placed her in the room with the other newborns.

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"How is she?" asked Karyn, still groggy from the anesthesia. I told her she was fine. "When can I see her?" I said I would ask the nurse. I kissed her lovingly on the forehead and left her room, totally unprepared for what was about to happen.

Arriving back at the nursery, I saw a flurry of activity around Jacklyn's incubator. She was having seizures. Despite a series of injections of the drug phenobarbital, the seizures continued, so severe, it was decided that Jacklyn needed to be transported to the nearest neo-natal emergency hospital, 50 miles away. Overwhelmed with fear and anxiety about the fate of our baby, I went to tell Karyn. I remained in the room with her through the hardest night of our lives.

The next week consisted of me teaching school in New York; then visiting Jacklyn in the neo natal unit in Patterson, N.J. After, I would go see Karyn at the birth hospital, in Hackettstown. It was devastating for her being around all the other mothers and their newborns, while hers was so far away. When Karyn was finally given the green light to travel, I took her to see her baby. The first touch between mother and child was through an opening in the incubator.

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After nine days, Jacklyn was released. The neurologist told us he could not predict how severely her development would be affected but there was enough irreparable damage to her brain to ensure she would never lead a "normal" life. We were given a prescription for phenobarbital to counter the seizures and took our baby home.

We were now the parents of a special-needs child.

Although developmentally delayed and debilitated by seizures that could come at any time, she exhibited a determination and courage that I soon learned was typical of many children with life-altering disabilities. While other toddlers were toddling at eight months, she didn't until her eighteenth. Other milestones were equally as late. Some unfortunately never came. But the ones that did were, well … special.

It wasn't until Jacklyn was in her teens that we were able to get some closure on the misdiagnosis that robbed her of any chance of a normal life. The law says a child must reach 15, so the "damage" can be considered permanent before a suit can be initiated. There was also the issue of the coverup by both doctors and the hospital. Jacklyn was awarded a structured settlement for life.

If there's anything to take away from this, I guess it would be to always question your doctors. They are not gods but in many circumstances fallible individuals. Question them and rely on your body and your instincts to influence decisions. We all make mistakes in life. Karyn's doctor made one that forever changed our lives.

Today, Jacklyn is a 38-year-old special-needs adult, living in California. We moved there in 1979, when I became a writer on the sitcom "Laverne & Shirley." She works as a stock clerk at Goodwill, facing challenges and obstacles each day as she has every day of her life. She lives at home with me. Her mother, Karyn, watches over her from up above.

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