National Catholic Register

Culture of Life

‘Keep Him Alive!’: Words That Saved

BY Jim Cosgrove

August 25-31, 2002 Issue | Posted 8/25/02 at 1:00 PM

 

A while back, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights cited a nationwide survey in which 60% of pediatricians agreed that it is ethically permissible to starve a newborn baby to death if that child is afflicted with certain birth defects. The commission concluded that withholding nutrition and water from such babies is widespread in our nation's hospitals.

Likewise, a newborn's chances of escape from physician-aided death and euthanasia decline further as perceived effects of mental retardation are more evident.

Some things hit home.

Thirty years ago our newborn son's delivering physician and a hospital pediatrician draped arms around my shoulder to announce the birth, and the rest.

Hydrocephalus, they said. Brain-damaged. If he survives, they said, my son would be greatly disabled and suffer mental and physical defects.

He might never walk or talk. And, by the way, they added, he also suffered severe cerebral edema from oxygen deprivation during delivery. Their brief also suggested at least partial spina bifida, a cleft in the spinal column.

The doctor offered what he thought might be comforting advice.

“It may be best if he doesn't make it,” said this modern Hippocrates. His medical companion nodded assent.

All I could blurt out was, “Keep him alive!” And I immediately repeated that demand at least six or seven times. “Keep him alive!”

Better Off Living

Over the years I've puzzled about this clumsy life plea that seized me. I've said to my wife that I don't know why I repeated those words only. Obviously the doctor heard me several times, yet I uttered no lucid commentary.

“Keep him alive!” It was all I knew to say, because it was all.

The child is father to the man, wrote Wordsworth. That sounds clever in a poem. But first the child is a child, helpless and dependent. Later, perhaps, Wordsworth has a point; yet even then only in some metaphorical sense. I suspect Wordsworth's phrase came not from seeing his newborn child's life in peril.

Every child needs a mother to give life and nurture and a father to protect and help sustain that life. Yet here I was, unable to mutter more than “keep him alive.” What an inarticulate lout I am, I thought then.

Recalling today that poll of pediatricians (the branch of medicine to which we entrust our children), I know why I was so repetitive, so definite, so glued to the life of my only son. He did live, and the doctors were wrong. He beat all the odds, the illness, the threats, symptoms and perceptions of major disability. Human doctors were wrong!

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My wife and I took our son home and to every possible life-giving medical agent. Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center in New York, Easter Seals, March of Dimes, hospital therapists. A succession of highly regarded specialists and neurologists.

Our own family pediatrician was superb. Dr. Suzanne Widrow never, to our knowledge, gave up for a second on our son's chances. Nor did Dr. Arnold Gold of Columbia University.

At home our whole family pitched in. But mostly it was my wife and the boy. She developed his muscle tone, patterned his motionless arms and legs and, on her knees for long hours, taught him to walk because he could neither stand nor crawl on his own. And so he walked. Then she taught him to crawl. He learned courage and willpower on his own.

Always we remained in God's presence and hope through prayer and sacrifice. My wife's long, painful hours on her knees remain to me the dearest prayer.

Better than Wordsworth's aphorism is a thought expressed by Father Theodore Hesburgh, former president of the University of Notre Dame: “The most important thing a father can do for his children is to love their mother.” And I do.

To that, let's stress the need for all husbands and fathers to support mother and children and their family-focused efforts in every way possible.

I know a bright athlete who would second these observations.

Today our son is a 6-foot-3-inch young man who served with the U.S. Marine Corps in the Pacific Fleet, fought forest fires near the Canadian border, completed the Los Angeles Marathon and cycled through a recent 500-mile bike race in Alaska. He was an award-winning editor in chief of a college weekly newspaper.

Don't tell him he would have been “better off” not making it, as those faithless physicians said so many years ago. And don't tell me. Mostly, I suggest, don't ever tell that to my wife.

We must remain open to God's plans. Not all who suffer the threat of disability escape its ravages. Many do not. But how do we know who will and who will not — unless we allow each child to live to fight, or to accept? But first, to live.

Eternal Players

Surveys of medical ethics indicate that too many physicians nod in the wrong direction. Doctors need to remember, as most do, that they are called in a very special way to be healers, not executioners. Nor are they to be silent accomplices in deaths of innocent human beings, born and unborn, regardless of indicators of potential frailties. Physicians need to speak out.

The hearts of new parents surge joyfully at the three words: “It's a boy!” And “It's a girl!”

Despite a hand dealt us for some reason or no reason, each of us in this society founded on life, liberty and pursuit of happiness must seek courage to help children and heart-ached parents to find meaning in those three other words: “Keep him alive.”

It is not the province of the living to choose death for any innocent human person reaching out, however feebly for life.

Shakespeare was incomplete — the world is more than a stage. For who but the Eternal Playwright knows the full measure of the actors and how the plot may evolve when the curtain rises? No one among us can foretell how life's drama may impact its characters and audience. Who can judge ultimate value of each cast member before the final curtain falls and reviews are written?

Drew DeCoursey, author of

Lifting the Veil of Choice (OSV, 1992), writes from

Morristown, New Jersey.