Baby Blues

One of Parkland Memorial Hospital's new mothers recently showed up with her husband to collect their 6-week-old infant daughter. Like the thousands of mothers who give birth every year at the busiest maternity ward in the United States, the young couple was poor. Weeks of hospital visits while their prematurely born daughter grew healthy made already-strained finances even worse.

"They came out, and they had nothing. Not one thing," says Maggie Newman, a nurse and eight-year veteran of the hospital's intensive care unit for babies. "I don't know how they thought the baby was going to go home." The couple lacked the barest essentials for taking home their newborn: baby seat, baby clothes, blanket.

Newman has seen her share of the poor come through Parkland's delivery rooms and nursery areas, which serve Dallas County's many uninsured residents. With more than 15,000 births a year, Parkland sustains an "airport terminal's" frenzied pace, one administrator says. In comparison, about 2,200 babies are born each year at New York's famous Bellevue Hospital Center, a similarly public hospital in jam-packed Manhattan. At Parkland, taxpayers take care of mothers and babies through delivery, but that's when the obligation ends. Anything for the babies to wear during lengthy stays in intensive care, or to be wrapped in at the bus stop going home or to an unheated house, is the family's responsibility.

While volunteers donate a tremendous amount of baby goods every year, Parkland is "desperate" for more, administrators say. The hospital posted a plea for more goods on the county's Web page that says as much.

Standing beside a cardboard box full of red fleece blankets adorned with teddy bears and a plastic sack full of baby-blue and pink knitted caps and booties, it's hard to believe Parkland volunteer services director Lisa Little when she passionately pleads for more, more, more. But while poking around in the box of the donated blankets and other goods, Little explains that Parkland's appetite for newborn clothes and blankets is insatiable. Even if they could, Little says, the nurses wouldn't give every mother and child a blanket, cap, or baby bumper (a soft, flexible, sock-like tube that wraps around a baby and is said to help prevent Sudden Infant Death Syndrome). Nurses use discretion and give items only to the most needy. But the stocks of goods disappear quickly anyway, she says.

"This will all be gone today, probably," she says, motioning at the bulging bags of goods.

Parkland, through the American Red Cross and Dallas-area organizations such as the Little Angels, receives literally tons of donated goods each year. This year is no different. The hospital doesn't keep precise records of donations coming in or going out, but Little estimates that Parkland received enough knitted goods such as hats, booties, and blankets to outfit 8,000 newborns, about half of the hospital's annual birth tally. If the items were purchased at retail costs, about $20 would be needed to provide each baby a blanket, hat, and socks. The reason for the shortage is simple: The demand far exceeds the supply.

Michele Allison, who made the expensive-looking fleece blankets, is one of those who donate to the hospital's nursery. Allison lives in Rogue River, Oregon, a tiny burg about 50 miles north of the California border (and home to the National Rooster Crowing Contest). Sure, she says, the Pacific Northwest probably has needy babies and mothers, but she read about Parkland's shortage through an online volunteer group and decided to help. Since August, she spent her spare time sewing and knitting instead of reading. She made eight blankets (two knitted) and a couple of dresses for infant burials. But even with volunteers like Allison, so many needy mothers are having babies at Parkland that the nationwide network of donors--typically elderly women who can still knit, Little says--can't keep up.

When told about the shortage, Allison sighs and says her group, Knitting 4 Children, knows. "We talk to one another about not getting down because we can't fill those numbers," she said. Dale Talley, director of Parkland's nursery services, says the hospital's intensive care unit for babies, which treats about 10 percent of the newborns, puts the donated outfits to particularly good use. The tiny newborns, hooked up to machines, are barely recognizable to some frightened parents, many of whom speak little English (about 70 percent of the mothers are Hispanic).

"It gives kind of a little personality to that baby, and it makes it a little less threatening for the parent to see her baby dressed in a sweet little outfit when here it is with all these beepers and things going on," Talley says. "By having the ability to dress these babies in some of these hand-made little clothes, at least it's something that makes it look like we do have a baby here. Through all these bells and whistles and people looking nervous, this is a baby."

Nurse Newman says when the hospital can send a new baby home in a warm hat and a blanket, it makes the staff and parents feel better too. She doesn't know what some of the impoverished parents think they will do when they go home, but she is heartened when the hospital can help out. The young mother who came to get her premature daughter was just such a case.

"They didn't know where they were going to get anything for her to wear. They had no clothes. No money. The family didn't even have a little vest or a T-shirt to take the baby home in," Newman says. "They got her a little pink striped outfit. The mother was crying, she was so happy."