During the work-retreat this week, we did a series of interviews. One of them took us to a neonatal intensive care unit in a major medical center. Amid the beeping monitors and tubing and high-tech equipment were the plastic pods in which premature babies spend the first days - even months - of their lives. The pods were draped on top with white fleecy cloths, stenciled in a cheerful pattern of blue baby footprints, and they had round hand-holes on the sides through which a nurse or a mother could grasp the tiny finger of a child. There were babies in the pods: babies with feet hardly bigger than one joint of my thumb, some with IV lines somehow inserted into imperceptible veins. A window at the far side of the room looked out over white pine trees, and blue hills.
In spite of the intensity of care that was being delivered, we were welcomed in and our questions graciously answered. One of the babies had been born 30 hours earlier, in a remote rural location, and had just arrived by helicopter. The parents came into the unit not long after we did, looking very young, dazed, impoverished, and as lost as if they had landed in the middle of Manhattan. Just then a pilot in a green flight suit came up to the unit to say he was ready to go; there was another baby to pick up, and in a few minutes a bright-eyed nurse and the pilot were wheeling a transport pod down the hall, toward the elevators, toward the helicopter pad on the back side of the hospital.
We learned later that some of the babies are born early and with complications because of the parental drug use; the agitated, crying babies go through detox for a week or more. I tried without success to imagine anything more unfair: being born into starvation, I suppose. But that's the heartbreaking and ever-sharper contrast, isn't it, in this rich country with its blue hills and high-tech medicine, its fertile valleys and schools and towns and differing possibilities that sift some children into white coats and flight suits, articulateness and skill, and others into a spiral of hopelessness, despair and escape into addiction. In this nursery tiny fingers grasped hands that reached for them out of both worlds; I realized I was hoping for miracles even greater than the precarious preservation of new life.