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Incubator Baby

I had been in the hospital visiting a friend, standing by the elevator waiting to leave, when two nurses rolled an incubator into the hallway.

Even a baby has a story. She had been taken downstairs for x-rays and was wrapped up inside the incubator, a little hat on her head, a striped blanket covering her and oxygen pumping through a tube into her nose. Such a small little baby. The two nurses had stethoscopes around their necks, one on each side of the incubator, like angels guarding the baby. A priest was standing next to them, and when the elevator arrived, everyone gave way for the procession: two nurses, the baby inside the incubator, the priest. “This baby gets right of way,” I said. Where were her parents? How could they have let their baby out of their sight? Why did she need an x-ray? I began to cry, just a soft, whispering cry. Then everyone in the elevator fell silent, and as it began to move, the priest raised his finger and pressed it against the glass near the baby’s head. He said a blessing. “This baby needs to be blessed,” the priest said. So we all blessed the baby.

Premature babies died until the incubator was invented; it was an adaptation of the chicken hatchery. And then came hucksterism, a freak show of “live babies" at World Fairs and Coney Island’s Dreamland, circa 1903. It was Dr. Martin Couney’s idea. Don’t people like an unusual story that pulls at their heartstrings, he asked? Entrance fee: 10 cents. Outside carnival barkers (including a very young Cary Grant) drew people into the exhibit. The sign over the entryway said, "All the World Loves a Baby." Ain’t it so, dear readers? Who can resist a story with a baby in it? Not I.

Back in 1903, desperate parents volunteered their babies willingly and who can fault them? If they hadn’t, they would have died. Dr. Couney never charged them any money.

Those who survived were called “Couney graduates.” I met one many years ago in Seattle and interviewed her. “Just imagine spending the first few weeks of your life in an incubator at Coney Island?” she said. Did she remember? Not really. But it sure made a good story.

The incubator exhibit at Coney Island closed down in 1941. Now, of course, incubators are commonplace in the developed world as are the survival rates of premature babies.

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