The birth of octuplets Monday at Kaiser Permanente Medical Center has triggered warnings from doctors that the medical outcome for multiple-birth babies so small and premature is often poor. While the unidentified octuplets are reported to be doing well, all low-birth weight babies are at higher risk for health problems, as was detailed in today's Los Angeles Times.
I received an e-mail from a reader this morning, however, reminding me that no one can see the future. Wallace Danielson, of San Diego, was born Aug. 5, 1924, in his parents' home outside Missoula, Mont., he said. He was three months premature and weighed 1 pound, 5 ounces. The town's doctor made a house call to check on the newborn. "That kid will never make it," he said, and left the house. Danielson doesn't know how his parents and older sister responded to that prediction, but they rallied around him. The neighbor ladies came over and helped the family and offered advice, he was told. He was fed goat's milk with an eye dropper and was placed close to a wood-burning stove -- what his parents described as his "incubation." The kid lived.
Danielson is 84 now, he told me in a telephone interview. He was a puny child but eventually reached normal height and has been healthy for most of his life. He served in World War II and the Korean War and earned two college degrees, in physics and chemistry and in foreign trade. He spent his career as a technical writer and editor. Being a man of science, Danielson asked me what the odds of survival are for a 1.5-pound newborn. Studies show infants born today weighing between 1.2 pounds and 1.10 pounds have a 50% chance of survival. Survival rates have improved greatly over the last two decades due to a number of advances in neonatal medicine. In 1970, the odds of a 1.12-pound baby surviving were about 20%.
I have no idea what the odds of survival were in 1924 for a 1.5-pound baby born and cared for at home. I can't imagine how his parents even handled him. "You were about the size of a box of butter," I told Danielson. "And I'm pretty slippery," he said, laughing. "I survived."
-- Shari Roan
Photo: Ken Hively / Los Angeles Times