Long Ago on This Date, JFK Was Just Another Parent in Grief at a Boston Hospital

Friday, August 9, 2013

The irony was not lost on anyone: the most powerful man in the world was powerless to save his newborn son.

Fifty years ago today, August 9, 1963, Patrick Bouvier Kennedy died of hyaline membrane disease, a lung disorder, at Boston Children’s Hospital.

Doctors and hospitals could do very little in those days for babies with this problem, which is caused by the formation of a glassy membrane on the air sacs of the lungs. Fortunately, highly effective treatments have since been developed.  Few newborns die today of hyaline membrane disease in the developed world. 

In an article published July 30, 2013, Lawrence K. Altman, a medical doctor and correspondent for the New York Times, wrote, “If Patrick were being born in August 2013, his odds of surviving would be better than 95 percent.”  If you’d like to read the Altman piece, click on this link:

Patrick was born on August 7 at the Otis Air Force Base hospital in Bourne, MA.  His mother, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, was vacationing on Cape Cod when she went into labor, five weeks before her due date.  Doctors delivered the baby by Caesarean section.

The funeral Mass for Patrick was held the day after he died in the private chapel of the Commonwealth Avenue home of the Archbishop of Boston, Cardinal Richard Cushing.  Only a few people were there.  

The late Richard Reeves described what happened at the end of that Mass on page 553 of his superb book, “President Kennedy, Profile of Power,” which came out in 1993:

“…Jacqueline Kennedy was still in the hospital on Cape Cod.  Her husband was on his knees, seemingly unable to let go of the little white coffin in front of him.  ‘Come on, Jack, let’s go,’ Cushing said finally.  ‘God is good.’ ”

A little earlier in “President Kennedy,” on page 539, Reeves recounts a meeting Kennedy held with his Secretary of State, Dean Rusk, regarding an upcoming presidential visit to Europe:

“As the European trip was being planned, the President had asked Rusk if he knew of a beautiful and secluded place in Italy for a private matter.  Rusk did.  He had been president of the Rockefeller Foundation, which owned Villa Serbelloni on Lake Como, once the grand vacation home of a Milanese merchant prince.  Kennedy said he wanted the villa on the night of June 30 and he wanted it empty – no servants, no staff, no Secret Service.  Powers and O’Donnell would be there to handle any problems, that was part of their jobs.  But somebody didn’t get the message.  It soon became apparent that the resident director of Rockefeller programs at the villa and his wife, Mr. and Mrs. John Marshall, were intending to stay on the property, moving into guest quarters.

“ ‘Get them out of there,’ ” Kennedy said, and the State Department was on the way.  The Marshalls left and soon afterward a lady of some note in Europe arrived.  Rusk returned in the morning.  ‘How was it?’ asked Rusk, who did not approve of some of Kennedy’s habits.

“ ‘Wonderful,’ Kennedy said. ‘Absolutely wonderful.’ ”

In the 105 days he remained alive after his son’s death, did Kennedy’s conscience ever cause him to conjure a connection between the events of June 30 and August 7 through 9, 1963?

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