The Case of the 'Cyclops Child'

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Doctor Fredric Neuman is now the director of the Anxiety and Phobia Center at White Plains Hospital. But when he was a medical intern, he saw something no one should ever have to see.

In a recent blog post for Psychology Today, Neuman detailed the birth of a "Cyclops Child." This baby was born with a “single fused eye in the middle of its forehead.” Parts of the brain and skull were missing, and the child’s esophagus had never separated from the trachea and led straight to its lungs, making it unable to eat.

Knowing that babies with holoprosencephaly, a cephalic disorder, rarely live long, the doctor told the child's mother that her baby had passed away at birth, and it (Neuman says that he has long since forgotten the child's sex) was placed in a far corner of the nursery to die. "We knew this child was doomed from the time it came onto the ward," Neuman says. 

Unable to eat, the child slowly starved in the nursery. Its constant cries for help disturbed many on the hospital staff, to the point that interns and nurses avoided that ward or stayed home from work altogether. It lived for 13 days. 

Since then, Neuman has struggled with the ethical ramifications of the case. "What I thought initially, holding that baby in my arms, is that the obstetrician had done the right thing," Neuman says. "I thought that, and there's no question still in my mind, that this woman [upon seeing the newborn] would have been traumatized permanently." 

The decision that the obstetrician made to withhold the child from its parents is one that Neuman still thinks about. "I have thought differently about it at different times," he says. "In the overwhelming experience of holding this child, I thought nothing could be worse for this mother, even though she would have wanted to see the child." The decision was made for the mother's benefit, but this desire to protect conflicted with the parents' rights to see their child. 

"Now, of course, first of all, the ethical standards have somewhat changed, and I think the parents do, of course, have a right [to see the child]," Neuman says. "[The obstetrician] was violating [the parents'] rights at the time." 

Neuman has received considerable feedback from the blog post, both positive and negative. Much of the criticism comes from disabled people, he says, who argue that the decision to let the baby die was not the medical staff's to make. It is an especially sensitive issue for people with disabilities, Neuman says, because of their own experiences. The two do not compare, the psychiatrist believes. 

"What they're really upset about is the fact that they are not treated like human beings in some situations," he says. "I'm sympathetic to that, and I feel terrible that they see me now as almost the incarnation of those evil people — someone who looks at a child who is deformed and decides that this child should die on his own initiative. 

"I understand that. I'm a little disappointed because this child is so different from their experience that I really never anticipated that they would think that." 

When the baby passed away, Neuman felt a mixture of sadness and relief. "It was awful for the child," Neuman says. "It's hard to imagine a child that is not comforted by picking it up. You can't feed it when it's hungry. You can't do anything for it." 


Fredric Neuman

Produced by:

Robert Balint, Arwa Gunja and Joe Hernandez

Comments [20]


When Nature goes awry!! How very awful for that poor baby! Heartbreaking. :(

Feb. 15 2014 12:58 PM
Valerie Davis

Im a teacher (Art) and I had the students doing a project on a cyclops One eye,one nose,one mouth so I decided to look up the word cyclops and came across this story wow by the grace of god their goes my daughter who was born with a rear decease that they told me she would only live to see the age of 8 years thank god i didn't listen and decided not to abort her she is a happy behind her age of 21 years old but nevertheless she is still hear I don't know what i would've done

Oct. 02 2012 09:45 AM
Donna L

I admire Dr. Neuman's courage for openly discussing this case. You can hear in his voice the pain that this memory still creates. What people often forget is that health professionals are human. The baby's situation was tragic- there is no doubt about that. We can look back on the decision made 52 years ago and pass judgement. However, we forget that it was a very different time and place in human culture. Medicine was still in its paternalistic phase. Patients were not enlightened. They implicitly trusted their doctor and did not question authority. It was not only the medical establishment that was responsible for this culture but society as a whole for allowing it to exist. I look upon this as an evolutionary process; it is this evolution that gives us the distance to offer a different perspective now. However, despite how the passge of time has change society's perspective, the fact of the matter is, that in that day and time the baby's perspective was one of pain and suffering. Granted, due to its severe mental and neurological deficiencies his/her experience may not have been that of a normal healthy infant. Yet, it appears clearly that his/hers existence was one of discomfort. While many things have changed, the basic need not to allow any living thing to suffer needlessly- human or animal- is something that is timeless and is rooted in basic human compassion.

Jul. 19 2012 11:27 PM
LF from Brooklyn

I am surprised and disappointed that the NPR broadcasters could not find a term other then "Cyclops" when describing this baby. As I was listening to NPR this morning while I was driving, I kept hearing this word used over and over again when referring to this segment. Isn't this a little insensitive?

Jul. 19 2012 09:26 AM
Daniel Ellis from Newark, NJ

John and Celeste-Many thanks for your program on The Cyclops Baby. I precipitated a number of responses in me.
The first thought I had went back immediately to 1968 when my anatomy professor at Boston University, was discussing fetal eye development. That development starts with one group of specialized cells which divide in half and separate to produce two eyes. The professor paused and wondered aloud whether, over the course of thousands of years of life in the Eastern Mediterranean, a child were born with one eye. It would have been a troubling event, he suggested. It well could have been the source of the Cyclops appearing in the Odyssey.
What I thought your doctor should have told an NPR audience was a very few words about that aspect of fetal development. It would have placed the baby’s condition more in the nature of fetal development that went badly wrong on a number of material ways and not a monster.
I also thought the doctor should have in two sentences indicated specifically those sections of the brain that had not developed. This is not Good Morning Everyone News!, after all.
Finally, I thought your question whether this experience helped the doctor choose his eventual area of practice was brilliant, subtle and wise. But the doctor’s response was flat and dull. Maybe all physicians can’t be Oliver Sacks, but still.
Thanks. Your program fills a critical need.

Jul. 19 2012 06:49 AM
Juan from Westchester ny

Great interview. This is the way it was then and I appreciate the honesty of the doctor. The case strong ethical issues that we as a society need to discuss.

Jul. 19 2012 12:21 AM
Larry Fisher from Bed Stuy, Brooklyn

This story made me so anxious that I am heading up to White Plains to speak with the Anxiety and Phobia Center Director.

Jul. 18 2012 11:43 PM
Judith from Larchmont

I am a board certified genetic counselor who began my training in the 70's. This was a case, I believe, of holoprosencephaly. The mid-brain malformation, whose external manifestation was cyclopia, indicated that there was severe brain impairement and neurological dysfunction. The other birth defects only compounded the problem. Over the years I saw babies much like this one born and "expire" within a relatively short time after birth.
These babies are given sedation so they are not hungry and crying. Their parents are encouraged to hold and visit the baby, even sometimes to take the child home. It is important for the parents, because often the actual contact with their baby removes the fear that the child is a "monster" and the reality is not nearly as bad as what they imagine. We have come a long way from the scenario Dr. Neuman experienced.

Jul. 18 2012 11:02 PM
Elijah McDougal from Mount Vernon, NY

Unfortunately, this horrific incident represents the world that now awaits us. One hundred years of indoctrination with the Western, science-centered, God-denying, Reason-Trumps-All ethos have led us to interpret all human matters in terms of a utilitarian cost-benefit analysis. We arrogantly decide what a human life is "worth" measured in terms of arbitrary categories -- physical mobility, capacity for "enjoyment," ability to talk or to think abstractly, etc -- and compare it to other human lives. Then we weigh it against their "cost" to society. In the case of this unfortunate infant, outside professionals made the decision that its cost, which included the "trauma" its mother would feel knowing she had given birth to such a "monster," the offense its repugnant appearance gave to the nursing staff, the disturbing sound of its constant crying, and the inconvenience and expense of trying to feed it through a stomach tube, simply did not justify the hassle of trying to keep the creature alive, not even for the short time it would live until nature took its course.

My father has early stage Alzheimer's. When he gets to the point where he no longer recognizes me and can do nothing but sit in a rocking chair drooling and staring out into space, should I welcome the prospect of some Obamacare bureaucrat deciding that "society" would be better off if no further resources were expended on keeping him alive? Humans are not simply material beings but spiritual ones as well. Our intrinsic value can never be determined by the cold calculus of the marketplace, our worth cannot be measured by return-on-investment models. But for those on the left, who view humans as glorified apes anyway, this obvious truth is lost.

Jul. 18 2012 06:40 PM
Diane from Minnesota

Neuman said (in reference to peoples' reactions to his blog post), "What they're really upset about is the fact that they are not treated like human beings in some situations."

It's interesting that The Takeaway's summary of this interview repeatedly refers to this baby as "it."

Jul. 18 2012 04:50 PM
Sharon Azar from Brooklyn, New York

I am in agreement with most comments --that the mother should have been able to know the truth; this was her child, no matter the consequences; and this child belonged with her/his mother, no matter how upsetting it was to the medical people--'the truth shall make you free'....

Jul. 18 2012 04:15 PM
kiven from jackson heights

Doctor Fredric Neuman proof that all doctors are idiots. its is bad black comedy but the punchline was that everyone suffer because of these doctor's stupidity one crisis after another!! this baby is alive. ALIVE!! AS IN IT CAN SUFFER!!! to say it have no pain is a joke! than you took this child away- a emotional property that does not belong to the hospital or the doctor or the state! this baby belongs to the parent and ONLY THE PARENTS! we all live with trauma in our lives, its how we grow up as a adult! screw all the pretentious over cuddling mind sets of you average americans. growing up is learning to live with life's pain. suffering is a pretext why americans are lie to day in day out. the decision of this baby's life and his future belong to the parents and only the parent never the hospital or the doctor.

Jul. 18 2012 12:18 PM
Joe G. from Jersey City, NJ

This was the most disturbing thing I have heard in a long time. I am sick to my stomach and on the verge of tears as well. I don't know that I will ever be able to make sense of it.

Jul. 18 2012 09:32 AM
Sharon from Upper West Side

Thank you for airing this segment. It reminds me of my husband's experience when his mother was in the hospital with cancer. He was 16 years old and the doctors recommended the family not to tell him she was dying. He never was allowed to share his love for her, comfort her, hear her final thoughts, say goodbye and be there when she passed. He is now 56 and still regrets being denied the opportunity to have done so.

How can we learn to live well & fully if we don't prepare our young adults to face the inevitability of death and realize the preciousness of the time we have on this earth?

Jul. 18 2012 09:12 AM
Elizabeth from brooklyn

They might have told the parents the facts and then given them the choice of a) leaving their child in the loving care of nurses and doctors who would have held and cared for their child. -or- b) let the parents be with the child until it passed away. In either case, the baby was a soul with feelings and even if not fed, he/she should have been held, caressed, and loved. Human touch would have gone a long way both for easing the baby's last days and allowing the staff and family mourn and give compassion.

Jul. 18 2012 09:07 AM

The baby could not be fed. He said that esophagus led directly to the lungs. What's the point of feeding any other way? How long would you keep this child alive? It's condition was not compatible w/ life and that is just the unfortunate fact.

Jul. 18 2012 09:04 AM
Elisabeth Pozzi from Lower East Side

I applaud Dr. Neuman for his courage, as a caring doctor and decent human being, to bring this heart breaking experience out into the open -- and for starting a much needed discussion.
I applaud John Hockenberry for inviting Dr. Neuman to the studio -- and the large audience of listeners into this thinking process. As always: You are asking just the right questions that open our ears, hearts and minds and make us think.

The piece not only touches the topic how we as a society and as individuals look at severely disabled new life (n the womb and just born) but also on a much necessary topic that we tend to shy away from as well: The process of dignified dying.
There are no clear answers in either of these areas and much more thinking and discussing needs to be done.
Thank you, Dr. Neuman, and thank you, John Hockenberry, for enouraging a conversation about these most important ethical questions in human life. Please keep the questions coming!

Jul. 18 2012 08:43 AM
Ed from Larchmont

This is her child and her husband's child, not the doctor's. They would have gotten to know their child in that time.

The doctors committed murder. The doctor, though well-meaning, is incorrect: there are principles that apply in any situation. One is that care (food and water and warmth) can never be taken away from a human being, unless the food would harm them. That was violated here.

Mother Teresa showed us how to care for a child like this: feed it through a tube and love it until it dies, apply pain medicine if necessary (he didn't mention pain).

Jul. 18 2012 08:16 AM

A mercy killing immediately upon birth would have been the kindest. I am glad no one showed this women her baby. If this was her first birth I can see being too traumatized to have another pregnancy.

Jul. 18 2012 07:47 AM
Ed from Larchmont

Indeed, why wasn't the child put in the arms of her or his mother? And why wasn't the child given nutrition by tube? Why not??? Barbaric and evil not to.

Jul. 18 2012 06:03 AM

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