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."