March 14, 1921
Yawning openly on this gray afternoon, a young nurse makes a last round of her newborn charges in New York City’s Columbus Hospital Extension on 163rd Street. In the final moments of an unusually busy shift, the weary nurse’s thoughts are already far from babies as she bends over the whimpering Smith infant at whose midday birth she assisted two hours earlier.
Instantly wide awake, Mae Redmond gasps, “Oh God! Oh God!” for infant Smith’s face is like charred wood, cheeks and lips blackened and burnt. Pus exudes from both tiny nostrils. Worst, where eyes should be are only two grotesque edemic swellings.
Horrified, Mae must struggle not to pass out as her mind grasps for how this can be. No one has handled the newborn after his normal delivery since she herself weighed and measured him and put in the eye drops prescribed by law.
The drops! Suddenly her panic lunges in a definite direction. She staggers across the nursery and picks up the bottle of 1-percent silver-nitrate solution used in the newborn’s eyes. What she reads on the label makes her shriek hysterically again and again, “Doctor! Oh God! Get a doctor!”
Into infant Peter Smith’s eyes the rushed nurse has deftly dropped, carefully pulling back each lid to get it all in, not 1-percent silver-nitrate solution, but 50-percent silver-nitrate solution. Even 5-percent to 25-percent solution is used only on unwanted human tissue — tumors, for instance — because it eats away flesh as effectively as electric cauterizing tools. Fifty-percent solution will gradually bore a hole in a solid piece of wood. And it has already been at work on the soft human tissue of infant Peter’s eyes for two hours.
Dr. John G. Grimley is the first physician to hear the nurse’s shrill cries. Looking at the badly burnt face and the bottle label, the suddenly ashen-faced doctor can only shake his head helplessly. A few minutes later he is reporting to an anguished Mother Teresa Bacigalupo, Superior of the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart who own and run Columbus Hospital, that the nurse has accidentally destroyed a newborn’s sight.
Desperately, the deadly bottle in hand, Mae meanwhile runs to find Dr. Paul W. Casson. But Casson cannot help the baby either. In fact the second doctor to see the infant will later recall that the sight of the tiny charred face and the 50-percent label knocks him speechless and breathless — at a loss for what to do. It is obvious to his experienced eye that the deadly solution has penetrated every layer of facial skin. And by now in those eye sockets there can be nothing left to treat. All Casson can do is put in a call that Dr. Michael J. Horan, who delivered Margaret Smith of a “perfect son” less than three hours ago, should return immediately to the hospital.
As he is telephoning, Mother Bacigalupo scurries anxiously into the nursery, interrupting him to plead he do something to save the baby’s sight. Casson can only explain no human remedy can restore destroyed tissue. “Nothing short of a miracle,” he ends, “can help this kid.”
Her whole body bowed with sorrow, the nun says resolutely in Italian-accented English, “Then we will pray.”
“God! Do!” the doctor urges, his face as stricken as her own. When Dr. Horan arrives, Casson meets him in the hall and tries to break it gently, saying only that “a slightly stronger solution of silver nitrate” has been used for the Smith infant’s eyes.
Dr. Horan exclaims at once, “Anything stronger than 1-percent solution and that’s a blind baby.” A minute later as he bends over the crib, the eyes which are now beginning to exude pus like the nose are so swollen he cannot open them. Three doctors have already seen the baby, and except for ordering cold compresses to reduce inflammation, they can do nothing for him. Horan sends for an eye specialist and waits, a nervous wreck, Casson notes. The eye specialist Dr. Kearney’s expertise merely confirms the other men’s medical knowledge of the properties of nitrate. As if the situation cannot be worse, Horan bears the additional burden of knowing Mrs. Smith’s first baby, a girl, lived only five days. How to tell her and her husband that if their second baby lives, he will be totally blind? He will also be terribly disfigured, since, when a burn goes through all the layers of skin, the body cannot repair itself with new skin, but only with scar tissue.
That afternoon and evening as the spiritual daughters of Frances Cabrini, foundress of the hospital and their religious order, go off duty, they gather one by one in the chapel. All the long night they remain there begging Mother Cabrini, dead only three years, to obtain from the bountiful heart of Jesus the healing of the Smiths’ whimpering infant. Mae is with them, praying her heart out too.
At nine o’clock the next morning, when Kearney and Horan arrive at the nursery, to their astonishment they find baby Peter’s eyelids much less swollen and pussy. Gently the eye specialist opens the eyelids, his stomach tightening as he prepares to see the ravages on the delicate eye tissue of the deadly acid.
Instead, looking back at him with the vague, slightly unfocused gaze of the one-day-old are two perfect eyes.
Kearney and Horan are staggered, as are Casson and Grimley when they arrive. Mae, who shudders to recall how she held back the ba-by’s eyelids to make sure the drops went in, can only sob with delirious gratitude.
Amid the smiles and backslappings someone points out something else inexplicable: the horribly charred skin is healing to smooth infant satin, instead of blistering and contracting.
But no smiles are so broad as the nuns’. They knew Mother Cabrini’s sanctity personally. Now that she has proven it they exult. Her prayers have obtained this “impossible” cure from the Lord.
Then another tragedy looms. Almost immediately after the miracle, the baby comes down with pneumonia. His jubilant doctors plunge back into fear once more, for infant Peter’s temperature, in this pre-antibiotic era, is so high at 107, it appears he will die. This time the summoned Mother Bacigalupo practically laughs at the anxious doctors as she says, “Mother Cabrini did not restore his vision for him to die of pneumonia.” But again the Sisters spend the night in prayer. By morning, another miracle: fever down, pneumonia gone.
In 1938 Mother Cabrini is beatified by the Catholic Church, Several miracles are cited as signs from God in favor of this step, one being the healing of Peter Smith. Seventeen years old, he attends the ceremonies in St. Peter’s, Rome, where onlookers notice his striking and expressive eyes that need no glasses and his smooth-skinned face. Only those who know to look carefully for them make out the two tiny scars where deadly nitrate solution once burned a furrow down his cheeks.
All the way to his death in 2002, Fr. Peter Smith will love to talk about Mother Cabrini, whose prayers to God when he was an infant, as he put it, “show the age of miracles has not passed.”
image: Wikimedia Commons