For millions of Americans, it probably felt like a death in the family.
Fifty years ago today, the first child born to the wife of a sitting U.S. president since 1893 died after living only two days. For John Kennedy, the death of his second son, Patrick Bouvier Kennedy, born five and a half weeks premature, brought a renewed sense of purpose for his presidency and his marriage, according to friends and historians.
"He was about as big as a small doll," said Dr. William Bernhard, the Boston-based cardiac and pulmonary specialist who labored 30 hours trying to save the newborn. The now-retired surgeon gave me his first-ever interview about his efforts to keep the infant alive for my book, November 22, 1963: Reflections on the Life, Assassination and Legacy of John F. Kennedy.
The physician's recollections provide a stirring sense of urgency.
He was a little three-pounder, about as big as a small doll. And his chest was pumping away; his respirations were at least at 100. He was trying to stay alive, breathing 100 percent oxygen.
The baby was struggling, breathing about 100 times per minute, despite a small improvement in oxygen saturation. He was still very short of breath.
So the president came in again and we had a little chat.
I said, "Things look improved on paper, but the baby doesn't appear any better, and I'm concerned we're not going to make out very well here."
The president said, "Yeah, he looks like he's having a really hard time."
So I told the President, "He's going to get tired if he keeps this up. And if we have to pick a moment as he gets tired to put an endotracheal tube in, and get an anesthesiologist in here, and 'bag him' with 100 percent oxygen to take over the load of his breathing, the chances of his survival are very, very slim."
So the president left again, and we continued on for a number of hours. I stayed the whole time. I couldn't bear to think of leaving the place, with nobody else knowing anything about it (function of the hyperbaric chamber), and no one there but technicians. There was no way I was going anywhere.
On August 10, the day after Patrick's death, a private funeral with fewer than 20 mourners -- mostly family members -- was held in the chapel of Boston Cardinal Richard Cushing. Cushing, the Catholic archbishop who married John Kennedy and Jacqueline Bouvier 10 years earlier, also delivered the invocation at Kennedy's inaugural in 1961.
And he would officiate at the president's funeral barely three months later.
According to Thurston Clarke in his new book, JFK's Last 100 Days, Kennedy then traveled to Otis Air Force Base near the Kennedy Compound in Hyannis Port to comfort his wife, still recuperating from the delivery.
"(H)e wept in Jackie's arms while describing the funeral," Clarke writes. "After recovering his composure he said, 'You know, Jackie, we must not create an atmosphere of sadness in the White House because this would not be good for anyone -- not for the country and not for the work we have to do.' His reference to 'the work we have to do' stressed their partnership in a way Jackie had to find gratifying, and promising. According to her mother, it made a 'profound impression' on her."
Two days after the baby's funeral, Kennedy returned to the White House. Among his papers was a news clipping -- not from The New York Times or The Washington Post, but from the Spokane, Washington Spokesman-Review. The lead editorial stated commented on the child's "tenuous thread of life."
"Men and women of all walks of life, stirred by the universal truth of life and death, knew each in an intimate way, the profound sorrow of the father and mother," the editorial stated. "Seldom has a President of the United States been held by his countrymen in such deep human regard." Next to the editorial was a cartoon by Shaw McCutcheon entitled, "The Nation Shares Their Grief," with a caricature of Uncle Sam looking downward in sorrow and, in the background, an illustration of JFK consoling his wife Jacqueline at her bedside.
We all have experienced that "tenuous thread of life," the unexpected death of a parent or a loved one. Fifty years later, that infant child who fought so hard to live and whose death brought his parents closer together, lies next to his mother and father in Arlington National Cemetery.
Dean R. Owen, a Seattle-area writer, is the author of November 22, 1963, Reflections on the life, Assassination and Legacy of John F. Kennedy. The book, published by Skyhorse Publishing, will be released in early September.