It's a narrow, rickety suspension bridge across a craggy gorge with the Capilano River raging below. A simple wooden bridge that sways and lurches as intrepid tourists walk back and forth, most of them hanging on to the four-foot-high railings on the side. Not a place for those with rubber legs or a fear of heights. Or for children unaccompanied by an adult. A sign reads: Do not throw articles off the bridge.

But here last month Nadia Hama, 37, walked across the bridge with her 5-year-old son, Jovan, and her 17-month old daughter, Kaya. When she started the return trek, she was holding her son's hand in her left hand and carrying her baby over her right shoulder.

And then the nightmare-miracle occurred. The baby somehow got separated from the mom and plunged 200 feet into the gorge, landing in some trees that broke her fall.

The miracle is that the baby survived with minor cuts and bruises.

The nightmare is that a mom could accidentally drop--or purposely throw--her baby into the gorge. Canadian police have been investigating the possibility that Hama attempted to murder her baby. She strongly denies this and no arrest has been made. Meanwhile the screaming headlines have riveted Canadians, and for the most part the media frenzy comes down to one issue: Is Hama a Medea Mom who would kill her own flesh and blood?

This is not a simple story. What emerges from the tabloid details is a portrait of a desperate woman. Her baby has Down syndrome, a form of mental retardation, and she is in the midst of a messy divorce.

None of these personal factors justifies a crime. The vast majority of people who are raising children with special needs cope with the burden. And legions of Americans have gotten divorced and gone on with their lives.

But ordinary people under extraordinary stress rarely get much public attention or sympathy. They deal with their burdens in silence--forced by a success-obsessed culture to play a charade of "everything's fine" normalcy.

Behind the headlines on Hama is the much bigger--and largely ignored--story about millions of people who lead quiet lives in crisis.

Having a child with a medical condition is a major stress. Down syndrome is just one of many congenital maladies. Nearly 45,000 babies in the United States are born each year with a problem--from heart malformations to cleft palate, from neurological conditions to inherited disorders. Some conditions are mild, others life-threatening. Down syndrome, for example, varies widely in severity. Yet many children born with these conditions need lifetime care.

According to Family Voices, an advocacy group, more than 12 million children in the United States have some medical problem, from asthma to cerebral palsy. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services counts about 4 million children with special needs, including 2 million with mental retardation and developmental disabilities.

Who takes care of all these children? In many instances, a family member is the primary caregiver.

This is a national issue. More than 25 million Americans are family caregivers--taking care of spouses and parents as well as children. But they receive little recognition and few supports. While President Clinton has tipped his rhetorical hat to family caregivers, proposed legislation to help ease some of the burden still languishes in Congress, and no one expects any relief soon.

"Caregiving is very isolating," says Suzanne Mintz of the Kensington-based National Family Caregivers Association. "The sense of isolation is perhaps the most difficult thing to deal with. It separates you out from everybody else. That means you are not getting a lot of support. The pain is your pain; the rest of the world is happy-go-lucky."

Compound the burden of caregiving with the pain of a marriage breakup and you deepen the crisis. Every year, about 1 million couples get divorced. For many, it is a prelude to a better life, but not everybody thrives. Most people, including those who move on successfully, endure several years of emotional pain and upheaval in the process of breaking up. This is the period when people are at high risk of injuries, illness and domestic violence. They also tend to be isolated from what they perceive to be a couples' world.

Getting a divorce or taking care of a sick family member is the stuff of ordinary lives. But these are crisis situations. People cope--day in and day out--and they rarely make the news.

Until you read about a Down syndrome baby plunging 200 feet into a gorge.

It's time to pay more attention to ordinary people living lives of crisis. The family next door with an autistic boy, the colleague at work who's going through a divorce, an acquaintance at the gym who's taking care of her disabled mother.

Before they make the news.