Dewayne Demus, 13 months old, pressed the nose of the Santa Claus pin, and when it played "Joy to the World," he let loose a smile.
That earned him a big, wet kiss on the cheek from Gayle Fissell, a nurse in the pediatric ward at Greater Southeast Community Hospital who is the closest thing to a parent that Dewayne has.
Together, they paraded like mother and son around a hospital Christmas party yesterday that was thrown for more than a dozen boarder babies -- infants, some of whom are so-called cocaine babies, who have been abandoned by their parents.
The hospital currently is home to five of the babies, including Dewayne, while other babies came with their newly adoptive or foster parents. Their return to the hospital yesterday was a reunion of sorts with the first family they ever had -- the nurses in the pediatric ward.
"These are not healthy kids with snotty noses. These are needy kids who are with us for so long they're like our own," said Mary Ellen Krolman, head nurse in the ward. "They're abandoned. It tugs at any woman's heartstrings."
Krolman says a special bond develops between the nurses and the babies, with some nurses becoming surrogate parents, celebrating birthdays, buying presents, selecting clothes and sometimes even naming the infants. "This party is not for the babies," she said. "The babies don't need to see us. But we need to see them."
One nurse and her husband are godparents to a baby who passed through the ward. Another nurse pays weekly visits to a baby transferred to a different hospital.
Robin Grant, a supervisor of medical records at the hospital, formally adopted 18-month-old Brian on Nov. 20. "I was up in the ward and I saw him every day, and then I started bringing him to my office," she said. "Then I found myself visiting him on my weekends and days off, and that was it."
Boarder babies are a relatively new phenomenon that developed in the Washington area in the late 1980s as an offshoot of the surge in the use of crack cocaine, particularly among women. Experts estimate as many as 375,000 such babies are born nationwide each year; The Washington Post, in an informal survey in August 1989, found 41 in seven D.C. hospitals in one week.
For the most part, boarder babies are medically ready to be discharged, but have no place to go. Unwanted by their drug-addicted parents, they remain at hospitals -- frequently the same ones where they were born -- for months while authorities look for foster homes and families to adopt them.
The adoption process can be complicated sometimes by health problems caused by improper prenatal care, including parental drug abuse.
Greater Southeast Community Hospital cared for eight boarder babies in 1988, 32 in 1989, and about 20 so far this year, said Krolman, who said it costs the hospital about $100,000 to care for a baby for one year.
In many ways, the party was not much different from other children's parties this season, with toys flying through the air and rolling across the floor, and lots of cookies.
Dewayne, who has left the hospital grounds once in his life (a roundtrip ambulance ride to Children's Hospital for tests) was decked out in a red suit embroidered with a choo-choo across the front.
Fissell said she was drawn to Dewayne soon after he arrived on the ward in November 1989. "I got attached real early, and I think he knows he's special to me," she said. "It hurts when they leave, but when they're here, you've got to say to yourself, 'My love is the only love they're getting.' "