The head nurse who cared for the world's longest-surviving human recipient of an animal heart spoke for the first time today of the applause, the fussing, the grasping little hands and the final crisis that comprised the short life of Baby Fae.
Two days after the month-old infant died here of the apparent complications of kidney failure and rejection of her transplanted baboon heart, more than 2,000 people gathered at the Loma Linda University Church to hear Marie Whisman, head nurse of Unit 7100 at the university's medical center, and others honor the baby and her still-anonymous parents.
Children sang and sent aloft multicolored balloons, university officials spoke of Baby Fae's place in history and ministers congratulated the doctors and parents for their courage, but the congregation seemed to listen most attentively to "An Open Letter From Nursing Service," read by the nurse who was unusually close to the child during her 20 days with the baboon heart.
A telephone call from the operating room, announcing that the heart was beating after the Oct. 26 transplant, "sent chills of excitement cycling up and down our spines," Whisman said. "Your arrival onto our unit from the operating room was met with awe and a moment of silence . . . a short round of applause and quick hugs greeted your surgeon, Dr. Bailey."
"You 'tolerated' the nuisance of the ventilator for but a few days, then made it very clear to all you were ready to try breathing and eating on your own," she said. "Your response to your parents was beautiful -- as if you were letting them know it was all right. We wish you could have seen our smiles, but they were hidden by those green masks."
Fae's parents apparently did not attend the service, according to university officials and friends from their home town of Barstow, situated in the desert 60 miles from here. The 35-year-old father and 23-year-old mother, who reportedly are not married, have remained anonymous, although Dr. Leonard L. Bailey, the surgeon who performed the transplant, said on Friday that the experience had "improved their lives." He said they encouraged him to continue his work, designed to save hundreds of babies with deformed hearts by replacing them with hearts from readily available baboons.
Whisman indicated that the medical team supports Bailey's plans for at least four more baboon-to-human transplants, despite opposition from animal-rights groups and doubt by some doctors that such operations can succeed without much more preliminary research.
At today's service, listeners such as Finnish students Juhani and Eija Harju later praised the operation as a scientific breakthrough and source of prestige for this once little-known Seventh-day Adventist institution. But Henry Sidle, 92, a retired office worker attending the service, said that putting an animal heart "into a human life, created in God's image . . . , doesn't seem quite the thing to do."
From her letter, Whisman read to the mourners: "You were really a sweet-dispositioned baby. It was impossible not to love you. While holding and cuddling you it was hard to believe you were the one causing so much controversy throughout the world."
"You would cry lustily for your feedings and fuss bitterly when there wasn't enough," she said. "We would leave at the end of each shift very drained . . . . When the rough times came we all pulled together and fought hard for you.
"You may have had a heart that wasn't from a human, but you were as warm and loving a baby as any of us will ever cherish."