Patrick Bouvier Kennedy was the last child of American President John F. Kennedy and First Lady Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy. Patrick was born prematurely and he lived for just 39 hours, because of the quick onset of a disease. Between the time of his birth and death, a valiant effort was made by medical professionals, to try and save his life. This attempt included a hasty transfer to a hospital, located more than 100 kilometers away, the use of one of the most cutting-edge medical technologies at the time, and a very tense President, waiting outside the room where the child was being treated by the doctors. This dramatic sequence of events, many of which were reported by the national media, riveted a nation, as Americans waited with suspended breath, hoping for the child to recover. The fact that Jacqueline had suffered a miscarriage and a stillbirth in the past served as added emotional baggage for the country. However, even though the attempts to save Patrick’s life, and his death, became part of the American psyche, the assassination of his father, just three months after his death, would wound the nation further.
The Troubled History of Jackie Kennedy's Pregnancies
In 1955, Jacqueline Kennedy, better known as Jackie Kennedy, had suffered a miscarriage. The very next year, she lived through another tragedy when a stillborn baby was born to her.
Subsequently, she gave birth to two healthy children, Caroline, born in 1957, and John Jr., born in 1960.
In August 1963, Jacqueline Kennedy was 34 years old and had been the First Lady for almost three years. She was also in the third trimester of her fifth pregnancy. While she was pregnant with Patrick, owing to the fact that John Jr.’s was also a premature birth, she requested her obstetrician, John W. Walsh, to be with her when she spent the summer in Massachusetts’ Hyannis Port. A suite was also prepared at the nearby Otis Air Force Base Hospital, in case of an emergency.
On August 7, 1963, Jackie took her two children, Caroline and John Jr., for a pony ride in Osterville, Massachusetts. Jackie started feeling labor pains while the children were riding their ponies. Walsh was promptly called and the two of them were taken to the Otis Air Force Base, by helicopter.
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Birth and The Fight to Save the Child's Life
Patrick Bouvier Kennedy was born on August 7, 1963, at the Otis Air Force Base Hospital in Massachusetts, United States. Jacqueline Kennedy delivered him by an emergency caesarian section. He was born prematurely by five and a half weeks.
Patrick was the first child born to a sitting American President and First Lady since the nineteenth century.
Soon after his birth, Patrick started showing symptoms of the ailment, hyaline membrane disease, or HMD. The disease, which incurs breathing troubles, is now called infant respiratory distress syndrome, or IRDS.
President John F. Kennedy, who was in the White House at the time of delivery, called a chaplain, upon arriving at the hospital and seeing his newborn child in distress. The baby was baptized by the chaplain. The name ‘Patrick’ was chosen in honor of his grandfather, Joseph Patrick Kennedy, and his great-grandfather, Patrick Joseph Kennedy. The Bouvier in his name was his mother’s maiden name.
While at the hospital, John F. Kennedy was allowed to wheel the child in an incubator to see his wife.
In an attempt to save the child’s life, a pediatric specialist from the Boston Children’s Hospital, James E. Drorbaught, was flown in by a helicopter. Upon his recommendation, just five hours after birth, the baby was taken to the Boston Children’s Hospital, in an ambulance. Though the destination was about 100 kilometers away, owing to the urgency of the situation, the child was moved to the hospital within 90 minutes.
Initially, the White House had said that the transfer to the Boston Children’s Hospital was a precautionary measure. The baby’s condition was correctly reported as hyaline membrane disease. However, the public was also told that at least four days would be required to properly assess the infant’s condition.
It was reported that the infant was administered medication to help with his condition. However, at that time, all that could be done for someone with hyaline membrane disease was to try and keep his blood chemistry as near normal as possible.
Once Patrick was moved to the Boston Children’s Hospital, guided by Dr. Drorbaught, the doctors desperately tried to save his life. Hyperbaric oxygen therapy, or HBOT, was administered. In this therapy, the child was placed inside a hyperbaric chamber. This chamber contained 100 percent oxygen and the pressure within was higher than 1 atmosphere. At the time, this therapy was considered cutting-edge, with the New York Times describing it as “one of the newest interests of medical researchers.”
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Despite the best efforts of the hospital, Patrick Bouvier Kennedy died at 4:04 a.m. on August 9, 1963. He lived for 39 hours and 12 minutes.
Impact of Death on His Parents & the Funeral
At the time his baby died, President Kennedy was outside the room with the hyperbaric chamber. Along with him, was his brother, Robert F. Kennedy, the Attorney General.
Meanwhile, Jacqueline Kennedy was at the Otis Air Force Base Hospital, recovering from her C-section. She was administered a sedative, following which she slept until her husband flew in from Boston.
As for Jacqueline’s reaction to the death of her child, according to Pierre Salinger, the White House Press Secretary at the time, "Given the circumstances, her condition is satisfactory." President Kennedy, when he was photographed arriving at the Otis Air Force base after Patrick’s death, looked “grave and appeared tired,” according to The New York Times.
According to Clint Hill, a Secret Service agent, John and Jacqueline had “a distinctly closer relationship”, which became more pronounced in the aftermath of Patrick’s death. According to Pierre Salinger, the White House Press Secretary, the President and the First Lady became even close after Patrick’s death.
On August 10, 1963, a small funeral mass was held in a private chapel in Boston, for Patrick Bouvier Kennedy.
The death of Patrick had significant impact on medical care for infants. According to Dr. Suhas M. Nafday, director of Newborn Services at the Children’s Hospital in New York’s Montefiore Medical Center, it spurred neonatal researchers to seek an effective method to manage respiratory distress syndrome.
August 7, the birth date of Patrick Bouvier Kennedy, was significant for President Kennedy for another reason as well. On August 7, 1943, the navy rescued Kennedy after he was marooned on a Pacific island for five days during the Second World War, in which he served as a naval officer.
Patrick was initially buried at Holyhood Cemetery in Brookline, Massachusetts, the hometown of President Kennedy. However, both his and his stillborn sister’s remains were reinterred on December 5, 1963, at Arlington National Cemetery. However, even that was not to be their final grave, since they were later shifted to permanent graves in Section 45, Grid U-35.