Sunday, March 20, 2005
By CHRISTINE EVANS Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
The baby born with no arms and legs lies like a tiny dot in the center of the big hospital bed.
His parents, Mexican field workers from Immokalee — one of three sets of parents who worked in local tomato fields before giving birth to malformed babies — must depend on rides from social workers to make the 2 1/2-hour drive to Miami Children’s Hospital, where their son, Carlos Candelario, has so sadly become a center of attention.
His arms and legs are nothing but stumps, and his swaddled torso looks like a perfect rectangle.
His face floats just above, the one part of his body that seems unmarred, and his parents marvel at how expressive he is, turning his head in their direction when they speak to him in Spanish.
The doctors huddle around, looking for places to put the needle in to draw blood — difficult when the patient has no limbs. Taking blood pressure is impossible, because, as one nurse said, “Where do you put the cuff?”
“Carlitos,” as his parents affectionately call him, was admitted last week for respiratory problems. His parents, 19-year-old Francisca Herrera, and Abraham Candelario, 20, came to the United States two years ago to try to earn a living by migrating between North Carolina and Florida to pick vegetables. Carlitos, born Dec. 17, is their first baby.
“He’s improving from the respiratory condition, and as part of the evaluation, we’re trying to determine what else is going on with him,” the baby’s critical care physician, Dr. Jeffrey Sussmane, said Friday afternoon. The baby first had difficulty breathing a week ago, and, when the condition did not improve, his parents took him to a west Florida hospital; he was flown to Miami Children’s for a more intensive evaluation and care.
Carlitos will have full genetic testing, and doctors will evaluate the health of his various organ systems. If the tests indicate the birth defects are hereditary — the baby’s parents say they are unaware of any history of birth defects in their families — the parents will be counseled.
Hospital doctors stressed that all possible factors leading to the baby’s deformities will be looked at.
“We take into consideration the entire perinatal history of all children admitted into the hospital,” Sussmane said. “The entire pregnancy and perinatal condition are important and relevant to the child’s birth.”
The doctor said it would be inappropriate to comment, at this phase of the evaluation, on any possible link between the baby’s deformities and the parents’ work in fields where pesticides are routinely used to maintain the health of the crops. “It’s important to consider the privacy of the patient and his acute condition right now,” he said, adding that the tests might take some time.
There is intense interest on the part of farmworker advocates and state investigators in exploring whether the births of the three Immokalee babies might be linked to pesticides.
The large produce company Ag-Mart, which farms the fields where the parents worked, also is investigating.
Don Long, the company’s president, earlier gave a statement saying Ag-Mart was “looking into the issue of children born with birth defects to women who may have worked for our company.
“We care deeply about the health of our employees and take this concern extremely seriously.”
Herrera said she worked for the first part of her pregnancy in the fields, then continued to wash her husband’s and brother’s clothes when they came home from work.
She and her husband live in the same labor camp as the other two sets of parents who recently gave birth to malformed babies after working in the same fields. Jesus Navarrete was born Feb. 4 with Pierre Robin syndrome; his malformed jaw causes his tongue to fall back into his throat.
A second baby was born Feb. 6 with a missing nose and ear and without visible sexual organs. The infant was named Jorge, but later doctors told the parents their child was actually a girl, and so they named her Violeta. She died three days later.
Herrera and her husband don’t know what to make of the three births, or, certainly, their future with their baby boy who has no arms or legs.
For now, they are coping only on a daily basis, shuttling between their Immokalee labor camp — where the father must keep working to make the weekly rent — and the brightly colored halls of Miami Children’s.
They might apply for humanitarian visas to stay legally in the country so their boy, who was born here, can get medical care.
“They have no paperwork at all,” said Jim Kean, a caseworker with the Guadalupe Social Services agency in Immokalee.
They are heartbroken, but hopeful, too.
“Carlitos, Carlitos, I’m talking to you,” Herrera whispered on one visit. “Such a good little baby. I love you.”