Tonight I am going to Coney Island with my kids to see the fireworks. We will ride the Cyclone first (at least they will, you can’t get me on a roller coaster to save my life) and then Nathan’s, and after that we’ll hang out on the board walk until the display starts a little after sundown. I love Coney Island, I’ve been going there since I was a kid. My dad used to take me to the chick hatchery and put me smack in the middle of the fluffy little yellow things until I had my fill of patting their soft downy coats. I used to love that, and I cried bitter tears when it closed.
But there was a place my dad didn’t take me, a place I didn’t even know existed until this week, my friend Barbara saw a TV show on PBS about it.
Ironically, had my own kids been born in 1945 instead of 1995, I would have known about this place all too well.
The most popular attraction at the Coney Island Freak Show, next to the midgets, bearded ladies, and other assorted poor souls that we as a society could not find in our hearts to accept in those days, were the incubators.
For human infants, born too soon.
Like mine. Connor and Caitlin were born on the first day of my third trimester. I never made it to a LaMaze class and didn’t have time to paint the nursery. My babies were 2 lbs. 3 oz (Caitlin) and 2 lbs. 6 (Connor) and lived in state of the art incubators for over two months. The incubators that helped to save my babies lives cost $4,000 a day each and were not covered by my health insurance. (Did I mention that I’m divorced?)
But from 1903- 1945 there was only one place premature babies could be cared for and that was in a side show, not in a hospital. Doctors from around the country rushed premature infants to Coney Island for treatment. There was no other option available for these most fragile of souls.
File this under Where There’s A Will, There’s A Way. He was a visionary, he was a failure. He was a showman, he was a man of medicine. He was a savior, he was a public joke. Sometimes revered, sometimes ridiculed, but he didn’t stop. Dr. Martin Couney was determined to save premature babies, when the world assumed they did not have a chance, when infant mortality rates were so high that these tiniest of the tiny were not even an afterthought. Even, unbelievably so, for their parents, who often abandoned them at birth. Dr. Couney continued to experiment and refine the incubator system in the only place he could, among the barkers and cotton candy sellers. 6,500 out of 8,000 babies lived, because of The Incubator Baby Exhibit in Luna Park. The development and application of an important, ground breaking technology was paid for with each sticky handed admission, ten cents at a time. There was simply no other way for him to fund his work.
Eventually hospitals caught up to Coney Island, with Cornell being the first, and of course the rest of the world followed.
So tonight when I’m oohing and aahing at the fireworks I’ll be hearing the barkers yelling “Looka Looka! See the Babies no Bigger than Chickens!” and remembering a time when my own babies looked like a two pack of Cornish hens. I’ll say a silent thank you to Dr. Couney, and remember to never give up.
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