A Divorced Doctor Is Adopting the Little Girl He Saved from Dying of Cystic Fibrosis

UPDATED 10/15/1979 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 10/15/1979 at 01:00 AM EDT

Dr. Arnold S. Dunn will never forget that October night seven years ago when his pocket beeper summoned him off the Washington, D.C. Beltway to treat a 6½-week-old infant at Fairfax (Va.) Hospital. The tiny girl, weighing eight ounces less than she had at birth, was suffering from cystic fibrosis, a genetic disease that causes the body's protective mucus to become so thick that it interferes with breathing and digestion.

The young patient, her lungs clogged, had literally stopped breathing. Dunn, a pediatrician who served a residency in pulmonary diseases, knew what would save her life: a bronchial lavage, a dangerous procedure which floods the lungs with a saline solution to flush them out. But previously he had only assisted with the operation and no one had successfully performed it on such a young patient. Dunn went ahead anyway.

Six months, three more bronchial lavages and over $36,000 in medical bills later, the baby, Connie Smith, was ready for discharge. But by then her teen-aged parents, who a year before had lost a child to cystic fibrosis, decided to give her up rather than try to manage the intensive home care CF patients require. Dunn's own daughter, Lynne, then 11, urged him to bring Connie home, but the Virginia social services department resisted because he was a divorced single parent. Finally, when no foster home would accept Connie, Dunn was granted temporary custody. That was in April 1973, and five months later he became her legal guardian. Now he has completed nearly all the steps to adopt her.

Raising Connie alone has not been easy. One housekeeper after another has had to be fired or has quit, unable to handle the child. Connie must take enzyme pills with every meal to prevent the diarrhea that can kill CF victims. Once a day she inhales a drug to dissolve excess mucus. After that, she must be held upside down for five to 10 minutes to drain her lungs.

Despite her illness, Connie has made remarkable progress. Now 7, she weighs 56 pounds and, at four feet, is tall for her age. She attends a regular school and after class often follows Dunn on his rounds at Hubert Rutland Hospital, near St. Petersburg, Fla., where he now practices. The average life span of a CF victim is 15, but Dunn says with determination, "I expect Connie to go to college, get married and have children—but she will never be able to let up on her treatments."

The rest of Dunn's life has unhappily not matched his triumph with Connie. The son of a Detroit watchmaker, he left Virginia in 1973 to be near his ex-wife and daughter Lynne in Florida. Then he and Lynne, now 18, fell out over his strictness when she reached adolescence. His second marriage, to Chris Mott, a medical secretary, ended after three years, although she is a frequent visitor and remains close to Connie.

Dunn sometimes worries that Connie is "a little hyperactive" and understandably spoiled. He contemplates seeing a child psychiatrist. "There are bound to be problems," he says, "because the child has only a father." Reluctant to discuss his age (46 but "I want to be 21") and weight (he's gained 40 pounds since he quit smoking), Dunn arranges most dates with women around early dinners so as to include Connie. "Not all the girls go for it," he laughs ruefully.

As a doctor, he is regarded as more outspoken than most colleagues. For example, he agreed to become head of Rutland Hospital's new pediatrics department only after officials promised to admit children from families too poor to pay; that issue is still unsettled.

Among parents whose young sons and daughters have cystic fibrosis, Dunn is known for his sympathy and compassion. "I tell them I'm a CF father myself," he says, and shows off Connie to prove that "any cystic well controlled will do well. I know," he adds, "that it's like swinging a wildcat by the tail. If you stop, it's going to snap your head off. You get tired, but you don't have any other choice."

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