A Mother's Death, a Baby's Birth

updated 08/18/1986 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/18/1986 01:00AM

For Derrick Poole, the birth of Michele had been an emotionally draining experience. He was saying hello to a daughter. But he was also saying goodbye to Odette Henderson, 34, the woman he loved, who, while brain dead for almost two months, had been kept functioning until her infant could be delivered by cesarean section. One moment Derrick, 31, was standing at the side of his daughter's incubator, telling her, "Open your eyes so I can see you, so I can see Odette in them." The next moment he was being called into the intensive care unit, where they were shutting down the life support that had kept Odette's body minimally alive. "Up until then," says Poole, reflecting on his situation, "I had in the back of my mind that maybe there'd be a miracle, that when I got to the hospital that morning Odette would be sitting up in bed with her eyes open."

There was to be just one miracle at Santa Clara's Kaiser Permanente Medical Center on July 30—and that was the wonder of his daughter's birth. Odette was gone, the victim of a brain tumor that showed up during her pregnancy. But Michele, a 32½-week preemie weighing 4 lbs. 5 oz., was, against all odds, apparently a healthy child. When Odette's brain died, doctors had to regulate all her functions. Heart and respiratory activity had to be artificially continued to keep the baby supplied with oxygen. In addition, Odette had to be fed intravenously and her body dialyzed to rid it of toxins. As for Michele, she shows no heart problems and, according to Dr. Stephen Fernbach, the baby's pediatrician at Kaiser, "her neurological tests are about as high as any baby ever gets."

The case was especially wrenching because Odette and Derrick were not married. When Odette was declared legally dead, her mother, Edna Henderson, 64, fearing a prolongation of suffering and an abnormal birth, wanted her daughter removed from life support, which would have automatically terminated her pregnancy. It was only through Poole's impassioned efforts that the child was given a chance.

Derrick had not always shown such fiber in the past. He had met Odette at a party only last October. The two had fallen instantly in love. After three weeks of dinner dates and long walks around Oakland's Lake Merritt, Derrick moved into Odette's $560-a-month apartment.

Odette was from Detroit, where she was brought up Baptist and with a high regard for education. She was a pretty, 5'9" graduate of Wayne State University, a teacher at New Traditions, a San Francisco elementary school specializing in the creative arts. Poole had grown up in Richmond, Calif., the youngest of eight children whose father died when Derrick was 3. For seven years he had toured Europe and Canada with an exhibition basketball team. Lately, he had caught on with Bay Area Environmental, where for $11 an hour he cleaned up toxic materials.

It was Odette's idea to have a kid. That appealed to Derrick as well, and by January she was pregnant. Derrick balked at marriage, yet the the couple were happy during those first months together. Indeed, according to Janet King, 33, a friend since junior high, "Odette was happier than she had ever been. She wanted the whole experience of being pregnant. She wanted people to get up on the bus when she got on—all the little things like that."

Odette's morning sickness was worse than she'd expected, but it wasn't until the third month that the headaches became severe and the vomiting got so bad that she could hold nothing down. By early March, Poole became sufficiently concerned to check Odette into a hospital. The next day the doctors released her, says Derrick, saying she was simply having a rough pregnancy. Yet her health continued to decline. "When she came home from work, she would go straight to bed," says Poole. "I'd have to convince her to eat something for the good of the baby."

Under pressure from the undetected tumor in her brain, Odette became tense and moody. Some of her friends, including Janet King, thought she might leave Derrick. Poole himself became concerned and began to change his act. He cleaned and cooked more. He picked up his clothes and kept his baseball bag out of the front hall. "I had been living my life like she wasn't pregnant," he says. "Then I stopped and slapped myself in the head. 'Hey,' I thought, 'I've got to get it together here.' "

The trouble between the two began to smooth out, and Odette's mood lifted. Though the nausea and the headaches continued, the couple learned to steal sweet moments. Rolling over in bed, with soft jazz playing in the background, Derrick would put his hand on Odette's belly, then kiss it. "I would say, 'Everything's going to be fine with this baby.' I could feel it moving around inside her. Odette would say, 'It's kicking,' and I'd think, 'It's kicking like a baby boy.' "

On Tuesday June 3, buoyed by her happiness, Odette proudly told her class of first graders about the baby. By mid-morning the next day, she began to notice a tingling in her right arm that soon turned to partial paralysis. She felt spasms in her right eye. Fellow teachers rushed her to the hospital, where she suffered a seizure that left her speech slurred. Poole could not be reached. He had played softball after work, then lingered over pizza and beer with friends. He arrived home at 1 a.m. and figured Odette was staying with her friend Michele Germany. When he awoke alone at 6:30 a.m., he became worried. He phoned Michele and was at Odette's bedside within the hour. "I went in, and we just looked at each other," says Poole. "She began to cry. I knew then that it was more serious than just the pregnancy. I told her that she and the baby would be fine. She took my hand and put it on the baby, and then she looked up at me and said, 'You...take...care...of...baby.' I had to leave the room. It was as if Odette knew she was dying."

On Thursday afternoon, Odette was transferred to Kaiser's Redwood City hospital. On Friday morning she was told the worst possible news. There was a brain tumor; doctors said they would operate. Yet Odette was in decent spirits. Although she could barely speak, she could still laugh. "She had her robe on, and it was half off," Derrick remembers. "I said, 'Come on now. You can't be showing everybody around here your buns, okay?' Then she told me that she wanted her baby to have the best things." It would be the last time that Derrick would hear Odette's voice.

Odette began to slip into a coma, and the doctors prepared for emergency surgery. Derrick returned to the hospital just as Odette was wheeled into the operating room. Edna Henderson had arrived from Detroit. She and Poole waited out the surgery together. After the five-hour operation the surgeon told them that the worst had happened: When the initial incision was made, there had been so much pressure that Odette's brain stem had been destroyed. Within 12 hours she stopped breathing on her own and was declared brain dead. Poole and Mrs. Henderson had had little to say to one another the previous day, but now they were drawn together by grief. "We went outside and talked," says Derrick. "We cried on each other's shoulders. She pushed me away and said, 'Derrick, I'm going to let you make the final decision about the baby.' " After their talk, Poole went back into the room where Odette lay. "I put my hand on her stomach, and I could still feel the baby. I thought, 'Okay, now Odette is dead, but that baby is going to live.' "

By Monday, Edna Henderson had changed her mind. She asked a social services counselor at Santa Clara Kaiser, to which Odette was now transferred, to inform Poole that she wanted her daughter taken off life support. Poole says the counselor told him, "I want you to understand that she has every right to pull the plug." The counselor's bosses were not so sure. Kaiser hospital doctors and administrators debated the case. Who had the right to decide the fate of Odette's body and the baby within her? Did the rights of the legal kin take precedence over those of the unwed father? Did the baby, still in its second trimester, have rights as a person, and if so, were those rights subordinate to the wishes of Mrs. Henderson? The hospital called in as a consultant Dr. John Golenski, a Jesuit priest who specialized in medical ethics.

Derrick, meanwhile, was taking action. Fearing that a decision to cut off the life support system was imminent (though hospital officials say this was not the case), Derrick contacted the local Right to Life chapter and enlisted the services of attorney Mark Swendsen. The lawyer applied to the Santa Clara County Superior Court, where Judge John Flaherty agreed that the unborn baby could not be denied its civil rights. In what ethicist Golenski called a "remarkable" decision, Flaherty granted a temporary restraining order against Kaiser. Also remarkable, Flaherty referred to the fetus as "Baby Poole," after the unwed father. On June 25 Mrs. Henderson agreed to keep Odette's body functioning; she also gave custody of the baby to Poole.

Baby Michele Poole should be emerging from the hospital any day now. When she does, she'll take up residence with her father's sister, Ivory Jean Hatton, 36, who already has three daughters. Derrick, who has taken a second job as a park counselor and works 12 hours a day, plans to move nearby so he can visit "constantly" and get to know his daughter.

It may be that she already knows Derrick. During Michele's last month in the womb, Derrick would visit and put a tape recorder on Odette's stomach. The tape had soft jazz in the background, the sort of music he and Odette had listened to over dinner months before. "Hello, Michele," the tape said. "This is your father. I just want you to know that everything's going to be all right. And I can't wait to see you. And I want you to know that I love you...I love you...I love you...."

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