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A Lifetime Sentence, a Cry for Help

Michael Arnold Glueck is a retired Newport Beach physician

Many have rushed to harsh judgments of Richard and Dawn Kelso in their abandonment of their 10-year-old son, Steven, in a Wilmington, Del., children’s hospital. We must forgive the critics, for they know not what they do, just as the Kelsos did not know what to do. The Kelsos’ act was a desperate cry for help; they were at their wits’ end, with their nerves abraded.

As a physician, I have known many families that have had to deal with cerebral palsy and retardation in a child. Those who criticize do not understand that for parents and children this is the harshest punishment Mother Nature can impose. It is a lifetime sentence for all involved.

For parents, this is not simply a nagging problem but one they must face every second, minute, hour, day and year they are alive. It is all-consuming and devastating. It affects them mentally, physically, emotionally, socially and economically. The parents must provide for their child long after they themselves have died. They must face shame and nonacceptance from others and a society that is self-righteous and does not begin to understand. Under these stresses, marriages fail, other siblings suffer, and families are destroyed. It takes the strongest individuals and families to survive this never-ending assault.

These parents do not enjoy the thrills of parenthood and grandparenthood. They never watch, listen and relish the days their children enter elementary school, junior high school or high school or attend dances or football games. They never hear about that first date or first kiss. They never see their child go off to college or marry or have children. They can’t brag about their kids and grandkids. These parents get all the bad and none of the good.

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By abandoning their son, the Kelsos were crying out for help. And we as a nation must help them and others like them. We must better understand the causes of cerebral palsy, how to diagnose it and intervene earlier and how to provide more and better treatment facilities and custodial care. We need to revise our policies about infants born so severely premature that they have no real chance in life--nor do their parents.

In this century, our miraculous technical advances have allowed us to conquer many organic diseases. Just a few months ago, California became the 27th state to pass mental health parity, coming out of the dark ages and showing that at last we understand that mental illness is a disease that requires treatment.

We must now look for some of the answers to those who suffer from cerebral palsy and retardation.

I am sure that the Kelsos are good people. They just ran out of hope and physical and mental energy. We should insist that this most unfortunate and painful incident be a catalyst to spur the nation to search its soul and come up with a better solution for the next century.

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