The Lives of Others
April 7, 2021 12:59 PM   Subscribe

When Clar told her his age, Tracey’s next words came tumbling out: “Where were you born?” “Come By Chance Cottage Hospital,” Clar said. Tracey stood stock still for a second, her mouth agape. Then she ran, leaving her mop and cart behind. Clar shivered. In that moment, a secret began to worm its way into the light.
Two women gave birth on the same day in a place called Come By Chance. They didn’t know each other, and never would. Half a century later, their children made a shocking discovery. A long read about serial baby mixups, "Nurse Tiger", and mid-century life in rural Newfoundland, written by Lindsay Jones.
posted by Rumple (27 comments total) 32 users marked this as a favorite
This is such a wild story, thanks for sharing.

It will forever be bizarre to me that specific mannerisms like the way you hold a fork can be so genetically ingrained that a child reared by their non-biological parents will still do things the way their birth parents do. We are such weird, complicated machines.
posted by saladin at 1:48 PM on April 7 [21 favorites]

Good read, thanks!
posted by frumiousb at 1:48 PM on April 7 [1 favorite]

Come by Chance indeed!
posted by jordemort at 1:49 PM on April 7 [2 favorites]

A national audience was introduced to it in December 2019. The day the CBC released its report, Tracey Avery got a message from a woman who wanted to tell her a story.

Didn't see it linked in the piece, so here's the CBC report it mentions for anyone who's interested.

In the early 20th century, recruitment of nurses from outside Newfoundland was organized first by a Christian organization, and later by a women’s knitting circle that sold their goods to raise hiring money. Most of the nurses were young women from the United Kingdom, and they took the job because they wanted an adventure, a chance to travel overseas before settling down.

Oh yeah, this was totally a thing! My husband's aunt came to Canada as a young nurse this way, and ended up in (very) northern Ontario.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 2:05 PM on April 7 [1 favorite]

I was born at a cottage hospital in Ontario in 1973, and I can't tell you how much comfort it is that even though there is barely a resemblance between me and my four biological siblings, I look like both my parents, and have a niece and a grandniece who look quite a bit like me.
posted by orange swan at 2:36 PM on April 7 [2 favorites]

That is just an excellent, excellent piece and I very much wish I could know whether the author intended the implication I'm about to draw, because this is the description we're given of "nurse Tiger":
Callanan was a sophisticated newcomer by local standards. She had a posh accent, albeit with a faint lisp from a cleft-palate repair above the left side of her mouth. She always looked immaculate—“like a stick of chewing gum,” as they say in Newfoundland—with gleaming shoes, crimson lips, and a crisp white uniform.
And I think it's reasonable to guess that part of the reason she was always so perfectly put together was as a natural reaction to the shame she probably felt at having a cleft palate, especially before it was treated surgically.

Small isolated communities such as the many distinct "bays" of Newfoundland tend to show higher degrees of relatedness between husbands and wives than larger more mobile communities, and I think it would be surprising for a nurse who actually suffered from cleft palate not to know that it's more common in children of closely related parents:
Conclusion: Although there was a high level of study heterogeneity, the evidence is consistent in suggesting that consanguinity is a risk factor for NSOFC, with an overall OR of 1.83 (95% CI, 1.31 to 2.54), implying that there was almost twice the risk of a child with NSOFC being born if there was parental consanguinity.
Did nurse Tiger intentionally mix up babies in order to inject a little new blood into these communities? I think it's entirely possible.
posted by jamjam at 2:51 PM on April 7 [5 favorites]

I vaguely remembered a similar story that Barbara Walters covered back in the 1990s, and did some googling to see if I could find it. Kimberly Mays was switched at birth with another baby in 1978. Tragically, the real Mays baby had a heart defect or some such congenital condition and didn't live long. Then, when Kim was 14, her biological family, the Twigs, discovered that their actual daughter was still living and of course they wanted their daughter back, but by that point it was far from being that simple.

I remember it was suggested in the original broadcast that the switch wasn't accidental. The Mays were a well-off, locally prominent family and they had just one child, who was clearly ill. The Twigs were in modest circumstances and had a number of healthy children and a healthy baby. Kim's mother said that the baby she saw in the delivery room was a healthy one, and then when the baby was brought to her later, it was a very sick baby. She said, "This isn't my baby," and the nurse said, "Oh yes, it is. See its ID bracelet?" She backed down.

Mistakes like this can take a horrible toll on people's lives. Poor Kim has led a troubled life, first getting to know her birth family, then refusing to have anything to do with them for awhile, then moving in with them, then getting a legal "divorce" from them, and her adult life seems to have been chequered.
posted by orange swan at 3:06 PM on April 7 [5 favorites]

Superb piece - sharp, yet tender towards all involved.

This line resonated: "Oh there you are, thought Dorothy, her hard shell melting—"you’re the one we’ve been waiting for."

We had a situation in our family. Not nearly as directly painful because everyone was dead and the lies didn't matter anymore, about our late father's real parents. When we finally saw a photograph of his real birth mother (beautiful woman, sad story) - that was my immediate response: "Oh there you are...."
posted by Jody Tresidder at 3:56 PM on April 7 [13 favorites]

When I heard about the second case earlier this year, I suspected that someone had been deliberately doing it, for kicks or for whatever other warped reason. So the list of other "mixups" at the same hospital doesn't surprise me. The article still seems to argue for sloppiness rather than malice, and I suppose it might be true, but I wonder.
posted by tavella at 5:12 PM on April 7 [1 favorite]

Newfoundland had/has a different dialect and grammar back when they joined Canada. Remember this is back just after WW2. The ties between Britain and Newfoundland were stronger than with Canada. And Canada was not too great at the time with regard to modern medical standards. I was born in Canada just before this happened. I could see this happen unfortunately.
posted by baegucb at 5:45 PM on April 7 [2 favorites]

I remember reading about a similar case when I was a kid. They interviewed both sets of parents, and they both said that they wished they could have their biological child back without having to give up the one they'd raised for (I think it was) nine years. I think that's probably how I'd feel, too.

Of course, even if you didn't feel that way you'd have to say that you did or be branded an unfeeling monster in the court of public opinion.

I always felt terrible for Kimberly Mays, that she had to live with the fallout of that story all the while she was growing up. I remember seeing her picture on the cover of every tabloid.

"Did nurse Tiger intentionally mix up babies in order to inject a little new blood into these communities? I think it's entirely possible."

Possible, but she would also have been increasing the chances of unwitting marriages between full siblings.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 6:22 PM on April 7 [3 favorites]

I've been trying to think of a more foolproof ID method than a bracelet which could come off, but I'm a bit stumped. Any kind of ink marking on the skin could be altered. Microchips are a bit Orwellian, and you'd have to break the skin to remove them upon discharge. I guess keeping the baby in the mother's room most of the time instead of in a separate nursery would reduce the chances of a mixup.

(As the only ten-pounder on the ward, I was pretty safe from mistaken identity.)
posted by The Underpants Monster at 6:35 PM on April 7 [2 favorites]

I've been trying to think of a more foolproof ID method than a bracelet which could come off

Competent nursing, sufficient resources, and effective oversight go a long way.
posted by zamboni at 6:46 PM on April 7 [6 favorites]

This was a very interesting read. I don't know what I would think if this happened to me and I only found out years later. It would be hard though; I do know that. I think at least part of me would want to see it as no different than an adopted child but it's obviously very different.

I guess keeping the baby in the mother's room most of the time instead of in a separate nursery would reduce the chances of a mixup.

This may be getting more common. When my sister and brother were born I clearly remember looking at them through the glass in the big nursery full of babies. When all three of my kids were born (all this century) they never left the room between birth and leaving the hospital. We also were in one room for the whole stay. This was the case at two different hospitals in two states. The first was an Army hospital where things weren't exactly modern otherwise. Obviously this won't be possible in every case but it seems like it should be much of the time.
posted by Clinging to the Wreckage at 8:54 PM on April 7 [1 favorite]

Didn't they use to take inked baby footprints for identity reasons?
posted by Rumple at 10:07 PM on April 7 [1 favorite]

Such a strange story.
Also, it has always seemed really strange to me that the children were in different wards from the mothers at the time. Is it an Anglo thing? My mother was very worried about my little sister when she was born in a hospital in Yorkshire, and whisked away instantly. She has talked about it ever since. But my sister is unmistakably family.
I understand the thing about mothers getting some rest, but that can be solved in other ways. When my eldest was born, I was put in a ward with three other mothers for a week, and we became close friends. We had all had problematic deliveries, each in her own way, so we were there for observation and rest. We would take turns helping each other. Unfortunately, my baby was scrappy, and the others couldn't help me, but the sense of community and friendship meant that the midwife could hold my baby when I needed a shower, while one of the other women took a walk with two babies in the hallway. Of course I took my share of helping the others.
It also meant we were talking about the babies. They could never have been switched because we were always comparing them (in a nice way) and talking about how they looked weirdly like their fathers' families, as babies do.
When my second baby was born, I was in a difficult situation, due to external factors, and I really needed to spend time with her alone. So the (same) hospital found an empty ward and put me up for the night. The midwives and nurses made sure I was comfortable all the time, but the baby was with me every minute. It was a very special night, and I'm forever grateful. Next day we walked home through the snow.
posted by mumimor at 1:03 AM on April 8 [4 favorites]

I guess keeping the baby in the mother's room most of the time instead of in a separate nursery would reduce the chances of a mixup.

2020 birth, the only time I left my baby unattended in the hospital was for a few minutes while I ducked out to the freezer for another icepack. She was with us all the time.
posted by freethefeet at 2:58 AM on April 8 [1 favorite]

Yes, funnily enough hospital 'nurseries' alway struck me as a very (North?) American thing? In the UK I haven't heard of them being used at least in past 20-30 years. My kids stayed by my side the whole time.
posted by atlantica at 3:31 AM on April 8 [2 favorites]

From that point on, protocol was relaxed. Identity bands could be attached to mother and baby after they’d been separated, once the infant was in the nursery with the other newborns.

Normalization of deviance. I’ve been in healthcare long enough to know that some the of the paperwork requirements seem burdensome and pointless, but many of them are geared toward preventing just this sort of thing. Not just in the newborn nursery; it is possible to do surgery on the wrong patient or the wrong site, mix up lab results, or give a mismatched unit of blood if strict protocols are not followed.
posted by TedW at 6:40 AM on April 8 [5 favorites]

saladin: "It will forever be bizarre to me that specific mannerisms like the way you hold a fork can be so genetically ingrained that a child reared by their non-biological parents will still do things the way their birth parents do."

I see so much of my father-in-law's mannerisms in my son's table manners. It drives me up the wall - holding his fork as if it's a shovel? My mother would have been appalled - but, like the weird-shaped toes he inherited from that side of the family, it's clearly genetic. And at the same time his overt sensitivity and delight in weird puns is so clearly from my side of the family. I can certainly understand how seeing those things in another person would result in a flash of recognition - but I also can't imagine the shock inherent in realizing that a total stranger is in fact your sibling.
posted by caution live frogs at 9:45 AM on April 8

My sister was switched for a day at the hospital. My grandmother insisted that the baby was not her granddaughter, she had a different cry and different ears. She raised a stink and all was resolved, but my sister got an extra dose of breastmilk from another mother.

When my kid was born I took a picture of her ears before they took her away for whatever tests they do on newborns nowadays. Since then I've noticed that newborn's ears can be pretty distinctive.

Almost everyone carries a phone with a camera, and if you are of the % that has a late generation iPhone, it includes pretty decent biometrics hardware and software.

Maybe taking pictures of newborns could be a low cost and effective stopgap measure while everything else that is wrong with childbirth in north america gets fixed.
posted by Dr. Curare at 10:48 AM on April 8 [4 favorites]

I think about this a lot, probably more than most parents, since with IVF kids there’s actually that possibility that gametes got messed up or whatever and even if my baby came out of my body and stayed in the room with me until he could talk there’s still a tiny chance he’s not genetically related to me.

On the one hand, I’m not even sure that it matters. I know I would love that imaginary baby just as much as the one who is related to me. On the other hand, my kid has these issues that I have experience with and was prepared for because they run in my family. I would hate to see a kid and their family dealing with this kind of inherited problem that they could have been looking for and gathering support for but they didn’t know about. This is hard enough already.

In sum, babies are awesome. Love them.
posted by bq at 11:16 AM on April 8 [1 favorite]

As an adoptee, stories about baby mixups are always fascinating for the fears they seem to raise, not to minimize them, they are what they are, they just read a bit different from the outside.
posted by gusottertrout at 11:27 AM on April 8 [8 favorites]

As an adoptee, stories about baby mixups are always fascinating for the fears they seem to raise, not to minimize them, they are what they are, they just read a bit different from the outside.
I thought about this too. My family has a very long history of adoption and it has at times been complicated. But there can be no doubt that the adopted children were loved and cherished. So while I do understand the grief expressed in this story, the facts remain that the children were obviously raised by loving parents.
At one point, my mother contacted her birth family, and it was traumatizing for me. But that would have been OK if it had brought her some relief. It didn't. They had given her up for adoption for a reason.
posted by mumimor at 11:38 AM on April 8 [4 favorites]

I am only sending this story to people I know are done having babies because *horror shivers*. There's actually a TV show that I'm sure is streaming somewhere -- Switched at Birth -- which is about a very rich girl in high school who's the odd duck in her very WASPy family, who does a typical genetics blood typing thing for biology class, and realizes her parents can't be her parents. They locate the girl she was "switched" with, who belongs to a single Latina mother and who is left deaf by a serious illness as a toddler that probably could have been prevented had they had more money and access to care. The first couple of seasons are a surprisingly nuanced exploration of the fallout of the switch and its discovery. It became a more typical teen drama as time went on (still enjoyable and very strong on Deaf culture; also had the first all-signed episode on American television) and went off the rails when it was time for college but they can't send the kids away or the show ends, so. But the first couple of seasons were really thoughtful. I thought it was going to be corny, but I got really absorbed in the emotional fallout for everyone in both families, and their attempts to navigate the cultural and economic gulfs between the two families, and build these weird quasi-family relationships.

(Nurseries are less-common in US hospitals these days, especially in large cities. Unequivocally banishing nurseries and insisting people room in feels like penalizing mothers who don't have partners or local family, or whose partners/family can't afford to take time off work to be at the hospital for several days, or who have older children who need care, or disabilities. But I was told repeatedly "people will work it out, it's better for babies" so I suppose someone has a brilliant plan that isn't penalizing American mothers who are single or poor or disabled -- hahahahahaha, no they don't.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:54 PM on April 8 [3 favorites]

When my first child, who is now a teenager, was born, he was taken away by the nurses to do whatever testing it is they do. Mr Corpse had to wander the hospital and find him and bring him back, which took well over an hour. (The kid in question looks so much like me that strangers comment on it, so I'm not concerned that there was a switch.) With my second, I think we were together the entire time we were in the hospital.

Different hospitals in different American cities, with different demographics of patients.
posted by The corpse in the library at 6:50 PM on April 9

Hospital nurseries where all the babies are kept separate from their mothers are definitely not a thing in the UK, but they were until surprisingly recently in the US. When I had a baby in a hospital in Chicago the nurses told us they were still separating newborns in the late 90s, so it wasn't that long ago. I find the idea really weird, but I suppose one reason they did it is so the mother gets to sleep and recover after giving birth?
posted by EllaEm at 8:03 PM on April 9

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