The death of John F. Kennedy and Jackie Kennedy's son Patrick Bouvier Kennedy inspired further research into infant respiratory distress syndrome, saving the lives of millions.

The tragic death of baby Patrick Bouvier Kennedy, who was born three weeks early and died from respiratory distress syndrome (previously called hyaline membrane disease), would ultimately save the lives of millions of infants by bringing funding and attention to the study of neonatal care for pre-term babies.

Author Michael S. Ryan, a registered respiratory therapist, writes about how the death of JFK's child has prompted research into effective ways to manage the respiratory distress syndrome in "Patrick Bouvier Kennedy, A Brief Life that Changed the History of Newborn Care", published by MCP books.

Jackie Kennedy's first pregnancy in 1955 had resulted in a miscarriage. A year later, a stillborn baby girl, Arabella, was delivered by Cesarean section. Her third and fourth pregnancies delivered Caroline and John, Jr.

Baby Patrick was her fifth pregnancy. According to the Daily Mail, in June 1963, President Kennedy had made a diplomatic tour of Europe while Jackie spent her last trimester on Cape Cod's Squaw Island, a private island at the tip of Hyannis Port, the site of the Kennedy compound.

In the case of an obstetric emergency, a backup plan had been arranged at nearby Otis Air Force Base, but the goal was to get her to Walter Reed Hospital in Washington for the birth.

Jackie was taking five-year-old Caroline and two-year-old John Jr. for their daily horseback riding lessons in nearby Osterville. As the children headed for the stables, Jackie was suddenly paralyzed by pains in her back and stomach. Suspecting early labor, the First Lady told Secret Service agent Paul Landis to gather the children so they could return to the Squaw Island house, where a chopper was ready to take her to the hospital at Otis Air Force Base.

She told the doctor accompanying her in the helicopter, "Dr. Walsh, you've got to get me to the hospital on time. I don't want anything to happen to this baby."

"This baby mustn't be born dead."

Jackie's obstetrician, Dr. John Walsh, told her, "We'll have you there in plenty of time." 

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JFK, who was in the Oval Office at the time, was informed that Jackie had gone into premature labor. Twenty-seven minutes later, his helicopter lifted off the south lawn of the White House for the flight to Andrews Air Force Base and the subsequent flight to Otis.

Patrick Bouvier Kennedy was delivered by cesarean section at 12:52 pm on August 7, 1963, at just thirty-four weeks. He measured seventeen inches and weighed four pounds, ten and a half ounces.

Although he moved his tiny arms and legs, his first cry was barely audible. He was placed in a pre-waiting incubator and covered with pre-warmed blankets. Baby Patrick was unable to establish a normalized breathing pattern, so doctors infused oxygen into the incubator.

One of the physician's notes read: "idiopathic respiratory distress syndrome, translated as 'difficulty in breathing for reasons unknown.'"

"That first breath taken at the moment of birth must expel the amniotic fluid contained within the lungs for them to fill with air.

To accomplish this, the just-born infant must instantly generate ten to fifteen times more inspiratory pressure than he would normally.

During a normal vaginal delivery, a baby, descending the vaginal canal, has a third of the amniotic fluid squeezed out of the lungs into the pharynx where it oozes out of the mouth or is swallowed.

The vigorous cry of a baby signifies the lungs have successfully made the conversion.

Patrick emitted no such cry."

Summoned by medical personnel, Father John Scahill, the base chaplain, arrived with a small bottle of holy water and a prayer book to baptize Patrick.

Forty minutes after the baby's birth, President Kennedy arrived and joined Jackie before going to see the newborn.

Dr. Walsh told Kennedy that Patrick was afflicted with hyaline membrane disease, now called Respiratory Distress Syndrome or RDS.

The baby's lungs were covered with a glassy membrane, but if he could stay alive for forty-eight hours, there was hope he could recover. The odds were fifty-fifty.

Dr. James Drorbaugh, a highly respected pediatric physician at Harvard Medical School, was called in. He observed the infant in critical respiratory distress and suggested Patrick be transferred to Boston Children's Hospital.

Jackie was to see her baby before he was transferred. The incubator was wheeled into her room and positioned so that he was facing his mother.

Jackie placed her hand inside the porthole window and stroked Patrick's light brown hair briefly. Her husband tried to comfort her, reminding her that John Jr. had breathing problems when he was born.

Before he left the hospital to accompany the baby to Boston, the President ordered the TV set removed from his wife’s room so that if the baby died, she would not learn about it on the news.

At Boston Children's Hospital, an intravenous catheter was put in place for fluid infusion.

The next morning, Patrick's condition appeared to be improving. Kennedy boarded a helicopter to visit Jackie before heading to the hospital.

By early afternoon, the infant's breathing became more labored and doctors decided that the last resort was to move the baby to a hyperbaric chamber that could force a large amount of oxygen into his lungs.

The move was a gamble, as the treatment could cause blindness.

"This is a desperate and difficult situation and placement in the pressurized tank is a desperate measure," Dr. William Bernhard, a Children's Hospital pediatric heart surgeon stated.

The Daily Mail reports: "The air in the basement of the medical building was pungent and musty and the large white-enameled tank resembled a wartime vehicle, a small submarine measuring thirty-one by eight feet."

Attorney General Robert Kennedy and JFK's special assistant, Dave Powers, joined in the President's vigil in the basement room.

The tank "hissed, clanked and whined." Patrick’s skin turned "a bluish color."

The President spent the night on a couch in the boiler room, but he couldn't sleep. 

"We are losing," Dr. Bernhard told the President.

Patrick died at 4:04 am on August 9, 1963. He was only thirty-nine hours old.

"He put up quite a fight," Jack said, "He was a beautiful baby."

Baby Patrick's death put the spotlight on a lung ailment that had been killing tens of thousands of babies every year.

President Kennedy would sign into law a large grant that authorized $265 million ($2.1 billion in today's dollars) expenditure over five used, to be mostly used for newborn research.

The grant was sponsored by the National Institute of Child Heath and Human Development (NIHCD) that JFK, with the help of his sister, Eunice Shriver, had established a year earlier.

Today, a pharmaceutical drug called Exosurf helps to treat respiratory distress syndrome.

President John F. Kennedy was assassinated 15 weeks after the death of his son.

* Originally published in 2015, updated in March 2024.