This post was written by Chantal Valencia Lawrence, a recent volunteer at BHS and a Brooklyn native.
When I think of the 1977 Blackout that took place in New York City from July 13th-14th, I reminisce about a ritual that my mother would perform annually on July 11th. On this day in 1977, my mother, grandmother and the maternity staff of Brooklyn Jewish Hospital and Medical Center welcomed a baby girl named Chantal into the world at 4:05pm. From my birth in 1977 till her death in 1993, my mother would pull out an old photo album that contained an article from The Star newspaper and read to me about the courageous actions taken by the Brooklyn Jewish Hospital and Medical Center staff to save the lives of 41 premature and seriously ill babies in their care during the 1977 Blackout.
My arrival was a joyous occasion for my mother because after several failed pregnancies, her dream of giving birth to a healthy baby girl had finally come true. Although I was in excellent physical condition, I was born two months prematurely and only weighed 1lb 14oz. Immediately after my birth, I was placed in an incubator in the neo-natal intensive care unit (NICU). My grandmother said that during the blackout, the maternity ward staff’s primary concern was maintaining the body temperature of all the babies in their care because the emergency generators failed. Grandma-ma remembered my mother panicking—she was fearful of losing me due to my low birth weight and the lack of heat. My grandmother also recalled making several calls to London, England to tell my father (who was in route to Heathrow Airport as a captain with Air Jamaica) about my birth, the blackout, and to reassure him that we were all safe.
When my mother’s nurse Ms. Nurse (yes, her name was Ms. Nurse and my grandmother affectionately called her Nurse Nurse) announced that the babies were being wrapped in aluminum foil to keep them warm, my mother and grandmother thought “What!!??”. During the late afternoon and early evening hours, Nurse Nurse walked up and down the halls of the NICU with me wrapped up in a blanket of aluminum foil and for extra warmth, she placed me down the top of her nursing uniform by her bosom!
My mother’s hypertension escalated during this time and she had to remain in bed as her blood pressure was under strict observation, so it was my grandmother who kept vigil over me while I was in the NICU. Grandma-ma said that I looked like a tiny baked potato. She prayed that I stayed strong because my mom had endured so much to become a mother and both of them were so excited to dress me up in pretty dresses and show me off to our family. Grandma-ma said that I was so small that I could fit into the palm of an adult male. During that critical time, Grandma-ma served as a true source of faith and strength to my mother and me.
After the blackout on July 14th, the hospital regained electricity and the babies were placed back in their incubators. I was released from the hospital a few weeks later once my weight rose to 5lbs. After I gained weight, my mother said that her fears of my survival dissipated and that “I was a cute baby girl and no longer looked like a mouse!” My parents and grandmother were always thankful for the tenacity of hospital staff during the blackout and for a few years, Nurse Nurse was an honored guest at my birthday parties. As a girl, I would brag to friends that when I was born, I was in the newspaper wrapped in aluminum foil!
Upon finishing reading The Star article, my mother and grandmother would religiously place a kiss above my left breast. They embraced me there because they both remembered that it was here that the largest IV was inserted while I was in the hospital.
I grew up as an only child and my mother was a wonderful parent and my dearest friend. Since her death in 1993, I continue to celebrate my birthday by reading the article in The Star of my birth. Reading the article gives me strength, courage and reminds me that I can overcome any challenge that life places before me because I am strong and resilient—just like all Brooklynites.