The national press has snapped up the dramatic news piece: has a newborn baby been left to die in a churchyard?
The Norwegian News Agency issues the following statement:
“A baby boy was found in the churchyard of Vestre Aker Church in Oslo at around half past eleven this morning. The boy was wrapped only in plastic carrier bags when he was discovered.”
The baby lies in the incubator. His temperature measures 29°C. It’s highly likely that the baby has suffered more severe hypothermia in the hour preceding his discovery, prior to the moment that the parish clerk picked up the child and held him close, or his body was vigorously rubbed and wrapped in a blanket by the doctor, or the ambulance personnel made their various efforts to help him. Could it be that the sum of all of these actions might have increased the baby’s temperature prior to his admission to Ullevål Hospital, where he now receives treatment to increase his body temperature and help with his breathing?
He has had a ruthless start to life outside the womb. The adjustment from foetal circulation to newborn circulation is sufficiently precarious in itself. The simple act of entering the world. The burden on the baby’s organs has been minimal whilst in the womb, but everything very swiftly changes after birth. The most significant transformation occurs in the lungs, which have not previously had any contact with the air.
Blood circulation is very different for the baby after birth than it had been in the womb. He is no longer attached to a placenta to take care of this and to provide him with nourishment.
A nurse inserts a needle with a cannula into the baby’s forearm that supplies him with glucose solution, an intravenous supply of sugar.
A second nurse uses a damp cloth to wash around his eyes, under his chin and all over his body. She carefully dries the baby off, wiping away the half-congealed blood – his mother’s – and the slightly sweetly-scented amniotic fluid.
They wrap a name band around the baby’s ankle, and another around his arm. The letters “NN” nomen nescio, have been written on both where the mother’s name should be.
The band would normally be checked by the mother, but there is no mother here.
If she had been here, the baby would have been placed at her breast; close skin-to-skin contact for at least an hour after birth could have served to reduce the baby’s pain and stress levels, as well as contributing to better mental development later in life. It could also have helped to forge a stronger bond between mother and child.
Newborns have a vital need for care and safety, but also for love. At his mother’s breast, the infant ought to have been soothed by her heartbeat and body heat.
But this baby, discovered just under an hour ago in an Oslo churchyard, now lies alone in an incubator, fighting for his life.
Hilde Follestad (25) has just started her first job, and is still relatively fresh out of nursing school. “There was nothing in my training about saving the life of a baby found inside a plastic bag in a churchyard,” she thinks to herself.
She feels terrible as she gazes at the baby lying naked before her inside the incubator.
“What kind of desperation brings a mother or anyone else with an ounce of intelligence to do such a thing, knowing full well that the child will die?” she wonders.
“There must be such hopelessness and despair behind this situation,” she concludes. The baby is so tiny! The poor little thing. A little boy just left there to die, given no right to live. It had been so cold outside that morning.
Even some of the most experienced public health workers find it hard to remain impartial: who would think to abandon a naked newborn baby in a churchyard in nothing but a plastic carrier bag with the handles tied together?
Nevertheless, half an hour after his arrival, the first piece of good news is confirmed: the baby’s temperature is 32.5°C, an increase of 3.5°C in 30 minutes. The clinical team is satisfied. He has improved rapidly.
However, in cases involving such a severe state of hypothermia, the doctors know that it’s dangerous to warm the baby too quickly; doing so increases the size of the blood vessels, which would cause the baby to go into shock. The first few degrees should be quick, with those that follow increasing at a gentler pace. The nurses are required to supervise things closely.
The doctors at the neonatal intensive care unit don’t believe that the baby can have been lying in the churchyard for very long. An hour, perhaps?
The infant shows signs of being cold, but he has been awake. He’s also managed to cry – so loudly, in fact, that somebody heard him. Given this, the chances are that he hasn’t lost consciousness, in spite of his low body temperature. All of this means that the baby is in fairly good shape, all things considered.
Even so, his breathing remains shallow and laboured, and he is reliant on help to ensure he gets enough oxygen. There are numerous potential dangers ahead. Babies who are left to become cold run the risk of low blood sugar, and failure to treat this can cause brain damage.
His blood sugar appears to be surprisingly normal, at a level of 4, according to measurements taken by the medical team. His adrenal glands must have released stress hormones. There are several factors at play for the baby: he is a normal size, and his layers of fat are as they ought to be. What’s more, he has also managed to make use of these, which is a stroke of luck amidst everything else: newborns’ bodies tend to actively employ many fewer of these layers when they are cold.
The doctors and nurses are simultaneously aware of the fact that the infant would have frozen to death if he had lain there any longer than he did. It appears that he was discovered in the nick of time. He is doing well, in spite of the stress of events.
The influx of media attention is so intense that both the hospital and police force are required to hold spontaneous press conferences. The baby’s discovery is the top story on NRK radio news.
NRK RADIO NEWS 8 October 1991
“When he took a closer look, he found a plastic carrier bag with another carrier bag inside it, the handles tied together, and inside this was a newborn baby. The baby was alive, but blue with the cold”
Outside Ullevål Hospital, senior clinical consultant Sverre Halvorsen (61) responds to the press corps:
“It’s extremely unlikely that the baby would have lasted any longer than he did in the harsh October temperatures. Even though he had no visible injuries, we need to wait a few more days before we make any further statements regarding his prognosis.”
“Regardless of these facts, this is a personal tragedy for both mother and baby. I felt certain that the days had passed when people abandoned unwanted children. I will be acting as the baby’s advocate until further notice.”
But can he be certain of that? That this is an unwanted child?
Geir Wangensteen Øya, an Oslo police inspector, comments on the case from police headquarters in Grønland.
“One can hardly imagine the kind of crisis the mother has endured, regardless of the background in this case. This must have been extremely stressful, both physically and mentally. We are not yet aware of whether she might have suffered a psychotic episode,” he says.
“Resolving this tragedy is an utmost priority,” he promises. The fact that a living newborn baby has been found inside a carrier bag in a churchyard has shaken even the most experienced of the investigators.
A door-to-door campaign in the area around the churchyard provides a number of interesting tips. However, for the time being, the police have only one lead: the carrier bags. The outer bag is light blue and white in colour, from William Franck clothing store on Majorstua. The second, the one in which the baby was found, is all white in colour.
Investigators state that they “hope the child’s mother understands the serious nature of this case and turns herself in”.
Lennart Kyrdalen, a 31-year-old police investigator, is sent to Ullevål Hospital. He sits down with Langslet, the paediatrician.
“It’s difficult to give a precise time, but I consider it likely that the child was born this morning. I believe that he might have been around four hours old when we admitted him here at 12:00. I can’t be any more precise than that. It’s also not clear how long he had been left outside,” Langslet says.
“However, we do know that babies lose body heat extremely quickly after birth. Even after hospital births, babies are immediately wrapped in blankets to prevent their temperatures from falling.”
“What’s more,” Langslet continues, “the baby has Asian features. Whether both parents are Asian or not is difficult to say.”
Kyrdalen glances at the baby inside the incubator.
“Any other observations about the child?” the investigator asks.
“The umbilical cord had been cut in such a way that the baby had been detached from the placenta. I also noticed that the umbilical cord was a little longer than is usual. It had been tied in a knot. But there is nothing to suggest that the child has been subjected to any kind of violence. The boy appears to be in a good condition, his breathing difficulties aside.”
Feeling slightly shaken up, and after having made sure that the baby had arrived safely at the hospital, Tor Schou Nilsen goes out to do some shopping before returning to his terraced house in Røa. Members of the press are already there, and keen to take his photograph in the churchyard.
“I’ll never forget the image of that stark-naked little soul, blue with the cold. It’s etched into my memory,” he tells the journalists as he stands there in his suit. They ask about his life, and Tor tells them that he’s married, that he’s a father himself, that he’s worked as a car salesman in his time but that he’s currently unemployed.
“Imagine the tragedy behind all of this. His mother’s probably out there somewhere in the city, feeling completely desperate. I hope the little tot finds his mother,” Schou Nilsen adds, shaking his head.
These are the kind of things things that one may never know. Do the baby’s mother or father feel any sense of remorse or sorrow, wherever it is that they are now? Had the birth been so traumatic for the mother that she had simply said “I can’t cope with this”? Were these the kinds of feeling that the birth had prompted, feelings that had overwhelmed her as she’d brought her baby into the world on that autumn morning? And what about when she’d walked those few metres and placed him down on the ground inside the bag in the churchyard? Was life too difficult to deal with? Or was the child unwanted?
But it was at this point, the moment of the baby’s birth, that levels of oxytocin – the love hormone – ought to be at their highest, in mother, father and child. It was at this point that someone ought to feel most receptive to connection and contact, and that the helpless child ought to be protected and unconditionally loved. It was also at this point that both mother and child would be feeling at their most vulnerable.
At the neonatal intensive care unit, the baby continues to experience breathing difficulties. Four hours after arriving at the hospital, he is still receiving oxygen.
“The baby needs a little additional warmth and some help with his oxygen intake. His body temperature has dropped below 30°C. Such a low temperature can easily cause breathing difficulties, but these shouldn’t present a long-term issue - they are more a result of his unorthodox arrival into the world,” professor and senior doctor Asbjørn Langslet tells an unrelenting press corps.
The little boy lies in a landscape of incubators alongside 21 other babies whose starts in life have been challenging. Some born too early. Some with infections. Some injured during birth. Some with heart conditions.
Only the most unwell newborns are brought here.
A teddy bear has been placed in the corner of one incubator. A little Norwegian flag is visible on another.
“Those children without parents, or with a mother or father unable to care for them, are given extra attention and warmth from the nurses. However, our resources are so limited that we must concentrate on the most important task at hand: saving lives,” Langslet explains that afternoon.
The baby spends that evening under the continual observation of a nurse. Children in the intensive care unit are monitored regularly throughout the day and night; they lie in a large room inside one of the hospital’s oldest buildings, brick barracks originally erected in the 1800s, where all 22 sick infants are placed. The baby boy is in the intensive care section just past the postnatal ward, his incubator in the far right-hand corner of the room. They are keen to hide him away as best they can.
Crying is the baby’s only means of communication. Cries triggered by hunger, mostly brief and quiet, as well as cries of pain and cries for help, often more sudden, protracted and high-pitched. Babies might not be able to think, but they can feel.
The respirators and incubators in which the children lie are very loud.
“With skin-to-skin contact, communication and music, there is an awful lot that we could do for the children. Nowadays, unfortunately, very few resources are available for such specialist care,” Langslet says.
As soon as the baby is stable, a nurse will lift him from his incubator, place him on her lap, cuddle him, bundle him up warmly and chat to him. All of this is done to make the baby feel safe, even when he’s fast asleep. “So that they don’t just become things inside incubators, or lying all alone on little mattresses”, as one nurse puts it.
Langslet and the senior consultants encourage the staff members to speak openly about their feelings on the situation.
It incites a number of different reactions among the nurses when a mother or father can’t be with their newborn baby, whether the mother died during childbirth, either parent is critically ill, or, in rare cases such as this, where both mother and father have vanished without a trace. Those children who are alone in the world have regular contact with the nurses. The same nurse is with them all of the time, almost like a stand-in parent.
The police issue a message through the Oslo taxi computer system: “In connection with the discovery of a newborn baby at Vestre Aker Church at around 11:30 today, the police are looking for any taxi that might have picked up a heavily-pregnant or unwell Norwegian or Asian woman in the area!!”
Nobody responds to the message, and the police presume that the mother lives or is staying in the area around Vestre Aker Church.
“Anyone in the vicinity of Kirkeveien and Blindernveien during this period of time should come forward. We cannot ignore the possibility that the mother gave birth in the churchyard, but we cannot be 100% sure of whether this is the case,” one duty officer commented to the press.
Irrespective of these possibilities, the police operate on the assumption that the child cannot have been transported very far from where he was born to where he was ultimately left behind in the churchyard.
This assumption is also made clear to viewers of Dagsrevyen, the daily evening news programme, which devotes a great deal of time to discussing the case.
NRK TV NEWS 8 October
“On the basis of our discoveries so far, it might be natural to believe that the child was born in the vicinity and taken to the site”
Several tips come in following the segment on Dagsrevyen, including the names of a number of Asian women who could be the mother.
But the case has several elements of mystery about it, too. Reporters working for VG chase up a few concrete leads that evening. One of the country’s most driven experienced reporters sits down to write the following day’s news story:
“The newborn baby’s mother may not be aware of the ruthless abandonment of the infant. Witnesses are said to have seen a man entering the churchyard on Tuesday morning, and this man was said to be carrying something that could have been the baby inside a blue and white bag.”
The headline is startling:
“Unidentified man abandoned baby”
“I can confirm reports that it may have been someone other than the baby’s mother who left the infant in the churchyard. The police are following up leads on people and vehicles that might have been seen in the area around the churchyard, according to one source within the police force.”
Ultimately, the case boils down to this fact:
“A newborn infant has been left behind, and we have no idea of its background”.
It is an otherwise ordinary Tuesday in Oslo on 8 October 1991. Ibsen’s “The Wild Duck” is playing at The National Theatre, while the Central Theatre stages another of the famous playwright’s offerings, “When We Dead Awaken”. On cinema screens in the city, Julia Roberts marvels in “Dying Young”, whilst the film “Dances with Wolves” is shown elsewhere.
It is autumn in Oslo. People have fished their coats out of their wardrobes. It has been reported that winter will come early this year.
It won’t be long before snow falls gently over Oslo’s dark forests and naked hills, and softly over Sognsvann lake, the 1.5-billion-year-old mountains, Ekeberg’s gneiss and granite, and the waves of the Oslo fjord.
It will also fall over the lonely churchyard, where Tor Schou Nilsen’s parents-in-law are just two of the 4200 people to have been buried there, husband and wife laid to rest beneath a shared headstone.
A myriad of streetlamps creates an arc of light beneath the otherwise black October sky. The traditional, brown public house known as Dovrehallen celebrates 90 years of serving customers, promising “merriment throughout the week”, and all of this takes place as drama unfolds elsewhere in the city: “Sheer luck saves a man in his twenties from being killed with an axe in the city centre following a fight in an apartment.” And out there somewhere in Oslo, it’s quite possible that an unstable woman sits heartbroken.
Some crime reporters, among others, suggest that it cannot be ruled out that the parents might be substance abusers. In such cases, babies “generally experience withdrawal in the days following birth”, according to one particular reporter. But how can it be possible to insinuate that the mother is a drug user? There is nothing to suggest that this is the case. People fumble blindly in the dark in their quest for answers in the case of the mysterious baby.
Early on the Tuesday evening, there is a sudden breakthrough in the case. Less than six hours have passed since the baby was found.
Knut Rykhus (34), a crime scene investigator, arrives at the hospital. He observes the baby lying in the incubator on the tiny mattress behind transparent walls.
Langslet, the senior consultant, approaches him. He is holding something in his hands.
“Here you are,” he says.
“These are the two plastic bags that the baby was found inside. He was still wrapped in them when he arrived at the hospital.”
The crime scene investigator catches sight of the placenta in one blood-smeared bag, the life-giving organ from which the baby received nourishment and oxygen from his mother, and which protected him against exposure to harmful elements for nine months. The umbilical cord is still attached to it. Rykhus sees the remainder of the amniotic sac that had surrounded the baby; a blue-red disc bathed in the mother’s blood. One side is coated in foetal membrane, glossy and smooth, whilst the side once in contact with the mother is rough and uneven.
Rykhus drives to the Institute of Forensic Medicine. He and a police pathologist examine the two bags in which the baby was found, searching for any clues.
It’s not long before they discover something that causes them both to jump.
“There’s a piece of paper in here. A note or something like that,” Rykhus says.
The slip of paper is covered in blood.
Has someone written on it?
Is it possible that somebody has left behind a few parting words or some kind of message?
“It must be a receipt of some kind?”
“It is, it’s a receipt!” Rykhus exclaims.
The scene from the treatment of the baby in hospital is based on the following research:
The police interview of senior consultant Asbjørn Langslet at Ullevål Hospital on 9 and 16 October 1991. Interviews with Drude Merete Fugelseth, Ingrid Helen Ravn, Tove Eikrem and Hilde Follestad, all current or previous employees of the neonatal intensive care unit of Ullevål Hospital.
Reports from doctors’ journals and logs at Ullevål Hospital.
Further background: Two articles on hypothermia and the treatment of serious hypothermia on Norsk Helseinformatikk (nhi.no) and Den Norske Legeforening’s tidsskriftet.no, Metodebok i nyfødtmedisin (Universitetssykehuset Nord-Norge/helsebiblioteket.no)
The scenes depicting doctors and police officers’ meetings with journalists in the hospital and at Oslo Police Headquarters are based on:
News articles from Dagbladet, VG, Aftenposten and reports on NRK Dagsnytt radio news and Dagsrevyen TV news, and one interview with the former Head of Police Investigation Units, Magnus Larsen.
The scene depicting police enquiries in the hospital is based on:
Interviews with Lennart Kyrdalen of Oslo Police District and a police interview of professor and senior clinical consultant Asbjørn Langslet.
The scene in Tor Schou Nilsen’s home is based on:
Interviews with Tor Schou Nilsen and articles from Dagbladet, VG and Aftenposten.
The scene depicting events in the neonatal intensive care unit at Ullevål Hospital is based on:
Interviews with Drude Merete Fugelseth, Ingrid Helen Ravn, Tove Eikrem and Hilde Follestad, all current or previous employees, of the neonatal intensive care unit of Ullevål Hospital.
Reports from doctors’ journals and logs from Ullevål Hospital.
Further background on oxytocin available from hjemmefodsel.blogspot.no/forskning.no, and on crying and language from greatwoman.com.
The scenes depicting the investigation are based on:
Interviews with Lennart Kyrdalen, Laila Back and Knut Rykhus, former and present employees of Oslo Police District. Police interviews and reports. Articles in Dagbladet, VG and Aftenposten.
The scenes depicting news and cultural events in Oslo on 8 October 1991 are taken from:
Dagbladet, VG and Aftenposten. The following paragraph is translated into English based on a Norwegian rewrite of the opening sentences of James Joyce’s ‘The Dead’ – from Dubliners – and is based on the Norwegian translation by Olav Angell (Gyldendal, 2004, originally published 1914): “It won’t be long before snow falls gently over Oslo’s dark forests and naked hills, and softly over Sognsvann lake, the 1.5-billion-year-old mountains, Ekeberg’s gneiss and granite, and the waves of the Oslo fjord. It will also fall over the lonely churchyard.”
The sentence, “A myriad of streetlamps creates an arc of light beneath the otherwise black October sky”, is inspired by Nakker [Necks], by Karl Ove Knausgård and Thomas Wågstrøm (Pelikanen, 2014).
The scenes at Ullevål Hospital and the crime scene investigator’s analysis of the plastic bags at the Forensic Institute are based on:
Interviews with Knut Rykhus and Lennart Kyrdalen, conducted in Oslo Police District.
Further background on the placenta available from Store Medisinske leksikon (sml.snl.no).
N.B! Dagbladet acknowledges the fact that specific aspects of this case can be difficult for those involved to recall in precise detail after 25 years. As such, we have made every effort to speak with as many individuals as possible and to gather information from official sources (police interviews, medical journals, etc) and newspaper articles, in order that the various chains of events depicted are as authentic and accurate as possible.