Five years ago this month, new york city sanitation workers made a gruesome discovery. While emptying garbage cans in the streets of Harlem, they spotted a tiny arm sticking out of the heap of rubbish in the back of their truck. The arm belonged to a dead baby girl, so new to the world her umbilical cord was still attached. Police were called and journalists, including Rebecca Spitz, a reporter for the local cable news channel, NY1, rushed to the scene.
Spitz was the channel’s Manhattan breaking-news reporter. An energetic brunette with dark eyes and an enormous smile, she had worked at NY1 since graduating from college. It was her first and only job. She was thirty-one and loved the fast-paced environment, the storytelling, and knowing what was going on before anyone else did. As her mother, Susan, would later learn, Spitz was known for her smile, her crushing hugs, and her “filthy mouth.” On a personal level, Spitz’s boyfriend had recently proposed and an engagement party full of family and friends was scheduled for the following evening.
During a break in the coverage in Harlem that afternoon, Spitz walked to her car, which was parked nearby, and as she crossed the street near St. Nicholas Avenue and 120th Street, a burgundy van drove by. The van passed so close to Spitz that its passenger-side mirror collided with her head. The impact of the blow fractured Spitz’s skull and knocked her to the ground, cracking her head again as it hit the pavement. In an instant, she went from covering a story to becoming one. As Spitz was loaded onto an ambulance a Daily News photographer snapped a picture. The tabloid’s coverage included a story with the headline, NY1 reporter in van horror.
She was rushed to nearby St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital Center, where doctors determined that in addition to having multiple skull fractures, Spitz’s head had hit the ground with such force that her brain slammed forward into her skull, bruising the frontal lobe. In an effort to reduce the swelling, she was given Sodium Pentothal, a barbiturate that sent her into a medically-induced coma. To keep her breathing, Spitz was put on a respirator. It was the beginning of a long, dark night.
Her parents, Henry and Susan, had spent that afternoon strolling around Soho. They returned to their Upper West Side apartment to the flashing lights of police cars and a small group of NY1 employees waiting to escort them to the hospital. There they encountered every parent’s worst nightmare, their child on the verge of death. “There was no medical person who thought she would survive,” Susan, a therapist, recalled recently in the suite of offices on Manhattan’s Upper West Side that she shares with Henry, a psychiatrist.
Their daughter’s brain was swelling uncontrollably. Doctors drilled a hole into Spitz’s skull to monitor the pressure inside; too much swelling could cut off oxygen, leaving her with brain damage, or killing her. They gave orders not to wash her or move her because her situation was so precarious.
As the days turned into weeks, things began to go wrong. Because Sodium Pentothal quiets the nervous system, it can cut off circulation to parts of the body. Spitz had multiple organ failure; her liver, her kidneys, and her small intestine all shut down. At one point, doctors performed abdominal surgery, removing eight inches of intestine that had died, and Spitz was put on dialysis. And once, because her brain wasn’t getting enough nutrients, she had a violent seizure that lasted forty minutes.
Henry Spitz was told by hospital staff four times that it was time to call the family, that there was nothing else they could do. Despite his extensive training as a doctor of the mind, he found himself in a situation where he was just another helpless human being praying for his daughter’s survival. “You die,” he said. “As a psychiatrist, the hardest thing I’ve seen people have to deal with is not bad news, it’s uncertainty, and we had uncertainty.”