Argentine 'miracle' baby found alive after 12 hours in morgue

April 12, 2012 at 9:49 AM ET

A baby that had been declared dead at birth was discovered alive by her parents after she had spent 12 hours in a frigid morgue drawer in Argentina.

The baby, born about three months prematurely, was whisked off to the morgue before her parents even saw her, said the baby’s mother, Analia Bouter.

“I don’t remember much because I was put to sleep,” Bouter said through a translator. “They never showed me the baby.”

Twelve hours after the baby was declared dead at the Argentine hospital, Bouter and her husband insisted hospital employees bring them to the morgue and allow them to say goodbye.

But when morgue employees opened the drawer where the baby lay, the parents heard her crying.

“That’s when we heard the baby cry,” said Favian Veron, the baby’s father.

Bouter fell to her knees in disbelief, fearing she was hallucinating.

The baby is now in critical care and improving, according to the hospital.

Dr. Barry Halpern, medical director of the NICU at Northridge Hospital Medical Center, suspects that the Argentine doctors presumed the baby was dead because they didn’t hear a heart beat. “The staff probably listened to the heartbeat and didn’t think they heard one,” Halpern told TODAY. “Perhaps it was a very faint beat that they didn’t hear.”

Halpern said this kind of mistake isn’t likely to happen with an experienced staff.

“The more experienced the staff, the more experienced the physicians, the less likely it is for something like this to happen,” he said.

It’s not uncommon for a preterm baby to have bad color and a faint heart rate at birth, said Dr. Phyllis A. Dennery, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Pennsylvania and chief of neonatology and newborn services at the Children’s Hospital of Pennsylvania at Penn.

Whether that faint heart rate is detected will depend on both the quality of the stethoscope and the hearing of the person using it, Dennery said.

Dennery suspects that U.S. doctors would have tried to resuscitate the newborn. But even in cases where that doesn’t look possible - because, for example, the baby is too premature - doctors will generally  wrap the newborn in blankets and allow the mom to hold her baby for a while.  And rarely, babies surprise the doctors and begin gasping for breath while the mom is holding them.

In any case, the mom should be allowed some time with her baby.

“Here the obstetrician will allow the mother to spend time with the baby even if it is stillborn,” Dennery said.  “The mother needs to have an opportunity to grieve and to have closure around this issue.”

In the end, the cold may not have hurt the baby, Dennery said. That’s because it could have slowed down the newborn’s metabolism allowing her to survive the 12 hours she went without the care she needed.  “But that’s just speculation,” Dennery said. 

Argentinian health officials have suspended five hospital workers pending an investigation. The parents say they plan to sue.

Related: Pronounced dead, revived by mom's hug