I was one of two managers covering the hospital one quiet Sunday morning when my pager beeped.
“Cafeteria,” said the voice that answered my call.
“Hi, this is the nursing manager.”
“A child’s alone down here.”
In the cafeteria I approached the bevy of workers huddled by the phone.
“The little girl’s over there,” one of them said, pointing.
A small child was sitting quietly at a table. She had a round face and light brown hair pulled back with a pink barrette, soft curls falling below her ears. There were no toys or food in front of her.
“What’s the story?” I asked.
“We saw she was by herself but thought her mother was in line getting breakfast. Then we asked everyone if they knew her, but no one did.”
I walked slowly up to the child, smiling and making eye contact. She shyly smiled back at me.
“Hi, sweetie. What’s your name?”
A tiny voice answered, “Gina.”
“Where’s your mommy?” Wide brown eyes. No response.
“How old are you?” Two little fingers came up in the air.
I noticed a small suitcase under the table and opened it to find clean, neatly folded girl clothes but nothing to identify the mystery child. I was hoping an irate mother would storm up to me, demanding to know what I was doing. It didn’t happen. We had an abandoned child.
Before starting the necessary calls, I took care of basics. “Are you hungry, sweetie?” A small nod.
“Do you need to go potty?” An emphatic shake no.
I held out my arms in the universal sign to see if she wanted to be picked up. She eagerly reached out in return. Two arms clasped my neck, two legs curled tightly around my waist like a baby monkey. All she wanted was a carton of milk.
Then I got on the phone and contacted hospital Social Services and the administrator on call for the weekend. Through everything, Gina never released her grip. She neither cried nor fussed nor talked but paid attention to everything that transpired and nodded or shook her head if asked a question. Eventually, I was instructed to turn Gina over to a police officer, who would take her to the case worker for placement in a foster home.
Gina had been stoic when she was originally abandoned and had been quiet all day, but as soon as I put her in the police car she cried hysterically. I talked to her soothingly, reassuring her she’d be all right. It didn’t work. She just looked at me with tear-filled eyes, sobbing and reaching out to be picked up. It was almost more than I could bear. I fastened her in, gave her a final hug and kiss, and shut the door with tears streaming down my face, too.
Gina would be in her thirties today, but I still see the little girl sitting quietly at the cafeteria table waiting for someone to come back to her.