A striking image of a young nurse cradling a baby. The baby’s head is wrapped up in bandages from an injury that occurred in a domestic accident. Despite the pain the infant must have been in, her expression is calm as the nurse holds her close, in a scene reminiscent of “Madonna and Child.” But who was the mystery nurse? This woman had to find out.
The baby in question was Amanda Scarpinati who, in the photo, was just three months old. The tot had fallen off a couch and onto a steam vaporizer. Now, vaporizers are used to increase the humidity in a room, by boiling water to release steam. And since the water is boiled, the chance of any germs being present in the steam is significantly lessened.
As a result, the vaporizer was scaldingly hot and tragically caused significant burns to the infant. Scarpinati was taken immediately to the Albany Medical Center in New York state. The three-month-old underwent surgery for her injuries and was then moved to the pediatric recovery ward to recuperate.
Scarpinati carried the effects of her third-degree burns throughout her childhood. For many years she underwent numerous surgical procedures and skin grafts. And her scars led to taunts and name-calling from schoolyard bullies during her formative years.
As Scarpinati explained to CBC, “As a child things were very difficult for me. The children weren’t always the nicest. I would be called a witch because of the scars from the burns.” But there was one place the young Scarpinati sought comfort from all the torment.
During her stay at the Albany Medical Center, Scarpinati’s photo was taken as a nurse cradled her. In the picture, the three-month-old’s head appears swaddled with bandages, and her arm, too, was wrapped up to protect her injuries. The nurse, however, looked entirely smitten with the child.
One of the photos was used on the cover of the hospital’s annual report. It was a picture that Scarpinati kept while she was growing up. And sometimes, when the bullies particularly got to her, she would pull the picture out as a reminder of the compassion humans can have.
“I would look at that picture and I would always think, ‘Here is someone who cared for me with love and compassion,’” Scarpinati told CBC. “It didn’t matter what kind of scars or burns I had. It was just genuine.” So although she didn’t know the nurse, she still felt her caring presence.
In her late teens, Scarpinati made an attempt to track down the nurse with whom she had developed a bond all those years ago. However, while the photos were credited to a Carl Howard, the subjects were never named. With only a picture and the name of the hospital to go on, then, Scarpinati’s search was unsuccessful.
Scarpinati is now 40 and works as a human resources manager in Athens, New York. As she explained to Today in September 2015, “I’d look at those pictures and talk to [the nurse], even though I didn’t know who she was. I took comfort looking at this woman who seemed so sincere, caring for me.”
Throughout her whole life Scarpinati had wanted to thank the nurse who had shown her the affection she looked back so fondly on as she was growing up. Then, in September 2015, a friend urged her to give it another shot. And this time she had the power of social media at her disposal.
Consequently, Scarpinati posted the pictures to her Facebook page and asked for her friends’ help. And her friends quickly spread the word. She told Today, “Within 12 hours, it had gone viral with 5,000 shares across the country.” And it wasn’t long either before she had a breakthrough.
Angela Leary had been a nurse at the Albany Medical Center at the time the photo was taken. Leary had seen Scarpinati’s post and immediately recognized the young nurse in the picture. Or at least she recognized the distinctive pearl earrings the nurse used to wear.
Leary soon sent Scarpinati a message telling her what she knew about the mystery nurse in the photo. Her name was Susan Berger, and Leary understood that her former colleague had moved from Albany to Syracuse, NY. Furthermore, she had married a man named Ron.
With more details to go on, it wasn’t long before Scarpinati tracked Berger down. She is a woman Leary described as being “as sweet and caring as she looks in [the] picture”. And as it happened, Scarpinati had left as lasting an impression on the young nurse, as the nurse had on Scarpinati.
It turns out that Berger, then 21 and recently having graduated college, worked as a nurse on the pediatric recovery ward at the Albany Medical Center. Indeed, Scarpinati had been one of her first patients. But that wasn’t necessarily why the three-month-old had had such a profound impact on the young nurse.
“I remember her!” Berger explained to Today. Apparently, on a ward containing many patients, Scarpinati had stood out. “She was very peaceful. Usually when babies come out of surgery they’re sleeping or crying. She was just so calm and trusting. It was amazing.”
In September 2015 the two women were reunited for the first time, 38 years after they first met. And, fittingly, the reunion happened in the very building where Berger cared for Scarpinati back in 1977. For Scarpinati it was as if the photo she’d cherished for all those years had come to life.
Berger is now in the twilight of her career at Cazenovia College in Finger Lake, New York. She told Today, “I don’t know how many nurses would be lucky enough to have something like this happen, to have someone remember you all that time.”
Meanwhile, Scarpinati no longer shows any obvious scars from her ordeal as a baby. She has a full head of long brown hair where there was once a bundle of gauze and bandages, and there is a butterfly tattoo situated by her ankle. When asked if she and Berger would remain friends, Scarpinati was unequivocal. “It already has been a lifelong friendship,” she said. “She just didn’t know.”