Merry Lloyd looked down at Rusty, the tiny foster infant she cradled in her arms. Although the "drug baby" was hooked to a device that monitored his breathing, Lloyd carried him to the foster parent training class with her.
Rusty, which is not his real name, was sleeping peacefully now. But a few hours earlier he had given Lloyd the scare of her life when the apnea monitor to which he is almost always attached went off, emitting a sound she describes as "much like a smoke alarm."
Her first reaction was panic. But "you panic and you keep moving," she said.
Like many other babies, Rusty was born a drug addict because of his mother's substance abuse.
Drug babies experience severe withdrawal and, like other medically fragile babies, face life-or-death situations almost daily. Foster parenting is difficult by itself, but coupled with an infant who must struggle hour by hour to live through each day, the task can easily become overwhelming.
To help foster parents deal with such problems, Citrus Community College in Glendora recently held a "Medical Module," a series of classes at the Duarte Public Library that teach foster parents how to care for some of the special problems that plague medically fragile infants.
Citrus is part of the San Gabriel Valley Consortium for Foster Parenting. Other community colleges in the consortium are Mt. San Antonio College, Pasadena City College and Glendale Community College. The consortium was formed in 1985 as a way to educate foster parents, said Elizabeth Baxt, the consortium's coordinator.
"Foster parents are professionals who are taking on the same job institutions would have done," Baxt said. "Some are doing it out of the goodness of their heart, but goodness of the heart is not enough. They need a basic level of training."
Medically fragile children have conditions or symptoms that require special treatment. The classes deal with the physiological problems for which they carry a higher risk, such as AIDS, drug addiction, hyperactivity, attention deficit disorder and sudden infant death syndrome.
The problems have physical reasons or result from their parents' actions. Los Angeles County must find foster homes for hundreds of such babies each year.
Such problems can discourage or frighten potential parents. Developers of the classes hoped they would educate San Gabriel foster parents about medically fragile babies and reduce their fears.
About 35 foster parents attended each of the four classes. While some of the participants already were caring for such children, many were only considering whether to do so.
Foster parents are not required to take the classes, although those who want to be licensed to care for these infants are required to have individualized training, said Barbara Uchida, administrator for foster professional support at the county Department of Children's Services.
Modean Johnson of Pasadena said she was taking the classes to prepare for caring for such babies.
"You don't want to jump into something and don't know what you're doing," she said. "I want to prepare myself and to get familiarized with the situation.
"They need love and so many are thrown away. Parents don't want them; society doesn't accept them. I want to make them feel like they're somebody," Johnson said.
Because fragile infants have so many health problems, there are not enough foster parents to take care of them. Those who have made a career of foster parenting admit that it takes a special person to take care of such babies.
Bill Whitehead, who with his wife, Shirley, won the 1988 Foster Parent of the Year Award from the San Gabriel Valley Foster Parent Assn., said that although he took the classes to learn more, he would never be able to take in a medically fragile infant.
"I could never handle that," said Whitehead, who lives in West Covina. "You have to be a special person with lots of patience. I could never take a baby and have it die on me. I'd always wonder, 'Did I do something wrong?' It takes a strong person."
A friend of the Whiteheads, Mary Mihalka of Covina, is such a person. During the class on drug babies she told of the grief and bewilderment she felt when the baby she had been caring for died last summer, the only death in her 20 years of being a foster parent to more than 60 children. "She was terminal; there were too many physical problems," Mihalka said. "She was lethargic and couldn't see or hear . . . a vegetable."
"I would like to forget it," Mihalka said. But in spite of the painful memory, she and her husband, Ed, continue to take in fragile babies.
"It's great to watch them develop," Mihalka said, "especially when someone like the doctor says they won't last. I get them home and I say, 'Oh, yes you will.' "
Placement of medically fragile babies, especially those who are drug-addicted, is difficult because some foster parents are afraid that they may contract the AIDS virus, which may be transferred to children born to mothers using intravenous drugs.