When Sue Kam was born on Sept. 9, 1936, her parents, Jacob and Edith Denkers, didn’t even know they were expecting their fourth child.
Edith was helping in the family business, a small print shop in Los Angeles, when she experienced abdominal cramps and went to the back room to sit down. That’s when the premature Kam popped out, and a startled Edith screamed for her husband. Seeing the tiny infant, he wrapped her in a blanket.
“Daddy popped me in the oven to keep me warm,” said Kam, a Summerlin-area resident. “They pronounced me dead (at the hospital), but Daddy said, ‘Do whatever it takes to save her.’ ”
It was estimated that Edith was 26 weeks into her pregnancy when Kam was born. A normal pregnancy lasts about 40 weeks.
Upon arriving at General Hospital, Kam was pronounced dead, but doctors didn’t give up and revived her. It took a blood transfusion, an artificial respirator and two months in the hospital before she was out of danger. Because she wasn’t initially expected to live, Kam’s birth certificate was not issued until Sept. 11. About that time, she was also weighed, tipping the scale at 1 pound, 7 ounces.
When she went home, she weighed 5 pounds. She was so small that the family used a handkerchief drawer for her to sleep in. Her father called her “Peanut.”
Kam’s story got the interest of the local media, which ran a story on her unusual birth and followed it up when she went home. For the next four years, it did a “How’s she doing?” follow-up story on her birthday.
In the dramatic verbiage used by the press at the time, one of the papers stated, “Although Mr. and Mrs. Denkers attribute (Sue’s) phenomenal recovery to the wonders of modern science, it was undoubtedly their loving care which brought back the tiny youngster from the valley of the shadow of death.”
By age 3, she was 35 pounds, and by age 5, 40 pounds.
“We had a two-bedroom house,” Kam said. “I slept on the floor under the dining room table. … We were poor as church mice, but I was always happy.”
She also cared for her younger siblings and started working at age 10. One of her jobs was helping out at a stable, which allowed her to give free pony rides to area children. Over the years, she baby-sat and worked at the local dime store and a theater, where she was an usher and then candy counter clerk.
“One time, someone broke into the theater, and the (candy packages) were damaged, so I got to take it all home,” she recalled. “The kids were so excited.”
In high school, she played volleyball and badminton and was on the drill team. The newspapers did another story on her before she graduated.
“I was queen for the day at high school that day, that’s for sure,” she said.
Kam worked as a secretary for a bank. She went on to have four children from her 19-year marriage. Now, she has four grandchildren.
The circumstances of her birth were fodder for her children whenever they were required to write an essay. It also prompted some good-natured joking, especially about more than the pilot light being on at the time she was placed in the oven.
“When she does something silly, I’ll go, ‘Now, that oven was gas, wasn’t it, Mom?’ ” said her daughter, Janet Kraft.
But the U.S. government wasn’t laughing when Kam won a trip to the Bahamas in 1990 and applied for her passport. Her birth date on her driver’s license and birth certificate didn’t match, sending up a red flag.
“They weren’t going to let me have one,” she said. “They didn’t believe (the explanation).”
Kam had to return with a sworn affidavit from her older sister and newspaper clippings from the 1930s that detailed her unusual birth.
These days, she spends her time knitting and crocheting, crafting latch rugs, painting and reading. She also is known as a fabulous cook and hosts the family every Thanksgiving.
One of Kam’s daughters, a registered nurse, said she was amazed that a baby that premature made it.
“My mother is a science project,” said Sandra Blackburn. “Babies born that small don’t stand a chance of surviving in this day and age, let alone back then.”
Blackburn said even preemies who survive often go on to have multiple health problems, such as retinal detachment and cerebral palsy. But Kam had no medical issues.
“She didn’t even need glasses,” Blackburn said.
Contact Summerlin Area View reporter Jan Hogan at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2949.