Kissing babies used to be the most banal, feel-good move a public figure could make.
Not in the Trump era.
First lady Melania Trump sparked controversy and outrage with a visit to Boston Medical Center on Wednesday to highlight its innovative treatment programs for moms and their babies born dependent on drugs.
Some 250 employees signed a letter asking hospital administrators to cancel it, and then organized a protest to coincide with her visit to a ground-breaking program that emphasizes cuddling — by mothers and volunteers — as a way to ease the babies’ symptoms.
“She’s married to Donald Trump, and he is such a symbol of so much of what we stand against,” said Dr. Sara Stulac, a BMC pediatrician who works with opioid-exposed children, during the late-morning protest. The president “has done more than anyone I can think of in modern times to work against what BMC holds as its core principles. . . . And so, while I’m really glad that she is learning about opioid-exposed children, we are here to send a message not to her, but to our community and to our patients, that we are here to provide a safe place for them, and that we are not allied with her and her husband’s messages.”
Stulac was part of a crowd of employees gathered on the lawn in front of the Moakley Building on the BMC campus Wednesday. Many held handmade signs emblazoned with phrases such as “We care for all families,” “OUR BMC CARES FOR ALL PATIENTS,” and “Children in cages can’t be cuddled.”
The reception was far warmer when the first lady entered a basement conference room, not far away, to meet with BMC administrators, top doctors, and the first lady of Massachusetts, Lauren Baker.
“I bring you greetings and gratitude from the governor,” said Baker, who has spent a lot of time with the BMC pediatric team over the past several years. “We are so proud and honored that of all the places you could have chosen to go and visit to build your understanding of this issue, you chose Massachusetts and Boston Medical Center.”
If the first lady of the United States noticed the stir she caused, it didn’t show.
“It is so important to acknowledge and show gratitude for what you are doing to help mothers and . . . babies born with neonatal abstinence syndrome,” Trump said, referring to a condition suffered by babies who are exposed to drugs in the womb. The symptoms of the condition — which is essentially the process of withdrawing from the drugs that their mothers were taking — can include tremors, fussiness, and difficulty feeding.
BMC has helped pioneer a treatment approach that keeps babies suffering from NAS close to their mothers in a quiet environment, with lots of cuddling and breastfeeding, rather than in intensive-care units. The hospital also deploys volunteer “cuddlers” to hold the babies when their mothers aren’t there.
Researchers at BMC and elsewhere have shown that this approach shortened the babies’ time in the hospital and dramatically reduced their need for medication.
Trump, who was joined by Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar, said she hoped her visit “helps shine a light on programs like yours. . . . It is my hope that [what] we discuss today will encourage others to replicate similar programs in their own communities.”
After an approximately 20-minute presentation by a half-dozen BMC staff, Trump toured the hospital’s pediatric unit. A pool photographer observed the first lady talking with doctors in the unit’s hallway, but other members of the press were not allowed to join her for the tour or see her interact with any of the mothers or infants in the unit.
A hospital spokesman said Trump did meet with “a number of patients and had photos taken.”
The Office of the First Lady said Trump met with children and families who are currently enrolled in the hospital’s recovery program, known as Supporting Our Families Through Addiction and Recovery, “and learned about their experiences with NAS and opioid addiction.”
What would once have been a standard White House event turned out to be anything but, highlighting how polarizing the Trump administration is.
Organizers of the protest said they were concerned that the visit could send the wrong message to patients — especially immigrants who are worried about the Trump administration’s enforcement policies.
Several demonstrators wore white lab coats with the words “we really do care, do u?” written across the back, a reference to the infamous green parka jacket with the phrase “I really don’t care, do u?” that Trump wore last year during a visit to Texas.
“We are not here in opposition of first lady Trump being here,” said Neena McConnico, director of a BMC program that helps children and families affected by trauma, who joined the protest outside. “But we are really here to stand in solidarity with our patients and to let them know that we hear you. We understand you. We are here for you.”
Representative Ayanna Pressley, a vocal critic of the Trump administration who represents the part of Boston where BMC is located, tweeted her support.
“I stand w/the hundreds of employees standing in the cold, calling out the cruelty of this Administration’s policies that hurt families in #MA7 including @The_BMC patients,” she said, referring to the seventh congressional district.
Word of Melania Trump’s visit sparked days of intense discussion at BMC. In addition to the letter asking administrators to consider canceling the event, about 75 people met with president and chief executive Kate Walsh, according to several people who attended.
Walsh moderated the roundtable with the first lady Wednesday.
In an e-mail sent Tuesday to BMC’s 6,000 employees, Walsh said she hoped “the visit will be a unique opportunity to share our values of respect and inclusion with federal leaders whose policies have a significant impact on the vulnerable populations we are dedicated to serving.”
“Two-thirds of our patients have some form of government insurance, and our health plan is the largest participant in the state’s Medicaid accountable care organization, so the opportunity to highlight the innovative work we are doing is critical to ensuring that we are able to continue to deliver on our mission well into the future,” she added.
On Wednesday, after the first lady left, Walsh sent another e-mail thanking those who disagreed with BMC for hosting Trump for their conduct.
“I am grateful for the thoughtful ways people have expressed both their disagreement and support for the visit,” she said.