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Inside Dateline: The miraculous life of Jonathan Swain

Keith Morrison: A baby born with AIDS in the '80s had little chance of survival. It's an improbable story, with a result no one predicted -- life.

July 7, 2006 |

The Miraculous Life of Jonathan Swain (Keith Morrison, Dateline correspondent)

NBC's Keith Morrison

So here I was, fighting a miserable cold, trying to avoid touching people or sneezing on them, sitting in a prison in Dublin, California, and listening to a heartbroken woman talk about the love of her life — her son. And I was thinking once again that the truth of what happens to people is just too strange, too improbable, to ever make up.  This woman was in prison on a drug charge, having become an addict in the midst of the pressure of trying to raise a son who had been infected with AIDS by a blood transfusion administered within a few days of his birth.  She was telling me how she had been told to prepare for his death (which surely would come very soon), and how her church asked her not to go there anymore, and how she prepared a death notice in advance but when she went to an undertaker he told her he would refuse to accept the baby boy's body at his establishment.

Suddenly my cold didn't seem like such a big deal.

AIDS was the night terror of the '80s; nobody survived AIDS.  And if a baby could catch it, couldn't anyone?  Would saliva spread AIDS, or tears, or touch? They were real questions.  And neither that young mother nor the surrounding community had answers.  And so now we looked back from that prison interview on a world that pushed away the people and the illness that frightened them.

But, here's the amazing thing: the boy did not die. At least, not right away. Birthday after birthday, while she fought and lost her war with cocaine, her son somehow survived and grew, though all the while he and those around him understood that death could come to call any time.  And now here she was in prison, coping with the guilt of a mother who abandoned the son who so needed her.

But what happened to him?
There is a town in Utah, 3 hours or so by car across scrub desert from Salt Lake, called Vernal. It is, by all appearances, a devoutly Mormon town,  hardly the sort of place you'd expect a young man with a sentence of death-by-AIDS to come calling.  But here was where he came, the scene of the rest of the improbable story, with a result no one predicted, and which that mother back in prison might never have believed possible.

The young man's name is John Swain.  Watch what happened to him.  See if it doesn't revise your ideas of what is possible in life.

A mother fights the odds to keep her ill son alive and healthy, becoming his biggest hero, then, years later she reveals a secret that shatters his world. Keith Morrison reports in this epic family drama about love, betrayal and survival. "The Miraculous Life of Jonathan Swain" airs Friday, July 7, 8 p.m.