By Cable Neuhaus
August 07, 1978 12:00 PM

For Frank and Dorothy Lowe, it was meant to be a simple vacation: a nine-day tour of the Soviet Union beginning with a visit to Moscow. Then Frank, 55, a marketing research specialist from Pittsburgh, spotted a heartbreaking newspaper story. Seven-month-old Jessica Katz of Moscow was suffering from a rare digestive disorder known as malabsorption syndrome. Because the infant could not assimilate nutrients in her diet, she was slowly starving to death. Moreover, Soviet authorities had repeatedly denied Jessica and her parents permission to visit the United States, where specialized medical help was available. The Lowes were galvanized into action: They contacted Action for Soviet Jewry, a committee mentioned in the story, and discovered that a special formula, called Pregestimil, is manufactured in the U.S. for babies with Jessica’s affliction. They bought four cans and hid them in their luggage. If asked, they planned to say that the powdery substance was medication for Mrs. Lowe’s arthritis. “Jessica seemed to be in such desperate shape,” says Dorothy, 54. “We knew we had to do something to help.”

Once in Moscow, the Lowes called Boris and Natalya Katz from a telephone booth. Boris suggested they meet the next day near the Lowes’ hotel. Later Frank and Dorothy delivered the Pregestimil to the Katzes’ apartment. “They were tremendously thankful,” recalls Frank, who was startled by the family’s cramped quarters. “The whole apartment was less than half the size of our living room, and the plaster in the hallways had deteriorated so you could see the bare slats behind it.” Struck by the young couple’s plight, the Lowes spontaneously offered to adopt Jessica. “The Russians could hardly prevent an American citizen from leaving the country,” Frank recalls reasoning at the time, “and Boris says he would be willing to have Jessica go to America, even if he never saw her again.” The next day, however, U.S. embassy officials assured the Lowes the idea was impractical.

Like thousands of other Soviet Jews, Boris and Natalya Katz, both 30, have applied for exit visas to Israel. The Soviet government refused, insisting that Natalya, a computer programmer, had access to state secrets. Mrs. Katz denied it, but was fired from her job. Her husband, also a programmer, was allowed to keep his, but had to drop out of the university where he was studying for his doctorate.

Jessica’s illness merely compounded the couple’s problems. Soviet doctors were baffled when the child started losing weight and turning blue only a few weeks after her birth. The Katzes placed several frantic calls to Boston, where Boris’ mother had emigrated, and an American pediatrician diagnosed Jessica’s problem. Three U.S. hospitals have offered to treat Jessica, but the Soviets insist that their own medical facilities are adequate. The Katzes have taken to the streets to protest. “They had no recourse,” Frank Lowe says sadly. “They’ve been clubbed and thrown into jail a number of times. I’m afraid they’ll get arrested and sent to Siberia.”

Although more than 30 other tourists have followed the Lowes’ example and taken Pregestimil into Russia, Jessica’s future remains under a cloud. U.S. doctors, who have been refused permission to visit the baby in Moscow, say sophisticated tests are needed to determine the precise nature of her illness and that these cannot be performed in the U.S.S.R. Meanwhile the Lowes are devoting themselves to the campaign to help Jessica and her parents emigrate. So far 80 congressmen have given their support, and Dorothy personally has tried to call Rosalynn Carter at the White House. (“I thought that maybe when she’s sitting down to lunch with Jimmy, she would say, ‘That woman from Pittsburgh is plaguing me. What can we do?’ “) Nearly every week the Lowes, who are childless themselves, telephone Boris and Natalya for news of Jessica, who is now 10 months old. “People wonder if we have a religious motivation,” says Frank. “No, we’re not even Jews. We’re just trying to do the humanitarian thing.”