Infant Loss Awareness Month: When tragedy hits home

It started out like any other normal day. Aside from constant nausea and hurling of my insides. I woke up, got dressed and left for work.

Nothing special, nothing out of the ordinary. But my body was about to betray me and there were a few signs as the day progressed.

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Around lunchtime, I felt dizzy and lightheaded. I remember almost hitting my head on the counter. When I opened my eyes, I was surrounded by paramedics.

I was rushed to the nearest hospital. Doctors and nurses came swirling in and said they were taking me to labor and delivery.

This cannot be possible, I tried to say, but the words never came out. Once there, I managed to ask what was happening. The doctor told me I was having a baby.

I screamed at him, I told him he was lying, and tried to reason with him that I was just 28 weeks along. But it turned out my placenta had ruptured, causing me to go into premature labor.

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Finally, my actual doctor walked in. Her face told me all I needed to know. I was going to have a baby that day.

She reassured me everything would be fine. She told me my daughter would have the best NICU care. She would have a long road, but she would be OK.

After the final push, the unthinkable happened.

My baby never cried

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I was screaming. But she never cried.

I can’t explain it, but I already knew. The doctors and nurses shut off the machines and wrapped her in a swaddle and walked her over to me.

As they laid her on my chest, all I remember is crying and screaming. Blaming everyone in that room, including myself.

Elizabeth came out with her umbilical cord wrapped around her neck. She lost too much oxygen in the last moments of labor. She never recovered.

No birth certificate to hold

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I was faced with not only grieving but deciding what I wanted to do with her tiny body.

Did you know that in some states, you cannot bury someone who does not have a birth certificate? Because my baby was never “born,” she never got a death certificate, which is what I needed to bury her.

Some of the cemeteries my mother and I called in the following days offered “special” memorials where their ashes could be placed in a rose bed. After a week, we found a cemetery willing to let us bury my daughter, born asleep.

There has been progress over the last decade. Today, 34 states allow special birth certificates for stillborn babies so parents can bury their children properly, according to MISS Foundation. The volunteer-based organization provides counseling, advocacy, research and education services to families experiencing the death of a child.

Trauma and bereavement specialist Joanne Cacciatore, now an associate professor at Arizona State University, founded the non-profit and worked with other states’ legislators to help pass similar laws.

A step toward understanding the tragedy

Ronald and Nancy Reagan pose for a portrait in 1980 in Los Angeles. Credit: Getty Images

In October 1988, then President Ronald Reagan declared October Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month. He worked with cities, lawmakers and cemeteries to change laws about proper burials for children loss in pregnancy and infancy. His presidential proclamation said:

“The national observance of Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month, 1988, offers us the opportunity to increase our understanding of the great tragedy involved in the deaths of unborn and newborn babies.”

He hoped the proclamation would stir conversation, innovation and research to help prevent such tragedies from happening.

My own personal tragedy would take place two decades later.

Despite advances, stillbirths still happen

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In 2008, we laid our sweet Elizabeth to rest. Little is still known about what causes placental abruption. We went home to an empty nursery, devastated.

Symptoms like vaginal bleeding, abdominal pain and more are the first glimpses something is wrong. Pregnant women should be aware and head to the nearest hospital if something seems abnormal; it may save their child’s life.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines a stillborn as:

“An abrupt unexpected end, resulting in infant death during pregnancy; in pregnancies 20 weeks to full term… Some women blame themselves, but rarely are these deaths caused by something a woman did or did not do.”

According to the CDC, stillbirths result in about 1 percent of pregnancy losses each year. That’s roughly 24,000 reported cases.

Of the many contributing factors to a stillbirth, only three are understood broadly:

  • Problems with the baby: birth defects or genetic problems.
  • Problems with placenta or umbilical cord: source of oxygen and nutrients.
  • Pregnancy-induced medical problems in the mother: diabetes, hypertension or obesity.

A fourth category is “unexplained stillbirth,” which means no known causes were found.

Higher risks for stillbirths

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Although the CDC has determined that stillbirths know no race, ethnicity, age or income, there are some higher-risk groups. Both teenage girls and women ages 35 or older are more vulnerable. So are:

  • Women who dealt with obesity prior to pregnancy.
  • Women who smoke during pregnancy and have a history of heavy smoking.
  • Mothers who have had multiple pregnancies close together.
  • Women who have dealt with previous pregnancy losses.

Since losing Elizabeth, I have become a mother three times. But stillbirths continue to break women’s souls every day. No one should have to come home to an empty nursery.

Watch: Mother walks us through her stillbirth story.

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