As we begin a second week of celebrating birth here on The Little Mumma, it feels important to me to acknowledge when the story does not have a happy ending. Please note that this piece includes a raw and painful account of a stillbirth. If this is a trigger for you and perhaps for those of you who may currently be pregnant, you may wish to stop reading now.
When I miscarried in 2006, I remember being astounded at the statistics. I discovered that this thing that felt like it had only ever happened to me was actually happening to 1 in 4 pregnant women. Once I became a statistic myself, similar stories appeared to be everywhere.
Until something becomes personal, until it happens to YOU, it is quite easy to be completely ignorant to the reality of a situation.
I did not know that in Australia 6 babies are delivered stillborn every day.
Every single day, in this country alone, six mothers give birth to a broken dream.
As a woman and a mother with three beautiful, living children, this statistic shocks me to the core.
At a parents’ dinner, I sat next to Sally. Her son and Ziggy attend 3-year-old preschool together. I knew something of what had happened to Sally’s family but it wasn’t until I spent those few short hours listening to her speak about losing her precious first child, Hope, a daughter, that I began to appreciate what an extraordinary woman she was. I came away from the experience feeling amazed at Sally’s courage and heartsick at the enormity of what she had endured. When she spoke of losing Hope, I felt unbalanced – that level of sadness is the kind which can, at once, fill you up and hollow you out. I can’t comprehend what it must feel like to actually live it.
But this is Sally’s story, not mine. And she has so generously allowed me to reprint some of what she wrote on her blog in the aftermath of what must surely be the greatest tragedy a parent could ever endure.
I share this story to honour Hope’s birth which, despite everything, still reads as beautifully as any other.
Hope Angel Heppleston, first child of Sally & Simon, was stillborn on 19 August 2008 at 40 weeks and five days after a robustly healthy pregnancy.
We got to our appointment and
sat in the waiting room. We didn’t have to wait long. As I sat there, I prodded
my belly. “Wake up!” I thought. I knew things were not good.
We were seen by a young midwife. She fussed around, took measurements, felt the position of the baby, and even exclaimed, “So you’re having a girl!,” which totally confused us as we’d asked not to find out. But I muttered to her I hadn’t felt the baby move for half an hour or so, and that I was just very keen for her to get the Doppler and find the heartbeat.
So she did, but she couldn’t find it. She said she was inexperienced so she went and got another midwife. I knew.
It was lovely Barbara, and I’d told Simon how much I liked her, and that I hoped she’d be there for the birth. I was glad to see her walk in, but she looked concerned. She got the Doppler. No heartbeat. Maybe flat batteries, she said. So she got another one. No heartbeat. She asked me to roll on to my side. Then the other side. Still no heartbeat. I knew for sure now and I was just so sad that Simon was about to know, too.
We went to the doctor’s rooms and I was put up on the bed and an obstetrician wheeled in an ultrasound machine. Once I saw the screen, I had hope; I hadn’t seen her since 20 weeks after all. But she was still, so very still. The picture was fuzzy so they got another machine.
Another obstetrician came in with the first, an officious little woman, whose bedside manner was far too cheery given our shitty circumstances. But the baby was lifeless. I was shaking. The obstetrician told me to stop and held my hand. I looked at Simon, and this is the moment that makes my heart ache the most, the tears were flowing and he looked like he was going to fall over. Fatherhood had just slipped from his grasp.
The obstetrician told Simon to come and stand with me so he made his way over and held my hand. Then the obstetrician said, “I’m so sorry.” Those words were all we needed to hear. The world as we know it ended in that moment.
Hope’s heart stopped, and I think for a brief moment, mine did, too. My life was spiralling out of control, and I couldn’t to stop it.
I didn’t want to stay in the hospital to be induced straight away so we decided to come back in first thing in the morning. I just wanted to be able to take my baby home one last time as I knew I wouldn’t bring her home from the hospital after she was born.
My friend drove us home from
the hospital. We couldn’t drive. Simon was obviously still in deep shock,
and I could barely reach the steering wheel with my huge protruding belly. My
friend, 20 weeks pregnant herself and mum of a two year old boy, didn’t think
we’d be able to get in her car, so evident of her motherhood. But we couldn’t
really face getting in our car either, with our brand new baby seat proudly
fastened in the back. My sister drove our car home.
I just kept repeating, “The baby was alive this morning.” I didn’t understand. It was all too much for me to process. You’d think I’d have been sitting there in a well of my own tears, but instead I just sat and stared, I was in utter shock and deep denial, only functioning one second at a time. Looking any further ahead was impossible.
Simon’s parents arrived at our house and his mum’s eyes were stinging red from tears. No one wants to see their child hurt and Simon was hurting so much. She wanted to take his pain away.
No one knew what to do. Cups of tea were made. People were dazed and confused. Calls were made. I was talking of having another baby. It was the only way I could see clear. I was rubbing my belly and thinking about how much I missed her. She died, and a large part of me had died, too. No longer her giant incubator, I was now her giant tomb.
I took the painkillers and
sleeping tablet the hospital gave me and tried to get to sleep. We slumped into bed, knowing we had the biggest day of our lives ahead of us. Stupidly, we
left our phones on and they beeped all night with condolence messages. People
writing to farewell our baby they’d never met. It wasn’t right. This wasn’t
supposed to be our story.
I didn’t sleep. The contractions started again and the drugs weren’t strong enough to mask them. While the contractions during the previous four nights did leave me feeling excited, these contractions left me gutted because of my new reality.
Morning. We got up earlier
than we needed to and had showers. I tried to eat some breakfast. It was
raining. We made our way to
the hospital and parked in the emergency bay. To me, this was an emergency.
The woman at the admissions desk had obviously been warned as she barely made eye contact with us. She muttered they’d put the TV on in our room for free. Great.
A midwife Amy, who we’d met during the pregnancy showed us to our room. She was crying. Just finishing her night shift, she said she’d be back that evening to care for us. She left us with a hug, the first of many we’d receive over the coming days and wished us well. She kept saying how very sorry she was.
I slumped myself on the bed with my back to the door. I didn’t want to see or speak to anyone. I just wanted it to be over. Nine months of joy and happiness and I was now about to enter a life time of hell and heartache. Eventually a doctor came and broke what little was left of my waters, bringing with it a strand of our baby’s hair. “Your baby has brown hair,” she said. I was so excited to learn this small detail, the first real physical thing we would know about our child we couldn’t keep.
As my labour progressed, the family came and went from our room. Taking it in turns to be with me. And cry. Mostly cry. I was beginning to worry for everyone else. They were all in a bad way. At least I had the mind altering drugs to numb me from my pain.
An epidural, something that
had frightened the life out of me during pregnancy, and something which the
obstetrician told me I wouldn’t need, was now being arranged.
A young, nervous anaesthetist came in. Simon, an anaesthetic nurse, said: “I don’t want her going near Sally’s back, get us the consultant.” We learned that when you’re going to deliver a dead baby, staff will almost do anything for you. We made the most of this small luxury.
The consultant arrived and he was more careful with me than I could have hoped for with my over-protective husband watching him. Once it was in, I felt the cool trickle of drugs go down my spine, and the pain was gone. I wish he could have jabbed that needle in my heart. That was one pain I could not escape.
At 3pm, the midwife said I was ready to push. I couldn’t believe it. The moment I’d been looking forward to for nine months.
I used to ask Simon
throughout the pregnancy, “Will the baby like me?” He would answer, but you
could tell he was thinking it was the most ridiculous question. “Of course the
baby will like you, he or she will love you. You are the baby’s lifeblood, its mother; it has no choice but to love you.” I knew he was right, but I also
liked hearing him reaffirm it for me. Now I felt I was never really going to
learn the answer to this question.
Hope’s birth wasn’t the worst moment in our lives. Seeing her lifeless body on the ultrasound machine topped that. It was still the moment we got to meet our first, precious child. It will forever be though, a moment tinged with such a deep sadness.
I pushed for about an hour. Seemed like nothing was happening, but I guess it was. I was warned the pushing stage for a first baby could be long and hard. I would have pushed for another nine months if I knew I was going to get my baby here alive.
The midwives would tell me to sit the next contraction out and give my body a break. But our bodies are amazing. I had an urge to push and I have no idea where it was coming from. I couldn’t stop. I would scream “PUSH” and they would say, “Whoa, she wants to push again.” They seemed amazed at my strength, Simon and our mothers were proud of me and I was happy with myself.
At this point, when Hope’s head was close to being born, the midwife said, “Oh, here's the cord.” It was wrapped twice around our baby’s neck. I was absolutely gutted, but relieved at the same time. That gave me a black and white answer as to what might have gone wrong, and definitely meant it was out of my control, that it wasn’t my fault.
As a Mother, you would do anything to protect your kids and I did everything to protect her for nine months, everything. But I knew cord accidents could happen, and I knew they were random. However they were quick to tell me this might not be the cause, and to wait for the autopsy results which could take up to six weeks. They seemed to know more than they were letting on at this stage.
With a push that tipped me over the edge of sheer physical exhaustion, our little baby’s wet head finally emerged. From all the videos I’d seen, I knew the end was near as after the head comes out and the first shoulder is born, the rest of the body just seems to slip out.
Well, I guess that’s if the baby is alive. Hope became quite stuck, and I felt like I was losing control. I screamed, “Get it out!” Things ground to a halt, the midwives were whispering and started to talk of episiotomies, forceps and vacuum extractions. They both mentioned if the obstetrician came back she’d want to speed things up by using one of these interventions. I was terrified, but I thought right, I can do this, no one is going to cut me or use some tool to get my baby out. I can do this.
Everyone was now trying to
help. My support team say my legs were in a position no one thought physically
possible. They were holding my legs behind my head, I was pushing with every
ounce of energy and the midwives and doctor tried to pull our baby out of me.
They didn’t have to be as gentle with me or Hope as they did. I’d had an epidural so I couldn’t feel anything and the baby was dead, so they didn’t need to worry about her. But they did everything in their power to get our baby out safely, and to keep me in one piece.
It was now very close. “Pull your top up so we can put her on your chest,” I was told. I didn’t think I wanted this. I initially said no. I was so worried what my baby would look like, I for some reason thought she would be bright blue or that I might “reject” her.
But as she emerged, the mother instinct in me kicked in and my warm, albeit slightly pale baby, was placed on my chest. As soon as I laid eyes on her a wave of intense love swept over me. I loved her with every ounce of my being. It was overwhelming. A love I have never known. Even though Hope wasn’t with us, I knew that instant bond I had with her would never be broken. Mother and child, together forever.
I’m not sure what newborns
smell like, but I know most parents say their newborns smell gorgeous and I
certainly thought this was true of our baby. I will always treasure that smell.
Like a thousand roses, an endless ocean; she smelt so lovely.
I held my baby girl and fussed over her with the care of any new mother. I was so proud. I had longed to see her precious little face for such a long time; I couldn’t believe the moment had finally arrived. I had my baby. She was here. And she had everything except a heartbeat.
Portrait by Gavin Blue of Heartfelt
Sally's story has touched me so deeply and I am so grateful to her for allowing me to share a small part of it here with you. I encourage you to read Hope's Story in its entirety at Sally's blog, Tuesday's Hope - Sally is brave and raw and real and I think hearing one another's stories, even when they are hard to hear, especially when they are hard to hear, is what truly connects us to one another.
In honour of their precious girl, Sally and dear friend, artist Tonia Composto, began Fairy Tales For Hope, a set of illustrations based on popular children's fairy tales. With all money raised funding important research by Stillbirth Foundation Australia, 250mm x 250mm prints can be purchased for $20AUD each.
I bought this one for Harlow's first birthday, a treasure I hope she will keep forever;
Click here to see all of the gorgeous illustrations.
It seems fitting that Sally's brave words should end this piece. And so I leave you with a paragraph that struck me as so beautiful and bittersweet, a reminder that every birth should be acknowledged and celebrated;
Barbara, the midwife with us on the day Hope died, true to her word, came back to visit. She said congratulations to us. Seems weird but it was nice. We deserved to be congratulated, we had become parents; I had given birth.