Life After Birth. Stillbirth.
**An edited version of this first person piece appeared in my column in the Belfast Telegraph on 11 July 2011**
08.07.11, Val do Lobo, Portugal. Yesterday I raised my head from my sun lounger for a quick check on my stepdaughter who was playing in the ocean waves below me and had another unexpected but acute reminder that I no longer had a pregnancy bump.
There are two explanations needed with that statement. The first is that I’m on holiday as I write, and secondly, just a matter of weeks ago, my pregnancy ended suddenly when I gave birth prematurely to my baby daughter Rosie, who didn’t survive.
Stillbirths, neo-natal deaths and late miscarriages are, unbelievably, on the up in the UK and Ireland. Figures show that today, in the UK alone, up to 17 women will lose their babies through stillbirth or neo natal death and 290 women will suffer a miscarriage. Early miscarriages (before 13 weeks) are often down to chromosomal abnormalities in the embryo, but late miscarriages, like TV presenter Kelly Brook’s, are much less common and quite unusual. They can be caused by blood-clotting disorders, anatomical problems with the uterus and cervix, or infections, and only one or two per cent of women suffer a late miscarriage in pregnancy.
Recent losses by celebrity mums including Amanda Holden, Kelly Brook and Lily Allen have highlighted the risk somewhat, but stillbirth remains very much in the shadows and it’s not really talked about in pregnancy books or in antenatal classes.
Nothing can prepare you for the immeasurable devastation, shattered expectations and heart-breaking and agonising emotional turmoil of losing a baby. Even in the immediate moments after Rosie’s birth and death, when the doctors and midwives left us alone to have some time together, I wanted to cry out ‘Don’t leave us! We don’t know what to do!’ But holding her until her perfectly formed, warm little body went cold in my arms gave me huge comfort. I kissed her. A dead baby. I wailed for weeks, mostly in bed, and woke up crying - when I managed to sleep at all - as if the weeping had begun uncontrollably in my dreams. I didn’t eat. Nothing tasted of anything. And what was the emptiness of my stomach compered to the emptiness of my soul. I came to feel overwhelmed by flowers - I received almost 100 sympathy bouquets. Many just died in their packaging as I had no will or desire to nourish them in all their beauty. And who owns 100 vases anyway?
In the middle of all this I went back to work. Dove in. It was a daytime distraction while the agony weighed me down at night.
Much paperwork followed. Post mortems, questions, examinations. Burial or cremation? Coffin size? Who’d carry it? When would we get her back to bury her? What would the priest say - she wasn’t baptised? Or had her last rites. Or did she? I now have vague and hazy flashbacks of a priest coming to bless me and her in theatre.
But from all this there are so many positives. I still have my own health (my labour was hugely traumatic and without pain relief as I had a potentially fatal infection putting my own life at risk). I don’t think I had any idea of the enormity of the risk to my own life until days afterwards. I ‘d just felt flu-ish in the supermarket as my waters broke among the last minute Easter egg shoppers. I only went to hospital because it was a Saturday (Easter Saturday) and my obstetrician told me to do so on the phone.. Had it been Monday-Friday without a bank holiday the following week, I suspect I might’ve put off a GP appointment for a couple of days - and unknowingly at my own risk. Fate worked in my favour in some way I suppose. The hospital team was very efficient. I started to vomit in a waiting room while bloods and fluids were examined and a swift induction was agreed upon. Julian told me afterwards I was green. Like, Shrek green. In some countries, where induced labour is not allowed while a baby’s heartbeat exists, her life and mine could have been extinguished the same day. This in itself has actually given me a new strength and a positive lease of life. I’m embracing every opportunity and refocusing on some of the important things in my world. I have three fabulous step children and a great network of industry colleagues, friends and family around me whose comforting words, hugs, cards and even - in this technical world - texts and emails, were all so welcome in my time of need.
And I have found great solace in sharing stories and hearing others’ - it’s incredible how many people came forward to share stories of their own losses with me. TV presenter Amanda Holden said her relationship strengthened and I can only imagine at Lily Allen’s recent wedding to Sam Cooper, where the couple announced they are expecting again after her late miscarriage just last November, they celebrated their lost baby in some way too.
We buried Rosie beside my father. Many people besides me grieved at the church, which was very private and just perfect. My mother was emotional and told me she was re-living the grief for her own lost babies. I’d no idea. My husband carried Rosie’s little white box. It seemed so fragile. She was just 3lb at birth and much lighter again in death. My eldest stepdaughter Sasha, who had held her at the hospital too, understood more than her siblings, but they all lost a little sister and I wonder how or if they’ll remember her?
Next month, on the day of my proposed baby shower, I’m having a girls’ get together at my house as a thank you for my friends’ support. I’m also planning to make the occasion a fund raiser, so instead of bringing along a bottle of wine or box of chocolates, I’m asking guests to donate to charity.
Who knows, maybe I too will be pregnant again? Maybe I won’t. Rosie’s loss is immense and everlasting but I have her little foot and hand prints on my wall and a grave, beside my father’s, to visit.
A report in medical journal The Lancet placed the UK 33rd out of 35 Western countries for stillbirth rates. And this is just not good enough, considering the causes are mostly preventable and countries like Australia have reduced rates by up to 80% through increased research, routine testing and extra scanning.
The national charity Sands (Stillbirth and Neo Natal Death) campaigns for government research to develop new ways of screening pregnancies to find out which babies are more at risk… and to save their lives. Locally, mum Jillian Gilmore is leading the way in raising awareness of the risks with Group B Streptococcus, which is a common germ found in the reproductive tract of 25% of women but it is a major killer of unborn and new born babies (although this was not the cause of death for Rosie). Recently, Jillian met with Michelle Gildernew who was very supportive although after writing to Edwin Poots, he came back to say he didn't agree with routine testing. But the road is long and even if awareness helps pregnant mums ask for tests and extra screening, then at least we are perhaps a couple of babies away from another stillbirth statistic.