While the vast majority of the roughly 300 people who go to the Bonnyville Hospital to give birth leave with their babies a short time later, an average of 1-3 families every year experience a stillbirth locally and don’t get to bring their babies home at all.
To better care for those families, the Bonnyville Health Centre has purchased a CuddleCot, a cooling device that can be placed in a bassinet.
“Families ordinarily may only be able to spend a few hours with their baby. This is a key piece of equipment in supporting families after the loss of a baby; allowing extra time, slowing down the necessity to make decisions quickly, which they may regret, and allowing more families the chance to grieve in their own way,” said Karen Diaper, a communications manager with Covenant Health.
According to Diaper, providing the opportunity to spend time with a still-born baby is an important part of the bereavement process for those parents.
“There is a limited window of time for bereaved parents to create precious memories, which helps facilitate the grieving and healing process, and this cot further extends this time. Time allows the family to form an important bond with their baby, whether changing a diaper, dressing the baby, taking photographs or simply just staying close, helping families in dealing with their loss.”
Photographer Ashley Hempel has firsthand experience with that process. Her son Sawyer was stillborn at 39 weeks gestation in 2014. Most babies are born between 37 and 41 weeks gestation. Losses prior to 20 weeks gestation are termed spontaneous abortions or miscarriages, while deaths after 20 weeks are termed stillbirths.
‘He was so wanted and it’s so unfair’
According to Hempel, who spoke openly about her experience with perinatal loss in an interview on The Jena Colbourne Show last week, Sawyer had an extremely long, hyper-coiled umbilical cord.
“It was a genetic defect, an abnormality of some sort that none of the other kids had. And so what they believe happened is that he compressed his cord. And you have about 24 hours roughly from the time that they compress their cord before they pass away,” said Hempel.
Because of the role social media plays in her business, Hempel felt compelled to share the news about Sawyer shortly after returning home and posted a photo of her son with a request for space to grieve.
“I definitely didn’t intend it to be helping a community of women go through anything. I was like, this is what happened and we loved him so much. And he was so wanted and it’s so unfair that he’s gone,” said Hempel.
She said many women reached out to talk to her about their losses and in the years since and she’s observed changes in how the community responds to pregnancy loss.
“It’s a lot more sensitive now versus before where it was kind of like, you had a spontaneous abortion or whatever it was that they would call it. And now it’s a little bit more tender. So that’s nice. But I definitely believe that Sawyer’s story did open up conversations about prenatal loss and stillbirth,” said Hempel.
She said two other babies were stillborn around the same time.
“But this is something that happens way more frequently than anybody thinks about,” said Hempel.
According to Statistics Canada, around 8.6 per 1,000 total births are stillbirths. In Alberta, that number is approximately 6.1 stillbirths per 1,000 births.
“The other thing is when you have a baby at 39 weeks that is stillborn, you’ve still got to deliver your baby. So I had to be induced, and I had to deliver my baby.”
“And I think that’s one of the hardest realities that people don’t realize. Probably around 19-20 weeks [gestation] that you do have to deliver your baby, you are induced to go through labour, you go through all of that,” said Hempel.
She said she’s really excited about the CuddleCots because one of the hardest things when Sawyer was born was “he just looked like a little sleeping angel. Like he was perfect. There was nothing wrong with him. And then within a few hours he started to change. And that’s the reality of what happens.”
According to Diaper, Covenant Health is very proud of their perinatal loss program at the Bonnyville Health Centre.
She said it includes extensive education for the nursing staff caring for families experiencing that loss, Indigenous Cultural Support, and spiritual care for blessing or naming ceremonies and counselling.
She said the hospital is connected with Alberta Angel Dresses, a group of volunteers who make garments for stillborn children from donated wedding gowns.
“This program provides comfort for families by providing a beautiful gown for final photos and for burial services. There is no greater gift that can be given to a grieving family than affirming the importance of the life of their child by offering this simple gift,” said Diaper.
They are also connected with the Twinkle Star Project, which provides baskets of handmade items
“They ensure families are given time to properly cradle their babies close to them. With our baskets, families are reminded that someone is thinking of them and their circumstances during an extremely difficult time and that holding their baby close is a beautiful extension of their love for them,” said Diaper.
The hospital also has special wooden memory boxes for early miscarriages and loss.
Perinatal loss packages include literature, resources and community supports and access to local bereavement photography, which Hempel is now a part of.
“I’ve done stillbirth photos four times now. And every time I feel like it’s giving Sawyer’s life a little bit of meaning, because if I hadn’t lost him, I wouldn’t be doing this,” said Hempel.
Since losing Sawyer, Hempel has gone on to have two more healthy children. Both pregnancies were extremely hard on her emotionally after the trauma of Sawyer’s death. She said one thing which was really helpful for her during both was an app called Count the Kicks.
Count the Kicks reminds pregnant mothers to record their baby’s movements each day and logs the information so users can see patterns and call their doctor or care provider if there’s a significant change.
“The nice thing about this is that for women like me who were like ‘Well I don’t want to go in because I think I’m wasting the doctor’s time.’ If you have a baseline showing that your baby is super active, you can get to these 10 kicks within 15 seconds which is pretty frequent during active times and then you have a day where that’s not happening. It’s not that they’re more likely to take you seriously, they’re going to take you seriously regardless, but it’s something for you to feel like you have a reason to go in, that you have a reason to advocate and you’re not wasting people’s time,” said Hempel.