A CORK woman who found out four days before her due date that her baby would be ‘born sleeping’, feels there is still a stigma surrounding stillbirth.
Speaking as UCC hosts the International Stillbirth Alliance Annual Conference this week, from September 22-24, Liz Ahern said she felt completely lost and broken after her tragic loss, with the enormity of what happened only fully hitting her a year on.
Liz had enjoyed a complication-free pregnancy and after getting through those first anxious few weeks was looking forward to her expanded family as she and husband Paul were already parents to four-year-old Conor.
The child protection social worker had no reason to think anything was likely to go wrong until her final check-up on the week of her due date: “The week I was due, I attended my doctor for my final check-up and he told me he could not hear a heartbeat. I was sent straight to the CUMH emergency room.
“This is something that is not unusual towards the end of the pregnancy as the baby could be lying in an awkward position for the doctor to hear in surgery.”
And she was reassured by the fact that the previous week everything had seemed perfect.
“I rang my husband immediately and told him what had happened but said not to worry. I said I would contact him from the hospital. But as I drove further down the road, I realised I needed him to meet me in the hospital. I was scared and something didn’t feel right. We arrived at the same time and walked into a situation that I already felt wouldn’t have a positive outcome.”
Liz said the staff in the Cork University Maternity Hospital emergency room were very nice and understanding.
“I went in on my own initially and was given a scan by a nurse who asked me if I would like my husband to join me. She then called a consultant to also scan me, I knew at this point that four days from my due date we had lost our baby.
“The consultant came and I will never forget the looks I got from the staff as they scanned me. My fears were confirmed as they told me they couldn’t find a heartbeat but would wait for a more detailed scan to be conducted.”
That, Liz said, was the longest wait they ever had to endure and even though they knew the outcome, they still clung on to that ‘flicker of hope’.
“It was not until the dreaded words were spoken to me ‘I am so sorry, we cannot locate a heartbeat, your baby has died’ that I went into autopilot. Actions and events became mandatory and I continued with tasks without thinking. I really feel that I remained in this way until recently. I think it’s only now that the enormity of what we went through is hitting home.
“The silence in the room was intangible, I just stared into space. At the hospital we spoke to the doctor about what would happen next. But it hit me. I would be having a natural birth and have to endure the physical pains of labour for my baby that would not take a breath. I drove home from the hospital on my own and tried to take in what had just happened.
“Paul and I just sat in silence, we were numb. My hospital bag was packed. But now I had to go back and change it. It was meant for my healthy newborn. I lay in bed with Cathal in my tummy that night. I fell asleep with him there, I woke up with him there, I prepared for my visit to the hospital with him there.”
Liz and Paul were due at the labour ward the next day, Wednesday May 25, at 2pm — unsure of what lay ahead.
But she said they would never be able to speak highly enough of the nurses and staff in Ward 4 who helped them through what she could only describe as “a living nightmare”.
“They brought us to our room and explained what would happen over the next few hours. The thought of labour absolutely terrified me, especially knowing the outcome. I was induced at 3.30pm and waited for labour to begin. We went down to the labour ward around 9pm. I remember this so vividly because there was a live episode of Coronation Street on television - the silly things you remember. The labour ward was silent but I could hear other babies being born and the cries from them. I turned to Paul and said all we are going to have is silence. I remember the midwife asked me if I would like a radio to break the silence, which I was so grateful she gave to us.”
Cathal George Feehan was born sleeping at 11.29pm on May 25 2016.
“I had no pain relief and was so grateful to have had the experience. I feel that Cathal was there with me and it somehow made it all so easy. He was born a healthy weight and length and the image of his brother Conor.
“Paul was the first to hold him. At the time I couldn’t. I think I was afraid, I was completely and utterly vulnerable.
“The midwives were so sensitive and obliging to our mountains of questions. We had brought clothes for Cathal to be dressed in. When he was ready, I held Cathal and grasped at him as I didn’t want to let go. I spent that night awake staring at Cathal, taking in everything about him, waiting to see him breathe. How can a perfectly formed baby not take a breath and just lay there? I think that both Paul and I existed for the next couple of days, if not months, and to some extent, we are still only just existing.
“A cuddle cot was provided to us through Féileacáin (a not for profit organisation who provide support for anyone who loses a baby during or after pregnancy) which allowed us to spend extra time with Cathal both in the hospital and at home. A cuddle cot looks like a conventional Moses Basket but regulates the baby’s temperature, allowing parents to keep their baby with them for longer. We were also given a memory box from Féileacáin. This included items like a hand-knitted blanket, two teddies, a memory box, a number of cards and leaflets, a foot/fingerprinting kit and a candle. The following morning I remember making phone calls arranging Cathal’s cremation and writing out the plaque for his coffin.”
Cathal got to spend a night at home with his brother and parents before his funeral.
Liz said: “This is something we will be forever grateful to have had. We had photos taken through the service ‘As I Lay me Down’ in the hospital. This is provided by professional photographers to grieving families, giving you real memories of the time with your baby. I was dreading this whole process but afterwards was so happy to have done it. It seems so natural to want take a photo of a newborn baby, and they are now everlasting memories of a precious, beautiful baby boy.”
But she said that “arranging a child’s funeral, in particular, a baby’s, is something that no person should ever have to experience. A little piece of you dies with them, willing and almost bargaining to do anything to have them here with you. I felt so numb. I couldn’t cry like I wanted to and I was petrified to start crying as I thought I might not stop. I felt empty, lost, completely broken.
“Cathal was taken to the Island Crematorium, the most peaceful, tranquil place. We cannot thank them enough for everything they did for us. We collected Cathal’s ashes on Monday. It’s an understatement to say the previous six days were a whirlwind hurricane. Instead of bringing home a healthy new baby boy, we were bringing Cathal home to live with us in an urn.”
Time has moved on since the tragic loss of Cathal, but Liz said barely a moment passes without her reliving the experience.
“We found it important to mark occasions by including Cathal. We released balloons into the sky and lanterns with written messages to him.”
The couple had arranged to get married on March 16 last — and decided to go ahead with their plans and include him in their special day.
“When I was in hospital, I had the idea to include some of Cathal’s ashes into our wedding rings. We were lucky to find that Askoy Jeweller in Cork city were able to oblige us with this. We provided them with a small vial of some of Cathal’s ashes and they were sent to Istanbul to be incorporated into our rings.
“Cathal, along with Conor, held a special part in our day. We dedicated our first dance to Cathal. He was always going to be part of our day.”
Nearly a year later, Liz feels the taboo around stillbirth has diminished somewhat but says there’s still a stigma surrounding the experience: “From our experience, we have learned of so many couples that this has happened to and who do not speak about it. No-one tells you how to deal with the grief. No-one tells you what it’s going to be like weeks after the event; no-one tells you why you do and don’t feel sad, why you do or don’t feel depressed and most of all why you feel very, very angry.”
Liz said her relationship with electrician Paul has got stronger after what they’ve been through.
“It’s been just over a year since we lost Cathal and life doesn’t get any easier. You just find the strength to carry on. Our relationship has grown stronger because of this experience and we have learned to appreciate every moment with each other and Conor. We have learned more than we ever realised from Cathal — not everyone needs to live a life to change the world.”