Saturday 25 November 2017

'Four days from my due date we had lost our baby' - mother describes agony of stillbirth

Liz Ahern, her son Conor, and her husband Paul.
Liz Ahern, her son Conor, and her husband Paul.

Liz Ahern

My pregnancy was complication free. There was no reason to think anything was likely to go wrong. I work as a child protection social worker, based in Cork and living just outside the city. Since having Cathal though, I haven’t returned to my post.

I have a wonderful husband Paul who is an electrician and we got married on 16th March 2017. We have a boy, Conor, who turned 4 in August and is Cathal's big brother.

When we found out we were pregnant with Cathal it was a surprise. As with every person going through pregnancy, you are anxious for the first number of weeks until you have your scans and check-ups. We didn’t want to tell anyone. As times progresses, your anxiety subsides as the initial high risk period passes.  For us, the pregnancy did not show any issues. Cathal was initially meant to be a twin. However the twin did not survive to full term, and was lost in the early part of the pregnancy.

As the weeks passed we began to bring the idea to Conor that he will be a big brother, and explain what that will mean. Conor was excited and it was starting to all feel real for us, a growing family.

The due date was the beginning of June, so we prepared ourselves for the upcoming arrival.  I attended every check-up with the hospital and my doctor. Everything was normal and they were happy with the baby’s weight.

The week I was due, I attended my doctor for my final check-up and he told me that 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.

It was all so strange. The previous week everything was fine. My baby was kicking and the heartbeat was regular. I rang my husband immediately and told him what had happened and 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 in to a situation that I already felt wouldn't have a positive outcome.

The staff in the CUMH emergency room were so 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. 

This wait was the longest wait we have ever had to go through. Even though we knew the outcome, we still had 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 auto pilot.

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 feel asleep with him there, I woke up with him there, I prepared for my visit to the hospital, with him there.

We had to be at the labour ward for 2pm the next day, Wednesday 25th May. We arrived unsure of what was ahead of us. I will never be able to speak highly enough of the nurses and staff in Ward 4 who helped us through what can only be described 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.  A lovely understanding nurse from West Cork spoke to me about Féileacáin and the service they provide to still born parents and families. I initially did not want to avail of any service, only wanted to know how the delivery was going to be done.

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 25th May 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 vunerable.

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 breath.  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 still are only just existing.

A cuddle cot was provided to us through Féileacáin - 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/finger printing kit and a candle. The following morning I remember making phone calls arranging Cathal's cremation and writing out the plaque for his coffin. 

Both Paul and I had decided not to tell anyone about Cathal's birth as we wanted to keep the precious few days we would have with him to ourselves. 

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 got to spend a night at home with his brother and parents. This is something we will be forever grateful to have had. We had photos taken by the photography ‘As I Lay me Down’ in the hospital. This is a service 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 seems so natural to want take a photo of a new born baby, and they are now everlasting memories of precious beautiful baby boy.

Cathal was taken to the Island Crematorium, the most peaceful tranquil place. We cannot thank them enough for everything they did for us, in particular Frank. 

We collected Cathal's ashes on Monday. It’s an understatement to say the previous 6 days were a whirlwind hurricane. Instead of bringing home a healthy newborn baby boy, we were bringing Cathal home to live with us in an urn.

Days, weeks, months passed and I don't think that there’s a moment where I am not reliving it. We found it important to mark occasions by including Cathal.

We released balloons into the sky and lanterns with written messages to him. This is still an important part of our lives such as holidays, birthdays, celebrations and something that’s very important for Conor to partake in.

The support we received from our families, friends, hospital and Féileacáin and continue to receive will never go unappreciated; we don't know where to start to repay the kindness. There is a small group of people that we will be eternally grateful to who brushed over their own lives to help prop us up, the emotional courage these people showed our family was amazing.

Paul and I had arranged to get married 16th March 2017 and decided to go ahead with the wedding. It kept me occupied for the months after Cathal.

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 vile of some of Cathal's ashes and they were sent to Istanbul to be incorporated into our rings.  They documented the process for us and when the rings were ready, sent us photos.

Our wedding day arrived. 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.  

The taboo around stillbirth, although diminished, still has a stigma surrounding it. 

From our experience, we have learnt of so many couples that this has happened to and 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 and sit on the couch with your family and understand what happened. And 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. 

Its 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 learnt to appreciate every moment with each other and Conor.  We have learnt more than we ever realised from Cathal - not everyone needs to live a life to change the world. 

Emotional courage is something that should be commended for people who dare to show it.  We learnt what true friendship was and the importance of having real friends in our lives.

Our future, well, who knows what it holds.

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