Stillbirth still happens. And it actually happens a lot.
Why didn’t I know this? Why didn’t I know that this didn’t end in the Victorian era? Why didn’t I know that some babies don’t make it, even in the third trimester? Why didn’t I know that it could happen to me? Maybe I did know, but I had blocked this knowledge out, as it was just too horrific to consider. Maybe I knew, but thought that it only happened to people who had high risk factors.
But maybe I didn’t really know because no one talks about it.
To the outside world, I am a fairly regular person: married, house, good job, healthy. But I am also a tragic statistic. My beautiful daughter Orla was born asleep at 37+2 weeks and I have entered the world of knowing first hand that full term stillbirth exists. I am in the club that no one wants to be in.
In 2015, I survived a ruptured ectopic pregnancy. After 48 hours of agony, confusion (I didn’t know I was pregnant), bleeding and emergency surgery, I was back at home, minus one fallopian tube, trying to make sense of what had just happened. I was that statistic – the 1 in 80-90 pregnancies that doesn’t quite make it to where it should be. The surgeon was reassuring; yes, my risk of a repeat ectopic had increased and yes, my fertility had reduced, but I was informed that many people go on to conceive again fairly quickly and I would have early scans in all future pregnancies to try to prevent the risk of a rupture again. And that was that. Dissolvable stitches, wait at least one month before trying again and no need for a follow up.
Just four months later, we were overjoyed to find out that I was pregnant again. Early scans were undertaken and everything was where it should be. Then came the fear that every expectant mother has – the fear of a potential miscarriage. But the 12-week scan came and reassuringly all was well and the relief of being out of the ‘danger zone’ meant that we were able to share our happy news. From then on, everything was perfect – the 20-week scan showed that our longed for baby was developing well and by 30 weeks we began to feel that we were on the home straight. Obviously we knew that it wouldn’t be ideal if our baby arrived 10 weeks early, but we felt hopeful that everything was going to be okay. Our 36-week scan again showed our baby developing everything within the normal range and then we were on the countdown to meeting him or her.
But just five days later, we were told the devastating news that our baby had died.
It is almost impossible to put into words how completely and utterly devastating it is to look at the ultrasound monitor and see no movement where there should be. Where there was movement and a heartbeat five days before. To hear the words “I’m so sorry”. This is not covered in the pregnancy apps or in the NCT sessions. It wasn’t in any of the books I had read. I did not know that almost half of all stillbirths occur in healthy, low risk mothers and babies. I did not know that this could happen to someone like me.
A friend said to me a few months ago that I was a model pregnant woman; I had done everything I should have – I’d given up alcohol before conceiving, taken supplements, attended three yoga classes a week, ate the right foods, avoided the wrong foods, attended a hypnobirthing course and practiced regularly. I had experienced a smooth and wonderful pregnancy. But I was suddenly that 1 in 200.
I think I must have had an abstract idea that not all babies come home from hospital; that many are born unwell or become sick soon after birth. But my mind had never allowed me to register that sometimes babies that are full term, babies that have nothing at all wrong with them, can die before they have even taken their first breath. And that for over half of these babies, no cause of death will be found.
Once you are delivered that heartbreaking and life altering blow, your brain has to compute that you will need to give birth to your baby, knowing the devastating silence that you will be faced with. People often joke that ‘birth plans never go to plan’ but my carefully worded ‘birth preferences’ document had not even considered this possibility. I was told that a natural birth was my only option and that I would be offered every type of pain relief to make it as comfortable as possible. I refused it all initially – I wanted to use the strategies that I had practiced so hard and I wanted to retain some of the hopes I’d had of a natural, drug free hypnobirth. Not only that, but the physical pain helped me to feel real and not completely detached and out of control. There was also an element of self-punishment, a sense that I deserved to feel pain as I had let my baby and everyone around me down. I deserved to suffer.
After 24 hours, exhaustion took hold and I relented and had every drug on offer. The calm of the epidural meant that we were able to grab some sleep and four hours later, I was told that I could start to push. I have reflected on this moment over and over again; there was a palpable shift in atmosphere as if we were suddenly faced with the reality and gravity of what awaited us. I didn’t want this to end, as all the while I remained in labour, I could pretend that everything was normal and I could still be pregnant. But life was no longer normal and never would be again.
Orla’s arrival was quiet and peaceful. Everyone shed silent tears. She was handed to me and all I felt was overwhelming and unconditional love and pride for having grown and birthed such a beautiful baby. She was perfect and it was almost impossible to believe that she wasn’t just asleep. We held her, smelt her, stroked her and named her. We took photos, dressed her and informed people of her arrival. And then we had to give her back and leave the hospital empty; empty belly, empty arms, empty soul.
Stillbirth still happens and it is completely and utterly devastating and life changing. I know that I will never be the same person again and that there will be many unhappy and hard things about this; mainly the heaviness and sadness that I will always carry in my heart at having not been able to bring Orla home. However, I also know that there will be many positives that will grow from Orla’s memory. My heart feels infinitely bigger and I recognise that there are so many things that I should feel grateful for. I know that I have survived the unimaginable and in Orla’s name, I want to break the silence surrounding stillbirth so that one day fewer people will have to suffer. If we don’t talk about these tragedies, there is no motivation from the government to fund much needed research. If we don’t do research then we will continue to have one of the worst rates of stillbirth in the developed world. And that means that 11 families every single day will have to endure the torture of losing their much loved baby too as a result of stillbirth.
This is my pledge to Orla’s memory.