Sunday, December 09, 2007

We said hello ... and goodbye

Charlotte couple talk about the day their child was stillborn, and what they learned

We woke up on Sept. 4 excited: We were 33 weeks pregnant and starting our birth classes that night.

Our daughter and first child, Porter Ann, would be arriving in just six weeks.

We had an easy pregnancy, though we'd begun feeling a little uneasy that morning because the baby wasn't moving. But Porter Ann had never been very active in the womb, and the doctor had previously checked and said everything seemed fine.

Sandra called the doctor that morning from work, and they told her to come in immediately. We each drove from work to meet at the doctor's. We both were scared.

In the examining room, a nurse tried to listen to the heartbeat. She couldn't detect one.

The doctor came in. "Don't panic," she said. She took over, and we were still holding on to a little hope everything would be OK. After a few quick tests, the doctor turned to us: "I'm sorry," she said, "I can't find a heartbeat."

We were both crying. Porter Ann had died.

This couldn't be happening

What came next is hard to describe. It felt as if we were looking down from above watching the incident unfold in the exam room. This couldn't be happing to us.Somber and sympathetic, the doctor and staff left to give us time alone. Over the next 30 minutes, we simply sat in that room and held each other. We had no idea what was going on.

All we could think about was that we had just lost our precious little girl. We had just finished painting the nursery and hung curtains a friend had made for us. Porter Ann's clothes were folded in a dresser waiting for her.

The doctor came back in. Sandra could have a C-section, she explained, or deliver the baby vaginally. She said that would be best because Sandra could go home that night and recover much quicker. But she said that if Sandra couldn't handle the experience emotionally, she could have a C-section.

We were horrified by the thought of having Sandra go through labor to deliver our dead daughter. Wasn't it bad enough that we had just lost our little girl?

"I can't do it," Sandra said.

Having a C-section seemed like the lesser of two unthinkable choices. We went back and forth. Ryan was bothered by the idea of surgery. And Sandra wanted to get through this as quickly as possible. That meant a vaginal birth.

We made the decision and headed home to get a few things.

As we left the examining room, there were a few shaken staffers along the hall. As we walked by, one whispered: "I'm sorry."

A trip never dreamed of

At home, we packed a bag and made arrangements for our black Newfoundland, Max. We started calling family, all from out of town, to let them know Porter Ann had died.

For 8 1/2 months we dreamed about the day our daughter would be born. What route would we take to the hospital? How nervous and excited would we be? Instead, we were making the trip like this.

When we got there, they induced the birth and we spent the next 19 hours waiting for Porter Ann to arrive. Family started showing up, and we did what we could to get through the time.

Porter Ann was born still at 9:25 a.m. on Wednesday Sept. 5.

They took her away for a few minutes and then brought her back wrapped in a blanket. Before that moment, we had no idea whether we should hold her. How could we bear to look upon our little girl while she was lying there lifeless?

Ryan worried: Would it be morbid? Sandra wondered: Would it be too painful? Should we try to distance ourselves from her and spare ourselves from becoming too attached?

We soon realized that we were already attached. She was a part of our lives, and we needed to hold her, to look upon her beautiful little face. She had her daddy's eyes and her mommy's nose.

Holding Porter Ann was the most horrible moment in our lives. And the greatest.

We held her for 15 or 20 minutes. We hugged her and kissed her, trying to take in every detail and memorize every little feature so that we would forever have her pictured in our minds. We said hello ... and goodbye.

We left the hospital that afternoon carrying a memory box containing only a few photographs, her hand and foot prints, and a pretty little dress donated by Calvary Baptist Church.

Several tests were performed to discover why Porter Ann died. The results have all come back normal and ruled out any genetic, chromosomal and various other common causes. It appears we will never know why we lost her, which makes her death all the more difficult to accept.

Going on without her

We spent the next two weeks at home, visiting with family and taking time for ourselves. Friends and colleagues brought food and a few called to check on us regularly. We both eased back into our daily lives, where more difficulty awaited. We started to receive social calls from friends again, and even mustered up enough strength to go out to dinner a few times. At work, we spent hours simply staring at computer screens. Attending social events such as children's birthday parties or meeting with friends to watch a football game proved to be trying.

Many people left us alone. A few offered their condolences, but most steered clear of contact during these past few months. Others would carry on and talk with us as if nothing had happened. They either didn't want to hurt us, didn't know what to say or were afraid of saying the wrong thing, which a few did.

Several well-meaning people said: "You can try again." Many people asked Ryan: "How is Sandra doing?" as if she was the only person grieving.

Others clearly expected that this was something they felt we could get over quickly and move on with our lives.

As parents, we will never "get over" the loss of our daughter. We will think about her every day and always hold her in our hearts. Another child will never be able to replace her. Nothing will ever erase the hopes we had for Porter Ann. And nothing can ease the pain of a lifetime of memories that will never be created.

Finding solace, comfort

We spend most of our time now reading books, attending conferences and surfing the Internet to educate ourselves about stillbirth.

We have found much solace and comfort from the many others who share in our pain through the MISS Foundation, a nonprofit support group for grieving families who have lost a child of any age. We look back now on those two days with many regrets and a lot of what-ifs. There was just so much we didn't know. And some things we wish we had done differently.

We would have held Porter Ann longer. We would have bathed her, we would have dressed her, we would have invited friends and family members to come visit her.

We would have taken dozens of pictures and we would have had a clergy member come and baptize her. What sounded morbid to us at the time, we now realize, are healthy ways to grieve.

But most of all, we would have spent more than those brief 15 to 20 minutes that we did spend with her. We would have spent another night in the hospital and had her sleep by our side.

What's ahead

This hasn't shaken our desire for starting a family. In fact, we feel the need more than ever now. But we need to heal and grieve for Porter Ann first before trying again.

In the meantime, we think of her often and love to talk about her and share our story with others. She will always be our daughter.

The need for awareness

In October, we traveled to Washington and met with U.S. Rep. Sue Myrick, R-N.C., and staff members for N.C. senators Elizabeth Dole and Richard Burr to discuss stillbirth advocacy.

Since then, we've been told Myrick has joined the Caucus on Infant Health and Survival.

There is still so much effort and awareness needed.

The number of stillbirths can also be reduced by education, research and funding.

The Stillbirth Collaborate Research Network, a five-year, $15 million dollar research project currently being conducted by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, needs additional funding to complete its goals of addressing classification of stillbirth deaths and risk factors, with an ultimate goal of prevention. Without additional federal funding, the data collected over the past five years by this research team may not be analyzed to its fullest potential.

Information on stillbirth advocacy

• KinderMourn of Charlotte: provides support for families experiencing the death of a child:

To make a donation to the Porter Ann Doherty Memorial Fund, visit the First Candle Organization at

Type in "Porter Ann Doherty Mem. Fund" in the "In Memory" field

All donations will go to research for stillbirths.

A changing society

Twenty years ago, doctors and nurses rarely allowed parents to see or hold their stillborn children, leaving the parents to grieve internally. But due in part to the effort of parents like the Dohertys, society and the medical community's view of how to deal with stillbirths has changed. Many now recognize the importance of grieving openly for a stillborn baby and recognizing them as lost children.

How to react

Common misconceptions or hurtful comments that the couple experienced or heard from other parents:

You'll have another child.

At least you didn't get to know him/her.

It's better this way; the child didn't suffer.

It wasn't meant to be.

You should move on or get over the loss.

Things you can say or do to help a family whose child was stillborn:

Ask about their child.

Listen to them talk about their child.

It's OK to speak the child's name.

Call or write often; don't shy away. Bereaved parents need support.

Share your own feelings of grief and pain over the loss.

Do not expect parents to "not think about it" or to "be happy."


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