Born Still but Still Born
13 April 2015 | by Emma Hansen
This is not the story I had been drafting in my mind over the weeks leading up to our due date. I was imagining excited phone calls, a joyous labor, and my crying baby on my chest at the end of it all. But this story still needs to be written and shared as it would have had it played out to my most perfect plan. For though he was born still, he was still born. This is for you my darling Reid.
I woke up at 9:30am on Good Friday, April 3rd, feeling like I usually did in the later weeks of my pregnancy. A bit tired but filled with anticipation thinking that today just might be the day. Baby hadn’t moved yet, but I pushed any concerns I had to the back of my mind as I went about my morning routine. Besides, he had been his usual self, lovingly kicking my right ribs well past midnight until I finally fell asleep. I had my breakfast, relaxed, and drank a cup of orange juice to try and wake him up. Only he didn’t. Usually eating got him squirming away in there, and I was starting to worry. I lay down for about an hour, gently rubbing my belly and waiting for a response. Nothing. It was at 11:00am that I finally called for Aaron to come help me use our Doppler – I’m so thankful that he was home from work because of the long weekend. Those moments on our bed as we tried to pick up his heartbeat were the first of what would be a string of painfully slow pockets of time over the next days. When we couldn’t find anything I immediately paged our prenatal care program, South Community Birth Program, and explained what was going on. The midwife on call, Liz Ryan, calmly asked us to come in to get monitored, but she kept assuring us that babies tend to slow down right before delivery. I held on to those words as tightly as I could.
Aaron and I ran out the door and made the longest 10-minute drive to BC Women’s Hospital, arriving at around 11:30am. As we walked through the labor and delivery doors I kept thinking that this wasn’t how we should be walking through these doors for the first time. I convinced myself that I was probably just over worrying, there was nothing wrong with my little boy. But by the time we were in admitting I could feel my panic rising – I still hadn’t felt my baby move. Finally, a nurse brought us to the side and started using the Doppler, asking me what position baby was usually in and when I’d last felt him move. It must have only been a minute that she looked, but it was the longest minute of my life. I watched this nurse’s face the entire time, all the while clutching Aaron’s hand, and her expression went from fresh and confident to very panicked during those 60 seconds. I knew something was wrong.
The nurse then took us into a private room to be hooked up to a stronger monitoring system. Her hands trembled and she bit her lip as she fidgeted with the straps around my belly and hooked up my own pulse monitor. The bpm were reading 130, which would have been a relief had it not been in sync with my own heart rate. This sent the alarms sounding, which then raised my heart rate to 150. This is when Liz finally made it into the room. She turned off the alarms and tried to get me to calm down, but I couldn’t. How could I when my life was unraveling right before my eyes? I knew where this was heading and I just needed everything to stop. I prayed to God for a second heartbeat to suddenly appear, but there was just mine. I looked to Aaron and for that moment time stood still, just for a second, and we braced ourselves for what was to come.
A resident wheeled in the portable ultrasound machine to take a look at our baby, she said it would be much quicker at picking up his heartbeat than the Dopplers. She turned on the screen, found his heart, and paused. I saw that it was still – I knew what this meant, but I couldn’t believe that this was actually happening. I willed his heart to start beating. The resident asked for the attending, Dr. Lim, as she kept the ultrasound firmly positioned on his heart. Dr. Lim arrived, and the resident asked for confirmation that she had the ultrasound on the heart. He replied yes and asked her to turn on the blood flow imaging. And then she spoke the worst words I’ll ever hear:
“Ok. I have the ultrasound focused on his heart now. Do you see that? It’s not moving. And there’s no red and blue to signify blood flow. I’m so sorry, but your baby is dead.”
All I remember next was collapsing into Aaron’s arms as we both sobbed over my belly. Our son was dead and there was this overwhelming pain washing over me like I’d never felt before. Nurses and doctors buzzed around us and slowly trickled out of the room as we rubbed my stomach and begged our boy to kick – just one more time. The sorrow I felt in that moment is something I’ll never be able to put into words. Oh how I ached for the power to turn back the clock to the night before when we could have rushed to the hospital to get him out safely. He lived for 39 weeks and 6 days in my womb, and it didn’t seem possible for him to just stop living one day before his due date. One day.
At around 1:00pm Aaron called our parents. Hearing him make those calls broke my heart into a million more pieces, and I didn’t think I could face the pain on our families’ faces when they arrived. But looking back now I see that it was their support through being there that helped carry us through. So with our loved ones by our side we let the doctors back in to talk us through what we needed to do next.
Dr. Lim took us to get a detailed ultrasound to try to determine the cause of death. We walked through the hospital to the ultrasound wing; the same one we had been through 20 weeks earlier to find out we were having a boy. After some searching, Dr. Lim found that my placenta was pale and that there was also a tiny bit of fluid around his heart. But he said both of those things were also common postmortem. He then offered us some counsel on how to proceed; he said that we most likely would never find out what happened. That it’s a sad part of life that sometimes babies just pass for no medical reason, and being dragged through months of tests and autopsies would be more painful than we realized right now. But he said the choice was absolutely ours, and left us by saying that the chance of this happening to us again was like getting hit by lightening twice. We shouldn’t fear the future.
Then the high risk OB, Dr. Gupta, came in to talk to us about our options. All of them involved me having to deliver our dead baby naturally, and that was something I didn’t think I’d ever have the strength for. I kept thinking how it was so unfair of them not to offer me a C-section. How could any woman get through birthing her lifeless child? But it was my new reality that this was something I had to do. So I chose to have the Cervadil inserted (to soften my cervix) over the oxytocin drip (to induce labor) so that we could go home and rest and prepare for what was to come. Dr. Gupta told us we were to come in the next morning to get a repeat dose and that they’d only start me on the oxytocin once I was starting to dilate.
We got back to our apartment with all of our family at 5:00pm. My parents, my sisters, Aaron’s parents and Aaron’s sister and boyfriend all came to support us and share in our grief as we waited. We weren’t sure how to go about waiting for something that could take days, so we put Friends on in the background and sat in silence. It was such a surreal time. I just stared at the TV and tried to make sense of why this was happening to us. What had we done to deserve this? Why did it have to be our baby? How could this be God’s plan for us?
My body must have been very near labor already because it was less than an hour after we’d arrived home that I started contracting. They began mild but were immediately around 3 minutes apart and constantly building in strength. I continued to sit on the couch, wrestling with my racing mind, until 9:00pm when I could no longer ignore them. They were coming in strong and every 1.5 minutes. I knew it was all starting. We said our goodbyes to family and started to prepare for the labor and delivery of our sweet baby boy.
At 10:00pm my contractions suddenly became intense and painful. I wasn’t sure I should be in full-blown labor this quickly so Aaron paged the hospital. Susie Schulz, our midwife, picked up and told us that sometimes Cervadil can cause quick and false contractions like this. She suggested taking it out, hopping into the bath, and then getting some sleep before we were to come back in the morning. But the bath didn’t help – my labor was very real and very productive, and I was in indescribable pain. I couldn’t make it through my contractions without clutching Aaron’s hand as if it were my lifeline. We kept praying through the pain – praying that the doctors were wrong and that our little boy would come out and take his first breath. We held out hope that there was some miracle in store for us through the powerful connection of our baby’s passing on the same day Jesus was crucified.
The plan was still to labor at home for as long as possible, so Aaron called our doula, Jill Colpitts, and asked her to make her way over. My contractions continued at 1.5 minutes apart and lasted for 60 seconds, only giving me 30 seconds of rest inbetween. My body was working so efficiently and so quickly that the contractions soon became too unbearable. Looking back, I’m honestly not sure where that pain came from; I think it was mostly emotional. Regardless, I couldn’t take it anymore. So by 10:50pm we were off to the hospital with Jill in hot pursuit.
At 11:00pm we reached admitting at BC Women’s Hospital again. The nurse who greeted us smiled and cheerfully asked if I was contracting. I said that I was but that we were here under different circumstances, which she would find when she looked up my name. She looked at me, confused, and asked again if I was in labor. She said I would need to sit and wait to be admitted. I couldn’t believe her. How did she not know what had happened? How had the whole world not stopped to grieve with us. I shouted at her and told her that my baby had died, that I had been induced, and that I needed to be seen right away. Another nurse quickly appeared and took us into the admitting room where we waited through agonizing contractions for our midwife to get there and transfer me to a birthing room. I asked for pain relief, whatever they could give me. They wheeled in some sorry looking nitrous oxide with a broken hose. I tried it for 3 contractions and gave up. It didn’t do anything for the pain and it only restricted my breathing, which was labored and quick at that point. Our doula put the TENS machine on, but because I was already in full-blown labor it didn’t have time to work. So I did what I swore I wouldn’t do and I asked for an epidural, because even though I wanted so badly to have a natural birth it was all too much. The exhaustion, the emotional toll, the physical pain, and the mental agony were all at levels beyond what I could handle, and if I was going to finish this I needed just a few minutes to regain an ounce of strength. They said it might be too late but that they would still administer it when we got to the room if that’s what I wanted.
Susie, our midwife, arrived in admitting at around midnight, April 4th, and immediately performed a cervical check. I was already about 7cm dilated. So she went off to speed up our admitting process and was able to get us into cedar, the beautiful birthing suites on the second floor. Into a wheelchair I went and we rushed up to the room, speeding over bumps as I breathed through my contractions.
At 1:30am the anesthesiologist came in to administer my epidural. He was young, a resident, but he was so calm and confident that I felt myself start to relax. I was already fully dilated, and I could feel baby’s head right there, but I knew that if I had just a few minutes to breathe that everything would be alright. He numbed a patch on my spine, inserted the epidural catheter, and started the drip. I felt the cool rush of fluid pass through the tubes over my shoulder and breathed over the next few contractions. As they started to slow down I was able to catch my breath. I brought myself back into the room and noticed an unforgettable calm. Our midwife, our doula, and the labor nurse were surrounding us, steadily going about their jobs. There was no fussing, no panic, no rush. There was this peace that could only have been placed there by God. It’s strange to say, but the rest of the birth was turned into what I can only describe as a beautiful experience.
My waters broke in a Hollywood-esque gush shortly after the epidural. With one quick check Susie quietly said that it was time to start pushing, if I was ready. I looked to Aaron and tears filled my eyes. This was it. We were about to bring our son into the world, and then too quickly have to say goodbye. I looked at the clock, it was 2:00am on our due date, and gripped Aaron’s hand as I nodded in response. I started to breathe my baby down and out, fully aware of each movement as I gently pushed through each contraction. Jill kept assuring me that I was doing an incredible job; my body was clearly made for this as everything was stretching perfectly. Then finally, a few pushes later, there was relief. At 2:24am on April 4th, 2015 our beautiful son, Reid Richard VandenBrink, was born sleeping.
We spent the next moments poring over every flawless inch of his strong body. Reid was the perfect mixture of us both. Aaron’s nose, head shape, and long fingers and toes – he would have been tall. My eyes, dimpled chin, and shock of black hair. I know I’m biased but he was the most beautiful baby I’d ever seen. These memories are both the happiest and the most painful I’ll ever know, and there’ll never be enough of them.
Then we heard Susie say the words we never thought we’d hear:
“We know what happened.”
Closure. Reid’s death was caused by a tight true knot in his cord. Knots are rare, and only in exceptionally rare circumstances are they fatal. We were told he must have done a few summersaults when he was younger and tied it when he was very small – it was so close to his body. Then when he dropped in preparation for his birth it slowly started to tighten. Our little monkey, he was having too much fun in there. My heart felt heavy knowing what had happened. On one hand it brought a small bit of relief to know it wasn’t something we did or didn’t do. Knots are undetectable. But that same knowledge brought tremendous grief through the realization that his passing from this knot happened completely out of our control. We couldn’t have protected him from this.
So it was with an answer to “how?” that Aaron called our parents to announce his birth and ask to have the family and loved ones we wanted to meet him come by. My parents arrived less than an hour after Reid’s birth – before everyone else was to come in the morning. Finding the words to describe what I felt as I watched them lay eyes on him for the first time is difficult. I filled with pride as they gushed over how perfect he was, and commented on which of us he looked like and why. Then fell apart as they too mourned the loss of a life they held close to their hearts. I started to realize what a huge impact our son had made in his short life, and it was soothing to know that while it was not the same pain, many were grieving his passing. We were not alone in this loss.
It was so hard to look everyone in the eye as they arrived at our room. This is exactly what would have happened had Reid been safely delivered into our arms – family and friends gathering at our bedside to welcome our son into the world with celebration. My stomach churned as I kept realizing that it was with sorrow that they came to us. It wasn’t fair. But seeing Reid in the arms of both sets of grandparents, his great grandma, his aunties, and his honorary aunty and uncles felt right. I just wish Reid could’ve been held by more. Watching Aaron hold our son was one of the greatest memories of them all though. His love, his pain, his pride. They were all written on his face. A father’s love for his son bursting into the room. I don’t ever want to forget that.
There was a time when Aaron was asleep on the couch next to my bed, my parents were sleeping in the corner by the window, and I was lying there with my precious boy in my arms. When I closed my eyes I could so easily pretend that Reid was just sleeping, that any second now he’d wiggle the way he did in my belly or cry out to be fed. I mourned all of the “could have been’s” while I memorized the weight of his body in my arms. He was born on his due date, on a full moon, and as an Aries in the year of the ram. It didn’t seem fair to me that such a life couldn’t be lived with his parents by his side. I know I’ll never understand why God chose his precious soul to be by His side so soon, but I find some comfort in knowing that the first face Reid saw was His. And though I want so desperately to see him grow up and to discover his personality, in a way I already have. He was mischevious and playful, constantly stretching out my right rib cage. He was an old soul, I felt it from his first movements and I knew it the instant I saw his face – he looked so wise, so peaceful. Our boy.
If it were ever possible to see the light in this situation, it’s through the power Reid has had in our community and well beyond it. His reach through the lives he’s touched is mind-blowing, and it means so much to us to know that he has made such an impact with his brief time on this earth. He is loved fervently by far more than just his parents and that brings us peace. We want to thank you all for reaching out to us with condolences, prayers, words of strength, poems, verses, and your own similar stories. We’ve been reading them from the start and they are helping us navigate this difficult time. We are broken, and we have been forever changed. We don’t know why this is God’s plan for us, and though this pain will never go away we are holding fast to His promise that this is not the end. With Reid in our hearts we will learn how to live out this new plan – as the family of three that we became on April 4th, 2015.