Vail Daily health feature: Remembering a life not started
• Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep: www.nowilaymedowntosleep.org.
• One Moment: A support group for pregnancy and early infant loss based in the Roaring Fork Valley. www.one-moment.org.
• Kristin Anderson is interested in starting a local support group. Email High Life Editor Caramie Schnell at firstname.lastname@example.org to be put in contact with Anderson.
Aksel Anderson was born at 6:15 a.m. on June 10 in Vail, in a room overlooking Meadow Drive and the green ski mountain beyond.
He weighed 5 pounds and was 18 inches long.
Aksel didn’t catch his first breath, clench his face and fists and wail. His parents, Kristin and Kyle, cried, but they weren’t tears of joy.
Aksel had died two days earlier. Kristin, a local photographer who lives in Gypsum, stopped feeling the kicks and jabs inside her stomach to which she’d grown accustomed. She went to her doctor, who soon confirmed her deepest fear: The little boy they had watched blink on the ultrasound a month prior, had died. Just six weeks shy of his due date, the cord in Kristin’s womb was compressed, cutting off life to Aksel.
It’s called velamentous cord insertion, characterized by membranous umbilical vessels where the placenta attaches to the cord. The vessels are less protected and therefore prone to compression and rupture.
As soon as the doctor delivered Aksel and saw the cord, she knew what had happened. The doctor brought the cord back into the room later to show the Andersons. An autopsy confirmed her suspicion and also showed Aksel to be perfectly healthy otherwise, something that made the Andersons’ already grieving hearts ache all the more.
‘PRESENT WITH THE FAMILY’
Nationally, stillbirths occur in approximately 1 out of 160 births each year, or 26,000 pregnancies, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Common causes include birth defects, problems with the placenta, poor fetal growth, infections, chronic health conditions in the mother and, as in Aksel’s case, umbilical cord accidents. In Eagle County, the number of stillborn babies are even less than the national average.
“Since November 2009, we have cared for 11 patients who have experienced a fetal death at more than 20 weeks gestation. That averages out to about two per year,” said Amy Lavigne, the clinical coordinator of perinatal services at the Vail Valley Medical Center.
This year, 479 babies have been delivered at Vail Valley Medical Center.
For the nurses in the labor and delivery unit, stillborn babies are easily the most difficult part of the job, Lavigne said.
“We do our best to have that one-on-one care,” Lavigne said of nursing care for women with stillborn children. “We want to allow that nurse that time to be present with the family. Prior to delivery, we explain what to expect, what the baby might look like.”
The nurses try to keep the delivery as calm and quiet as possible, Lavigne said. And after, they encourage the family to hold the baby and spend as much time as they would like.
While not every family opts to see and hold their baby, most do, Lavigne said.
“Research shows that it helps with the grieving process to have that time and contact,” Lavigne said.
‘THE LOSS OF EVERYTHING THAT WAS TO BE’
Afterwards, the nurse takes a plaster mold of the baby’s footprints. “If there’s hair, we’ll clip a lock of hair,” Lavigne said. “We do a crib card with the baby’s name. That all goes home with the family in a keepsake box.”
An organization called Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep supplies the hospital with the molds and boxes, as well as small teddy bears and a book called “Empty Cradle, Broken Heart: Surviving the Death of Your Baby.”
“When you lose somebody, so much of the grieving process is centered around memories. When you lose the baby before it’s born, … it’s the loss of a dream and everything that was going to be.
“When you lose an older child, even a 1 year old, your people all had that connection and they’re all grieving alongside you and that’s helpful. …These parents feel so alone in their grief,” Lavigne continued.
THE HEALING PROCESS
At first the Andersons weren’t sure if they’d want to hold Aksel, but they did and Kristin says she was grateful for the opportunity.
“You had light hair that looked like it would have been bright blonde like your daddy,” Kristin wrote a few weeks after Aksel was born, in a pregnancy log she kept. “You looked a lot like your sister. Your feet were so small and cute. I would guess your eyes were blue, but I will never know.”
The couple snapped some photos at the hospital, but none were high-quality images and it was almost all they had to remember their baby by.
Through the Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep Foundation, the hospital can call Eagle photographer Wendy Griffith, who volunteers to come and take professional photos of the baby at no charge. For reasons unknown, this option wasn’t given to the Andersons when Aksel was born, and Kristin, a former photo editor at the Vail Daily, says she wishes she had known such services are available.
“We were completely caught off-guard and everything happened so fast,” Kristin said. “If it does happen to you or someone you know, seeing and holding the baby and having pictures is very important to the healing process. You don’t know what to do in this situation, and anyone who thinks they can imagine how it feels or what it would be like, can’t.”
Griffith has been involved with the Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep organization for five years now. In that time, she has taken photos of eight babies born at Valley View hospital in Glenwood Springs and Vail Valley Medical Center.
As a professional photographer, Griffith is able to contain her emotions during the photo session, she said. But later “when I am alone, editing the images, that is more difficult,” she said.
While bereavement photos were common in the 19th and early 20th centuries, they’re relatively rare today.
“For many, many people, (the photos) are priceless to them,” Griffith said. “There may be times where it takes awhile for people to even look at the photographs.
“Everyone grieves differently,” she said.
Griffith is the only volunteer in this area currently. She’s seen firsthand what important work it is.
“I’m hoping there will be others who want to help,” she said. “I do have to be on call all the time, so it would be wonderful to have another photographer to volunteer.”
For Kristin, her few photos of Aksel on her phone are treasured. She looks at them often. Many people were uncomfortable or unsure of what to say after Aksel died, but at least for Kristin, it helps to talk about her son, even though he’s gone.
“A couple times, people have come up to me and just given me a hug,” Kristin said. “And I know why they’re doing that, and they ask ‘How are you?’ But it doesn’t seem appropriate to launch into how you’re really doing.”
Some days the grief sweeps her off her feet like a wave. Other days it is manageable and life feels normal.
“It’s real, it happened,” she said. “Usually you have a baby, you post pictures on Facebook, you send out a birth announcement with their name and cute photos. I went through the whole process of being pregnant and then it was over. There’s nothing else right now. … It’s a sad ending.”
When Kyle and Kristin came home from the hospital, they struggled with what to tell their 2-year-old daughter, Anya, about what happened to her baby brother.
“People said to be honest,” Kristin said. “We told her ‘Aksel died; he’s in heaven and one day you’ll see him.’ She doesn’t understand the time concept, of course. We’ll say, ‘Anya, what do you want to do today?’ And she’ll say ‘Go to heaven and get Aksel.’”
To remember their baby, the Andersons held a memorial service in July on top of Copper Mountain near where they had gotten married.
And in October, the family took part in a fundraising walk in Denver for Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep, raising more than $1,000 for the organization. After the walk, participants released balloons as the name of each baby was read aloud.
“It’s helpful to have (Aksel’s) existence recognized because now that he’s not here, sometimes it feels like maybe he never was,” Kristin said. “It was moving to see all the other hundreds of balloons being released and knowing that we are not alone.”