Silence of StillBirth
Dr. Eleni Michailidis, 38, gave birth to a stillborn son, Alexander, in February. Stillbirth is not uncommon in the United States, affecting 1 in 160 pregnancies, but the experience is rarely discussed. Dr. Michailidis’s narrative has been condensed and edited for space and clarity.
My husband, Abraham, and I had planned out life with a baby and life without one. We just said whatever was meant to be would be, and we’d be O.K. with it.
We were surprised we got pregnant quickly. I was shocked and thrilled. I loved being pregnant. It was incredible sometimes what my stomach would do.
The baby had a pattern. He was active, especially about 10 at night. I’d sit down to relax at the end of the day, and he’d just be constantly moving and squirming.
When I was 38 weeks, I noticed the baby wasn’t moving the same way. But I thought, there’s only so much room. And you will yourself to think that.
But by Monday night, I was concerned. On Tuesday morning, we went to the doctor’s office. My mom came with me, because my husband had gone to take care of my patients at our office. We are orthodontists and had just opened a practice together.
I went back into the exam room. And a nurse right away took the Doppler to check for a heartbeat.
I said, “Mom, I don’t hear a heartbeat.” She replied, “Don’t worry.”
While the nurse got another Doppler, Dr. Wendy Fried, my OB-GYN, comes in. Now she’s checking for the heartbeat. Nothing. Then she said, “We’ll just check with the ultrasound.”
The room is dark, and the light is on her face. I see her eyes, moving around, like she’s panicking. I felt the blood draining out of my face. My lips got cold.
“I’m so sorry, Eleni,” she said. “There’s no heartbeat.”
I barely got my words out, asking, “What do you mean?” She came over and she held my hand.
You’re expecting to go down one path. It’s the opposite path you wind up taking.
I remember thinking, I have to deliver my baby.
I called Abraham. He answered with such excitement and asked, “So are we having this baby today?”
I just said: “No, our baby’s gone. They can’t find a heartbeat.”
He said he’d meet us at the hospital. As we’re pulling in, I see him walking. It’s the first time I’ve ever seen my husband cry.
We had our own room. But we’re on the labor and delivery floor. My room was so quiet, and that just magnified everything I heard outside: babies screaming, people celebrating, relatives going back and forth.
As labor progressed, I felt tingling everywhere, plus contractions. I remember pushing, not for very long. Part of me was thinking I want this over with as fast as possible, but then another part was thinking, I want to honor him.
I was still bringing him into this world. There was a hint of beauty in the whole thing. There really was.
I hoped they made a mistake and that I’d hear crying. It was silent. Then Dr. Fried said, “Oh Eleni, he’s beautiful.”
That was the first time I knew I was having a boy. Part of me was scared. What was my baby going to look like?
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Continue reading the main story They brought him to me, wrapped up.
You go from “I don’t know if I want to see him” to “I don’t know if I can let him go.” He was beautiful and we just held him. We passed him around to my parents, then my brother and my sister-in-law.
Our firstborn was going to turn my mother into a grandmother, my father into a grandfather, my brother into an uncle. And I’d failed. You really feel guilt. Like something you did caused this. You’ve affected so many people’s lives.
When I saw Abraham holding the baby, it was horrible, because he was in so much pain but also proud.
We spent about four hours with Alexander. I put my tears on his face, because I figured he’s absorbing a piece of me. It’s a very unique loss. You’ve never had the chance to see the baby laugh, cry or smile. All those what-ifs never get answered. His life was only defined by what he experienced through me.
They say that for over 50 percent of stillbirths, there’s no known cause. We don’t know what happened.
I would say to another family going through this: Bathe the baby, change the baby, spend that time. And take pictures. Even if it feels weird and morbid, that’s all you have.
My brother took pictures on his iPhone, five or six, of us holding the baby in the bed. I would have taken more. But you’re not thinking rationally.
We were the dark cloud on this really happy floor with relatives celebrating and bringing gifts and babies crying. It’s just that extra stab that you don’t need, because you’re already feeling as low as you can be. I wish there was a section where at least you’re separated.
We didn’t want to stay there. But leaving the floor meant leaving Alexander. Why aren’t hospitals better equipped in dealing with such a tough experience?
Our hospital did put a red rose outside the door, so that people knew this wasn’t a happy room. But there are so many things that could help that hospitals don’t regularly tell families about.
There are cuddle cots, which are kept at a proper temperature, so you can stay with the baby as long as you want and not have to deal with what happens post-mortem.
When the nurse finally came in, I could tell she was trying to rush it a little bit. “Are you ready to hand the baby over to me?” she asked.
She took the baby and put him on this metal, cold-looking roller. Then she put a white sheet over him. It just seemed wrong — they could carry the baby out in their arms. I remember him vibrating on that cart, bumping up and down as she wheeled him out. Not a good moment.
Just because babies don’t take their first breath in this world, it’s sad that sometimes, they don’t even give you a death certificate. You’re carrying that child for 20 to 40 weeks. It’s not fair not to give them recognition.
I consider myself a mom. I had a son. He was stillborn. People don’t talk about it because it’s too disturbing, or it’s just silenced because nobody wants to hear these things. But it happens, and it happens enough.