A PAINFULLY SILENT BIRTH:
It was July 6, 2004. I woke up, ate some breakfast and took a shower. It was during that shower that I realized something wasn’t “right”. But how could it not be? My due date was just the next day! I shook it off and pulled out the doppler, convinced that like the many 100 times before, I would find my precious Alexis’s heartbeat in just a try or two. And then, as I placed the doppler to my belly and listened to that deafening silence, it occurred to me. For the last two weeks Alexis’s movements had slowed down tremendously. Whenever I’d voice my concerns, the doctors always brushed me off with a pat on the back and a “yep, she’ll be here soon,” but no real answers. I realized that it was ten in the morning and I hadn’t felt Alexis since about midnight. In fact, my husband, my son, Andrew and I had laid in bed the night before and made her wiggle trying our best to make deals that might “persuade” her to make her debut. We had no idea that we were also telling her “goodbye”. She never moved that morning.
Panic-stricken, I can remember screaming at Andrew to bring me the phone. He was petrified. I told him something was wrong with the baby and that we had to “Call daddy, now!” Andrew and I sat on the couch in our living room, both trying our best to get Alexis to wiggle, squirm, do anything that might signal that she was okay. I vividly remember choking back the vomit that I knew was creeping up in my throat each time I realized what was really happening.
My husband flew home from work and without speaking, we each acknowledged the worst. He too tried his usual “antics” to summon movement from Alexis, but we both knew his efforts were in vain. We called the doctor and explained that we couldn’t get Alexis to move, and could not find a heartbeat with our doppler. Again we were dismissed but after some bickering, we were told to come in for a quick “check” and then we’d be sent for a Non-Stress Test at the local hospital. We never made it that far.
In the waiting room of the doctor’s office (we sat for what seemed like an eternity, although in reality, it was only probably five or ten minutes), we watched children playing alongside their mothers and other heavily-pregnant women making idle chatter with the receptionists. I suppose at this time, it was beginning to occur to me that my life would never again be the same.
After being called back, I was told to step on the scale and then go to the exam room. I can recall wondering why in the round-world it mattered what I weighed now, when my baby was dead? I bit my lip though, and obeyed the orders. In the exam room, the doctor met us quickly and pulled out her doppler. Oh how I prayed I was wrong, but knew, I wasn’t. She listened, and listened. Occasionally, she would pass across my heartbeat and for a brief moment, hope renewed itself. Then nothing. She told us we were being taken to the room with the portable ultrasound machine. Just months before, in this very same room, we learned were indeed having an Alexis MacKenzie. Now the ultrasound showed nothing but a dark, silent screen. The nurse practioner whom we dearly loved, joined us and the doctor told us that she was not finding a heartbeat but that we needed to go directly to the hospital where they would perform another ultrasound with better equipment, and maybe there, they would see something. I looked at the nurse practicioner who just shook her head and told us how very sorry she was.
We sped off to the hospital on the off chance that they mightfind a heartbeat. My husband called my mom and dad who were themselves, at a funeral. He sobbed as he told them what was happening. I can still hear the echo of my mom on the other end of the receiver telling him to “Slow down, I can’t understand what you’re saying….that can’t be right. She’s due tomorrow!” Then we called his mom, my mother-in-law. She was out buying new outfits for Alexis – her very first granddaughter. She wasn’t following the conversation either. She just knew we were headed to the hospital and she agreed to meet us there.
We pulled into the lot (actually it was a lot for cancer patients taking chemotherapy treatments and I remember reprimanding my husband for parking there!). Somehow, we found our way to “Women’s Outpatient” and the bubbly lady at the front desk didn’t seem to grasp the “severity” of the situation. She took our names and had us sit in an isolated waiting room. God forbid our upset panic any of the other pregnant women in there. Labor and delivery called the room and asked if I was pre-registered. They told me they’d be seeing me soon. God, I still wonder which nurse drew the short end of the stick when I appeared down there.
My mom and dad and mother in law showed up within minutes. I think I was too busy studying the pattern in the wallpaper to notice, because at this point, nothing else was making sense. At least there was a rhyme and reason to that wallpaper. My mother-in-law says she still can’t shake the memory of the blank stares of my husband and I sitting there in that waiting room.
When we were called back, that black ultrasound room just seemed so appropriate. I couldn’t even look at the monitor.I already knew the outcome. The technician confirmed the worst. She said, “I’m sorry, I’m not finding a heartbeat at all.” Our family let out a collective sob. By this time, the room was literally busting at the seams. My entire family was there as well as my husband’s family and my head was throbbing. In an odd twist of fate, the doctor who would deliver my healthy twins just a year later, was also the Perinatologist on call that day and she too had to confirm the results. She would remember us vividly when we delivered the twins the following May. I told her that I wanted this to be “over with NOW!” and she told me that she would get someone from my doctor’s office there as soon as possible. Shortly thereafter, a doctor from my practice appeared and offered his condolences. I begged him to perform a c-section. The thought of enduring labor nauseated me. But, while sympathetic, he told me that frankly, a c-section would mean a longer recovery and stay in the hospital – specifically in the birthing center. Obviously, this was not the direction I wanted to take. He left me with the assurance that they would not allow me to be in any pain. Like an idiot, I believed him.
Minutes later, we were escorted through many a back hallway and finally found ourselves in the Family Birth Place. I had already made the maternity tour and had visited many friends and family in this very same wing, so the rooms were sickeningly familiar. My dad quietly asked the nurse to remove the basinet from the room and I was helped into bed. IV’s were started and then, the belly-band was placed. I only had to wear a tocolytic monitor to measure contractions. The fetal heartbeat monitor was never placed and no number ever registered on the screen. I hated how odd that looked. Family and friends came and went all afternoon with our immediate family keeping an ever-present bedside vigil. Someone brought our son to the hospital that evening and he arrived with the gift bag containing the toy that we had bought weeks earlier as a special gift from him to his sister. That toy would end up being buried with Alexis. He knew Alexis wasn’t coming home and didn’t ask any questions. I think children understand so much more than we give them credit for.
At midnight, we told everyone to go home. Our wonderful nurses, Katie and Kristi (whom we still keep in touch with) assured us that nothing would happen until the next morning. At about 2 a.m., I awoke to the most painful contractions I’ve ever had, with any of my children. The next hour can only be likened to a living hell. I had dilated to 6 centimeters and anesthesia was in a c-section. I told my husband that my hips felt like they were tearing though my skin. Apparently, I was having back labor. Kristi pushed a bolus of morphine through the IV and raced to find another anesthesiologist. Finally, she appeared. As dumb as it sounds, I can remember Kristi telling me to “bear hug” her as they placed the epidural, but I was resistant because I had terrible “cotton mouth” and horrible breath! She stifled a laugh and squeezed me tighter. I was finally comfortable and she got me settled back into bed.
At about 7:00 a.m., I awoke to what felt like a major need to push. Kristi told to me to hold on while she checked me. She did just that and then told me that she was calling my doctor. In fact, I was completely dilated and ready to push. My husband ran around frantically calling our parents and they were there within minutes. The doctor arrived, gave the order to push and three pushes later, at 7:58 a.m., right on schedule on July 7, 2004, Alexis MacKenzie Louden made her silent debut. 7 lbs. 4.2 oz. No cord accidents, no placental clots. Her death still remains a mystery.
The nurses asked if I wanted to hold her or wait until they had bathed and dressed her. I can remember reaching down and feeling her warm body, but I was physically and emotionally exhausted, so I handed her off to the them. I went to sleep. Some time before noon, I was awoken. Our family was taking pictures. My mother-in-law and husband had bathed Alexis and clothed her in what was intended to have been her “coming home” outfit. I can remember being helped up and holding her. Honestly, I was on such an anesthetized “high” at that moment, that I don’t remember much about this time. I only remember stupidly thinking, “Am I supposed to smile?” The pictures, even today, depict that spacey, bewildered, pitiful, proud look on my face. My husband’s countenance looks oddly similar.
At about 1:30 p.m. or so, the delivering doctor told me that if I felt up to it, I could be discharged. I was thrilled to be getting out of there so quickly, but it never occurred to me, as it did my husband, that we would be leaving Alexis forever. After signing off on every paper under the sun, the wheelchair arrived to take me to our car. Kristi had been off work since 7 a.m., but had stayed and even wheeled me out personally to the car. As we left the room, I can remember Alexis lying silently in the bassinet (which I suppose at delivery had been quietly brought back in). Glenn turned around sobbing and pleaded with a nurse in the hallway to stay with her until the funeral home picked her up. She began crying and told him she would do just that. And with that, we left. I can remember coming home and seeing Andrew on the front porch. I was so thrilled to see him. I made my way up the stairs and into the shower. I sobbed uncontrollably. Tears, blood and dreams of our perfect future swirled down the shower drain. I think I spent hours in there.
Alexis's memorial service was held just two days later on the 9th of July. Glenn and I decided that a small, graveside service with just our immediate family would be the best option. In hindsight, I often wish that we had done something more elaborate for her, but alas, it was what was right for us at the time. The day was beautiful. The sky was blue and the sun was gleaming. Two months prior, we had purchased a new car in anticipation of our expanding family. The empty carseat still sat buckled in place alongside Andrew as we made our way to the funeral home. At the funeral home, we formed a small caravan and proceeded toward the cemetery.The hearst carrying my daughter's tiny body led the procession and with each passing turn, the realization that my precious little girl was never coming home with our family finally began to sink in. Life had dealt its cruelest card. Singer, Natalie Grant, put it the most eloquently in her song, "Held." To take a child from her mother while she prays is appalling.
At the cemetery, the priest read a beautiful passage from the bible, and as my husband, brother and father pulled Alexis's tiny, white casket from the back of the hearst, I sank to my knees, sobbing, beside her grave site. At the end of this short service, I was helped to the car and we left for my parent's house where people were gathering to support and console us. Some of my very best friends were already there when we arrived and their presence warmed my heart.
The days following are a blur of visitors, tears, and disbelief, but with God's grace and compassion, prayer and time have helped to heal the gaping wound of grief that was placed upon us.
"Be still and know that I am God"
GONE BUT NEVER FORGOTTEN:
The impact of Alexis's short life cannot truly be placed into words. Time has been both a friend and a foe to us. With each passing, minute, day, week and year, the grief does lessen. The wounds become less painful, yet the scars are evidence of what once was. However, as time passes, the memories of Alexis become slightly hazy, and I find myself disbelieving that another year has passed without her here.
After Alexis's death, many people offered their condolences. My family was placed on prayer chains from Atlanta, Georgia to Oakland, California. Their prayers and support touched my heart indescribably. However, news of Alexis's death also brought about the shocking revelation that stillbirth wasn't nearly as isolated as I had naively believed. In fact, four unacquainted local women (one of whom I had gone to high school with) actually contacted me to offer their condolences and support and to share stories of their own, late-term stillbirths. It was, in a word, unfathomable. I couldn't believe that this type of suffering was happening right under our noses and families were suffering in silence. Unfortunately, finding a support group was next to impossible. Every local number and contact I had been given in Northern Kentucky was either out of service, or unrelated to our particular type of loss.
It was at this realization that I determined that something must be done to help these local grieving families and after making various donations each year on Alexis's birthday to local hospitals, I decided that the Missing Alexis Foundation needed to be created to generate support for research into the causes of stillbirth and to offer support to families having experienced the loss of a child through pregnancy or neonatal death.
Today, my family approaches life with a whole new respect. Though, like any family, we have our disagreements and upsets, we also love and enjoy one another with the realization that life is short, and each day is infinitely precious. We will forever remember our beautiful Alexis as a member of our family, and we will move forward in the knowledge that her short time here will leave a legacy that could potentially save many families from the heartache of stillbirth and provide outreach to those families continuing to suffer in silence.
"Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak. Whispers the o'er-fraught heart and bids it break."