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Ethan's Story

By Neil Hopkins

This is a fairly long and personal story about the stillbirth of my son Ethan. I would welcome any responses, particularly from anybody with a similar experience.

Neil Hopkins

When I first married my wife, Lois, I hadn't really thought much about children. I had not had much contact with babies or young children and therefore didn't really know what to expect when Lois fell pregnant. We had been married about ten months or so, and we were living in a damp and somewhat grotty flat at the time. We found a house to move into just before Christmas, and everything seemed to be going fine.

A few days after Christmas, Lois started bleeding and was advised to rest by the doctor. A week or so later she had a miscarriage. I was shocked and upset, but I found it difficult to grieve for what had been an abstract concept to me. In one sense I didn't know what I had lost.

In the summer of that year, Lois suffered another early miscarriage, before the pregnancy had even been confirmed by the doctor. Again, I think I was more upset at the pain that Lois was going through rather than anything that I felt in myself. I felt more anger at the insensitive and incompetent handling of the affair by our GP at the time than at the loss.

In January of 1990 we decided to try again, and this time things seemed to be going well. When the crucial milestones of twelve weeks, and the first scan had passed we started to buy baby things and decorate the nursery and I started to allow myself to accept that a baby was finally on the way. At 36 weeks Lois went in for her final ante-natal check, and was examined by a succession of doctors and medical students who concluded that the baby was lying across the womb instead of engaging properly. Lois was immediately admitted to hospital for observation, and after three tense and frustrating weeks Alicia was born by cesarean section. She was kept on the SCBU for nine days due to her small size, and initial difficulty in feeding, and then a blood test revealed that Lois had had a toxoplasmosis infection during pregnancy. The doctors decided that this may have affected Alicia's growth, but they carried out no further tests or examinations.

Having a baby completely changed my life.

At last I experienced the joy and pain of parenthood, as watched my daughter grow from a beautiful baby to an adorable toddler, and then to an intelligent and highly demanding little girl. I love her dearly, and would not swap her for the world.

During the 'terrible twos' another baby was the furthest thing from our minds, and so we delayed starting another pregnancy until Alicia had started at nursery school and was a bit less of a handful. We thought it through and decided that we were ready to complete our family. We had our finances sorted out, we were living in our own house with a spare room earmarked as a nursery, and I finally was in a stable job with good prospects. At last I thought that we could enjoy a trouble free pregnancy with a child to look forward too at the end.

I deliberately kept a close rein on my emotions during the early stages. I knew the risks of miscarriage, and mentally prepared myself in case the worst should happen. We only told a few close friends and family and waited nervously. The night before the first scan, I had convinced myself that there would be problems - so I was delighted to see that the baby was healthy, active and developing OK. The doctor mentioned something about a bi-corniate womb, but I was too busy looking at the scan picture and assumed that at worst Lois would have to be admitted early again for another cesarean - we had expected something like this anyway.

The detailed scan at twenty weeks was a revelation of clarity and detail. We could see our baby darting around, waving his hands and sticking his tongue out on the screen. The scan technician remarked that this was a lively one, and we looked at each other as hopes for a placid baby evaporated. However, a lively baby meant that everything was progressing well, and each kick deepened the bond and love that I felt for this child. At last I could allow myself the pleasure of anticipating the birth. I was secretly hoping for a boy, but I really wouldn't have cared either way. Nothing it seemed could go wrong.

On Saturday morning I took Alicia to the local softplay center with a friend of ours, her two boys and her nine week old baby. I carried the sleeping baby into the playzone in her carrytot, and felt a real pang of expectation that I would soon be able to carry my own child around in the same way. I had felt the same doubts and fears that all parents feel during pregnancy - would I be able to cope with all of the late night feeds, nappies and crying, and double the problems in finding baby sitters? As I looked at my friends baby sleeping peacefully, I felt that I was ready for what was to come and that I would be able to cope.

We went back to our friends house for lunch, and while we were eating Lois rang up and told me that she was worried because she had not felt the baby moving since the day before. I tried to reassure her, finished my lunch and dragged Alicia away from her friend. At home Lois was feeling panicky, but I felt sure that nothing could be wrong. We rang the doctor, and after a two hour wait he came to see us. He listened to the baby's heart beat, and said that if Lois didn't feeling the baby moving soon we should go to the hospital for a checkup, to be on the safe side.

After a sleepless night, Lois was convinced that something was seriously wrong so we rang the hospital first thing on Sunday morning. We went straight into the Jessop where they started monitoring the heart rate with a monitor. The heart rate seemed to be steady, so I took Alicia to her grandparents house as it looked as if we would be at the hospital for some time. Later on that morning we saw the consultant who explained that the lack of movement and the flat heart rate were symptomatic of a baby that was likely to die within a few days. She recommended steroid injections that would give the baby's lungs a better chance of functioning if it were to be born, but as they would take forty-eight hours to take effect the best advice that she could give was just to wait and see what would happen.

I felt totally helpless. I tried to reassure Lois, but my words were hollow as I knew that there was nothing that I could say or do that could alter the course of events. The whole situation felt as if I were in an alien realm with no connection with day to day reality. This was something that I had never dreamed that I would ever have to cope with.

We decided to go home to try and rest - when we collected Alicia she assumed that the baby had been born and asked "Is it under your coat?" as she had seen other babies being carried in slings. I tried to explain that the baby was poorly and might not survive, which she seemed to accept and then went on to start looking for one of her toys to take home. I took Alicia out to the cinema that afternoon to see 'The nightmare before Christmas', and as I drove back life did seem to be turning into a nightmare.

The community midwife called to give Lois the second steroid injection later on that night. She tried for some time to find the baby's heartbeat with a portable monitor, but thought that the batteries might have been running low. As she was about to give up, Lois felt two or three definite kicks - this was the only real sign of hope that we had had. As we lay awake that night, we thought that the baby might have to be born prematurely and considered the possibilities of handicap and brain damage. I still did not want to consider any chance of stillbirth.

By the morning I had lost all hope, and I found it impossible even to pray, the words choking in my throat. In the hospital the midwife Julie tried to find a heartbeat on two separate monitors before calling for the doctor to try a scan. I knew by the way that the doctor kept the screen tilted away and the expression on her face what she was going to say before she said it. She said she was sorry, and confirmed that the baby had died. The consultant told us that they would have to induce labor, and gave Lois some progesterone suppressant tablets and told us to come back in on Wednesday morning if nothing had happened in the meantime.

There followed two days in which I felt shocked and numb, and I can remember feeling confused as to why I wasn't actually feeling or expressing any palpable emotion.

Time passed relentlessly.

On Wednesday morning we left Alicia with her grandparents and returned to the hospital. After waiting for an hour or so, the doctor arrived to give Lois the first in what was to be an increasingly painful series of pessaries intended to induce labor. In the meantime we were left in a bleak and uncomfortable delivery room full of poignant reminders of the live birth that we should have been expecting. We had each other and a crackly black and white TV with the mindless banter of Richard and Judy for company.

In the middle of the afternoon, Lois felt the first twinges of pain, but they quickly subsided, and nothing happened.

The remainder of the day passed with agonising slowness. I was engulfed by boredom, alternately sitting in a low backed chair that seemed designed to induce backache and pacing the cold, hard tiles of the delivery room.

By ten at night Lois was feeling sick, and was crying at the thought of enduring any more pessaries, so the doctors decided to let her rest. The room we were in had a single hospital bed, and after an hour of searching the night sister managed to find an ancient camp bed that collapsed at the slightest movement. I did not sleep at all that night, and by the next day I felt wretched, as there was no where that I could take a shower or wash in privacy. My back ached, my eyes were sore, and I was woozy from fatigue.

The next pessary triggered labor, and at last we had something to focus on, timing each contraction as all of the rose tinted parenthood manuals tell you to. Lois was able to take pain relief as necessary, and let her body go through the motions of birth. The main feeling that I had was one of inevitability - I had boarded a roller coaster ride with no way off until the end. The fears that I had kept buried within nagged at me - I didn't know how I would feel when my baby was born - would it be handicapped, would there be an obvious reason for it's death, would an explanation make the grief easier to bear?

Julie, the midwife who had been with us on Monday, came back on duty in the afternoon, and was a constant and reassuring presence, letting us know what to expect even though this was her first still birth. She was sensitive to our need for privacy, and yet she was able to share her own feelings as well.

The waters broke in the middle of the afternoon and the pace quickened to the final stage. Just before five o'clock the baby's head crowned, and the next contraction saw our child enter the world.

"It's a boy, and he's beautiful."

I looked over and a small crumpled figure, his face red, and his stomach bruised and distended. He had long thin legs which flopped limply, and large feet.

Julie swiftly cleaned and wrapped him, and then left us alone with our son.

My emotions were an overwhelming mix of sadness and joy, as I drank in his perfect features, and his tiny hands and feet. We both sat and cried, and held him and each other, and wished that he were alive rather than dead.

After a while I left to make the inevitable phone calls, and then I went to fetch Alicia.

Alicia accepted Ethan and the time that the four of us had together is the most precious that I can remember. She said that he was a 'cutey-cue', held him on her knee, and then asked and answered her only question about his death :

"Where's his voice?"

She thought for a moment and then said "His voice must be in heaven", and then, the situation clear in her mind, showed him her soft toy, played for a while, and then asked to go home.

As with all stories, this story does not end at this point - there followed much that was painful, Ethan's funeral and Christmas in particular, and then the slow process of grief and the recovery from grief that is not a recovery but an accommodation of emotion. It has taken nearly half a year for me to reach the point at which I can write this account, and it will suffice for now.

In his memory ...

Neil Hopkins.

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