The loss of a child is a kind of pain no mother ever wants to feel.
October 15th marks Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Day amid a month-long effort to demonstrate support for families.
That pain was very real for a Sioux Falls mom and Sanford Health senior financial analyst in June 2019.
“I can’t even explain it,” Jessica Woehlhaff tells Sanford Health News. “There was a lot of confusion. It was overwhelming. I remember a chaplain coming within an hour to be at our bedside. The first thing he asked was, ‘Do you want to have her baptized?’ I remember thinking, ‘Well, of course, but I want her to be baptized where her sister was baptized.'”
Ivy Addison Woehlhaff died in the hours prior to birth at 38 weeks gestation.
“There’s nothing that prepares you for the shock of it. You’re expecting to bring home a happy, healthy baby, and you leave the hospital with empty arms.”
No playbook, no plan, just pain
She knew something wasn’t right after Ivy was born when she noticed the baby wasn’t crying.
“I remember the doctor saying, ‘I’m so sorry,’ and placing Ivy on my chest. My first thought was, ‘Why aren’t you doing something to save my child?’ She was perfect: six pounds, two ounces, no apparent reasons as to why her heart had stopped beating. All the testing came back that we were perfectly healthy. We have no medical reason as to why her heart would have stopped beating.”
Already a mom to 3-year-old Wrigley, the Woehlhaffs were planning to leave the hospital that week with their new baby girl.
“We told Wrigley that we wouldn’t be able to bring Ivy home like we had planned and that she was going to go to heaven and live with Jesus,” Jessica said. “We were confused and didn’t know what the next right step was.”
In the days that followed, the Woehlhaffs remember an incredible amount of support from their Sandford Health care team.
“I can’t say enough about Sanford,” Woehlhaff said. “I have no doubt that our experience would have been significantly different had it not been at Sanford.”
She describes her labor and delivery nurse who went above and beyond to provide care and support.
“There are just no words for the feelings that I have for her,” she said. “I still keep in contact with her. It’s a relationship that you don’t expect to build, but you do.”
Sanford guiding families through care
One in four women have experienced miscarriage in their pregnancy.
With any loss on that journey to motherhood, Sanford has a dedicated team to support families through that pain.
Pam Koepsell, a clinical nurse specialist, is on that team focusing specifically on perinatal and pediatric palliative care.
“The compassion that we offer these families is pretty incredible. Families recognize that and see that and they know that we can walk with them,” Koepsell said. Her team provides compassionate care for children diagnosed with life-changing illnesses and those in need of pediatric end-of-life care.
“When caring for a baby that we know that is not going to live, we really collaborate and engage with our labor and delivery nurses when they’re caring for a patient. It’s not uncommon for our team to get called, to be a supportive component to these families who are going through a very difficult time.”
Julie Babb is a perinatal clinical care leader in labor and delivery.
“As a mom, it really does touch me,” Babb said. “I’ve never had a loss myself and I can’t imagine what they go through. From a six-week miscarriage to a 40-week term … that’s a baby with a mom who was really hoping and praying for them.”
Babb, Koepsell and others at Sanford work together to make sure the mother is supported through loss at any point during her pregnancy and in the months and years that follow.
“We just want them to know that they’re not alone,” Babb said. “We take these patients to heart, so much so, we get in our cars when we leave and we cry on our way home. They really mean a lot to us in the little bit of time that we have with them.”
Her team will meet a family’s wishes, create a birth or end-of-life plan, face, hand or feet impressions, baby gowns, cultural rituals, portrait sessions and more.
Launching the Sanford Share chapter
Koepsell has helped launch a Share chapter to expand the national organization with more than 75 chapters in nearly 30 states.
The team is currently developing a private Facebook group to make it accessible for local families and health care providers alike.
“Our intent is to have monthly support meetings where families can have an open forum to share stories about their emotions. It’s an open, nonthreatening area where we’ll have staff there to support them, to guide them. We look to have activities for these families to help celebrate and remember their children.”
“This is a way for them to connect with others and a way for our team on the Share Facebook page, who are part of the hospital, that can respond to those questions and to reach out to them as well.”
Honor, hope, heal
That support was critical to moms like Woehlhaff and her family.
“People don’t talk about it so you kind of feel like you’re alone in it until it happens to you. Then people start kind of coming out of the woodwork, like, ‘Oh, this happened to me too.’ But you don’t really hear about it until you’ve gone through it. I think it’s really important to be there right away to support the moms and the families that are experiencing it.”
Woehlhaff joined with two other moms to create With Angel Wings.
“It’s three of us moms who have lost children at different stages in their lives. Our mission is to support families who are experiencing grief related to child loss.”
In addition to the support she received from Sanford, Woehlhaff started journaling to find some healing comfort. But saying Ivy’s name and keeping her memory alive in the family is what helps the most.
“We think about her every day and we miss her dearly. I just want to hold her again. So that’s my goal for bringing awareness is to honor her and to make sure people know that there is support.”
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