This is the first story within my new segment: Sonder Stories. The following story is real, and the events are written as they were told to me. Please note that Sonder Stories can cover events that may be triggering.
February 26th, 2018
It was a Monday morning, a typical day in the Hamilton household, when Carolyn woke up with an urge to use the restroom. Her husband, Branden, was at work in the garage and Carolyn was supposed to go to work soon; it was already 730. As she walked to the bathroom, she rubbed her swollen belly with love. Branden and Carolyn had chosen the name Cooper Kay for their first child because of the strong family roots it held. Cooper is Carolyn’s middle name and her parental grandmother’s name and Kay is Carolyn’s mother’s middle name. Their first child, a healthy baby girl, was exactly 34 weeks and six days along on this Monday. Branden and Carolyn, and the rest of the family, had lovingly spent the last few weeks preparing for Cooper’s arrival that was set for April 4th, exactly 35 days.
Charlie, the Hamilton’s grey mini schnauzer, followed Carolyn into the bathroom and watched as Carolyn used the restroom. Charlie wouldn’t leave her alone, and he stood next to her and pressed his nose into her stomach again and again. Carolyn was crampy and uncomfortable from the heartburn she had experienced throughout the majority of her pregnancy. It didn’t surprise her when she went to throw up from the nausea. What did surprise her was the blood when she went to wipe.
The blood was bright red on the stark white of the toilet paper. Nervously, Carolyn called the on-call doctor and spoke to them about her situation. She was advised to take some Zofran for the nausea and throwing up and to keep an eye on the bleeding. Carolyn was calm, but she exhausted in only a way that a thirty-four week pregnant woman can be, so she went to lay back down to rest her eyes. Charlie snuggled up next to her and she fell deeply asleep.
Two hours later, Carolyn woke up with a start. Charlie was still right next to her, and he wouldn’t leave her side as she got up and walked back into the restroom. When she saw that she was still bleeding, Carolyn started to become concerned. She called her mother, who worriedly asked if she could feel Cooper moving around in her belly. Carolyn said no, but that Cooper was normally active in the afternoons with her rolls and jabs. Her mom told her to head to the hospital.
Carolyn remained calm as she took a shower. Branden put the car seat in the car, and packed a bag with some newborn clothes and everything they would need if Cooper came early. They climbed in the car and headed to Gwinnett Medical Center.
The Triage nurse, Rachel, hooked her up to the round fetal heart monitor and searched for Cooper’s heartbeat. Rachel knew Branden and Carolyn from their pre-natal appointment in December, and was friendly and comforting as she searched…and searched. Rachel became quieter as minutes went by.
“Is this normal?”
Rachel was quiet and serious as she ordered an ultrasound. Carolyn began to cry; Branden told her to stop crying. Thirty minutes passed as the terrified couple waited for the ultrasound tech to call them back and begin evaluating Cooper. The ultrasound room was silent as the tech took pictures of Cooper. She kept the screen tilted away from Carolyn, but Branden was watching as the tech measured Cooper, clicking the mouse again and again to capture her length, the circumference of her head, and the level of amniotic fluid that was in Cooper’s placenta, typing notes occasionally onto the pictures. Carolyn strained up onto her elbows to try to see Cooper on the screen, and the tech told her to lay back down. When Branden and Carolyn asked the tech questions, hoping for any response that would ease their minds, the tech responded that she was legally required to not comment on Cooper.
Branden and Carolyn returned to their room and waited to hear any news of their daughter. When the doctor came in thirty minutes later, she solemnly spoke to the parents.
“Has anyone told you what’s going on?”
The doctor’s face was firm and serious.
“Well, the baby has no heartbeat.”
Shock radiated throughout Carolyn’s body as the doctor’s words began to make sense. Branden would later tell Carolyn that he had seen the ultrasound tech type “No FHR”. He didn’t realize that “FHR” meant “fetal heart rate”; he was so focused on trying to see if Cooper was moving. He started to say “no, no, no, no…” over and over again while Carolyn tried to reason with the doctor.
“But she’s always 140 beats per minute. Sometimes she’s 146. This is impossible.”
Carolyn refused to believe this was happening. The doctor left the room.
Rachel was crying as she told Branden and Carolyn that she couldn’t tell them before, that she was so sorry, but her job required her to remain quiet because a doctor had to tell them. The nurse mentioned that her job would have been at stake had she told them like she desperately wanted to for almost an hour. Cooper’s parents, in their shock and disbelief, reassured the crying nurse that of course, they understood.
Branden called his parents and could only reach his dad. Branden told him to call back when his mom was with him. Carolyn called her mom and said one word, “Mom.” Carolyn’s mother knew immediately when she heard her daughter choke out that word as a plea that a daughter says when she desperately wants her mom to make everything okay. Next, Carolyn called her best friend, Michelle, who she had been texting with throughout the day about the situation.
“We lost Cooper.”
Carolyn was bawling as she told her friend, and Michelle burst into tears. Michelle had been Carolyn’s greatest supporter and friend during her pregnancy with Cooper. Carolyn is Michelle’s children’s godmother, and Carolyn’s pregnancy had brought her closer to Michelle, who had experienced motherhood before. Michelle was going to be Cooper’s aunt. She was Cooper’s aunt.
Branden was able to reach his parents to tell them what had happened, and Branden’s mom threw up when she heard. Carolyn’s mother showed up at the hospital as Carolyn and Branden were moved into a delivery room, and she comforted Carolyn and cried with the grieving parents. She tried to remain supportive to her daughter, wishing to take Carolyn’s pain away, while she mourned the loss of her first grandchild.
The delivery room was huge, and Carolyn’s aunt, sister Kate, Michelle, and dad joined the parents and both sets of grandparents. Kate spoke to the bereavement counselor and began coordinating things that needed to be addressed to take away the hassle from the shocked parents. Everyone hung around the bed, comforting Carolyn and murmuring words of grief and encouragement as the nurses took Carolyn’s vitals. Her blood pressure was elevated, but hadn’t been when she had been triaged. The nurses were worried that Carolyn had begun to experience pre-eclampsia, which is a potentially deadly condition that affects pregnant mothers. They drew blood to make sure Carolyn would be okay. As time went on, the room became quieter. Carolyn didn’t want to begin the next step.
Why can’t she stay in me? She still needs to grow. She has six weeks left! I am supposed to have more time. I need more time with my baby.
Carolyn’s sister spoke.
“It needs to happen, Carolyn.”
It was 630 on Monday evening.
Carolyn was given four pills every four hours to soften her cervix. The family and friends came and went throughout the night and into the next day as Carolyn endured the cytotec for sixteen hours. The pills made her extremely uncomfortable, but the drug , along with cervidil that was inserted vaginally for twelve hours, allowed her cervix to dilate enough over those sixteen hours for a Foley bulb to be inserted into the opening of her uterus. This catheter allows a small “bulb” to make its way through the cervix and into the uterus. Once inserted, saline solution is pumped into the bulb to put pressure on the cervix and force it to open further. Carolyn’s Foley bulb was able to open her cervix to five centimeters. Full delivery is ten centimeters.
By Tuesday night, Carolyn and Branden are exhausted from lack of sleep. She was given fentanyl, a type of narcotic, to help calm her down and ease her pain. The painkiller began to last for less and less time between the four doses that she received. She was offered an epidural, and Carolyn took it. The placement of the epidural caused Carolyn to have a horrible panic attack that left her breathless and scared. The epidural wasn’t working and it felt like a cattle prod was piercing her right side. Carolyn could feel the catheter that had been placed to drain her urine, and the lidocaine didn’t work to alleviate the pain and discomfort of the tube that had been inserted into her urinary tract. She was given pitocin through her IV at midnight on Tuesday. Pitocin causes contractions, and Carolyn’s body was racked in pain as the contractions hit in the early morning hours of Wednesday. Her Foley bulb was removed, and Carolyn’s water broke at 9 am on Wednesday morning.
When she reached a full ten centimeters of an open cervix on Wednesday afternoon, Carolyn was told to wait and let Cooper come down further in the birth canal. Cooper was breech, which meant her feet were down instead of her head as it is during an optimal birth. Carolyn was told that the further down Cooper was in the birth canal before she began pushing, the more preserved Cooper’s skin would be during the birth. This was important because then the doctor might be able to tell how long ago Cooper had died.
The atmosphere of the delivery room became more serious. Carolyn was drenched in sweat; she hadn’t taken a shower since Monday morning before she had driven to the hospital. Her eyes were closed, and cool wet washcloth had been placed on her forehead by her mom. Carolyn reached up, grabbed the washcloth, and threw it across the delivery room with a yell. Branden and her mom ran to Carolyn as she began throwing up…water…just water; she hadn’t eaten in days either. Carolyn threw up so much that Cooper was forced very far down the birth canal. Carolyn thought Cooper was practically out.
It was time.
The doctor came into the room and told everyone present to sit down. Carolyn’s feet were placed into stirrups that caused her legs to be opened wide and exposed her. Carolyn didn’t want to do this.
Cooper isn’t supposed to be dead. Just keep her in there! Keep my baby in there!
As the contractions came, Carolyn’s resolve began to break.
“Just pull her out! It hurts so much.”
Was she talking about the contractions or the loss of her baby?
The doctor said he couldn’t even see Cooper, and to keep pushing. Carolyn beared down again, and Cooper’s butt came down far enough for the doctor to grab her legs and pull them down, one by one, out of Carolyn’s body. Cooper’s hips were stuck, and Carolyn felt her refuse to move.
“I can’t do this, I can’t do this, I can’t do this!”
Carolyn was screaming, from the physical pain, from the loss of her daughter, and she stopped pushing. Sharply, the doctor rebuked her.
“You have got to get a grip and calm down!”
With his words, Carolyn looked around and realized that this was it, this can only happen if she does the work. She realized that doing this is the last thing she can do for Cooper, as Cooper’s mother. It is Carolyn’s responsibility to deliver her daughter into the world, and no one else can do it. With her heart and mind resolved to her responsibility as a mother, Carolyn took a deep breathe and bore down again.
Cooper’s hips unstuck and she slid to her shoulders. One more small push, and Cooper Kay Hamilton was delivered into the world at 4:01 pm, Wednesday, February 28th, 2018.
There was no happy tears that come with the birth of a healthy baby. Branden was immobile as he watched his daughter get gently bathed and swaddled. Carolyn and Branden’s mothers were crying, and the nurses who had helped throughout the multiple day delivery were also crying as they held back and watched the family mourn. Everyone but the family left, and the family huddled around the foot of the bed as Carolyn held her daughter for the first time.
“I made that! She’s perfect.”
I want to take my breath and give it to her. Please, let her live.
When Branden was able to hold Cooper, he finally became calm. The intensity and stress of the past few days melted away as he held his daughter.
“Oh baby girl, no.”
Branden and Carolyn were given the night with their daughter. Cooper was passed between her parents as they each tried to sleep a little after the last few horrific days. They were worried about moving her too much because with each movement, Cooper’s skin began to disintegrate. Throughout the night, Carolyn and Branden told Cooper all about how they met and about their family. They gazed on her perfect face and her tiny hands and feet in wonder. A sound machine filled the room with crickets, and a crying leaf sticker was placed on the door to their room.
The hospital’s funeral personnel arrived the next day at noon. There was a grief counselor present and Tonya would later become a foundation with which Carolyn and Branden were able to rebuild their lives. It was time to say goodbye, and Carolyn and Branden covered Cooper’s face and body with kisses.
I don’t want to say goodbye.
Carolyn handed Cooper to Branden, and Branden handed his daughter over to Tonya to be given to the hospital funeral director. Cooper was to be cremated, and they would receive her ashes back in a small plastic box that they would replace with a small pink heart-shaped urn. Carolyn’s sister and mother had spent the Tuesday and Wednesday at the Hamilton’s home, cleaning it from top to bottom, and making Cooper’s room into a perfect sanctuary for them to come home to after their horrific time.
After getting discharged from the hospital, Carolyn and Branden went home with an empty car seat. When Charlie the mini schnauzer greeted them, he started to howl and cry.
There are approximately 26,000 stillbirths every year in the United States alone. On that day in Gwinnett Medical Center, there were three other crying leafs displayed on doors in the maternity ward. GMC experiences roughly 100 stillborn children a year. Most parents, like Carolyn and Branden, do not have a reason or an explanation as to why their child dies in utero. Carolyn had thirteen vials of blood drawn and tested to see if the cause of Cooper’s death could be discovered. All tests, including the first test for pre-eclampsia, came back normal.