FLOYD COUNTY — Sam, Zachary and Eleanor had lives filled with love, even if their mothers only had so little time to spend with them. They swaddled them in blankets, held them close and told them they loved them.
Soon after, they all had to say goodbye to their babies.
Abby Newton, Emily Banet and Rebeka Sweetland all suffered devastating grief after their experiences with stillbirth or neonatal mortality. That heartache forged them on different paths in different directions, but for all of them, the destination was peace through helping others with similar losses.
“It was the best and worst day that ever happened to me,” Rebeka said, recounting Eleanor’s birth. “I don’t regret a single thing. I’m glad she was sent to me to be her mom and she was loved every single second she was with me.”
Abby and Sam
All the appointments went wonderfully. From the time Abby Newton, 28, Floyds Knobs, and her husband, Ted, found out they were pregnant in October 2014, they were proud first-time parents.
Abby went through eight store-bought tests to rule out false positives and later, a blood test. Before finding out whether they would have a boy or a girl, Abby’s mother, Laura Gipe, just called the child Sweet Baby Newton.
He retained those initials, but the name changed a little. They settled on Sam Benjamin Newton.
About eight months in, they began the last round of doctor’s appointments before Sam’s delivery. Abby said everything went great on a Wednesday appointment in May 2015. He was active and she always felt him moving inside her, but two days later, she and Ted visited her parents for dinner. She said something was different.
“I was just so sad and looking back on it now, I wonder if I should have listened to my body, I don’t know what was going on,” Abby said. “I spent a lot of time on their couch wrapped up in a blanket.”
She and Ted went home. To pick up her spirits a little, they used an at-home Doppler device to listen to Sam’s heartbeat. It was still strong and they went to bed, brushing off her concerns.
“We heard it and it was the same as it always was,” Abby said. “That was the last time we heard his heartbeat, at home. It was kind of nice that we were all home together.”
They got up the next morning to go to the Starlight Strawberry Festival. Abby said she still didn’t feel Sam moving as much. They went, hoping some sweet treats would stir him up a little, but they didn’t. While Ted headed off to buy strawberries, she went back to the car. Still, something felt wrong.
“I walked back and Sam, he just felt heavy,” Abby said, nearly sobbing. “My belly felt different and I was afraid. Ted met me and we went back home.”
After getting to the house, eating some dinner and continuing to cry, Ted said they went to an emergency room, if only to get some comfort and hear a doctor say nothing was wrong. A nurse brought in a more powerful Doppler to listen in on Sam.
She couldn’t get the heartbeat.
Their obstetrician was on duty and brought an ultrasound machine into the room. Abby wouldn’t let her face the monitor toward her in case his heart had actually stopped. She only had a few words for the couple.
“She did the ultrasound and she just said ‘there’s no heartbeat,’” Abby said.
He was gone, but Ted said they still had to get through the delivery.
Abby said it was hard coming to terms with Sam’s birth, knowing that when he came out, he wouldn’t cry. The next morning, she was scheduled for a cesarean section.
At 9:06 a.m. on Sunday, May 24, 2015 at Floyd Memorial Hospital, Sam was born. He was 6 pounds, 1 ounce and 19.5 inches long. She said she was afraid, she wasn’t sure what Sam would look like or how she’d react.
“I remember the curtain dropped and I saw Sam with the nurses in the corner,” Abby said. “They were weighing him and he was already swaddled up. They brought him over, gave him to Ted, and Ted showed him to me and he was just perfect.”
The bags for Abby and Sam, prepared for his birthday, were still at home. They didn’t think they’d find themselves in a delivery room, so they didn’t bring them to the hospital. A volunteer photographer with Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep — an organization that provides professional photo services to families going through the loss of a newborn — was on the way, but Sam didn’t have any clothes.
Laura Gipe said one of the nurses told her she’d be right back. She’s not sure who they called, but a member of the staff came to the room with an outfit for Sam. He was dressed, they took photos as a family and spent some time together.
They declined an autopsy, though Abby’s doctor was fairly certain Sam’s death was triggered by a hyper-coiled umbilical cord. There’s no test for it, no way to prevent the condition and nothing to remedy it.
After four hours, they gave him back. She stayed a few days and finalized funeral arrangements. She eventually left the hospital, knowing her arms would be empty, as well as the nursery at home.
Ted gave her a gift bag with a little stuffed elephant inside, a theme they’d unwittingly followed while decorating Sam’s room. He told her no mother should have to go home without something to carry.
“Leaving the hospital, it was really traumatic,” Abby said. “I just remember somebody wheeled us back out and you expect to be leaving with a baby.”
A month later, Abby started a blog on WordPress.com, “Thinking of Sam.” That’s where she began her healing. Reaching out on social media and writing about her own experiences, she later drew inspiration from the nurses who were kind enough to clothe her son.
Emily and Zachary
Emily Banet, 45, Floyds Knobs, sees babies born every day. As the clinical manager of women’s services at Floyd Memorial Hospital, that also means seeing babies born still, or babies who die shortly after they’re born. She said that happens maybe three or five times a year.
It’s difficult, but she said part of the reason she works there is to help women and families who lose babies, just like she did.
On April 20, 1994, Emily gave birth to her first son, Zachary. He was 6 pounds, 4 ounces and 18.5 inches long.
Her pregnancy was normal. She carried him for 38 weeks, but shortly after he was delivered, she and her doctors noticed he had respiratory issues. He was taken to Kosair Children’s Hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit.
They ran some tests and learned he contracted an infection in utero, group B strep sepsis. He died three days later.
Like Abby, she wanted photos so she never forgot what Zachary looked like. Organizations like Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep didn’t exist, so all she has are Polaroids that have been professionally scanned and saved. She wanted to bathe him herself, even though the notion drew puzzled stares from hospital staff. She said today, women do that all the time.
She said 40 years ago or so, it was even worse for those mothers. After the child was born, doctors may have just rushed off with the baby. Mothers often didn’t see their children before burial, never knowing what they looked like.
Emily said the access to resources was much more limited in the 1990s than it is today. Social media wasn’t around, the Internet wasn’t the library of information it is now and support groups were harder to find. Still, she tried to learn everything she could.
“I decided I didn’t ever want a parent to feel the way I did, and that was lost,” Emily said. “There are certain things that happen to you that you don’t expect, you don’t anticipate. I wanted to make sure there was no parent out there, that I could impact, that would ever feel the same way.”
She said no one prepared her for life at home, dealing with cruel reminders from nature about what had just happened. Her milk still came in and other signs of having a child lingered, but there wasn’t a baby in her nursery.
Information was a component of overcoming her grief. In the future, she’s pass that on to mothers like her.
Rebeka and Eleanor
Rebeka Sweetland, 28, married her husband, Kevin, the same year she graduated from Indiana University Southeast. Together, they moved to Muncie, then Indianapolis when she was about 16 weeks pregnant. Her first pregnancy ended in a miscarriage at five or six weeks.
She visited her doctor for a routine fetal scan. They were hoping to determine the gender of their baby, but they couldn’t. It was the beginning of months filled with difficult decisions.
She said they learned Eleanor had a form of skeletal dysplasia. Her chest was growing at a slower rate than the rest of her body, so there wasn’t enough room for her heart and lungs.
They could have terminated the pregnancy, but Rebeka said inconclusive tests on whether the dysplasia was lethal or not made them hold out hope that the ultrasound was wrong, or that Eleanor’s mutation was a survivable version that had yet to be recorded. She decided to carry her to term.
On Nov. 20, 2015, Eleanor Ray Sweetland was born. She weighed 5 pounds, 15.5 ounces and was 14.25 inches long. She was pronounced dead soon after birth, unable to breathe on her own.
She said she and Kevin waited until 20 weeks to announce they were pregnant and shared information selectively on Facebook. After Eleanor was born, they took the photos and posted them online, not limiting the audience that could see them. She said going public with her experience helped her deal with the sadness that followed.
“You feel like it’s easy to isolate yourself, you go home without your child and you watch other people getting pregnant,” Rebeka said. “You’re seeing all these things going right for other people, which is what you want. But at the same time, it can be very isolating. You don’t hear the sad stuff until you lose your child.”
Hope and life afterward
Abby and Ted just commemorated Sam’s first birthday this week. She said it was difficult knowing it was approaching, but she was excited to do it the way they did.
Laura posted a heartfelt request on her Facebook page for donations. The family wanted to collect sleepers, swaddling blankets and hats so if any parents forgot their clothing at home, their babies would have something to wear, just like their son.
Laura said they expected maybe 50 outfits. On Sam’s birthday, they delivered 300 full sets, which came in from all over the world. They were organized by gender with a card, commemorating Sam’s memory and birthday.
Ben Gipe, Abby’s father, said they were overwhelmed with the generosity of the people they reached online and otherwise.
“I usually get the mail and there was one day where there wasn’t a package in our mailbox,” Ben said. “Every day, there’s been packages in the mailbox, stuff on the front porch from UPS or whoever, people coming by to drop off or bringing it to me at work. It’s been really, really incredible.”
Abby continues to write in her blog about her experiences and talk with women in a private Facebook group who’ve also lost their children. She said the ability to share how she’s feeling on a day-to-day basis helps her make it through.
One of those women is Emily. She was there for Abby when she was at the hospital and every now and then, they still send a text message to one another.
Emily said for the other women who go through the same difficult experience as her and Abby, she helps them find strength through knowledge. She has packets of information put together, including contacts for counseling or other resources. She said while even the most popular parenting books don’t prepare parents for the possibility of losing their baby, there’s more information and support available than she ever had through her loss.
Rebeka met other women, mostly friends of friends and a few through Facebook, who also lost their babies. They speak regularly, sometimes meeting up to get together and discuss how they’re feeling. She said keeping the group small and getting their feelings out helps a lot.
Emily said she doesn’t know why among her, Abby and Rebeka, a common thread of helping others is a piece of their recovery, but she’s glad it’s key in helping themselves.
“I don’t know if it’s a maternal impulse,” Emily said. “For me, it’s probably something in my clinical mind that says that there has to be some purpose behind why this happened. Maybe it has to do with faith, I don’t know. I was not going to allow what happened to [Zachary], what happened to me, be the end. There had to be something good that came from it because it was so tragic.”
Emily said losing a baby completely changes the perspectives of women who go through that loss. She said she’ll never lose what she gained from the experience.
“It just changes the way you look at your children,” Emily said. “It changes the way you interact with your children. You would have people that would say ‘my baby cried all night long and I haven’t had any sleep.’ When I was pregnant with Nathan, I looked at them and I would think ‘I so wish I had a sleepless night.’”
A study from the National Center for Biotechnology Information shows marriages have a much greater risk of dissolving after child loss. Emily stayed married and has two children, Nathan, 20, and Alaina, 16.
Abby and Ted said they still want babies, but Sam will always be their first child.
Rebeka said she and Kevin are doing well, though the loss of Eleanor came with difficulties. She said they worked on grieving together rather than apart. She, an artist, sews baby clothing and sells it online occasionally, with all proceeds going to a fund they’re saving to adopt a child. She said because of the risk of dysplasia reoccurring, they’re more interested in giving love to a child who needs it rather than going through exhaustive procedures to have their own child.
All three said they hope sharing their stories helps other women. Rebeka said opening up is some of the best advice she could give to women dealing with infant loss.
“Hang in there,” Rebeka said. “They’re not alone, there are other women who have gone through this. There’s an inclination to bottle up and not say anything, but say what you’re feeling because it’s going to help you process it. Talk to people, don’t close up.”