The agonising stories of stillbirth unveiled
Inquiry seeks to uncover why children continue to die in utero
BY the end of the day, on average, six Australian babies will have been stillborn.
It’s a rate that hasn’t changed in more than two decades, despite decreasing deaths in other western countries.
Earlier this year, the pain of these grieving families was laid bare in a senate inquiry that has sought to find out why Australia’s children continue to die in utero and in labour at the same rate they did 20 years ago.
Hundreds of parents made gut-wrenching submissions to the Select Committee on Stillbirth Research and Education, detailing the deaths of their children and patterns of care – how few of them were warned about the risks of stillbirth during prenatal care and how the medical care in the aftermath of their loss was often insensitive.
As the world marks Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month this October, we spoke to some of the parents, including Sunshine Coast mum Paula Dillon, who appeared as witnesses before the senate inquiry.
MIDWIFE Paula Dillon knew nothing about stillbirth before the birth, and death, of her second daughter Annabelle.
Despite working in high-risk obstetrics settings, she had never been trained in caring for pregnant women whose children had died.
Her first pregnancy, with daughter Grace, had been relatively routine. And until the last two days of her pregnancy, so had Annabelle’s. None of her primary carers or even her midwifery teachers had ever mentioned stillbirth.
“I had no idea that stillbirth is the leading cause of infant death in Australia,” she told the senate hearing.
“I had no idea that Australia’s stillbirth rate is double the national road death toll or that it is far more common than SIDS, and I was a midwife.”
Annabelle died at the age of 41 weeks and 6 days on May 21, 2005.
Sometime before her birth, she suffered a rare condition known as massive idiopathic feto-maternal transfusion. Her blood supply was spontaneously lost into her mother’s circulation, killing her.
“It is unpreventable, undetectable and untreatable,” Paula told the Daily.
Paula and her husband didn’t discover their daughter’s condition until a routine cardiotocography test to record Annabelle’s heartbeat. By the time of the test, the child’s heart had already stopped. She
was stillborn one day later in a maternity ward of a private hospital.
The aftermath of Annabelle’s death utterly changed the course of Paula’s career.
Delivery rooms became too confronting and she returned to work as a nurse, working primarily in surgeries. At the same time, she began volunteering at universities. She told Annabelle’s story to classes of would-be midwives, some of whom later met and recognised her at events and conferences.
She now regularly teaches midwifery students and paramedics at the University of Sunshine Coast about stillbirth and how to help bereaved parents.
She is also the Queensland educator for the charity Still Aware, and completed a Masters in Midwifery in 2014, exploring the care and treatment around decreased fetal movement in the final stages of pregnancy.
“I realised there was a gap in midwifery education,” she said.
“It was great for my healing, and to speak Annabelle’s name.
“It helps midwife students not to be afraid.
“Annabelle made me a teacher.”
In the years since Annabelle’s death, Paula fell preg Queenslander” nant another five times.
The first ended in miscarriage at 10 weeks. The second, at 14 weeks. The third, a girl named Bethanie, died at just 17 weeks old in June 2007.
Though not legally classified as stillborn, the family refers to Bethanie as their second stillborn child.
“That’s how I feel Bethanie was,” Paula said.
She returned to work as a midwife in 2008.
Two years later, she fell pregnant again. Elijah was their “one last shot” at having another living child. He was born healthy in 2010.
She calls him her sunshine boy.
It it a personal adaption of the term rainbow child, used sometimes by bereaved parents who have a living child after a pregnancy loss.
“He healed me in ways I can’t wait to tell him about when he is older,” Paula said. “I felt broken as a woman.” Then in 2013, after moving up to Brisbane, her “surprise was born. Lucy, who was Paula’s seventh pregnancy, is now approaching her fifth birthday.
Paula’s place in stillbirth education has helped Australia’s next generation of midwives deal with the fear that surrounds stillbirth, even among medical professionals.
“This is where this senate inquiry comes in,” she said. “People are just scared of stillbirth. They’re scared of talking about it.
“Thirteen years ago, 14 years ago... I wouldn’t have talked about it.”
She has echoed calls for mandated standards of care, and believes bereavement midwives should be accredited through a training program.
Paula has also advocated for better education for pregnant women seeking medical care for decreased fetal movements and on side sleeping in late pregnancy.
“We are never going to eradicate stillbirth,” she said.
“It’s about... how can we make the best experience of the worst day of their life?
“When you are given that support, it definitely makes that grieving easier.”
October 15 will mark International Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Day.
HE HEALED ME IN WAYS I CAN’T WAIT TO TELL HIM ABOUT WHEN HE IS OLDER. I FELT BROKEN AS A WOMAN
TRAGIC LOSS: Little Annabelle Dillon died at the age of 41 weeks and 6 days on May 21, 2005.
HEARTBREAK: Paula Dillon, with her family, knows the heartache of stillbirth and now works to ensure more adequate education and understanding.