'Forgotten baby syndrome' and the device fighting it
IN LATE July last year Michela Onida made a small change to her usual routine. It was a change that ultimately cost her 17-month-old daughter her life.
The Italian woman and her husband Stefano had a punishing daily grind - including waking up at 3am each day in order to raise their kids while running a small fish shop.
Until that day, Michela would get herself ready, then drop her baby at a nursery before taking her elder daughter to school.
On that fateful day she took her elder daughter to school. She forgot to take Gaia - her baby - to the nursery, and Michela then drove to work, parked the car and left Gaia in the back seat all day.
In the hot Tuscan sun, poor Gaia suffered for four hours.
At noon when Michela closes the shop and returns to the car, it's 30 degrees Celsius. As soon as she gets inside her brain clicks, pulling her into the nightmare of reality.
"I heard heavy, stifled breathing coming from behind, I turned my head - it was Gaia!" Michela told news.com.au, clearly still in pain remembering the tragic day.
She called her husband, but the rush to the hospital was hopeless: Gaia died. Her body temperature was 42 degrees Celsius.
"I tried to find an explanation, but I have never had any doubts on Michela: it wasn't her fault, she's always been a perfect mother, working like crazy to run the shop and look after the family," Stefano explained.
"She often blamed herself for not spending enough time with our children."
That awful day Michela found out she was victim of a terrible memory disorder often associated with the 'forgotten baby syndrome'.
"I suffer from dissociative amnesia. I thought - I was sure - I had dropped Gaia off at the nursery before going to work, saying 'goodbye' to her and giving her a kiss on the cheek as I do each morning," she said.
"But instead, when I got back into the car after hours, there she was, stuck in her baby seat. She was sleeping, maybe she was dreaming.
"I don't want to go back to that morning, it hurts so much talking about it. This is why we've decided to do something useful by taking from this tragedy a piece of our experience that can help other parents avoid that more toddlers die forgotten in car back seats."
She's talking about a device that the couple have developed to keep other children safe - hopefully preventing other families from the terrible tragedy that they've faced.
Turning their grief into action, the couple sought the help of a software company to develop a 'forget-me-not' device to double check that kids haven't been left in the car.
"OK, You Are Here! consists of a magnetic badge with a chip, like a credit card, which the parent who drops off the baby swipes under an electronic machine placed at the entrance of a daycare centre or nursery," explains Michela. "It creates a database that tracks daily attendance and can be used to monitor the presence of kids up to three years of age."
It's like clocking-into work, only this is "clocking your baby into safe hands", she said. "An SMS alert is sent to the mobile phones of both parents if the baby does not arrive in the morning, meaning nobody actually dropped him or her off.
"This device makes us very proud, it's what keeps us going. We want to help other parents know that their baby is in the arms of teachers, looked after, protected and cuddled, like my Gaia should have been."
Their crusade aims to create a network between families and schools, enhancing co-operation. So far, the device has been implemented in two daycare centres in Tuscany. It's still in an experimental phase but not for long.
"Before we expand it, we want to be 1000 per cent sure it works perfectly well," said Michela, who dreams that one day the badge could be used across the world. "It's efficient and other towns have already contacted us requesting to implement it at their nurseries."
Focusing on the device - and talking about it - has a redemptive and healing power for the couple.
"This project has given a reason to move on, a way to handle our daily grief and become active by turning our personal drama into something useful which we hope will support other families", Michela said.
Stefano added: "Our idea of a family has always been a simple one: my wife and I, we've always said that we don't own much wealth, that our two daughters were our greatest, unmeasurable treasures."
It's mainly thanks to the love for their other daughter that they found the courage to react, to move on and get involve in the software development: "We owe her our lives", they said in unison.