‘Slap in the face’: Hidden cruelty hits grieving mums
WARNING: Confronting content. This story contains images of stillborn babies.
JENNIE Klohs was 21 weeks pregnant when she tragically gave birth to a stillborn baby girl named Maddison in January.
It was a devastating experience made even more difficult by the fact that Mrs Klohs delivered Maddison in her Sydney hospital's maternity ward. As Mrs Klohs cradled her dead baby on her chest, she tried to block out the cries of healthy newborns and their heartbeat monitors.
"I was treated like every other mother about to give birth, but there was a major difference - my baby wasn't alive," Mrs Klohs said.
"Once I had given birth I fell asleep with Maddison on my chest, only to be woken up by the sounds of a baby crying. For a split second, I thought it was my baby girl, only for reality to kick back in like a slap to the face. It's something that I hope no other mother will have to experience."
Maddison is one of about 2000 stillborn babies who will be born in Australia this year - about one in 100 births.
A stillbirth is defined as the birth of a baby after 20 weeks gestation or weighing 400g or more, who shows no signs of life.
Very little is known about what causes stillbirths and how to prevent them, so in March, Labor Senator Kristina Keneally set up a senate select committee inquiry to report on the future of stillbirth research and education in Australia.
In 1999, the former NSW premier gave birth to a stillborn daughter, Caroline. Ms Keneally is a former patron of the Stillbirth Foundation and has used her public profile to raise awareness about stillbirths.
The inquiry is currently calling for public submissions, which close on June 29, and the committee will report its findings next year. Mrs Klohs is one of just seven women who have made submissions.
This week news.com.au is sharing some of these heartbreaking experiences, with the permission of those involved, in an effort to raise awareness about stillbirths in Australia.
Would you like to share your story with us? Email email@example.com
A 'SOULLESS AND HEARTLESS' EXPERIENCE
It is a simple question put to parents all the time, but Mrs Klohs dreads being asked how many children she has. Mrs Klohs and her husband Dan have two healthy young sons, Christopher and Austin, but Maddison is never far from their minds.
"I don't feel right saying I only have two children and leaving Maddison out. It's a question that I dread because it's really hard to answer," Mrs Klohs told news.com.au. "I always say three and just hope that there aren't any further questions."
Mrs Klohs said her pregnancy was normal with "no major issues", until her 20-week ultrasound. Five days after that ultrasound she discovered Maddison's heart had stopped beating. Two days later, she was admitted to hospital to have her stillborn baby induced.
"Through my experience I have come to realise that there is lack of research, communication, experience, support and, most importantly, empathy when it comes to stillbirth," she wrote in her public submission to the Senate inquiry.
"I was put in the birthing unit. I was able to hear the cries of newborn babies knowing that my daughter would not cry. I could hear the heartbeat monitors on the expectant mothers. It was devastating and made this hard situation harder."
Doctors and hospitals need to improve their internal systems to prevent grieving families from suffering more pain than necessary, Mrs Klohs said.
She described the attitudes of doctors and medical practitioners as "soulless and heartless" and "lacking empathy and feeling".
"There needs to be bereavement suits in all major hospitals in Australia to help give a little comfort and privacy in such a horrible time … where they are not put in among all the other expectant mothers and won't hear the newborn babies' cries," Mrs Klohs wrote.
"In the suites there need to be resources and information on services that are available to parents such as photography, hand and footprint inking and angel gowns … most of which I found out about when it was too late.
"I believe I need to do whatever I can do and I owe it to the next mother, who will unfortunately become a mother of an angel."
Melbourne woman Marianne Cottle has also written to the senate inquiry about her stillbirth experience.
In 2016, Ms Cottle was 37 weeks pregnant when she found herself doubled over in pain while out shopping for her baby's nursery. Her daughter Rosemary was pronounced dead a few hours later and delivered via caesarean.
Like Mrs Klohs, Ms Cottle was placed in her hospital's maternity ward alongside joyful new mothers and their newborn babies.
"Losing our daughter, without explanation, was more than heartbreaking, I don't have the words to describe the emotional pain that my partner and I were in," Ms Cottle wrote.
"Putting me in the maternity ward; being forced to listen to the cries of new little babies, knowing I would never hear my baby Rosie cry as I held her in my arms, was cruel, thoughtless and unnecessary.
"Listening to other women in labour, knowing their babies would come out looking into their mum's and dad's eyes and getting to snuggle with them was heartbreaking because our little Rosie's eyes couldn't open and never would.
"Clinically, I was in hospital recovering from surgery. I did not need to be in the maternity ward for any reason at all, except for the one tablet they gave me to stop my milk production - this could have been administered from any room in the hospital.
"Yet, that's where they chose to keep me for three days. On what insane level is this a good idea or even a necessary one?
"This standard practice needs to change at all hospitals. Listening to the joys and laughter of new mums, dads, grandparents and all their friends was beyond painful. Yes, I'd just had a caesarean, but that physical pain was nothing compared to the emotional pain caused by hearing happy families.
"I was jealous, angry and very confused. When I look back now, I think I'm selfish for not wanting to hear them be happy. Today, I am just so grateful that those families were not going through the tragic experience of losing their baby."
MOTHERS LEFT CRAVING ANSWERS
Many of the women who made public submissions expressed sadness and frustration at not knowing the cause of their baby's death. Part of the aim of the inquiry is to analyse and invest in more research so families can be given answers.
"Two years later, I still don't know why Rosie died," Mrs Cottle wrote. "The only thing I do know is that it was something I did or didn't do. Things don't 'just happen' without a reason.
"My body failed in some way and no one can tell me how it failed. Telling me it's not my fault is not good enough. It was my fault. It was my body that failed our child. This is a fact that cannot be disputed
"Stillbirth needs … support and dedication so that we start seeing a reduction each year and eventually an end to parents being told, 'Sorry your child is dead but I can't tell you why'."
Another woman who submitted her story to the inquiry, Christine Prosser, lost her son Franklin in 2014.
She says more research is needed to identify causes and factors contributing to stillbirths, as well as more education to better inform mothers about the known risks, prevention strategies and warning signs.
"I am one of the many, many mothers who does not know the reason why her child has died," Ms Prosser wrote.
"I have no idea about the contribution of genetics or environmental factors, if it was something I did or didn't do, or perhaps it was just stance. I imagine I will never know why my son died but I hope that research in coming years will bring answers."
STILLBIRTH STATS AREN'T GETTING BETTER
The Perinatal Deaths in Australia 1993-2012 report shows the overall rate of perinatal deaths - stillbirths or neonatal deaths, that is death within the first four weeks of life - remained fairly stable over this 20-year period. But while neonatal deaths declined by 18 per cent, the stillbirth rate increased by 13 per cent.
Senator Keneally says more government funding is needed to reduce that number.
"The rate hasn't changed over decades and then there are things that we know that we're not telling parents that could help prevent a stillbirth, and then there are things that we could know but we need better data to give to our researchers and we need more sustained funding," she told Sky News in April.
"I would like it, first and foremost, to get data that is timely, that is consistent, and that gets the information that we need.
"For example, we're pretty poor in Australia at doing autopsies on stillborn babies and collecting information about the babies themselves."
Senator Keneally said trained, senior clinicians needed to be able to talk to parents who had just experienced a stillbirth "to be able to explain in this terribly tragic and sad circumstance, why it's important to do an autopsy, not just for that baby but for their future children and to help us all understand what might some of the reasons be that cause a stillbirth".
"There is an extraordinary number of stillbirths even after an autopsy though that remain unexplained, and that goes to collecting data about the pregnancy itself, about maternal health, and about the experience of the baby's movements, how the mother slept, whether she slept on her side or her back," Senator Keneally said.
"There's a whole lot of data that we could collect but we're not, and think about this: right now in human history we have more ways of collecting live, real time data if you consider technology, so there's a role here for the private sector and for innovation to help us collect this information from women as they are pregnant."
Stillbirth Foundation chairman Jonathon Morris says part of the problem was the hushed tones when talking about stillbirths.
"This is a subject that has traditionally been hard to discuss. Death is still a bit of a taboo in our society. It's just heartbreaking for parents. Simple questions like 'How many children do you have?' become difficult," Mr Morris told news.com.au
"There is a failure of people to grasp the constant nature of what bereaved parents live through. I just don't think people recognise how it is a constant of what is lost. I don't think people deeply appreciate it."
If you are looking for more information about stillbirths visit The Stillbirth Foundation or Sands, an organisation supporting those experiencing miscarriages, stillbirths and newborn deaths. Sands has a 24 hour support line on 1300 072 637.
You can make a public submission to the Senate's stillbirth inquiry online. Submissions close on June 29.
If you'd like to share your stillbirth story with news.com.au, email firstname.lastname@example.org.