After the tragedy of the stillbirth, he set out to help others

May 26, 2023 – Elizabeth O’Donnell found out she was pregnant in June 2020. He was surprised but very happy. He was never sick and says he was the healthiest he had ever been.

But around Thanksgiving, her daughter, whom she had already decided to name Aaliyah, was moving a little more than usual. Then on November 28, after 7 months of pregnancy, the unthinkable happened.

“I realized I hadn’t really felt her move all day, so it took a while to feel like, ‘OK, I’m going to the hospital,’ because I really just thought I was being annoying at first. maternal. Everything was so great until then, why should anything go wrong?” he recalled.

Her doula encouraged her to go to the hospital. When she got there, her midwife found no heartbeat.

“The moment she said my daughter no longer had a heartbeat, I was like, ‘What are you talking about?’ O’Donnell said. “Does this still happen? Is this a thing? I thought this sort of thing just happened, I think I said in the 1800s, because I was just like, ‘what do you mean you can’t find a heartbeat?’

Everything went perfectly until then, he said.

“And so to be told that your child is dead, and by the way, you still have to go through a full-on labor, like coming out crying, it was so hard, and it’s hard to put into words. because you never expect to have to do something like that.”

Aaliyah Denise Briscoe was born 4 days later on December 1, 2020. But O’Donnell’s trauma didn’t end there. Her employer then also refused her paid maternity leave.

“They said my family leave would be revoked because I couldn’t provide a birth certificate, even though it was previously approved.”

The then 30-year-old Washington teacher decided to fight back. She went public with her story, posting a picture on Instagram of herself holding Aaliyah from her hospital bed. It went viral.

“It doesn’t matter if Aaliyah was breathing or not, you know, I, as a mom, still went through everything that everyone else goes through in terms of labor and delivery.”

“All I wanted,” she continued, “was 8 weeks, so I wouldn’t have to go to work bleeding every day or go to work figuring out what to do with all this milk that’s coming. I mean, I couldn’t go to work.”

Disgusted and disillusioned, she quit teaching and immediately began advocating for parents of stillborn children. Aaliyah in Action was born.

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The nonprofit organization provides “self-care” packages for expectant parents and families as a first step toward recovery.

“I just wanted to give a little piece of something to help families get through the worst time of your life when you don’t want to survive,” O’Donnell recalled. “I think people’s first reaction is that they’re just pushing resources at you. And while that’s good, not everyone is ready for that in the first week or two. For me, I wasn’t ready for that, but it’s helpful to still have those resources when you’re ready.”

O’Donnell wanted to make sure others had the same access.

“It’s a very, very hard life every day, but if we have a lot of resources — and different types of resources — then hopefully people will be able to figure out what’s best for them.”

The packages help struggling families in 40 states navigate the aftermath of such a devastating loss. They also provide grief materials and books for parents and siblings, and have partnered with doulas, birth centers and nearly 40 hospitals to help distribute them.

O’Donnell even worked with the DC City Council to extend bereavement leave to employees who lose a child. The district government’s Parental Bereavement Leave Act 2022 requires 10 days of paid leave if an employee is “stillborn”. became law on March 10.

Vasu Reddy, senior policy adviser for economic justice at the National Partnership for Women & Families, says one problem is that the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 does not clearly cover abortion or stillbirth.

“If it’s not explicit, it’s up to employers and HR to interpret what is explicit to the best of their ability,” Reddy said. “And so there can be a lot of confusion among employers and employees about whether that applies because it’s not clear. Implicitly, however, miscarriage and stillbirth are covered in most cases.”

Reddy believes that because employers don’t necessarily see it as a health issue, it slips through the cracks and many people are turned away because of it.

He says the FMLA is a floor, not a ceiling, so it sets the basic minimum protections, but states can go beyond those protections to give people the freedom they need.

“I think employers and HR departments are often focused on what the law says is the minimum we have to do and do it,” he said.

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Reddy believes that women who have been denied paid medical leave after giving birth to a stillborn child need to be very clear about their medical and health needs in order to recover physically and emotionally.

At least 21,000 babies are stillborn in the United States each year. That’s about 1 in every 175 births, according to the CDC.

According to the Star Legacy Foundation, the stillbirth rate in the United States has remained flat for decades and is higher than in many other industrialized nations.

The foundation’s founder and executive director, Lindsey Wimmer’s son, Garrett, was stillborn at 38 weeks – considered full term at the time – nearly 20 years ago.

“I tried to understand what happened to us from a medical perspective, because there were so many unanswered questions, and that’s when I realized how little research had been done, how many gaps there were, and how they just weren’t paying attention. they are paying for this issue,” Wimmer said.

According to the former nurse, the bottom line is that stillbirth in the United States was not prioritized.

“We have a lot of work to do and we have to do it because where we are right now is not right,” Wimmer said. “And I would say we’re definitely behind our colleagues and our colleagues in other high-income countries around the world who are really making stillbirth prevention a priority.”

Some stillbirths can be caused by infections, birth defects, and other pregnancy complications. According to the March of Dimes, the most common symptom is when the baby stops kicking and moving.

Black women are more than twice as likely to have stillbirths as Hispanic or white women. Women over 35 and women with lower incomes are also at higher risk.

Elizabeth Cherot, MD, senior vice president and director of health and wellness at the March of Dimes, wants women to know that while there are risk factors you can’t change, there are some you can do about.

“For example, prenatal screening helps identify medical conditions that may increase the chance of stillbirth,” Cherot said. “This is an important step for anyone thinking about becoming pregnant.”

Other tips: Maintain a healthy weight and avoid drugs, smoking and alcohol. See a doctor immediately if you experience bleeding during pregnancy.

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The causes of most stillbirths are still largely unknown, according to Christopher M. Zahn, MD, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists’ interim chief executive and chief of clinical practice and health equity and quality.

“Investigation of the specific causes of stillbirths has been hampered by the lack of uniform protocols for evaluating and classifying stillbirths and by declining autopsy rates,” Zahn said. “In most cases, stillbirth certificates are completed before a full postnatal investigation is completed, and amended death certificates are rarely submitted when additional information from the stillbirth assessment becomes available.”

He says more data and research is needed. Her organization “believes that preventing stillbirths is a widely shared responsibility and has worked to raise awareness among lawmakers and stakeholders about stillbirths in the United States, existing racial and ethnic disparities, and the need for more research.”

The March of Dimes has launched a new center to research and address the poor health outcomes and long-standing racial disparities that they say make the United States among the most dangerous developed nations to give birth.

“The center will focus exclusively on research aimed at eliminating the disparity between maternal and infant health through scientific research and technological development,” Cherot said.

And last year, at the request of Congress, a group of experts met to discuss stillbirth. In March, the National Institutes of Health (National Institute of Child Health and Human Development)’s Stillbirth Task Force released a report that focused on stillbirths, communities at higher risk, psychological effects on mothers after stillbirth and treatment, and barriers to data collection. known risk factors.

Improvements to record keeping and data collection were recommended; addressing risk inequalities; and reducing the stillbirth rate in the United States through research and prevention efforts.

O’Donnell took matters into her own hands and hired a placental pathologist from Yale to help determine Aaliyah’s cause of death. She has outgrown her placenta.

She is working to expand Aaliyah in Action to help fill the gaps she sees in the system.

“No one should go into the hospital pregnant and leave empty-handed. Especially if it can be prevented. Not all stillbirths are preventable, but many are. And we can change that, and that’s what I’m here to do.”