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Loss Stacy

Infant Death and Sacred Parenting: An Interview

 

I have a friend I’d like you to meet because she understands humanity at a depth many of us will never come to know in our lifetimes, and she has a message.

Tammy Ruiz is a perinatal loss nurse, a medical professional who assists parents as they do the unimaginable – perform a lifetime of “sacred parenting” in a brief moment, and then say good-bye to a dearly loved newborn baby.

Everyday Tammy works with parents who have suffered the deaths of their baby in the course of pregnancy or soon after birth, some of them live brief, treasured lives. She and a few hundred colleagues across the world tend to the hundreds of thousands of bereaved parents who need this type of care each year. She cares not only for the child, but for the parents and the whole family. In addition, she instructs other medical professionals, and promotes the development of perinatal loss programs around the world. I had the opportunity to ask her some questions.

What is a Typical Day Like?

She begins her day like many of us, checking messages and returning inquiries, but the nature of her inquiries is something special. She oversees several programs, a support group for grieving parents, the burial process of infants, and referrals to other bereavement resources. It’s not uncommon, however, for her to get urgent messages from sobbing parents, “I’m calling from far away, and I just found out my baby will die. You took care of my sister’s baby and I don’t know who else to call. Please help me.” When she gets these calls, she goes from working her way through inquiries to pouring her whole self into another person’s suffering. You see, this part of her duty.

On any day, it is the norm to have at least one family with an “expected death at upcoming birth” situation. Tammy helps parents as they grieve these deaths, both emotionally and logistically. She goes to Labor and Delivery to help prepare for the birth, and facilitates every detail from time management during the brief life, to selecting the tiny clothing, to arranging for the burial. Sometimes, the baby has already died and she helps the parents prepare for stillbirth.

She is usually the one to take the baby from the room after he or she dies, and later in preparation for burials, she is the one who checks consent forms, retrieves the babies from the histology lab, and lovingly dresses them for burial. The babies are bundled individually, she says, often with mementos given to them by their families.

What Advice Do You Give Parents of Young Children?

It’s more than just the adults who suffer grief, there are often small children in the families too. Tammy says that parents are unprepared to guide their small children through the grieving process, and can feel as if they have failed to protect them from from pain and suffering. “Protecting children from pain is impossible,” she reminds us, and “the task needs to be seen as accompanying them through the experience.”

She believes it is best to tell children the simple truth, even if the answer is “I don’t know.” Parents should let children see genuine grief responses, let them be physically present to witness the dynamic transition from life to death, and let them hold their deceased sibling if it can be done in a visually gentle manner. Let them take pictures, let them name their sibling, let them mourn the loss of the big-brother or big-sister role they anticipated, especially for the youngest surviving sibling. In addition, she warns against using the word “lost” to describe what happened to the baby as this can frighten, even more than death, a small child. She says to tell them, again, the truth – the baby died.

What is Sacred Parenting?

In the video at the end, which has been seen around the world as both Catholic and non-Catholic hospitals in other countries are establishing perinatal hospice programs, Tammy uses the term “sacred parenting” to describe the moments a couple spends with a dying newborn child. I asked her about the origin of this term.

There is, it seems, a ethereal quality to those special moments when time is suspended, and a lifetime of love transpires. The first couple she ever used this term with was a lovely faith-filled couple who had a daughter diagnosed with Thanatophoric (death-bringing) Dysplasia. She told them that she understood something she hadn’t grasped before, that when she got married, she considered the Sacrament of Marriage to be something the priest did to the man and woman. Much later, she realized that the priest is the Church’s witness to the Sacrament that the man and woman do to and with each other, in creating a marriage.

Similarly, when people come to the hospital, they request that things be done to them, in the hopes of recovery. Even when a baby is very sick, parents expect and hope for a recovery. However, when a baby has a condition that is unalterably life-ending, Tammy says she understands the process like she now understands weddings. Her job is to create a safe place for parents to be parents to their child, and to honor the ability of parents to perform parenting the way God intends it. “You are the sacred do-ers of this process, it is yours,” she affirms.

She remembers immediately after this couple’s daughter was born, the father baptized her and then gave the instructions for the child to be taken to her mother, against the standard neonatal care procedures. Tammy was able to honor the father’s wishes, and forty minutes later, when the baby died in his arms, he remarked, “She just left, I felt her spirit leave her.” His bond was that deep and sacred. A little girl’s Daddy connected with her soul, and cradled her into eternity. This kind of care and respect for parenting is missing in so many hospitals today.

How Can We Help?

So, the next time any of us get up in the morning thinking we have such a full and demanding day ahead, please take a minute as you sit down to log-on to your email accounts to say a prayer of gratitude for people like Tammy, and a prayer for fruitfulness in her efforts. Most of us won’t ever face a day like this as parents, but for those that do, professionals with such keen respect for humanity are a beacon in the world.

Each of us can show love by seeking out our friends whose children have died, and resist building the walls that too often get built out of our own fears. Send a card to arrive on a due date, or anniversary date to tell a friend you are thinking of her and her baby, acknowledge her on Mother’s Day, or donate bereavement books to your local hospital.

Please help to spread the word about these programs by sharing Tammy’s video, which she made herself with the help of friends (she’s the nurse in it). If you know someone who can help develop a program in your local hospital, Tammy is available for guidance through the contact information at the end. God bless you Tammy, you are an angel and a hero.

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Neonatal Nurses: Caring for the most vulnerable in our world when they emerge too soon

On January 31, 2010 I gave birth to two beautiful baby girls 8 weeks early.  Although one of them never came home, I owe every moment I spent with Samantha, who passed away when they were 5 weeks 5 days old, to the neonatal nurses who cared for her every day and every night of her life.  I know that caring for my babies was more than a job for them.

 

These caregivers loved my daughters.

Preemies are babies born before 37 weeks.  They need very intense assistance to live.  This care is provided in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit.  Let me introduce you to the NICU where these angels do their work everyday.

First you walk through a waiting room and there is a sink for washing your hands before you enter.  This is not your usual hand washing though. 

There are brushes available and instructions about how much time you should spend on each part of your hand and forearms. 

 

Take off your jewelry.

Scrub front back and between fingers and all the way up to the elbow.

Then you put some antibacterial gel on your hands and you may enter.  No children allowed, and only parents and grandparents are permitted depending on the hospital.  A nurse checks your hospital bracelet until they get to know your face.

 

There are cribs and incubators spaced out along the walls and little curtains that you can pull for privacy when nursing.  There are even rocking chairs and breast pumps available.  Small windows up high let some light in but there is not a “viewing” window for visitors like the regular nursery.

The first time I saw my babies was terrifying.

 

They were so tiny and sprawled out in incubators.  Touching them was prohibited except during feeding time because of the stress it put on their fragile bodies.  When I finally got to hold them I needed help to pick them up because of the monitor wires were connected to them and the nasal cannulas, tubes in their noses, which were helping them breathe.  Mostly it is quiet, cool and dim.  These babies need a womb environment and only the beeping of the monitor’s alarms and an occasional baby cry interrupts.

In the NICU each nurse cares for many babies, depending on the level of care required and how many babies are there at the time.  They change diapers, heat bottles, feed, burb, and hold babies.  In addition they check temperatures and keep track of any problems to which the monitors alert them.

Then there is the love they administer.  Gentle soothing voices caressed the little babies’ ears.  Sweet comforting touches told them they weren’t alone.  The nurses made signs for my daughters to put on their incubators announcing their arrival.  They made a little sign for Hannah to celebrate her reaching 4 lbs and celebrating Samantha’s return to the hospital where Hannah was.  They took pictures of them and gave them to us.  And when Samantha passed away, they came to her funeral.  These are only a few of the things we saw and I know many happened when we were away.

Another full time job these nurses perform is parental care.  Teaching specialized preemie care and explaining strange words like bradycardia.  Also, they are counselors. I asked them within the first few days, how do you recommend I handle juggling two babies here in the NICU and a 2 year old at home?  They gave helpful suggestions and pointed out that I would be no good to my babies when they came home if I didn’t rest and take care of myself.  They always smiled and asked how I was doing.  They offered me every opportunity to mommy my babies.  They gave me privacy when I needed it while making themselves available to help.

Then there is the trauma factor.  When Samantha got sick the day she would die, it was a nurse who recognized her sickness and comforted her as she suffered.  It was a nurse who explained to us clearly and compassionately what was happening to our baby.  A nurse brought us drinks as we sat alone in the waiting room in shock as they prepped her to transport back to a level III NICU.

Neonatal nurses celebrated life with us and did the backbreaking work that it takes for babies at that stage to survive.  They mourned with us in death when our little Samantha didn’t make it.  I know they loved both our babies.  I know they won’t forget them.  We are facebook friends with many of them now and I try to take Hannah to visit and send them cards with pictures when I can.  I will never forget the gift these special nurses gave our family.  Sometimes it must be heartbreaking for the nurses to accompany parents on the traumatic NICU ride.   I’m sure there were many times I was less than polite and they were kind and understanding.  The constant care and kindness they offered was invaluable to my family.

Today is Neonatal Nurse Appreciation Day.  Although many people don’t know who they are, these are very special people who help some of the most vulnerable in our world.  These are the unborn that became born too soon.  Miracles happen even for micro-preemies (babies born at less than 1 lb 14 oz) with the hands of these amazing nurses.  The healing that happens when nurses are willing to grieve along with you at the loss of a little person is so precious.

I personally would like to thank the NICU nurses at Round Rock Medical Center and at St. David’s in Austin.  Expect some cookies today from ^Samantha^ and Hannah and their family.