real life

Chloe was stillborn. Her parents let two journalists spend time with her and tell their story.

Featured image courtesy of Alex McClintock.

Earlier this month Hagar Cohen and Alex McClintock spent time with a Sydney family and their stillborn daughter, Chloe for an ABC Background Briefing investigation into preventable stillbirth. This is how it happened.

For weeks we’d been chasing hospitals, trying to get access to maternity wards to tell the story of a stillbirth. After endless phone calls with suspicious hospital administrators, it was the Mater Maternity Hospital in North Sydney that invited us in.

Then it was simply a matter of waiting for a stillbirth to happen. Sounds horrible, doesn’t it? Waiting for a stillbirth to happen. That’s our job, though, and we knew this was an important story to tell.

We didn’t need to wait long. Six babies are stillborn in Australia every day — one every four hours.

Deb de Wilde,a social worker, got in touch and said she had spoken to a couple who wanted to tell their daughter’s story. Her name was Chloe. She was born at 37 weeks and four days. She was perfect.

You can listen to Chloe’s story on Radio National’s Background Briefing podcast, here

We jumped in a cab, and started making plans. I’ll do this, you’ll do that. We wanted to make sure we were as sensitive as possible; we didn’t want to push the boundaries of what a grieving family were comfortable with.

The penny dropped on the Harbour Bridge: we were about to see a dead baby. We spent the rest of the drive in silence.

Deb met us at the hospital. She looked tired. Chloe’s parents were the third couple she had counselled in the last 10 days. Deb is well known among bereaved parents and the Mater’s midwives know her as “Saint Deb”. She’s usually the first person parents see after hearing the devastating news that their baby has died.

First, we spoke Regina and Fiona, the midwives who cared for the parents. Though they have half a century of experience between them, the discovery of a baby that has died before drawing a breath is not something you ever get used to. At times during the interview, both seemed close to tears.

Then we waited, eating hospital sandwiches and drinking instant coffee. Suddenly Deb appeared and before we knew it we were following her down the maternity ward’s corridors. We were going to collect Chloe from the fridge and take her to her parents.

"Hanh was dressing Chloe, cooing and speaking to her as she went." Image courtesy of Alex McClintock.

This might sound a bit strange. We know. But these days many hospitals encourage parents to spend time with their stillborn. Deb says it helps them with the grieving process by creating precious memories of a child they will never take home. It helps validate their experience as parents after nine months of expectation.

Chloe was in the “holding room”, a cupboard really, tucked away at the bowels of the maternity ward: a few shelves, lots of baby blankets and a fridge.

We knew what was inside. We certainly didn’t feel ready for it.

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We’ve talked about this moment a lot since, and we both had a similar reaction. Nothing ever really prepares you to see a dead person, let alone a dead baby. Both of us had our hearts in our mouths. We didn’t know whether to look or turn away. We were both about ready to faint.

Then, all of a sudden, Deb opened the door and took baby Chloe out of the fridge. She was wrapped up in blankets. When the blankets came off we saw a little face, pink cheeks and little fingers with long fingernails. Chloe was beautiful.

The only clue to the fact she wasn’t sleeping was her lips, which were deep purple. We began, slowly, to understand.

We didn’t know what to expect when we stepped into the room with Hanh and Matt, the parents. At first things did feel a bit strange. Hanh was dressing Chloe, cooing and speaking to her as she went.

Again, we’ve talked about this a lot since, and we had the same reaction: shock. We had found ourselves in an incredibly intimate scene with a couple who seemed like they were in total denial.

Then Matt explained, “There’s no illusion about what’s going on here. We know.”

And they did. The more time we spent with Hanh and Matt, the more we realised they were processing Chloe’s death in the best way they could.

It sounds strange, but it was actually nice to be there with this lovely couple and their daughter. A privilege, even: we were some of the only people who would ever meet Chloe and appreciate how beautiful she was.

Hanh and Matt began telling us what had happened. The niggling feeling that something wasn’t quite right. Hanh’s waters breaking. The blood, the red and the brown. The tears. Regret.

Before we left and said our final goodbyes, Hanh said it was important for her to say something to anyone who cared to listen.

“As a pregnant woman don’t be afraid to speak up. If you feel unwell or that something isn’t quite right, don’t be afraid to speak up. Don’t let anybody, and medical professional and anyone bully you into not following your instincts.

“I think I had this little alarm bell going on in the back of my head and I wasn’t well. And you’re so afraid of being a hypochondriac and being treated like you’re THAT mother.

“I work with a guy, his mother is a nurse, he said to me, if you need to go to the hospital, go to the hospital and if they send you away and tell you to come back in a couple of hours tell them to fuck off. No. you fight them, Make them do their job.”

That’s why this story is so important. Hanh’s words will stay with us, and so will Chloe.

If you need help or you'd like to talk to someone about miscarriage, stillbirth or newborn loss, SANDS Australia have a 24 Hour Hotline. 1300 072 637. Or you can call Lifeline on 13 11 14. 

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