By Hagar Cohen and Alex McClintock
WARNING: This post deals with stillbirth, and may be triggering for some readers.
Regina McDonald, a senior nurse at the Mater Maternity Hospital in Sydney, answered the phone at 5:30pm.
On the line was Hanh, a first-time mother who began to feel ill while out shopping. Now, hours later, she had noticed a scary-looking discharge and was in pain.
For McDonald, a quiet, precise woman with more than 30 years experience as a midwife, nothing about the call was out of the ordinary.
She asked the routine questions: “What shade is the discharge? Is this your first pregnancy? When is the baby due? Has the baby been moving?”
Brown, yes, in one and half weeks, yes. Satisfied, McDonald told Hanh to put a pad in and call back later if there were any further issues.
At home, Hanh felt worse and worse. Sitting up or lying down, she couldn’t get comfortable. Contractions began and the discharge thickened.
“You don’t want to be that person,” she said later. “You don’t want to be that bride, and you don’t want to be that pregnant lady who thinks she’s the only pregnant lady who’s ever had a baby, who rings the hospital every itch.
“So you try and be brave, and logically go through your mind about whether this is normal or not. As a first time mum you don’t know what is and isn’t normal.”
She called back at 7:30pm: “We’re going to come in.”
At the time, Hanh was concerned, but she didn’t imagine that her baby girl had already died. In Australia over 2,000 babies are born dead each year — six a day.
Australia’s stillbirth rate falls behind those of Poland, Portugal and Croatia, and the figures have changed little in the last two decades. For Indigenous women the rates are much higher.
Now there are growing calls for a national campaign — like the one that successfully reduced the rate of SIDS in the 1980s — to educate doctors, midwives and expectant mothers about the steps they can take to reduce the risks.
By the time Hanh and her husband Matt got to the Mater it was 8:00pm. McDonald was waiting at the door to take them to a room with a cardiotopograph (CTG) heart rate monitor.
Matt’s chief concern was the fact that Hanh was in pain. He said so to McDonald, who reassured him: “That’s a good thing, she’s having contractions; you’re going to have your baby soon.”
In the room with the CTG monitor, a grey box about the size of a desktop computer, McDonald began her routine. She turned on the power and began looking for the heartbeat, running the ultrasound disc over Hanh’s stomach.
But there was something wrong with the machine; McDonald couldn’t hear the heartbeat. She connected another ultrasound, tapping it with her finger to make sure it was working, and tried again. Nothing.