We were going to have a baby, but we had an Angel instead – In Loving Memory of Our Daughter, Alana Marie Banerjee
Alana Marie Banerjee was born on October 4th, 2013 at 2:21 am – 6 lbs 8 oz of pure joy for me and her father. At 20 inches long, she was a tall baby, with long skinny legs, slender fingers with perfect miniature nails, and big soft feet with all the requisite toes. She had her father’s nose and ears and eyelashes, my lips and eyebrows, the softest skin I’ve ever felt, and a full head of silky black hair. There was only one thing wrong with this storybook ending, following nine months of a perfectly healthy and blissful pregnancy: our daughter was born dead.
“Stillborn” is the technical term for a baby who dies in utero after 20 weeks of gestation – Alana was 39 weeks 5 days, just two days short of her due date. Up until the moment the nurse couldn’t find a heartbeat, she’d been healthy and strong. The doctors had called her fetal monitor read-outs “textbook.” She’d been active and lively, rolling around in my belly, suffering adorable bouts of in utero hiccups (often more than once a day) for weeks. She’d passed every prenatal test with flying colors. There was never a cause for concern – never a single warning sign. Until, all of a sudden, she was gone.
The doctors still don’t know what happened, and there’s a good chance they never will (around 50% of stillbirths are never positively explained). And the most shocking, tragic part is that this kind of heartbreaking loss is much more common than you might think – it happens in 1 in 160 births in this country, affecting over 24,000 families each year in the United States alone. (That’s almost 1% of births, more than 70 babies per day – the same number of people who die in car accidents each year.)
We never knew, until it happened to us. We were completely unprepared for what we would face, and if not for the wisdom and grace of the people supporting us, would likely have made mistakes that would have haunted us forever. So we wanted to share our story, in hopes that if this ever happens to someone you love (and we pray that it doesn’t), you’ll be as prepared as you can be for such a tragedy.
These links will jump between sections in case you’re reading this across multiple sittings.
Our Birth Story – Part 1
The story of Alana’s birth begins at my 39-week checkup. It was a Tuesday afternoon, and I went in to my doctor’s office for routine monitoring as I had been every week for the past month or so. Even though my pregnancy had been trouble-free, my doctors liked to play it safe – all patients are asked to come in weekly the last several weeks of the pregnancy for external fetal monitoring and a quick internal exam. I sat down in the chair and the nurse strapped the belts over my tummy, and just as it had at every other visit, Alana’s heartbeat sounded clear and strong over the speaker. I settled in for the next 20 minutes, basking in the glorious sound of my daughter’s little heart plugging away and clicking the button every time I felt her move, which was often. Everything was as it should be – I couldn’t have been more relaxed if I tried.
When I was finished, the doctor came in to check my print-out. “Perfect,” she said. “This is exactly what we want to see. She sounds like a little athlete in there – strong heartbeat, strong movement. Textbook. You’re doing great.” I beamed with pride. Not even out of the womb, and already my little girl was an overachiever.
I switched rooms for a quick internal exam and was pleased to learn that my cervix had finally started to creep open a bit. I expected that Alana would show up right on time for her due date on Sunday, or perhaps a day or two late. But either way, we would finally get to meet her soon.
As the appointment came to a close, everything looked good. I even got an ultrasound before leaving the office, since Dr. Vosko was a little perplexed as to why my belly’s fundal length was measuring slightly smaller than the previous week. (I contended it was because my last appointment had been directly after a big lunch.) To be safe, she wanted to double check everything, and popped me in for a quick ultrasound. Sure enough, my fluid levels and the baby’s size and activity all looked great. She sent me home with a pat on the back. “I’ll see you next week, if not before!”
If I’d known what was to come, I never would have left that office that afternoon. I would have sat back down in that monitoring chair and refused to get up, would have counted every heartbeat and every kick until I noticed something amiss and made them take that baby out right then and there. But I didn’t know, and neither did they. In only 48 hours, we were all to be blindsided.
I went home and spent a normal evening with my husband. Deep had been working from home all week due to an ankle injury, and I was glad to have him close by instead of down in the city every day with my due date looming so near. We ate dinner and watched some TV, then headed up to bed. As usual, when I lay down that night I felt lots of movement in my tummy – Alana was always active at bedtime. However, this time it felt a little different, like waves rolling downward through my abdomen. It wasn’t painful in any way, and I took it to be Braxton-Hicks contractions (sometimes called “false labor”) which up to this point in my pregnancy I’d never felt before. They happened every 10 minutes or so for about an hour, until I got up to use the bathroom, and then they stopped. I was excited – my body was getting ready for show time, and Alana would be here soon. I couldn’t wait. I fell asleep with a smile plastered on my face.
The next day is a bit of a blur. I’d like to say I remember feeling Alana kick all day long, but to be honest, I’m not really sure. I wasn’t paying close attention – I was just trying to keep myself busy with small projects around the house to make the day pass faster. It wasn’t until dinner time that night that I distinctly remember a change. Contractions had started – real contractions, ones that felt like menstrual cramps and were coming in a steady rhythm for the rest of the evening. I thought maybe when I lay down for bed they might go away, but they didn’t. They continued the whole night through, coming closer and closer together and getting stronger and stronger. I slept in 5-10 minute bursts that night and most of the next day, breathing through the contractions as they increased from menstrual-cramp-level pain to diarrhea-level pain to food-poisoning-in-the-back-country-of-China-level pain.
After almost 24 hours of this, I was sure it was for real. I’d taken Bradley classes to prepare for a natural childbirth, and I was doing a good job managing the discomfort and resting between contractions to conserve my energy until I hit active labor. Deep made sure I kept hydrated and fed, and encouraged me throughout the day. Our cat, Gio, was my constant companion, purring through my belly and sniffing eagerly under my dress like he had all pregnancy long; he was excited to finally meet his baby sister.
Intuitively, I still felt like we had a long road ahead of us before it was time to go to the hospital, but around 5 o’clock I decided to give the doctor’s office a call before they closed, just to let them know we might be coming in later that night or early the next morning. They asked a bunch of routine questions. “How far apart are your contractions?” “How long have you been in labor?” “When’s the last time you felt the baby move?”
That last one stumped me. “Well…” I thought back, “I’m not really sure. I’ve been feeling a lot of movement all day long, but I’m having trouble telling what’s the contraction and what’s the baby. I’m pretty sure she moved fairly recently, though.”
The nurse paused for a second. “Okay, let me check with the doctors.” She put me on hold and came back a few seconds later with a report from Linda, one of the midwives at the practice who was on call that night. “Linda thinks you should come in and let us just check.”
I groaned. I really did not want to go to the hospital too early. As I knew from a stack of reading and hours of Bradley training, the only thing they can do for you at the hospital is give you something for the pain or catch your baby. I knew I didn’t want any medication, and I knew my baby wasn’t ready to come out yet, so what was the point in going to the hospital? Plus, I lived 20+ minutes away and didn’t really want to spend an hour in the car going back and forth for no reason. I felt perfectly fine. I was sure the baby was perfectly fine. It wasn’t time for the hospital yet.
I tried to explain this to the nurse, and she put Linda on the phone. “Samantha, I really think you should come in, just to be safe.”
I proposed a compromise – how about if I monitored her movement more closely for a while and came in if it didn’t feel like enough? Linda reluctantly agreed – I was to drink 16 ounces of juice, lie on my side for an hour, and if I felt less than 10 kicks, come in right away. That sounded perfectly reasonable to me.
I choked down the closest thing we had to juice – cranberry lemonade – and lay down on my side. Then I counted. At 45 minutes, I’d tallied four possible movements, but all were during contractions, and none were definitely kicks. That’s when I started to get worried.
I sent Deep hobbling upstairs on his injured foot to finish packing the hospital bag. He described this time as being incredibly frustrating – he just wanted to get to the hospital, and his physical limitations were delaying us. Still, it only took him a few minutes to grab everything, and then we headed for the car. I’ll never forget Gio’s face as we left, looking up at me from his bed. I was trying to explain to him where we were going, and that either we or his grandma would be back for him later that night. I assured him everything would be okay. But he knew – somehow, he already knew – that everything would not be okay. I could see it in his eyes. He just didn’t know how to tell us.
I burst into tears as I crossed the threshold into the garage and climbed into the passenger seat, stuffing a pillow behind my lower back. Deep did his best to reassure me. “Everything’s going to be fine,” he insisted, pulling out of the driveway. I was crying because I thought my worst fear was about to come true – that I’d be rushed into an emergency C-section, and my plans for a natural birth would go right out the window.
What I wouldn’t give now for that to have been the case.
We pulled up to the hospital and Deep dropped me off at the front while he parked the car. I went up to the doctor’s office (which was conveniently attached to the hospital) to check in. The waiting room was mostly empty being that it was 6:15 and coming up on the last appointment of the day, but instead of waiting impatiently I got a jump on the urine sample that I knew they would request. As soon as I finished with the bathroom, the nurse invited me in to the monitoring room and I sat down in the chair. Deep came in then and sat down next to me. I grabbed his hand and smiled, sure that in a moment, Alana’s heartbeat was going to come blaring through those speakers as usual and we’d go home to finish my labor in peace. False alarm. Sigh of relief.
The nurse strapped the first belt on, the top one that monitors contractions. Then she squirted the jelly onto the second strap, and I pointed to the spot on my belly where they’d always found her heartbeat in previous sessions. She placed the sensor onto my tummy.
…And nothing happened.
“Hmm…” she said, sliding the sensor around. “She must have moved.”
Oh, crap, I thought. She’s breech! How could she turn around NOW after being head down for the past three weeks??
The nurse tried moving the sensor to the top of my belly. Still nothing.
For another agonizing minute, she continued to search, smearing the cold, slick jelly across my entire abdomen. “One second, let me just get the doctor…” She shuffled quickly out of the room and closed the door behind her.
I knew at this moment that something was seriously wrong. I just looked at Deep, and he just looked at me, squeezing my hand. The silence rang in our ears like a warning siren.
The midwife, Linda, came in, the nurse trailing behind her.
Linda tried her luck with the sensor on a few quick spots on my belly, but still, the monitor was silent. “Forget this,” she said, the apprehension just barely creeping into her voice. “Let’s get on the ultrasound.”
We all got up and walked briskly down the hallway to the ultrasound room. I lay back on the table, the technician lubing my belly up with more goop, this time heated just a little too hot for comfort. It stung a bit, but the pain barely registered – all I could hear was my own heartbeat in my ears, my eyes glued to the screen as my fingers clutched for Deep’s.
Shouldn’t there be some movement in that line at the bottom of the screen? I thought. Come on, move, I urged. MOVE!!!
But it didn’t. The screen was still. Everything was still.
Finally, Linda spoke. Her voice soft, she took my hands and Deep’s in hers, and said the words that by now we should have realized were coming but were still frantically trying to push out of our minds.
“I’m so sorry,” she breathed. “There’s no heartbeat. She’s gone.”
Our Birth Story – Part 2
You know how they say that in a crisis, time slows down? In the matter of a few ragged breaths, it’s as if the whole world freezes, but you’re somehow not a part of it anymore – everything is muffled, distant, restrained, as if the air has suddenly congealed. You look up, and everything is shattered, the sky is falling down around you, and yet somehow, instead of panicking, instead of screaming and fighting and ducking for cover, you just watch. You watch like a cool, impartial observer as life as you knew it ends, and something horrible and sick and cold takes its place.
It was like that.
I heard Deep cry, “No,” his voice breaking, his tears spilling onto my shoulder as he immediately grasped at the facts. I heard Linda explaining calmly that if there was anything at all they could do, I’d be on an operating table already, that we wouldn’t be standing around talking about it. I saw the technician turn away, her hand raised to hide the water that pricked at her eyes and flowed down onto her cheeks.
But I felt nothing. I was numb.
My baby girl was dead, and it was already too late – there was nothing I could do to bring her back.
And then it got worse: Linda went on to explain that I’d have to deliver the baby.
Deep was openly horrified, aghast. I just continued to shut down. I yearned for an escape from this nightmare. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I thought, maybe they can just knock me out and remove the baby, and then I can wake up and this can all be over.
Linda must have seen it in my eyes, because she said then, “We can perform a C-section, but I’d strongly urge you to deliver naturally. It will be much healthier for your recovery and for your future pregnancies.”
I nodded my head. I must have been terrified somewhere in my heart, but in this moment it was more of a detached, analytical terror. Like, what will it feel like to deliver a dead baby? Will they expect me to hold her? Will I even want to look at her? And then my mind turned to more practical matters. We have to tell our parents. They’ll want to come here, but it’s late, and they’re going to be upset – what if they get in an accident? What if the news gives my grandma a heart attack? How will my brothers react? Someone has to go pick up Gio.
I wondered if I was weird, for reacting this way. Shouldn’t I have wailed? Shouldn