After the stillbirth tragedy, she set out to help others
May 26, 2023 — Elizabeth O’Donnell found out she was pregnant in June 2020. It was a surprise, but she was very happy. She was never sick and said she was healthier than she had ever been.
But around Thanksgiving, her daughter, whom she was already planning to name Aaliyah, was moving a little more than usual. Then, on November 28, 7 months into her pregnancy, the unthinkable happened.
“I realized that I hadn’t really felt her moving all day, and it took me a while to be like, ‘OK, I’m going to the hospital,’ because I really thought I “was a boring first time. Mom. Everything had been so good up until then, why would there be anything wrong? she recalls.
Her doula encouraged her to go to the hospital. When she arrived, her midwife couldn’t find a heartbeat.
“The moment she told me my daughter had no heartbeats, I was like, ‘What are you talking about? ‘” O’Donnell said. “Does this still happen? It’s a thing” ? I thought stuff like that only happened, I think I said in the 1800s, because I was just like, ‘What do you mean you can’t find a heartbeat?’
Everything had gone perfectly so far, she said.
“And so being told your child is dead and by the way, you still have to go through a full birth like she was, you know, going to cry was so hard, and it’s hard to put it into words because you never expect to have to do something like this.
Aaliyah Denise Briscoe was born 4 days later on December 1, 2020. But O’Donnell’s trauma didn’t end there. Her employer also denied her paid maternity leave.
“I was told my family leave was going to be revoked because I couldn’t provide a birth certificate even though it had been approved before.”
The then 30-year-old Washington, DC school teacher decided to fight back. She went public with her story by posting a photo of herself holding Aaliyah from her hospital bed on Instagram. It went viral.
“It doesn’t matter if Aaliyah is breathing or not, you know, me as a mother, I’ve still been through everything that everyone else is going through in terms of labor and delivery.”
“All I wanted,” she continued, “was 8 weeks of not going to work bleeding every day or trying to figure out what I’m doing with this milk coming in. 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.
The non-profit organization offers “self-care” packages as a first step towards healing for parents and families in childbirth.
“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 get out of it,” O’Donnell recalled. “I think people’s first reaction is to just push resources at you. And even if it’s good, the first week or the first two weeks, not everyone is ready for that. 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 really, really tough life every day, but if we can have a plethora of resources – and different kinds of resources – then hopefully people will be able to figure out what works best for them.”
The packages are helping struggling families in 40 states navigate life after such a devastating loss. Grieving resources and books for parents and siblings are also provided, and they have partnered with doulas, birthing centers and nearly 40 hospitals to help distribute them.
O’Donnell has even worked with the DC City Council to extend bereavement leave to employees who lose a child. The District Government Parental Bereavement Leave Amendment Act 2022 provides 10 days of paid leave when an employee “suffers a stillbirth”. It became law on March 10.
According to Vasu Reddy, senior policy adviser for economic justice at the National Partnership for Women and Families, one of the problems is that the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 is not clear on coverage for miscarriage or stillbirths.
“When it’s not explicit, it’s up to employers and HR to interpret what’s explicit based on, you know, to the best of their abilities,” Reddy said. “And so there could be a lot of confusion between employers and employees as to whether it’s covered because it’s not explicit. By implication, however, in most cases miscarriages and stillbirths would be covered.
Reddy thinks that because employers don’t necessarily see this as a health issue, it slips through the cracks and a lot of people are getting turned down as a result.
She says the FMLA is a floor, not a cap, so it sets basic minimum protections, but states can go above and beyond those protections to make sure people get the time they need.
“I think employers and HR departments are often geared towards the minimum that the law says we have to do, and let’s do it,” she said.
Reddy believes women who have been denied paid sick 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.
Each year, at least 21,000 babies are stillborn in the United States. That’s about 1 in 175 births, according to the CDC.
The Star Legacy Foundation says the stillbirth rate in the United States has remained the same for several decades and is higher than in many other industrialized countries.
The son of the foundation’s founder and executive director, Lindsey Wimmer, Garrett, was stillborn at 38 weeks – then considered full term – nearly 20 years ago.
“I tried to understand what had happened to us from this medical point of view because there were so many unanswered questions, and that’s when I realized how little research had been made, how many gaps there were and that there was really no attention. get paid for this issue,” Wimmer said.
The former nurse practitioner says the bottom line is that in the United States stillbirth is not a priority.
“We have a lot of work to do, and we have to do it because where we are right now is not OK,” Wimmer said. “And I would say that we are definitely behind our colleagues and our counterparts 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 March of Dimes, the most common symptom is if the baby stops kicking and moving.
Black women are more than twice as likely to have a stillbirth as Hispanic or white women. Women 35 and older and women in lower income brackets are also at higher risk.
Elizabeth Cherot, MD, Senior Vice President and Chief Medical Officer of March of Dimes, wants women to know that while there are some risk factors you can’t change, there are others you can. do something.
“Getting a preconception checkup, for example, helps identify any medical conditions you have that may increase your chances of stillbirth,” Cherot said. “This is an important milestone for anyone considering getting pregnant.”
Other tips: Maintain a healthy weight and avoid drugs, tobacco and alcohol. Seek immediate medical attention if you experience bleeding during pregnancy.
Christopher M. Zahn, MD, interim CEO and chief of clinical practice and health equity and quality at the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, says the reason for most stillbirths is still largely unknown.
“Studying the specific causes of stillbirths has been hampered by the lack of uniform protocols for assessing 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 filed when additional information from the stillbirth assessment emerges.”
He says more data and research is needed. His organization “believes that stillbirth prevention is a widely shared responsibility and has worked to educate lawmakers and stakeholders about stillbirths in the United States, the racial and ethnic inequalities that exist, and the need for further research.”
The March of Dimes has launched a new center that will research and address long-standing health issues and racial disparities that they say make the United States one of the most dangerous developed countries for childbirth. .
“The center will focus solely on research aimed at closing the health equity gap in maternal and child health outcomes through scientific research and technology development,” Cherot said.
And last year, following a request from Congress, a panel of experts met to discuss stillbirth. In March, the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of Child Health and Human Development’s Stillbirth Task Force released a report focusing on barriers to stillbirth data collection, communities at higher risk high, the psychological impact and treatment of mothers after stillbirth, and known risk factors.
They recommended improving record keeping and data collection; addressing risk disparities; and reduce the stillbirth rate in the United States through research and prevention efforts.
O’Donnell took action in hand and hired a Yale placental pathologist to help determine Aaliyah’s cause of death. She had passed her placenta.
And she’s working on expanding Aaliyah into action to help close the gaps she sees in the system.
“No one should walk into a hospital pregnant and walk out empty-handed. Especially if it can be prevented. Not all stillbirths are preventable, but many, many are. And we can change that and I’m here to do that. .