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Nurse honors stillborn babies with a lasting image

‘Each and every life is worth celebrating’

By Josh Jarman
Novant Health

Cassie Gregory loves to care for newborns at the hospital. And sometimes, that can include the ones whose lives are cut short.

The 29-year-old labor and delivery nurse said her time spent in the emergency department helped prepare her to serve on the bereavement team as one of the Little Lights photography program coordinators at Novant Health Forsyth Medical Center.

Approximately 24,000 babies are stillborn in the United States each year. Stillbirth is defined as a fetal loss at or after the 20-week mark of pregnancy. For parents, the grieving process can extend long after the family is discharged from the hospital.

Bereavement photography has been shown to help parents cope by providing a permanent and tangible legacy of their child.

Gregory, like all other nurses on the floor, is trained to speak when some of us don’t know what to say. And after caring for one of these families in 2016, she saw an opportunity to provide comfort on the worst day in a family’s life.

‘I like to fix things’

Gregory always wanted to be a nurse. She spent her sixth grade summer vacation back home in Pomeroy, Ohio, to take care of her grandparents.

“I like fixing problems,” she said. “I got that from my grandmother. She always wanted to be a nurse herself, but her family couldn’t afford to send her off to school.”

So, it was even more meaningful for Gregory when her grandparents paid for her to complete her nursing license exam. Gregory started her nursing career in the emergency room at Novant Health Kernersville Medical Center.

“Anytime someone would come into the ER with something I could fix, I would volunteer to help,” she said. “I like to having a goal and working toward it.”

Outside of the hospital, her father set her up with her future husband, Jacob. “The two of us went to school together, but dad was the matchmaker and we got married in 2016.”

‘Making the switch’

Gregory joined the labor and delivery team at Forsyth Medical Center in February 2016. And that December, she found out that she was expecting. Gray Matthew Gregory was born on Aug. 12, 2017, and named him after his great grandmother.

“I couldn’t wait to deliver here,” she said. “These are my people and they know their stuff.”

Since 1914, Forsyth Medical Center has delivered more than 300,000 babies. Premature babies are cared for in the advanced 56-bed neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). Thanks to the NICU, the hospital serves as a tertiary referral center for 22 surrounding counties. On average, the NICU cares for 1,100 premature babies every year.

“I made the switch to labor and delivery so that I could spend more time with my patients,” Gregory said. “Some women are really scared and you have to hold their hand to get them through it. I think my time in the emergency room helped to prepare me for the unexpected.”

On rare occasions, pregnancy complications can result in prenatal loss and stillborn deliveries. To prepare for these situations, Novant Health trains labor and delivery team members in bereavement care.

A multispecialty volunteer bereavement care team of doctors, advanced practitioners, respiratory therapists, chaplains and nurses meets regularly to discuss ideas for improving care.

If a baby dies, a leaf is placed on the patient’s door so that team members know before entering the room. These families can spend as much or as little time as they would like with their baby. Some moms choose to hold their babies and to keep them in the room until they leave the hospital. This is made possible thanks to cuddle cots, which help to preserve the baby’s body so parents can spend more time with their child.

The bereavement team also offers to take footprints, foot molds, locks of hair and provide teddy bears for siblings. The most valued service is the Little Lights photography program.

‘One chance to make this right’

Gregory became one of the program coordinators at Forsyth Medical Center earlier this year.

“We were already offering bereavement photography for patients,” she said. “But, after forming a relationship with one mother, and then crying with her and her husband, it just struck me as cold to have to call a stranger in to take photos. I thought to myself, I can do this.”

She proceeded to get trained in photography so that she could help.

“We only get one chance to make this right,” she said. “I usually take pictures of the family holding the baby in the room, and then, I take photos of the baby in our bereavement room.”

The bereavement room at the hospital is warm, with big windows. Along the wall are shelves full of teddy bears and donated blankets and outfits, many handmade. It’s there that Gregory dresses the baby and takes photos that will later be emailed home.

“I often talk to these babies,” she said. “I tell them that they are beautiful. I tell them that I’m going to put a necklace into their hand and take a picture, then give that picture and the necklace to mommy so that she can have it forever. I tell them I’m glad that I got to meet them and their parents.”

The grieving process is different for each family. Gregory said some moms blame themselves, and some family members, while trying to be helpful, say ‘You can have another one.’ Culture and religion also come into play, as some families won’t share their baby’s name because he or she hasn’t been baptized.

“There is nothing fair about losing a baby,” she said. “Our bereavement training teaches us to avoid saying certain things. I just try to read each family and each situation and be for them whatever they need.”

‘I don’t hide it from my family’

Gregory admits that her own nerves are usually a mess by the time she gets home.

“I don’t hide it from my family,” she said. “Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night just bawling. What’s sweet though is that Gray understands it, and he’ll pray with Jacob and me for these families.”

Little Lights has been well-received since it started in 2016. Typically, parents say that the pictures came at just the right time and that they are so much more meaningful to have than just a cellphone picture.

“Our goal with each delivery is to have a healthy mom and healthy baby,” Gregory said. “And when that doesn’t happen, we take it personally. Each and every life is worth celebrating and each child is a reminder that I’m where I’m supposed to be.”

If you are expecting the newest member of your family to arrive a little bit early, you can trust that the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), will do everything possible to take care of you and your baby. The maternity services offered at Novant Health Forsyth Medical Center include high-quality care before, during and after your delivery.