AHN, volunteer group shine light on pregnancy loss

PITTSBURGH — Stillbirths might seem unimaginable but unfortunately they are reality for more families than you might think. One in four women suffer from pregnancy loss.

There is new thinking at West Penn Hospital that is helping more families during this delicate time.

West Penn Nurse Sandra Stanley helps pick out just the right thing for families who lose a baby: blankets, hats, angel gowns and books.

Close by is her personal picture book.

“I am also a mother of loss myself. My first baby was a still born and his name was Edward,” said Stanley.

Through his legacy, Sandra and her volunteer group, Angel Hearts Perinatal Bereavement Team, work alongside Dr. Marta Kolthoff’s team at AHN. They specialize in caring for families who either know ahead of time that their babies lives will be brief or who it comes unexpectedly.

“It is family centered, wholistic care, with a very large emphasis on bonding and memory making, which is critical for these families, " said Dr. Kolthoff, Director of Olivia’s Angels Perinatal Palliative Care AHN & Director of Clinical Genetics West Penn.

That’s new thinking within Allegheny Health Network. When Dr. Kolthoff helped form Olivia’s Angels Perinatal Palliative Care, she insisted doctors work with patients to find out what their hopes, religious beliefs, and understanding of the diagnosis are, to put together a personalized plan.

“Because they know best what’s right for them and we need to listen,” said Dr. Kotlhoff. “And for a very long time in the field of obstetrics, patients and families haven’t been listened to, especially with perinatal loss.”

Since the program became official 5 years ago, Dr. Kolthoff’s team has been able to help more families--as many as 100 a year. Some of that is because the program benefits families in a wider variety of situations, and some is because more women are having babies later in life and that comes with certain diagnoses.

“Perinatal loss, on a societal level, has been treated with silence, stigma, and shame. Time and time again families say to me they feel so alone,” said Dr. Kolthoff.

But the CDC says 24,000 babies are born still each year. And while that number declined with improvements in maternity care, the decline has slowed recently.

Nurse Sandra knows there will be more families who will need her shoulder to cry on, her listening ear, her soft voice. And the hope you’ll find in her picture book.

“It wasn’t planned, it just happened and there he was: one year later, same birthday,” said Stanley. “So when we celebrate Shawn we celebrate Edward too.”