Rachel Sutton understands she has two sisters.
“That’s Charlotte,” the four-year-old says, pointing to her one-year-old sister in their mother’s arms. “My other sister, Madelyne, she died. She’s in heaven. But really she’s here with us, flying all around,” Rachel says making flying motions with her arms.
Had Madelyne not been stillborn, she would have turned six in September.
Rachel, Charlotte and their parents, Lisa Russell and Darcy Sutton, remember Madelyne often.
They have a cake on her birthday and make a donation in her memory to the Janeway Foundation.
Rachel knows her mom and dad are going to be talking about their family. An astute, friendly child, she senses that the topic may be a little sad at times.
Rachel also knows that not all tears mean sadness.
“Daddy cried when I was born,” she says with a smile. “He was so happy.”
Soon, Sutton takes Charlotte to her grandparents’ place and drops Rachel at daycare.
When he returns, Russell asks if she should get the box with Madelyne’s things.
The small, dark-coloured chest contains a photo of Madelyne. Nurses dressed the full-term stillborn infant in pink fleece sleepers dotted with white lambs and a small cap. A white miniature teddy bear with angel wings has been placed in her arms. The sleepers, cap and teddy bear are all in the box, along with other mementoes.
Madelyne was cremated.
Russell picks up the neatly folded sleepers and puts them in her lap. Often, during the interview, she touches the small pink cap.
She said Madelyne was an active baby in the womb until a day or so before her birth. When the baby didn’t move one day after Russell woke from a nap, she and Sutton headed to the Health Sciences Centre.
“We were still convinced everything was fine. We just wanted to go in and get checked,” she said.
Instead, Sutton said they got the brutal news that there was no heartbeat.
“You just don’t believe it. You just don’t go from having a perfectly normal pregnancy and just days away from holding your baby in your arms,” he said.
Russell was given medication to induce labour.
“I was pushing for about five hours,” she said.
“We got to the point where they could have done a (caesarean) section, but I didn’t want that. I didn’t want anybody helping me. I wanted to do that for her.”
Once the baby was born and nurses had her dressed, Russell and Sutton spent the next few hours holding her. They invited family and friends into the room to hold her, too.
“We didn’t force anybody. If they weren’t comfortable, that was fine. But it was just lovely seeing people holding her. That was a very special time — to get to share her with people because it’s the only time we had to do that… and we wanted to do that for her,” Russell said.
When an autopsy couldn’t pinpoint any reason for Madelyne’s death, and after consulting with doctors, the couple decided to try to have another baby.
Russell was pregnant again in less than a year. Routine blood work early on detected a high level of antibodies in her blood.
The cause of Madelyne’s death soon became apparent.
Russell is Rh-negative. Madelyne was Rh-positive like her father. Russell’s body developed antibodies to attack the Rh antigens when the baby’s blood mixed with hers.
“Madelyne died as a result of a hemorrhage. Her blood bled into my system,” she said.
It happened quickly, and there’s no guilt or blame, Sutton said.
Russell was considered high-risk throughout her second pregnancy. When she reached 36 weeks, labour was induced and Rachel was born. The newborn was anemic and spent two weeks in the hospital.
During her pregnancy with Charlotte, Russell was also monitored regularly. Charlotte was also born at 36 weeks into Russell’s pregnancy.
She had some breathing problems and other complications and was cared for at the Janeway for a month.
Looking back on the loss of their first baby, Sutton said people deal with grief in different ways. What works for one family may not work for another, he said.
They sought counselling and, as Russell says, soon realized that “Madelyne wouldn’t want us to shrivel up and die.”
Russell says she depended on her husband to get her through the months after losing Madelyne.
“A man instinctively wants to fix things, but quickly I realized there’s no Krazy Glue for this,” Sutton said.
“And I learned to be a very good listener.”
Sutton works for Bell Aliant, while Russell works for Memorial University. They say the support they got from their family, friends and co-workers has helped them move forward.
Still they hold close their memories of Madelyne.
“Madelyne is still our baby. She’s no different than the girls we have with us today, except we don’t have her. We bring flowers to her grave. The more you talk about her, the more you keep her spirit alive,” Sutton said.
Although losing Madelyne was heartbreaking, Russell feels she’s won the lottery twice since then.
“We have two beautiful, healthy girls … and we get to remember Madelyne as part of our family. It doesn’t get any better than that,” she says.
Russell encourages other parents who have had a stillborn baby to email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
She and Sutton hope in the future to start a support group for parents who have faced a similar loss.