COMMENTARY By Heather Florescue, MD Published 10-16-2020
As a provider whose passion is helping women after stillbirth or neonatal loss, I get many transfers of women from their previous practice after a loss. Sometimes they transfer because they need a “fresh start,” but often, it is because they were let down by the practice – not by the medical care they received but by the emotional care and support and what was said or not said after the loss of the baby. A 2014 meta-analysis in the British Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology found that “Parents regarded contacts with health professionals as their central source of reassurance; but experiences often fell short of expectations.”1 I decided to conduct a survey via local and national support groups about what “loss parents” felt helpful or not helpful after the loss of a child. I purposely made these quotes the dominant part of this article, as I believe our patients are often our best teachers.
A very common theme among loss parents was how providers had made comments about how rare stillbirth is after it had just happened to them. Parents expressed that they felt this statistic kept them from getting the care that they needed prior to their loss and then they were told to not worry. Some example quotes include:
“ ‘This only happens to 1% of babies. Very rare.’ (It happened to our baby, and we have to live with this grief our whole lives. She is more than a statistic. She was our hopes, dreams, and future.)”
“For me, when my practice brushed off my feelings, I knew in my gut something was wrong. They said, ‘We need to wean you from worrying.’”
Another very common theme from parents included examples of helpful and not helpful care they received in the hospital.
Many parents mentioned the importance of providing resources for after they go home. Most labor and delivery units have pregnancy loss services and have improved on the care they provide for loss families. One very common positive comment responded to the memories that nurses and providers helped them make after delivery. One parent said the following:
The care received by a loss parent after returning to the office is challenging but so important. Some very careful steps can and must be made to help avoid emotionally harmful situations for the staff and patients. Offices need to make special accommodations and mark what happened clearly in the chart regarding the loss. When I have a mother coming in for a postpartum visit after a loss, I make sure she is the last patient of the day and try to bring her to our satellite offices where she can be the only patient there. Many parents made comments about carefully labeling what happened to the baby in the chart.
“Make sure it’s noted in the chart, and don’t AVOID talking about it. We like to have our baby brought up. Make sure staff knows the situation before entering the office so they don’t say something stupid (for example, ‘How is breast feeding going?’)”
The care of women in the office immediately after loss and in years to come is a very important piece of the care they receive. In the same BJOG meta-analysis they found, “Parents frequently encountered professionals who were unaware of their history, through lack of access to/or reading of notes before a consultation. Dismissive attitudes to fears and concerns and insensitive and inappropriate comments sometimes resulted. These often remained with parents long after the event. In contrast, emotional wellbeing was enhanced when care providers demonstrated empathy, listened to concerns and committed to a collaborative and supportive relationship. Parents valued direct acknowledgment of the baby who had died, including using his or her name. Flexible antenatal care including extra appointments, routinely or on request, was also welcomed.”1 These findings were very similar to those reflected in the comments that I received.
Patients and their families who have lost their babies deserve our very best. No one grieves the same, and the differences in how our patients grieve must be respected. However, members of the loss community do have some common themes on responses that they appreciated or did not appreciate regarding their care. Most patients who deliver a stillborn baby or experience a neonatal death or pre-viable baby have had no time to prepare, and they are looking for our guidance and support. The more time we spend with them after diagnosis, during delivery, and after will be so appreciated. I hope some of these quotes ring true to many providers and that they either lead to attempts to change care or reinforce the amazing care providers are already providing. Being at our best when our patients are experiencing potentially the worst moments of their lives is our job as obstetrical providers. Our patients deserve the best care we can possibly provide. Hopefully, these suggestions from patients will help the care of future loss families.
Dr. Florescue is an ob.gyn. in private practice at Women Gynecology and Childbirth Associates in Rochester, N.Y. She delivers babies at Highland Hospital in Rochester. She has no relevant financial disclosures.