"The groundwork of all happiness is health." - Leigh Hunt

After the tragic stillbirth, she got down to help others

May 26, 2023 – Elizabeth O'Donnell came upon she was pregnant in June 2020. It was a surprise, but she was very joyful. She has never been sick and says she is healthier than ever.

But around Thanksgiving, her daughter, whom she had planned to call Aaliyah anyway, was moving somewhat greater than usual. Then, on November 28, within the seventh month of her pregnancy, the unthinkable happened.

“I realized I hadn't really felt her all day, so it took me a while to think, 'OK, I'm going to the hospital,' because I really thought I was an annoying first-time mom. Everything had been so great up until that point, why would something be wrong?” she recalls.

Her doula advised her to go to the hospital. When she got there, her midwife couldn’t detect a heartbeat.

“When she told me my daughter didn't have a heartbeat, I thought, 'What are you talking about?'” O'Donnell said. “This still happens? This is 'a thing'? I thought this only happened, I think, in the 19th century, because I just thought, 'What do you mean you can't find a heartbeat?'”

Until then, all the pieces had gone perfectly, she said.

“To find out that your child has died and at the same time have to go through the whole birth as if, you know, it was going to come into the world crying, was just so hard and it's hard to put into words because you just don't expect to have to do something like that.”

Four days later, on December 1, 2020, Aaliyah Denise Briscoe was born. But O'Donnell's trauma didn’t end there. Her employer then denied her paid maternity leave.

“I was told that my family leave would be revoked because I could not provide a birth certificate, even though it had already been approved.”

The then 30-year-old teacher from Washington, DC, decided to fight back. She made her story public and posted a photograph of herself holding Aaliyah from her hospital bed on Instagram. It went viral.

“It shouldn't matter whether Aaliyah was breathing or not. You know, as a mother, I still went through everything that everyone else goes through in terms of labor and delivery.”

“All I wanted,” she continued, “was eight weeks so I wouldn't have to go to work every day bleeding or dealing with the milk that was coming. I mean, I couldn't go to work.”

Disgusted and disillusioned, she gave up her job as a teacher and immediately began to advocate for the parents of stillborn children. Aaliyah in Action was born.

The nonprofit organization offers “self-care” packages as a primary step toward healing for birthing parents and families.

“I just wanted to give a little bit to help families get through the worst time of their lives when they don't want to go through it,” O'Donnell recalled. “I think people's first reaction is to just push resources on you. And while that's good, not everyone is ready for that in the first week or two. I wasn't ready for it, but it's helpful to have those resources anyway if you're ready for them.”

O'Donnell desired to make certain others had the identical access.

“Life is really, really hard every day, but if we have a wealth of resources – and different kinds of resources – at our disposal, hopefully people can figure out what works best for them.”

The packages help struggling families in 40 states navigate life after such a devastating loss. They also provide grief support and books for fogeys and siblings, and work with doulas, birthing centers and nearly 40 hospitals to support distribution.

O'Donnell even worked with the D.C. City Council to expand bereavement leave for workers who lose a toddler. The District Government Parental Bereavement Leave Amendment Act of 2022 provides 10 days of paid leave if an worker “suffers a stillbirth.” It became law on March 10.

According to Vasu Reddy, senior legal counsel for economic justice on the National Partnership for Women & Families, certainly one of the issues is that the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 isn’t clear about whether miscarriages or stillbirths are covered.

“If it's not explicit, it's up to employers and HR to use their best judgment to interpret what is explicit,” Reddy said. “And so there can be a lot of confusion between employers and employees about whether this is covered because it's not explicit. But implicitly, in most cases, miscarriages and stillbirths would be covered.”

Reddy believes that this isn’t necessarily viewed as a health issue by employers and that’s the reason many individuals are denied applications.

They consider that the FMLA is a floor, not a ceiling, and subsequently provides basic minimum protections, but states can transcend those protections to make sure people get the break day they need.

“I think employers and HR departments often look to what the legal minimum is, and we should do that too,” she said.

Reddy believes that girls who’ve been denied paid sick leave after giving birth to a stillborn child should be very clear about their medical and health needs so as to recuperate physically and emotionally.

Each yr, at the least 21,000 babies are stillborn within the United States. That's about 1 in 175 births, in line with the CDC.

According to the Star Legacy Foundation, the stillbirth rate within the United States has remained the identical for a long time and is higher than in lots of other industrialized countries.

Garrett, the son of the muse's founder and managing director Lindsey Wimmer, was stillborn almost 20 years ago within the thirty eighth week of pregnancy – on the time this was considered full term.

“I tried to understand from a medical point of view what had happened to us, because there were just so many unanswered questions. And that's when I realized how little research had been done, how many gaps there were, and that this issue just really wasn't being given any attention,” Wimmer said.

The former nurse says that within the United States, the treatment of stillbirths isn’t a priority.

“We still have a lot of work to do, and we need to do it, because where we are now is not OK,” Wimmer said. “And I would say we are definitely falling behind our colleagues and our colleagues in other high-income countries around the world who are really making stillbirth prevention a priority.”

Some stillbirths may be brought on by infections, birth defects and other pregnancy complications. According to the March of Dimes, probably the most common symptom is that the child stops kicking and moving.

Black women are twice as prone to have a stillbirth as Hispanic or white women. Women over 35 and ladies in lower income brackets are also at higher risk.

Elizabeth Cherot, MD, senior vp and chief medical and health officer at March of Dimes, wants women to know that while there are some risk aspects you may't change, there are others you may.

“For example, a preconception screening helps identify conditions that increase the risk of stillbirth,” said Cherot. “This is an important step for anyone who wants to become pregnant.”

Other suggestions: Maintain a healthy weight and avoid drugs, tobacco and alcohol. Seek immediate medical attention if bleeding occurs while pregnant.

Christopher M. Zahn, MD, interim CEO and director of clinical practice and health equity and quality on the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, says the rationale for many stillbirths remains to be largely unknown.

“Research into specific causes of stillbirth is hampered by the lack of uniform protocols for evaluating and classifying stillbirths and by declining autopsy rates,” Zahn said. “In most cases, stillbirth certificates are completed before a full postnatal examination is completed, and amended death certificates are rarely filed when additional information emerges from the stillbirth evaluation.”

He says more data and research are needed. His organization “believes that stillbirth prevention is a widespread responsibility and has worked to raise awareness among legislators and advocacy groups about stillbirth in the United States, the racial and ethnic disparities that exist, and the need for more research.”

The March of Dimes has launched a latest center dedicated to researching and addressing poor health outcomes and long-standing racial disparities that the organization says make the United States probably the most dangerous industrialized nation for childbirth.

“The center will focus exclusively on research aimed at closing the health gap in maternal and child health equity through scientific research and technology development,” Cherot said.

And last yr, on the request of Congress, a panel of experts met to debate stillbirth. In March, the Stillbirth Working Group of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development of the National Institutes of Health released a report that focused on barriers to stillbirth data collection, higher-risk communities, the psychological impact and treatment of moms after a stillbirth, and known risk aspects.

They advisable improving documentation and data collection, addressing risk disparities, and reducing the stillbirth rate within the United States through research and prevention efforts.

O'Donnell took motion herself and hired a placental pathologist from Yale to find out Aaliyah's explanation for death. She had outgrown her placenta.

And she is working to expand “Aaliyah in Action” to fill the gaps she sees within the system.

“No one should go into a hospital pregnant and then leave 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.”