When Phoebe Ferguson was born in a Sutter Roseville delivery room this August, she weighed 9 1/2 pounds, and her skin was pink and warm. The absence of a cry, however, brought a harsh reminder that the newborn had died in her mother’s womb earlier that day.
Her parents had only a few hours to hold her before nurses sent her to the morgue. Later the nurses brought her back, slightly more mottled and cooler to the touch, so that her parents could cradle her body a little longer. They took turns holding Phoebe for two more days before saying a final, heart-wrenching goodbye.
“I carried her for nine months – I wanted to see her,” said mother Stacy Ferguson. “I wanted to memorize every part of her. Giving her back was the hardest thing.”
“Every time they brought her back, it was a reminder,” said her father, Gavin Ferguson. “If she were in the room with us and it were more gradual, it wouldn’t be as bad.”
For parents, parting with a stillborn baby is the first step in a long and difficult grieving process, one that can take a lifetime to come to terms with. A new device called Cuddle Cot, installed at Sutter Roseville Medical Center this week in Phoebe Ferguson’s honor, aims to make that journey a little easier.
The cooling device preserves a stillborn baby’s body in a bassinet or crib so that he or she can remain up to five days in a hospital room, extending the time a family has to photograph the infant, sing to it, take its measurements or show it to loved ones.
When not kept cold, babies’ bodies begin to deteriorate after delivery. About 24,000 babies are delivered stillborn in the United States every year.
“What no one prepares you for is how quickly the baby’s body starts to break down,” said Sharon Cox, who birthed a stillborn son 14 years ago and now runs the Sharing Parents support group for grieving parents at Sutter Roseville. “Here you are with a limited amount of time to say hello and goodbye. … It’s very traumatic to see that happening to the baby.”
Cox, a chaplain, said bidding a proper goodbye is crucial to a healthy grieving process. Losing a newborn brings on a particularly complex grief, she said, because it’s so unexpected and so drastic.
“You’re constantly dealing with the longing, the wondering,” she said. “We’re always rushed through grief to get to the other side. But if we don’t take the time to work through grief during those hard moments, we’re always going to regret not having that time.”
When Rebecca Makris, of Livermore, lost her newborn son Tucker last year, she had 15 hours to spend with his body and to memorialize him as best she could.
“I got him dressed, I took photos, I kissed every inch of him,” she said. “I cried all over him and told him I was sorry and wished that things were different. You just try to take it all in, because these are the only memories you’re ever going to have.”
Within weeks of losing Tucker, Makris wanted to help other parents cope with such tragedy, she said. She found a promising tool in the Cuddle Cot, a product developed in the United Kingdom and brought to the United States in 2013. Introducing other grieving parents to the device could give new meaning to her life after the loss, she said.
“It really helps me to know that my son’s life ended, but I’m helping another family,” Makris said. “It gives the baby more dignity, and it really lets the parents go through the motions a little easier.”
Makris launched into activism with the U.S. Cuddle Cot Campaign Initiative and raised more than $10,000 for new cots. At a cost of about $3,000 for each cot, she’s placed three of the five in use in California so far, with the Sutter Roseville cot the first in Sacramento.
The national campaign has placed about 90 cots in hospitals since 2014, said Lori Esteve, an organizer with the Florida-based nonprofit effort.
Esteve said that when she delivered a stillborn son 30 years ago, she was told to simply go home and not think about it.
“When you go from planning a future to a funeral in a heartbeat, choices become very important,” she said. “Whether you choose time to be with your baby or not, having the choice makes a huge difference.”
The Cuddle Cot comes in a cobalt blue toy chest containing a cooling unit with a hose that attaches to a mat underneath the baby. The chest also contains a book for grieving parents.
The cot at Sutter Roseville holds a letter from Makris about her own journey of loss and recovery. Soon it will also contain a letter from the Fergusons.
On top of the chest is a gold plaque, noting that the gift is in memory of Tucker Makris, to honor Phoebe Ferguson.
“Every time I see her name on something, it’s beautiful,” Gavin Ferguson said. “It’s a physical reminder that she existed.”
“They always say that mothers protect their children, and mothers of stillborns protect their children’s memories,” Stacy Ferguson said. “With the plaque here, it’s like she’s making a difference somehow.”
Resources for parents of stillborn babies
Sharing Parents Pregnancy and Infant Loss Support Group: 916-424-5150
U.S. Cuddle Cot Campaign Initiative: 863-937-7607