Pastel colors cover the walls. Babies gurgle and cry. Parents coo and cradle them for the first time. Lives begin in the labor and delivery unit at Brandon Regional Hospital. • But in a storage room down the hall, it is quiet. There are bins stuffed with bonnets and booties, plastic bottles with "Holy Water" labels, doll clothes in pale shades of pink and blue. • This is where Laurie Van Damme goes when a baby dies. • Today the baby has a name. He is 15 ounces and 10½ inches. He died after 20 weeks in his mother's womb. Today he will wear blue. He will lie beside a blanket. He will hold a rattle in his hand. • The beeping of Van Damme's digital camera will be the only sound in the room.
Thirty years ago, people spoke of stillborn babies in hushed tones. Parents never saw their bodies.
"There was a general consensus that this was kind of a nonevent. Let's get you busy having another baby. That's the best way to deal with this," says Dr. Kenneth Kellner, a professor of maternal-fetal medicine at the University of Florida. "The way we were taking care of moms was not what moms wanted."
In a study, Kellner and a group of researchers surveyed parents of stillborn children.
Their reactions differed, but there was a common thread: They wanted to choose how to grieve, and they wanted to remember what they lost. More than 90 percent of mothers wanted to see their stillborn babies.
Gradually, as more research emerged, hospitals began to change their approach. Polaroid pictures became common.
As coordinator of Brandon Regional's perinatal bereavement program, Van Damme took things a step further.
The labor and delivery nurse started following up with parents of stillborn babies after they left the hospital.
She asked the other nurses to call her whenever a baby died. She came in even if she wasn't scheduled to work.
And last year, she began making video slide shows of stillborn babies and their families.
Some parents declined when she offered them the option. But she took a few photos anyway and kept them on file.
"One week, three weeks, five weeks later, almost every single patient calls and asks for them," she says. "They need it for closure."
• • •
Eddie and Donna Barker bristled when Van Damme suggested the idea after the death of their baby, Brandon.
"We really didn't want to hold the baby and do all of that," Donna Barker recalls. "She said, 'Are you sure? Once this time is gone, you can't get it back.' "
Eventually, they changed their minds. Now Donna Barker keeps the DVD in a box in the bedroom of her Valrico home, with sonogram pictures, a baby blanket and a hospital bracelet.
"We're very grateful that she was persistent," she says. "We would have missed out on holding our baby."
• • •
Van Damme tapes a bright white sheet to the wall of an empty hospital room.
She wears gloves and uses sterile cloths to clean the baby's body, then weighs and measures him.
She helps his limp legs into blue doll clothes and lays him on a blanket. Then she turns on her camera.
Beep-beep. An image is captured.
She moves his arm slightly, so it touches his cheek.
She places a baby rattle in his right hand.
She takes off her gloves, gently lifts him off the table and heads toward his mother's room.
• • •
Van Damme has taught other nurses at Brandon Regional how to make videos. Now she's promoting the program beyond the hospital.
On her Web site, www.healinghearts media.com, hospitals can order the software she uses and see examples of her work.
"I really think it has the potential to catapult hospitals into a new era of bereavement care," she says.
Images flash as a somber piano tune plays.
A father holds his daughter's hand. A little boy kisses his sister's forehead. A baby wears pink knitted booties with bows on them.
Italic white text pops out against a black backdrop: "There is no foot too small that it cannot leave an imprint in this world."
In April, Hospital Corporation of America, the company that owns Brandon Regional, gave Van Damme its national humanitarian award for her work.
She presented the program at a recent conference for labor and delivery nurses in California and hosted training sessions for other nurses and doctors at Brandon Regional, emphasizing that families of stillborn babies need to grieve as much as parents who have lost a child at any age.
"I wanted them to understand the pain involved. There are really no words. The pain is so deep," Van Damme says. "These moms have all of that same love, but they don't have any of the memories to comfort them in that time of sorrow."
• • •
In a hospital bed, a mother holds her baby for the first time.
She brushes her fingers across a lifeless face.
She cradles his tiny body in the crook of her left arm.
With her right arm, she gives Van Damme a hug.
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