Rachel Whalen had felt a connection to her firstborn before the baby had even been conceived. The Vermont kindergarten teacher had always wanted a daughter, you see, and knew that she’d name her Dorothy. And as a high school student, she’d even dreamt about when her little girl would enter the world. But the real story was to turn out very different.
In February 2018 Rachel gave birth to a stillborn baby, and Rachel nearly died on that horrific day too. Yet in her sadness, Rachel, surprised at how the nurses had treated her, decided to write an emotional letter to the hospital staff. The letter would later go viral and strike a nerve with many other parents going through similar experiences.
But like a lot of tragedies this story actually started with happy news. After all, Rachel and her husband, Mike, were obviously delighted to find out that they were expecting – particularly because they’d previously suffered two miscarriages. When Rachel was 28 weeks pregnant with her daughter, however, doctors diagnosed the expectant mom with preeclampsia. This illness causes high blood pressure and can damage organs such as the liver and kidneys.
And two weeks later, Rachel was told the devastating news that baby Dorothy’s heart had stopped. Dorothy later died on February 22, 2016. The complicated birth also left Rachel fighting for her life.
Fortunately, though, a team of nurses helped Rachel pull through and stay alive to see her beautiful little girl before she had to say a final goodbye. The traumatic experience naturally meant that it took some time before Rachel felt ready to share her heartbreaking story with the world.
Yet, when it was finally time, Rachel revealed how she owed her life to the hospital staff who had taken care of her during and after her terrible labor. To do this, she set up a blog called An Unexpected Family Outing in July 2016. The blog primarily aims to help her cope with the tremendous loss of her baby.
Rachel also hopes to reach other families going through similar experiences. And writing about the death of her baby girl resonates with many readers, all of whom are likely grateful to have a support group to turn to. The site has subsequently gathered lots of followers.
One such visitor said Rachel’s blog offers “a beautiful place to come to and set your heavy grief and loss down for a bit.” Indeed, the teacher uses the site as a platform to share relevant articles and assist parents who may be struggling with loss. She identifies with different stages of her own grief and shares personal accounts of day-to-day hurdles too.
And it’s from this platform that in November 2018 Rachel published a heartfelt thanks to the nurses who cared for her after her stillbirth. She also paid a sincere tribute to them via her popular Facebook page in a post that later went viral.
In the letter, Rachel spoke about how the traumatic birth of her daughter had left her on the brink of death. The preeclampsia had made her extremely ill, she said, leaving her weak and vulnerable.
Rachel also began the letter of thanks by mentioning how the nurses had treated her physical symptoms. For instance, she noted how they had watched her condition carefully and brought her back from the point of danger. But their kindness had been more than skin deep, Rachel wrote, and their compassion had responded perfectly to the teacher’s heartache.
After all, stillbirths are obviously extremely traumatic for couples. The impact can be so hard-hitting, in fact, that it can leave people feeling helpless, distraught or even guilty in an attempt to make sense of the situation. It can also lead to long-term conditions such as depression and anxiety.
And a tirade of emotions had overcome Rachel that day too. She later admitted in an article for Still Standing Magazine that she had even felt regret at naming her daughter Dorothy and questioned whether she had wasted her favorite name. “I had once envisioned seeing Dorothy’s name on birthday cards and school certificates,” she told the website.
And in the letter on her blog, Rachel recognized that without the support of the hospital staff she might not have survived the ordeal either. The teacher in fact knew that they had brought her back from the brink of death and that their kind gestures and unspoken words had given her a reason to fight for her own life.
Rachel’s post on Facebook reflected this and was more than a message of thanks. She began, “To the nurses. Thank you for saving me.” However, it soon became clear that she was referring to so much more than basic care. “The humanity you demonstrated is what brought me back into life,” she wrote.
Rachel continued, “For this, I owe you my love and deepest gratitude.” She then used the letter to highlight specific acts of kindness that she had experienced from individual nurses on that tragic day. She began an uplifting account of how the wonderful staff at the hospital had done so much more than simply look after her.
Rachel also thanked the nurses for looking after her husband, Mike, and acknowledging his pain. He had, after all, been by his wife’s side through two miscarriages and now the death of their little Dorothy. He too had lost something precious and was grieving.
“Thank you to the nurses who always made sure my husband had enough pillows when he had to stay in my hospital room,” Rachel wrote. “You recognized that this was an experience for him and that he also needed your care.” This was important, she said, and had helped hold the couple together during such a difficult time.
Rachel continued to list each caring moment that had made an impact. Her account therefore painted a very real picture of an often-avoided subject. And her honesty exposed the devastating effects of losing a baby while showing how vital it is for hospital staff to be there for women in their times of need.
Furthermore, Rachel described the harsh impact that the birth had on her body and paid tribute to each nurse who’d helped her cope every step of the way. “Thank you to the nurse who taught me how to fill my bra with ice packs when I needed to suppress my milk after my daughter was stillborn,” she wrote.
“I also want to thank you for holding me as I wept at the burden I could not release,” Rachel continued bravely. She then spoke about the ray of hope that one nurse had brought to her at that moment. “Your embrace did nothing to lighten the heaviness in my breasts, but you brought a glimmer of light into my very dark world,” she revealed.
But the wonderful care Rachel received from the hospital staff had only just begun. You see, the teacher continued the letter with a warm thanks to the nurse who’d cleaned her up after Dorothy’s birth. She paid particular attention to how gently the woman had performed her duties.
Rachel described the sensation of the nurse touching her hair. “I can still sense how it felt to have you smooth my hair back into a ponytail, it was a touch that wasn’t a poke or a prod. It was a gesture,” she wrote. The description provided an image of unconditional kindness and humanity.
The next nurse mentioned had made a huge impression on Rachel too. Not only had the nurse spoken to the teacher attentively, but she had also asked about her late daughter, Dorothy. Considering how long she had waited to grace her daughter with the pretty name, it had warmed Rachel’s heart to hear someone talk about her as a real person.
The kind nurse had also apparently spoken to Rachel in a familiar way, allowing her the choice of talking about her baby. She hadn’t pressured her to share her feelings, and the distraught teacher had felt at ease and respected. The teacher wrote, “I will never forget the way you leaned in, just like we were friends, and asked, ‘Do you want to tell me about her?’”
And after those kind words, Rachel had reportedly seen something that she would never forget. A nurse had carefully dressed Dorothy and prepared her for a photo that would grace the family home forever. She’d paid attention to every detail and made sure the baby girl looked perfect.
“Thank you for making sure her hat didn’t cover her eyes and that her hands were positioned so gracefully. That picture means the world to us,” Rachel wrote. But as that day had come to a close, these special nurses’ shifts had ended. The nursing staff had then made a handover to the next team, as the loss lay heavy on Rachel’s heart.
Thankfully, Rachel had seemingly continued to experience kindness and compassion from the next care team. The nurses had even apparently addressed both her and Dorothy by their names and took the time to become familiar with the whole family. This had helped the grieving mom cope during the second half of that traumatic day, Rachel said.
But as night had fallen, Rachel had faced her first night’s sleep without Dorothy. It was then that a nurse had reportedly come to hold her hand and shared her own story of losing a baby. The teacher was full of gratitude for this woman’s kind act too.
“Thank you to the nurse who slipped quietly into my room on my first night without Dorothy so that you could hold my hand,” Rachel wrote. “Thank you for whispering to me your story about your own child who was born still.” She described this nurse as someone who had led her out of the darkness that night. Her warm presence had even apparently made Rachel wonder whether she had in fact been dreaming.
Yet Rachel’s closing paragraph was one of hope. Rachel used it to thank the nurses who’d guided her through her pregnancy with her second daughter. You see, following Rachel’s traumatic history of miscarriages and stillbirth, as well as nine months of careful monitoring and constant concern, Frances Michele Whalen was born healthy in March 2017.
And once again, Rachel had received a level of care so great that she wanted to express her sincere thanks. “Finally, I want to thank the nurses who saw me through my pregnancy with Dorothy’s little sister,” she concluded. And it seems that they did not forget about mom’s firstborn. This was so important to the teacher.
“Even after Frances came into the world, you never forgot that someone came before her,” she wrote. “You knew that the birth of Frances did not make me a first-time mother. It made me a mother of two.” Signing the letter, “Gratefully, the one you brought back,” Rachel completed an emotional journey, while paying tribute to all the people who had traveled with her.
To this day, Rachel documents her life via her blog. She also spoke at an After Chloe summit in December 2018 and got the chance to share her story further. The teacher hopes that her words will continue to help others who have experienced miscarriage or stillbirth.
Rachel also dreams of empowering fellow survivors to help cope with loss. To date, she has nearly 9,000 followers, and her Facebook page is a safe haven for mourners to share their stories and support one another. Many readers undoubtedly identify with the teacher’s honest account of her journey so far too.
“What a beautiful and perfect way to describe how loss affects us all,” one Facebook user wrote. “[Rachel’s] stories are so similar to mine, it’s scary. Thank you for this page.” Another commended the teacher on how she lays herself bare with each story she relays.
“She speaks honestly and openly on the loss of a child,” another user said. “She provided our community of bereaved parents a safe place to go to know we aren’t alone.” The community page also claims to approach subjects that others often avoid or even judge.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, around 24,000 babies are stillborn in the U.S. every year. That is approximately one percent of every pregnancy. And while an increase in the quality of prenatal care has reduced the amount of stillbirths that occur late in the pregnancy, the ratio of early term stillbirths is still roughly the same as it was 30 years ago, according to the organization.
The causes of lots of stillbirths still remain unknown too. This arguably adds to the tragedy for parents because they’re left with no reasons why they lost their babies. The parents could therefore feel an increased sense of helplessness.
So researchers are working to identify preventative measures to put in place for women early in their pregnancies. But as Rachel’s story showed, for those who have suffered such a loss, care from hospital staff, loved ones and indeed the wider community can help women overcome such a traumatic experience.