Empathy and compassion. Technical and surgical skill. The capacity to share in the most significant moment in people’s lives. These intensely interpersonal connections led me into Obstetrics and Gynaecology, a discipline I think has everything, and remains my passion today as Stillbirth Foundation chairman.
Stillbirth’s mystery first struck me as a young medic training at Nepean Hospital in Sydney’s west. A teenager was giving birth with her grandmother by her side. When the child was stillborn, the grandmother became obstreperous, sad and angry and desperately emotional. It later transpired that she too had had a stillbirth but had been denied the opportunity to see her child and decades later the grief burst forth.
In our society we talk about many things but death remains the last taboo. And when the death is of someone we haven’t seen or met, that taboo deepens and the shadows darken around why it happened and if it might’ve been prevented.
We’ve come an awfully long way in our understanding of stillbirth in the past 20 years. The birth of a stillborn child, with a name and potential, is acknowledged in a multitude of ways. Parents are better supported, workplaces more aware.
The role of the Stillbirth Foundation is advocacy, education and research.
Speaking to students and clinicians I advocate for recognition first and foremost. This child is much loved and much wanted. This child has a name. This child has a story. As a society we must never trivialize it. Instead we must reassure and support families to tell their child’s story and we must listen when they share it.
Good clinical care comes from good education. Medical care is a system and we have pockets of excellence within that system but excellence is not yet universal. We know now we can’t assume the same approach to all. Every element of care is personal, every patient is an individual and each treatment must be different.
That applies before, during and after pregnancy and especially so with stillbirth. Grief is different for all of us. Fathers grieve differently to mothers, grandparents grieve differently again, and siblings too will all pursue different ways to cope.
Ultimately the best ways to make a difference is to raise awareness and research. Beyond a commitment to deliver the best quality care according to each patient’s needs, the Foundation strives to solve the many riddles surrounding stillbirth.
It might take the form of support for the Safer Baby Bundle, for individualizing care or for the new non-evasive blood tests in utero assessing placenta distress. It might simply be listening, connecting, understanding and sharing stories.
Life is finite but knowledge isn’t. So long as stillbirth remains an issue that causes lifelong heartbreak, the Foundation will never stop its quest for new answers.
Jonathan Morris AM is Professor of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at the University of Sydney and Head of Women’s and Babies Research the Kolling Institute for Medical Research. Jonathan has been a director of the Stillbirth Foundation since 2008 and Chairman since 2010.