I’ve kept the promise I made to Olivia as I held her in my arms for the very last time. That moment is etched into my memory as clearly today as it was on 31 July 2002. Babies don’t die for no reason and I don’t want anyone else to ever go through this experience. I laid Olivia down in her little coffin knowing this was the last time I could do anything to care for her while making her a promise that now I would help others.
At first it was very difficult. No one wanted to talk about stillbirth, not even doctors. I knew the midwives shared my distress but they also had to maintain a stiff upper lip. There were limited resources and almost no research into why babies were dying – six every day and 2000 a year in Australia alone. I knew I had to shake things up.
In 2005 the dream of a Foundation came to life. By then I’d become a Mum again to Lily and my son Hugh was six and, with the help of ‘no judgement’ counsellors and psychologists, I’d come to terms with my grief. Even so I never wanted to personalise this quest as the ‘Olivia Foundation’. This wasn’t about me. If I wanted to create real change, the Stillbirth Foundation had to be a voice for all parents and all families.
At first the Stillbirth Foundation was just me, a small band of parents and a promise. We drew flak early on in the media by sharing photos of stillborn babies, their little hands and feet, to say: This is real. These are our babies and they are beautiful.
“The Stillbirth Foundation is a very important part of my life but today I’m like a proud mother, watching it grow up independently and knowing we’ll forever be connected. ”
Ultimately we knew the only way to make a difference was with scientific research. Right from the beginning I was very strict on the ‘blue sky’ projects the Foundation would fund. I formed a committee of world experts and we’d call for expressions of interest then rank applicant on theories, credibility, achievability and time frames.
There was one other criteria the established medical authorities seemed to ignore: how does it feel in your heart? At first was hard to re–train the boffins to think with their head and heart but I think they came to love making decisions on ‘gut feel’.
We explored a protein released from the placenta later in pregnancy and its effects on babies in the womb. We proved unequivocally that viruses didn’t impact stillbirth. We established sleeping on their sides was vitally important for pregnant mothers.
A big one was investigating genetic links in stillbirth. Many families like mine have experienced it over generations. Perhaps, like breast cancer – which my mum, sister and I have all battled – the secrets of stillbirth are buried deep within our genes.
I have four children – Hugh, 20, Lily, 16, Oscar, 14, and Olivia. Each of their births is etched in my memory but none deeper than Olivia’s. All my kids understand this. Every July 31 we celebrate her birthday and she’ll always be part of our life.
Still, I was shocked the other day when Hugh had Olivia’s birthdate 3107 tattooed onto his arm. He’s a sensitive soul and often thinks about his sister but I think this was his way of saying: I’m proud of you Mum. I’ll always have Olivia with me too.
Emma McLeod, mother to Olivia Kate and founder of Stillbirth Foundation Australia.