Belfast Telegraph

I still think about Isobel every day - and being told my baby had no heartbeat

Belfast couple Alanna and Simon Salter's mission to help stillbirth parents

By Claire McNeilly

Alanna and Simon Salter's first child was stillborn, and now the Belfast couple have set up a website to help couples who have suffered similar trauma.

A framed photograph in the stairwell catches your eye as you walk past.

It's the sort of image you've seen many times before; doting first-time parents kissing their beautiful newborn daughter.

Pictures may well paint a thousand words, but few will be prepared for the heartbreaking story behind this one.

It was meant to capture the best moment of Alanna and Simon Salter's lives... precious Isobel Olivia, born to a couple who feared they may never have children.

But little Isobel never made it into this world alive. She was stillborn at Belfast's Royal Jubilee Maternity Hospital on the morning of Friday, June 26, 2015. Perhaps worst of all, her devastated parents already knew her fate.

And, in a cruel twist, the funeral at Roselawn Cemetery took place four days later - on what had been Isobel's due date.

That shattering experience has led Alanna and Simon, who are both 33, to set up a website for other grieving parents of stillborn children.

They know what their peers are going through, and they want to help in any way they can. They feel it's something they can give back in Isobel's memory.

Their baby may not have survived outside the womb, but she clearly lives on in her parents' hearts.

We're sitting in the front room of Alanna and Simon's south Belfast home, and I've just been introduced to nine-month-old Theo, whom Simon calls their "rainbow baby".

Given Alanna's health issues - she was diagnosed with polycystic ovaries as a teenager - Theo was an unexpected gift whose timely arrival brought some much-needed joy to a couple who were still struggling to cope with their earlier loss.

It will soon be two years since tragedy came calling.

Simon, a marketing professional, had gone to work and Alanna, a clinical psychologist, went to lunch with friends from her anti-natal class.

"We'd all been due roughly around the same time, so some of the girls already had their wee babies with them, but two or three of us were still pregnant," recalled Alanna, who started to experience mild contractions that Wednesday afternoon.

"I remember thinking that I hadn't felt my baby move apart from the contractions and, when Simon came home, I told him we should go to hospital to see if everything was all right. They kept us waiting for about two hours."

Eventually Anna was taken to a room where a sonographer would try to listen to the baby's heart.

"She tried a couple of times but couldn't find a heartbeat, so we waited in the ultrasound scanning room for a doctor to arrive. It was about 10 minutes, but it felt like hours," said Alanna.

"I could tell something was seriously wrong by the look on the faces of the midwife and doctor... and then he switched the machine off and said 'I'm so sorry'."

Alanna said she didn't break down at that point; instead, she defaulted into business mode.

"I wanted a caesarean section straight away but they said no because they were worried about putting me through unnecessary surgery," she said.

"I just thought it was barbaric. I couldn't believe I was going to have to go through labour knowing the baby was dead.

"Initially, they told us to come back in 48 hours but we pushed and they told us to come back in 24."

Simon interjects: "We had just been given that devastating news - and the next thing we had to do was go to the car park, find a machine and pay the ticket to get out. That was the most surreal drive home."

A home that was, by that stage, fully prepared - with a cot and pram etc - for the impending arrival. But, instead, two deeply traumatised people found themselves looking for an outfit for their dead baby's funeral.

"At that stage we still didn't know if it was a boy or a girl," said Alanna.

"We didn't even ask. All we had was gender-neutral stuff."

When the couple, by then overwhelmed by how surreal everything had become, went back to the Royal at 10pm the following day they were brought into a private room.

Alanna was induced at 11.30pm and Isobel was born, weighing 7lbs and 2oz, at 4.26am.

"I found it really difficult to look at her," she admitted.

"Simon, however, was amazing from the beginning.

"He loved her like she was alive, and he was holding her and doing skin-to-skin. I was feeling like the worst person in the world because I didn't really want to hold her or look at her. And then I felt really guilty for feeling that way, and started thinking the whole thing was my fault. It was just awful."

She added: "It was Simon who encouraged me to look at Isobel. He was saying 'just look at her wee nose' and Isobel was actually perfect when she was born."

Despite being in a private room, the couple had little privacy to grieve; indeed, they were taunted by the sounds of healthy newborns. And later, when family members came to visit, they found themselves "walking through a corridor full of balloons and everyone being happy..."

A post-mortem later revealed MPFD (Massive Perivillous Fibrin Deposition), a major failure of the placenta which, thankfully for most would-be parents, is extremely rare.

"The placenta failed at the last minute and cut oxygen off to the baby for six hours. It was basically suffocation," said Simon.

"If Isobel had been born before the placenta failed she would be with us today..."

It wasn't meant to be like this.

Isobel Olivia Salter was meant to be a joyous triumph over adversity for a young couple who had been together for five years before getting married in December 2014.

Although Alanna desperately wanted to be a mother, natural conception seemed highly unlikely because of her previous diagnosis - and laparoscopic surgery at a fertility clinic in February 2014 did little to improve those odds.

"We were put on a 12-month-long IVF waiting list, so we thought we'd take the year to get married, go on honeymoon and then think about the baby stuff," she recalled.

After their nuptials at the Old Inn, Crawfordsburn, the newlyweds spent a month honeymooning in Thailand. Then, to Alanna's profound surprise and delight, she discovered she was pregnant in January 2015.

She recalled: "Apart from that surprise start, it was a normal, healthy pregnancy. I felt great, the baby was growing perfectly..."

Tragic Isobel's lifeless little body was taken away for examination around 1pm on the day of her birth. That harrowing episode is yet another reason why her parents set up their informative website.

"I wasn't prepared for the scars on her body after the post-mortem," said Simon.

"Isobel was absolutely perfect before, and we only have a few photos of her during that time period. Then obviously when she came back, the body was deteriorating and she had quite a few scars, which was quite upsetting.

"I really wish we'd been told that beforehand.

"One of our big regrets is that we didn't come across charities that are available in Northern Ireland where they take professional photographs in situations like ours. All our photos were taken by phone."

Simon and Alanna were able to spend considerable time with Isobel thanks to a so-called 'cuddle cot' which features a cooling mechanism that prevents the baby's body from deteriorating rapidly. Isobel wasn't removed by the undertakers until the Monday night; up until then, the couple could still visit her.

"Every time we went into the hospital we had to go in the main entrance, walking past pregnant people smoking, using the lift with people taking their babies home - it was horrendous," recalled Alanna.

"Looking back, I don't know how I got through that time. I went that Monday morning to get myself an outfit for the funeral. There was so much to think about.

"Simon had to go and see the plot of land. We had to think about burial or cremation. We had to decide if we wanted to buy one family plot or two - all this stuff. It was a real big rush on the Friday to register the death to get the certificate to buy the plot."

Not surprisingly, the hardest time of all for Alanna came after the funeral.

"Simon had to go back to work two weeks later, and I was by myself," she said.
"I didn't want to get up or do anything. I was grieving really hard. I felt sad and angry and anxious.

"Everywhere I went there were prams and babies. Everything was a trigger, so it was really hard to go out."

And then Theo came into their lives; once again, as nature, and not a fertility clinic, intended.

"We were well aware that another baby would not take away our grief for Isobel but we wanted to have one," recalled Alanna, who added that this pregnancy, unlike the last one, was wrought with trepidation.

"We felt extreme fear because we didn't know if he would make it," she said.

"The pregnancy with Theo was the hardest because it was so mixed up with the grief over losing Isobel.

"We went privately with him and we were seen once a week.

"Even then, when I felt movement, I still thought he was dead. We had a planned section (on May 13, 2016) at 36 weeks because we just didn't know how safe it was to keep him in after that."

She added: "Having Theo actually unleashed a lot of grief that I wasn't able to deal with when I was pregnant because I was so anxious. People who have lost their babies 40 years ago have told me that it never really goes away."

But things have become a little easier for Alanna and Simon - and, less than a month ago, they found the time to set up the Still Parents website. They've also organised a one-night retreat in Fermanagh next month for couples who've been through similar experiences.

"I still think about Isobel all the time, and at some point every day I am back in that room being told there's no heartbeat," said Alanna.

"That's something that's with me every single day. We both have nightmares. You learn how to live with it. I break down every so often."

She added: "When people think of miscarriage or stillbirth they can forget there is a baby. I had to give birth to a baby. The baby just doesn't vanish when it dies."

Simon, whose 16-year-old son Jensen from a previous relationship visited Isobel in hospital and bought her a special sister teddy that was buried with her, conceded that he and his wife are both different people now.

"I used to be very sociable but I hardly touch alcohol these days because I just can't deal with the hangover depression," he said.

"I think the most upsetting thing about losing a baby is all those missed opportunities. You're actually grieving for things that should have happened - I didn't get to hear her laugh, I didn't get to discover her unique personality, or see her on her first day of school."

Instead, all they get to see now are those hastily taken pictures of that dreadful day - and the spot where Isobel Olivia was buried.

As Alanna says: "You just don't expect to see a headstone with your little baby's name on it."

Still Parents Therapeutic Retreat takes place at Ashbrooke House in Fermanagh from April 29-30. It is designed to support parents who have experienced the stillbirth or neonatal death of a baby. For information visit the Still Parents Facebook page

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