‘There is no heartbeat.’: Mom turns devastating stillbirth at full term into opportunity to make a difference for ‘other parents who will walk this road’

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“My husband, Anthony, and I had been married for almost nine years. We’d endured endless inquiries from family, friends and even strangers: ‘When are you guys going to have kids? No babies yet? When can we expect a little Maroon?’ We wanted children, but we were happy with the life we’d built together. We knew that, if it was meant to happen, it would. And it did.

It was a Tuesday. February 17, 2015. I had a feeling and made a special trip to the store to buy a pregnancy test. I drove home, heart pounding, the bag staring at me from the passenger seat. I flew upstairs to the bathroom and took the test. I turned it upside down on my bathroom counter and watched three minutes crawl by on my phone. Hands shaking, I flipped over the test. The digital readout stared back at me: Pregnant 3+. I did some quick math. Five weeks. Google told me my due date was Monday, October 19.

Nervous and excited, my mind racing, I drove around in circles, trying to formulate the perfect way to tell Tony. He would never see this coming.

He arrived home from an out-of-town trip, and I unceremoniously handed him a bag and a card the second he put down his suitcase. I was about to explode…it was not the perfectly calm moment I’d seen in movies. He opened the card, totally confused. Then he pulled a onesie out of a Halloween bag, even more confused. I watched it click as his face lit up with hope, fear and possibilities. ‘I’m going to be a dad?,’ he asked.

Husband and wife standing holding ultrasound in front of microphones holding sign saying, "tour begins October 2015"
Erin Maroon

We nicknamed the baby Gummy Bear, because at my eight-week ultrasound, we both agreed that’s what it looked like. In June, we learned Gummy Bear was a girl and chose the name Ashlie Cathren. Tony always liked the name Ashley, and we agreed to spell it differently. Cathren was a tribute to my mom, Cathie, and his mom, Karen.

My pregnancy was perfect—no morning sickness, aches or other issues. We hit all the milestones and everything was great. Gummy Bear ate lots of ice cream and was growing well. I was loving every single moment of being pregnant and had truly never been happier. My due date came and went, which made everyone crazy. We just wanted to meet her!

The morning of October 27, 2015, I was 41 weeks and one day along. We went to my doctor for a non-stress test and ultrasound. The tests were to determine if I had enough amniotic fluid and Ashlie was healthy enough to wait for induction. The doctor said everything looked good, and induction was scheduled for six days later, unless she came on her own.

Husband stands with arm wrapped around pregnant wife and hand on her stomach
Erin Maroon

About 10 hours later, I was relaxing on the couch and felt a giant kick. An hour after that, I realized she wasn’t being very active. I lay still, trying to ignore my rising panic and willing her to move. We rushed to the hospital, where our daughter’s motionless back was highlighted on an ultrasound. There was no heartbeat.

‘Your daughter is gone,’ the doctor said matter-of-factly. ‘Sometimes these things just happen.’

In less than 10 seconds, we lost everything we thought we knew. Tony crumpled to the floor in tears. I chewed my spearmint gum one last time and thought, ‘What did he just say?’ Tony composed himself long enough to call my parents.

‘Tony!!! Is it time?!’ my dad answered, his excitement cutting through the silent triage room.

Tony responded. ‘Rick. We…lost the baby.’

And in that moment, full clarity. We’re going to bury our daughter.

But…these things don’t happen. Are they sure? None of our friends had lost children like this. She was fine. They just said she was OK. What happened? Why won’t they try to save her?

I felt so ashamed as a nurse wheeled me to a delivery room. I kept thinking it was my fault. Over and over I sobbed into Tony’s neck, ‘I’m so sorry.’ I carried her. I should have kept her safe. What did I do wrong? Did I sleep on my back? Maybe I shouldn’t have eaten that lunchmeat. Why didn’t I make my doctor induce that morning?

Doctors immediately began the induction process. I was in and out of sleep after two failed epidurals. After 24 hours of labor, I had a C-section. When Ashlie was born at 11:22 p.m. on October 28, 2015, there was no sound—no baby crying, no happy words—just overwhelming sadness and silence. Deafening silence.

My husband, my rock, watched his baby girl being born. This was supposed to be a moment of joy. We’d waited so long for this and been through so much together. He leaned over the drape and whispered that she was here.

‘Hey, Toots. She’s out. And she’s beautiful,’ he said as he choked back tears, his voice proud and warm amid the cold of the operating room.

He watched as they untangled Ashlie’s umbilical cord. It was tightly wrapped three times around her neck and once around her ankle. My doctor later told us it was a freak accident.

As they prepared me to leave the operating room, the nurse asked if I wanted to hold our baby. I choked out a ‘Yes,’ and held our first child’s lifeless body as they wheeled me back to my room. Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep took some photos, then I passed her to my family. After holding Ashlie for less than 30 minutes, exhaustion and medicine crept in, making it impossible to concentrate. Fearing I would drop her, I handed our perfect baby girl to my mom and fell asleep.

Mother holds stillborn baby's feet in her hands
Erin Maroon

The next afternoon, I asked my husband if I could see Ashlie. He brought her in from the hospital’s cold room, her long, plump body (8 lb. 13 oz. and 22 ¾ inches) swaddled and laying in a basket. She was ice cold. Less than 15 hours after she was born, the extreme temperature had already begun to twist her delicate features. Her pouty Cupid’s bow, her perfect nose and her tiny ears and fingers were angry and purple. Tony asked me not to unwrap her blankets, knowing I wouldn’t want to remember her that way. I never saw her feet or her body under all the blankets. I did not change or bathe her, nor did I feel her soft baby skin against mine.

My nurses were amazing and said we could see her whenever we wanted, but we didn’t know what we were supposed to be doing. Should we hold her? Lay her down? Ask for a bassinet? Could we sleep with her? How long could she stay? I didn’t know what else to do, so after about 20 minutes, I kissed every feature I could see and handed her back to Tony. He took her from the room, and I never saw her again. For two more days, I stayed in the hospital without her, thinking that was just how it was supposed to be.

Mother touches fingers of still born baby
Erin Maroon

As I prepared to go home, I read an online article about stillbirth. It referenced a CuddleCot, a device that keeps a baby cool (instead of frozen or at room temperature) and slows the natural changes that occur after death. It allows parents and families the option to have up to 96 hours with the baby before saying goodbye. It made me angry we didn’t have that option, and the more I thought about how little time we had with her, the more upset I became. Some families and loss groups have placed CuddleCots across the nation, but there are still so many hospitals without one. It boggles my mind. Our country is one of the most advanced nations in the world, yet my husband and I spent less than one hour with our first child. There’s nothing advanced about that.

Less than two months after Ashlie was born, I woke up with a feeling I couldn’t ignore: We were supposed to start a nonprofit organization to bring CuddleCots to every hospital in the United States. Other parents will, unfortunately, endure the same tragedy. When they are faced with whether to hold their child for hours on end or say goodbye after less than one, they can have a choice that we didn’t. It may not be for everyone, and that’s OK. But we wanted to give people another option.

After just six months, we received the official letter that named Ashlie’s Embrace as a public charity. Our mission is to provide comfort to grieving parents after stillbirth or early infant loss by increasing awareness of CuddleCots and making them available to parents through medical facilities.

Mother and father of still born baby stand over CuddleCot that they wanted to bring to every hospital
Dan Draiss

Since August 2016, we have placed 16 CuddleCots—15 in Ohio and 1 in Tennessee. We have placements pending in Ohio, Colorado, Connecticut and Florida and have received inquiries from states as far away as Wyoming. We have a long way to go, but I continue to be blown away at the support we receive. Parents who lost a child as many as 40 years ago have thanked us and said they wished they could have had the opportunity for more time. Those who’ve used a CuddleCot tell us how amazing it was to have had those extra hours to say goodbye.

We know Ashlie lives on, and not just through Ashlie’s Embrace. On May 3, 2017, she sent us a rainbow baby. Her brother AJ will be one next week. He is perfect…full of love, orneriness and pure joy. He’s always giggling, always smiling and a ton of fun. He brings us a happiness we can’t even describe. AJ didn’t replace his big sister, but he helped heal our broken hearts. I know now that parents of loss don’t always get a second chance. We are beyond grateful he’s here with us and will set the world on fire in his own right.

Mother and father hold newborn son after their first born was stillborn
Nicole DeHoff Photography
Newborn boy lays on moon structure with a teddy bear beside him
Nicole DeHoff Photography

People ask us all the time how we could move forward in such a positive way. We all deal with grief differently, but Tony and I felt like this was the obvious choice for us. We could have died with her, or we could keep all of us alive by honoring her memory…and making things different for other parents who will walk this road. It’s all we knew how to do. I know Ashlie’s making a difference. I hear it in the stories of the parents who’ve used one of the CuddleCots we’ve placed. I hope she knows how loved she is.”

Husband and wife stand on either side of CuddleCot that they started charity for
Erin Maroon

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Erin Maroon, 35, of Ohio. She is the founder of Ashlie’s Embrace. Submit your own story here, and subscribe to our best stories in our free newsletter here.

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