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Mother and nurse turn grief into caring by donating CuddleCot for stillbirths
In August 2017, Chelsea Keene of Bluff City and her husband, Alex, received the worst news expectant parents can hear.
Despite a healthy pregnancy up to that point, doctors told the Keenes their baby girl, Avie Lee Elizabeth, had passed away in the womb at 37 weeks gestation.
Keene delivered her daughter at Bristol Regional Medical Center, and while trying to cope with the shock and grief of birthing a stillborn baby, Keene only had a few hours to spend with Avie before she had to say goodbye forever.
In the weeks and months that followed, Keene joined a Facebook group for grieving mothers and learned about a device called a CuddleCot, a type of cooling pad and bassinette that preserves a stillborn baby’s body for up to five days in a hospital room, allowing more time for parents to grieve, reflect and show the baby to family before saying goodbye.
“Somebody in the group posted that, with the CuddleCot, they got to spend time with their baby, bathe it, change its diaper and do as much as they could before they told the baby goodbye. That would have been so wonderful for me,” Keene said.
“I only got to spend about five hours with Avie before we had to let her go. We were in such a time crunch. We could have had more family come. We could have done more normal stuff.”
The team at Bristol Regional rushed in a photographer to take pictures of Avie, and a couple weeks later, nursery and labor nurse Marcia Stone, who specializes in supporting mothers of stillborn babies, met with Keene to personally give her the pictures and offer assistance.
Stone had been responsible for putting together the bereavement memory boxes and packets the birth center gives to patients who have experienced loss and are grieving. Stone’s gentle and caring manner has helped many families make it through crises, and it’s common for people to call or visit the birth center, sometimes years later, with praise for what she did for them during their time of need.
Avie’s death wouldn’t be the last time Keene heard from Stone.
Keene became determined to bring a CuddleCot to Bristol Regional and contacted Ballad Health Foundation to see what it would take to purchase one to support grieving families of stillborn babies.
“This was not available in any hospitals around,” said Kelly Jo Sexton, clinical leader of Bristol Regional’s birthing center. “Chelsea felt like it would be a great thing to help parents going through this horrible situation with their grief.”
In 2018, Stone became one of 12 Ballad Health team members to earn the Servant’s Heart Award, the most prestigious and highest honor a Ballad Health employee can receive.
Each Servant’s Heart award winner is given $1,000 to donate to a charity or cause of their choosing, and Stone did not hesitate to contribute her winnings to purchase a CuddleCot for Bristol Regional.
“She has the sweetest heart of anybody I’ve ever met,” Keene said of Stone. “I’m really humbled she donated her award winnings for something like this in memory of my child and for other families to use.”
During this time, Bristol Regional’s vice president of finance, Bob Bender, experienced firsthand the benefits a CuddleCot can bring a grieving family.
In February, Bender’s daughter-in-law was 29 weeks pregnant when she experienced a car wreck in Phoenix. Bender’s granddaughter was born early and lived just 30 minutes.
Bender caught the next flight from the Tri-Cities to Phoenix and arrived the next morning to see his granddaughter had been placed in a CuddleCot to allow time for the family to grieve.
“I didn’t know such a thing existed,” Bender said. “But watching what it did for my son and daughter-in-law by giving them time, it was just fantastic for the grieving process.”
When Bender came back to work, he learned about Keene’s effort to bring a CuddleCot to Bristol Regional.
“When Kelly Jo told me we were looking to get one of those, I immediately said I would fully support it,” Bender said.
With Bender’s support, Ballad Health Foundation donated the remaining funds needed to purchase the device, and just last month, Bristol Regional received its CuddleCot.
Stone retired July 7 following a 38-year career, while Keene is now seven months pregnant with a little girl she plans to name Ava.
Stillbirth affects nearly 1% of all pregnancies, resulting in about 24,000 babies stillborn in the United States each year, according to U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data.
“I think it’s kind of a taboo thing. People don’t think it happens now. They think it happened during their grandmother’s time, but it’s not as rare as people think it is,” Keene said.
“I just hope Bristol Regional’s CuddleCot brings comfort to future grieving families, providing them enough time to heal, reflect and cherish each moment they can spend together.”