Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Getting the story straight

Women's College Hospital has been a Toronto institution for more than a century, with its philosophy of women caring for women. The hospital has long been known for its maternity care, & some of the best high-risk ob-gyns in the city practiced there. Over the 25 years I've lived in this area, there has been much debate about the future of the hospital; for a time, it was merged with another hospital in the city. More recently, the hospital regained its independence & women-centred mandate. The decision was made to close its in-patient wards and become an "ambulatory care centre" (continuing to specialize in women's health care). There was much to-do made over the recent closing of the maternity ward & its move to new, state of the art facilities at another city hospital, including a page one story in the Toronto Star about the last baby born in the old place, early on the morning of Sept. 12th.

Except -- as I discovered when I opened my copy of the Star on Sunday morning -- the newspaper's reporting was inaccurate -- and not by accident. The "last baby born at Women's College," noted with much fanfare, was actually not the last.

As a bereaved parent myself, you can imagine how I felt when I read that the last baby to be born at the hospital died shortly after his birth.

The reporter knew the truth -- but bowed to the request of the hospital's obstetrics & gynecology chief, who did not want to impose on the family in their grief.

“At the time of the move, the family was grieving acutely and we did not think it would be appropriate to approach them to gauge their interest in speaking to the media,” she said.

“I didn't want to get into reporting on a dead baby and thought the parents had suffered enough without having everyone in the city knowing what had happened to their baby, the reporter is quoted saying, by way of explanation.

The parents themselves have said they probably would not have been able to handle the media attention at the time, and appreciated the doctor's efforts to protect them from the media.

But when they found out about what had happened, they e-mailed the Star's Public Editor, asking that the record be corrected and that their son be rightfully recognized as the last baby born at the historic hospital.

As a journalist by training, the mother of a stillborn daughter, and a longtime volunteer facilitator for a pregnancy & infant loss support group, I recognize all the conflicting impulses at work here.

"I didn't want to get into reporting on a dead baby." Reporters are supposed to report the facts, no matter how unpleasant they may be. Every day, we read the most horrific details of murders, sexual assaults. But a dead baby? Well, that's the ultimate squirm-inducer. It only confirms just how taboo the subject of death -- and a dead infant most of all -- still is in our society.

"I thought the parents had suffered enough."

"We did not think it would be appropriate."

The main problem here, as I see it, is that both the doctor and the reporter -- both trained to analyze facts, ask questions and investigate -- made the error of assuming too much, instead of doing what they had been trained to do.

The doctor erred in assuming that she knew how the parents would react, what their wishes would be and what they felt would be appropriate. (Just as, in the past, doctors assumed that parents would not want to see or hold their dead or dying baby and whisked the body away for burial in a mass grave.)

The reporter erred in several respects -- by also assuming what the parents' wishes would be, by assuming that they wouldn't want people to know what had happened to their baby, by giving into his instincts to shy away from a taboo subject, instead of doing his job and reporting the truth. As the Public Editor pointed out, he also erred by assuming that a gravely ill newborn would not cry, & that thus, his lead sentence (referrring to the last newborn baby's cry heard at the hospital) was technically correct (it wasn't).

I am very glad that the parents, whatever their initial inclination might have been (were they consulted in the first place...), have come forward to correct the public record, to speak out about their experience & to express their pride in their son.

And I am glad that the Star has recognized and called attention to its error (although I do notice that while the doctor says in the article that she now regrets any distress this may have caused the family, nowhere does the Star actually say that it regrets, apologizes for or is sorry for its error...).
I know how difficult it is for people to hear & read about these things. Once, I too would have shyed away from the topic of miscarriage, stillbirth & infant death. But if you think it's difficult to read about it, or report about, or to know the right thing to do or say when faced with a loved one's pain, all I can say is, just try living with it....

I know how difficult it is to speak out publicly about our children, to face the scrutiny of others (among our family and friends, let alone in one of the country's largest newspapers). I'm guilty of staying silent myself, more often than not. As this story shows, it's all too easy for others who haven't walked in our shoes to assume they know what's best for us and how we want to be treated -- and for those assumptions, however well-meaning they might be, to be incorrect, resulting in even more pain for us.

But if more of us spoke out about our experiences, our feelings, our wishes -- and if more media told the truth about pregnancy and infant loss -- how common it is, how devastating it is, how others can help (and hurt) -- we might be able to make things a little bit better all round.

The Public Editor didn't note (& probably doesn't know) that October (which comes Friday!) is Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month in many jurisdictions, with October 15th recognized in many places as Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Day. This day is not currently recognized in my province of Ontario (and this story most definitely drives home the need for greater awareness...!) -- but there is a drive under way to remedy that. Click here to find out how you can help!


  1. I just stumbled the post because it's important for people to read. There are so many ways they could have written that story the first time around which wouldn't have brought stress on the family. I'm glad the real story is getting out.

  2. Wow. I wish I could say I'm surprised about this, but the media doesn't surprise me much anymore when it comes to pregnancy/infant loss. I remember reading an article a few years ago, a 19 year old girl lost her battle to cancer. They briefly mentioned she delivered her son the day before she died, and he was stillborn. It was literally a sentence about the son she lost, and the rest of the article was about her. I understand she lost her life, she was 19, but I can't imagine how she must have been feeling about the loss of her son the day before she died. How hard she must have fought to try to give him a chance. But the article didn't take either approach or thought, and instead pushed it under the rug.

    So often they do this. And yes, so often people remain silent. I'm also glad the real story is getting out. Thanks for sharing this. And yeah, I can't believe it's almost October.

  3. would you consider sending this post to that reporter?

  4. Yeah, everyone wants to sweep it under the rug because it's unpleasant and painful but really, sometimes it's an opportunity to deepen a society's compassion.

  5. Like Another Dreamer, I am not really surprised. Such a sad reality that the media would rather shy away from our stories.
    I'm also glad the real story got out.
    Thinking of the newly bereaved family.
    Thanks for sharing this.

  6. @ One-hit Wonder: Not this particular post, perhaps, since I like to keep my blog relatively private, but I have been thinking of e-mailing my $.02 (incorporating some of what I've said here) to the Public Editor. The comments section on the article are closed. :p

  7. interesting...

    and you know what they say about assume - shame on that reporter. By all means he/she needs to read your 2 cents worth.

  8. Thank you for writing about this. Unbelievable. No, scratch that--I totally believe it. If we ignore the things that are uncomfortable to us, they just go away, right? Right?