Saturday, May 31, 2014

Stillbirth: It happens here too

Our illustrious prime minister hosted a big conference in Toronto this week. The subject?  Maternal and infant health -- not in Canada, but on a global scale.  (Apparently, in PM's definition, "maternal health" does not include family planning or abortion services... but that is not the subject of this particular rant.) 

The PM pledged a further $3.5 billion in funding for an initiative first announced in 2010 at the G-20 & G-8 summits in Toronto & Muskoka. Luminaries such as Melinda Gates and Queen Rania of Jordan appeared at the PM's side in support. The tagline was "Saving every woman, every child."

While the program's goals are noble, and there is certainly an urgent need for better maternal & child health programs in developing countries (please don't get me wrong) -- I just wish someone would at least acknowledge in passing that there are (still) mothers and babies who need saving in our own country.

I have read a number of news articles and seen a number of TV reports about this initiative over the last few days, which detail the sad state of affairs in the developing world and quote global maternal & infant mortality statistics and stillbirths -- but I have not seen ONE mention of the state of maternal and infant health in Canada, and the statistics for child and maternal mortality and stillbirth here.

The other morning, I listened to a radio interview with a doctor involved in one of the program initiatives, talking about the huge numbers of women and babies around the world who die during pregnancy, childbirth or the first months of life. The dr told the story of a complicated delivery here in Canada, which would certainly have ended in tragedy in the mother's home country.  The host brought it up again around the 4:30 mark:  "[In Canada) There could be some complications, it happens, but everybody is healthy & well." (Ummm, EVERYBODY??)

 And then, at the very end (around 5:50) in a tone of surprise:  "Around the world, 2.6 million babies are stillborn every year... and a large majority of those are because the mother wasn't cared for." 

Well, golly gee, babies are stillborn? In this day & age? -- imagine that. :p

During my pregnancy, I was cared for at one of the top hospitals in my city, one of the best in Canada. And my baby still died. 

(And just because we live in Canada doesn't mean that care could not be improved. I heard a few hair-raising stories, as a perinatal loss support group facilitator, that were lawsuit worthy.)(Some of these parents did pursue legal action. Most were unsuccessful.)  

Yes, the numbers of maternal & infant deaths and stillbirths here are, thankfully, much, much lower when compared to developing countries. But that doesn't mean it doesn't happen here. It does. I am proof.  And I know I am far from alone.

The hard, cold fact is that sometimes, even in first-world countries like Canada and the United States with the most excellent care, babies (and even some mothers) still die -- some for no apparent reason.

And I think what bothers me the most is that coverage like this, which focuses on the developing world (because things are just great at home and we are SO much more advanced...) just reinforces the illusion held by most people -- those lucky enough not to have experienced perinatal loss in their own families -- that stillbirth, neonatal death and, yes, maternal death during or shortly after childbirth, are things happen elsewhere -- in third world countries. Certainly not in Canada, or the United States. Right?

And commonly held misconceptions like that only increase the feelings of shock and guilt and isolation that parents feel when they DO experience a loss. 

What do you think?


  1. I am with you on this, Loribeth. These are not things that only happen in poor, developing countries.

    I was shocked when I had my ectopics and was suspected of trophoblastic disease, because I didn't think that pregnancy could kill me, and both these conditions are killers. Not today, not in NZ. Not in the UK or US. But they can and do. Yet women and their medical practitioners are often not aware of the symptoms or risks, adequate treatment isn't given, and women (and, inevitably in the case of ectopics, their babies) die. And the shock of realising this is often life-changing, and the isolation it creates (because of the ignorance of the general public and their inability to deal with loss) is distressing. Being told to be happy you're alive is little comfort when you're losing /have lost your baby.

  2. Your last few paragraphs summed up why we don't talk about stillbirth, infant and maternal death here: we like the illusion that this is a third world problem. Otherwise who are we to offer advice at prevention? Who are we to assume that we know the answers? But you're absolutely right, we still need to talk about this. We need to research it. Thank you for this powerful reminder.

  3. I came back to see if there were more comments, and re-read mine. Horribly written. (I blame post-surgery brain fog.) I meant to say that ectopics and trophoblastic disease are not supposed to be killers today in NZ or the UK or US or Canada. But they are.

  4. I think it's a combination of putting our efforts where they'll have the biggest impact -- taking down an enormous number vs. whittling at a smaller number -- AND I think that it's a distancing: What? Stillbirth? Doesn't happen here! Only happens in those far away areas... wheeew.

    I've said before that I think doctors should raise the possibility with patients that pregnancy does not always equal baby, and I am always greeted by people pointing out why worry people with what ifs, pregnancy is stressful enough without worrying about what can go wrong, etc etc. But you make the best point: we should talk about it so we're not blindsided both as individuals and as a society. So we don't cause further isolation after loss happens.