For Some, Mother’s Day Recalls a Painful Loss; Program Doctor Created Can Help
One in an ongoing series
The approach of Mother’s Day isn’t always a happy anticipation of cards, cakes and kisses. For some, it can be a reminder of profound loss.
For Tracey Harris, DO, it’s both. She has a daughter and another baby on the way. But on Christmas Day of 2018, she lost her first child, a son named Hunter, in her third trimester. Sadly and ironically, she was completing her fellowship in the medical specialty of caring for newborns.
Now, Dr. Harris is a neonatologist at Jefferson Einstein Hospital. And she’s created a program to ensure that any patient who has the same experience that she did is cosseted in compassion and treated with a formalized protocol of care.
Dr. Harris helped create the Einstein Forget Me Not Team, a program in which doctors, nurses, social workers, chaplains, and other practitioners rally around a family who lost a newborn or pregnancy.
“It’s a multidisciplinary group we created two years ago,” Dr. Harris says. “Our mission is to provide support, presence, caring and education to individuals and families who have experienced a pregnancy or infant loss.”
Replicating a Valued Resource
Dr. Harris recreated the program she experienced while completing her fellowship – when she lost her baby, a program that “made the best of a bad situation,” she says.
It was Christmas 2018 when she realized something was wrong. She went to the hospital and discovered the baby no longer had a heartbeat.
“Social workers helped me coordinate the funeral home,” she says. “Nurses were there constantly checking on me. I had doctors checking on me. They set up a photographer to take photos (of her family with Hunter) that I cherish. They gave me a stuffed bear that we have at home.”
The program Dr. Harris helped create at Einstein is similar. “We have a checklist to follow throughout the process. We’ve also compiled a number of resources to provide the families when they go home, for support groups or therapists.”
Dr. Harris credited OB/GYN Chair David Jaspan, DO, with encouraging and supporting her to start the program, and says some of the “real champions” are Maryann Malloy, nurse manager of the NICU, and Jane Lodise, nurse manager of the Perinatal Newborn Unit.
Her experience “helped me gain a much greater appreciation for nurses, who often are a major source of support to their patients,” she says.
While losing a pregnancy might have dissuaded someone else from wanting to relive that experience in her career, nothing could have prevented Dr. Harris from becoming a pediatrician.
“As far back as first grade, I wanted to be a pediatrician,” she says. “I remember writing a book about it.” When she did her pediatric residency, Dr. Harris was particularly captivated by the NICU and decided to go into neonatology.
Empathy Out of Tragedy
“I love my specialty,” she says. “I get to be part of an extremely vulnerable part of the lives of infants and their families and I often get to see children survive who would have otherwise died without medical intervention.”
While she would have wanted to have brought Hunter home, of course, she says: “I do see his loss as a gift that has made me a better physician, mother and person all around. I have a better understanding of what it feels like to lose a child and how various people process grief differently.”
Dr. Harris understands that Mother’s Day is a struggle for families who have lost a pregnancy or a newborn. She also knows that many people don’t understand the grief.
“Losing a baby, whether through pregnancy loss or having an infant who’s died – there is still a loss there and much of society doesn’t necessarily see it that way, especially when it’s a pregnancy loss,” she says.
Unfortunately, Dr. Harris says, “People don’t know what to say and don’t say anything, and that makes it more frustrating. It’s like people are scared to talk about it. It would be meaningful for people to say, ‘I know this day is difficult for you. And I’m thinking of you.’”
Because Mother’s Day might be about cakes, cards and kisses for some, it’s not the same experience for everyone.