DSC_0047Laura and Chris Rector, members of St. Mary Parish in Marytown, stand in the nursery originally decorated to welcome home Gabriel “Gabe” Raymond Rector who was stillborn April 28, 2009. Since this photo taken in July, Laura and Chris welcomed a healthy baby boy, Aiden Christopher Rector, born Oct. 22, into their home in Kiel. (Catholic Herald photo by Sam Arendt)Plan baby shower – check. Sign up for baby classes – check. Order nursery furniture – check. Laura and Chris Rector were ahead of the game at 21 weeks into the pregnancy – from day care to ducks lined up in a row.

Then, Saturday, April 25, 2009, as Laura and Chris climbed into a car to drive to a wedding with friends, Laura felt something she had never experienced before. She turned to her friends and said, “I’m having an issue and we need to go.”

Her sister, a registered nurse, encouraged Laura to call her doctor who said the hospital would be expecting them since he couldn’t offer any assurance over the phone. The doctor did an ultrasound and explained that she had felt her water breaking, which meant while the baby had a heartbeat at 9 p.m. that night, there was only a 2 percent chance that the amniotic sac would refill with fluid to allow Laura to continue to carry the baby.

Chris, an engineer, said he clung to those numbers.

“Two percent – that’s two out of a hundred. I’ll take that. That’s better than zero,” he told your Catholic Herald. “We have a 2 percent chance – it wasn’t a 98 percent chance of (the baby) passing, of a loss; it was a 2 percent chance of life. That’s where we’re going, and I held onto that pretty tight.”

Laura had a different perspective. She realized something was wrong on the “emotional” drive to St. Nicholas Hospital in Sheboygan.

“I didn’t have the hope that Chris had when the doctor said the 2 percent,” she said. “I heard 98 percent.”

Heartbeat, but no fluid

On Sunday morning, April 26, the baby had a heartbeat, but the amniotic sac hadn’t refilled with fluid; the grim reality sank in for Laura. That was when she and Chris met Cori Salchert, registered nurse and perinatal bereavement specialist of Hope After Loss Organization, or HALO, which helps families – physically, mentally and spiritually – cope with pregnancy loss.

HALO-logoSalchert, who is called in by doctors when a family is experiencing loss related to miscarriage, ectopic pregnancy (the egg is implanted outside of the uterus), stillbirth, abortion-elective or medical terminations  performed at another facility other than St. Nicholas Hospital, and/or early newborn death. HALO resources are offered through Salchert as a courtesy to help couples through the devastating loss of their baby and take  away some of the fear and anxiety surrounding the situation. 

For more information on HALO

Hope After Loss Organization (HALO) at St. Nicholas Hospital, Sheboygan, is a pregnancy loss and newborn death support program that supports parents and families in any stage of pregnancy loss, whether it’s miscarriage, ectopic, stillbirth or early newborn death. The service, offered courtesy of the hospital, offers support whether the loss is unexpected or needed because a baby has an anomaly that is incompatible with life outside the womb, as explained on the Web site.

For more information about this program, call (920) 457-5770.

To participate in the program in the Bonaventure Room at St. Nicholas Hospital, 3100 Superior Ave., Sheboygan, Thursday, Dec. 2 from 7 to 8 p.m. – register online.

To donate to HALO, send a check made payable to Friends of St. Nicholas Hospital, 3100 Superior Ave., Sheboygan, WI 53081, with HALO in the memo line, or a note that indicates where you’d like your support to go.

Salchert showed the Rectors a DVD of how a family, whose baby died, celebrated that baby’s life by choosing a name and clothing for the infant, holding the baby and celebrating that short life with their family.

 “It was at that moment that she planted a seed as far as what we could do in this situation, just options on what we could do, because no one ever imagines that they’re going to go in (to the hospital) and be experiencing this (loss),” Laura said, explaining that Salchert offered to  take pictures of the family’s interactions once the baby was born, had the Rectors pick out girls’ and boys’ names and clothes, because they still didn’t know what the baby was, and had them choose a song to which the slideshow of photos would play. “… and it really allows you to have some control in a situation where it’s completely out of your control.

Gabe arrives April 28 

On Monday, April 27, the baby had no heartbeat, and Laura was induced. Visiting family members had gone home Sunday, but returned Monday and stayed through the night as they would with a regular labor and delivery. Gabriel “Gabe” Raymond Rector was delivered stillborn at 3 a.m. Tuesday, April 28.

“It was sad,” Laura said, “but it was good to share that with our family and bond us all even more together.”

“It’s a Wonderful World,” and “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” play during the nine-minute DVD of photos showing Laura’s baby bump to the flowers the Rectors received in the hospital to Gabe’s inky handprint to the gifts he received, including a piggy bank, baseball, homemade blanket, cross with the Serenity Prayer and more. The DVD shows laughter and tears as family members took turns holding Gabe.

Showing and sharing with families what happened to other families in similar circumstances is how HALO can turn the horrible situation into a “wonderfully enriching and memorable experience that is uniquely their own,” states the Web site.

Program formally adopted January 2008

Salchert, who has been a nurse for 22 years and has eight children of her own, said HALO began informally as a few written resources hanging on the back of a filing cabinet. In January 2008, the hospital formally adopted the program that’s unique in the care it offers at St. Nicholas. While other maternity centers may offer similar support to families, it’s not to the extent of Salchert’s role – for three years she was a specific full-time employee specialist that was on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, but her hours have recently changed.

“Even if (parents feel they) cannot hold their baby, I do. …” Salchert said, explaining that sometimes means cradling a baby in her arms until death. “Most of them come around to (thinking) if you, as a stranger, are willing to hold my child, I guess I can do this,” said Salchert, explaining that babies, whether stillborn at 21 weeks or miscarried at 6 weeks are still precious and that’s why even fetal remains are given a burial, not thrown away or incinerated.

When one woman asked Salchert why she cared about “someone like her,” Salchert explained the story of the man who walked along the ocean picking up starfish off the sand and throwing them back into the water. Salchert explained that when someone told the man he wasn’t making a difference because millions of starfish were left to die on the beach, the man said, “I’m making all the difference to this one,” as he tossed one back into the ocean.

“My hope is that I will not only make all the difference to that one, but … I can make the difference to one, two, 20, 2,000, and affect the world,” she said, explaining that if she helps one person through the pain, that person can help someone else, causing a ripple effect.

Halo may have started with one person’s dream, “but, in order to really make the ministry work, it requires the efforts of many,” Salchert said in an e-mail, listing the nurses, doctors who should be credited as well as the HALO moms and dads who work through their grief and give back by helping the newly bereaved. Salchert made it clear that she doesn’t want to be viewed as “everybody’s ‘savior.'”

“There’s only one Savior,” she said, “and he is the reason I do what I do.”

HALO exists on donations

HALO exists mostly on donations through the Friends of St. Nicholas Foundation – which helps cover treatment for those with financial needs, equipment costs, support programs and services and health care-related academic scholarships – as well as donations made out specifically to HALO. The program has supported more than 450 families throughout the United States with care packages containing items like blankets made by volunteers, miscarriage packets and memory boxes; and, in the past three years, HALO has helped approximately 500 women and families.

People hear about HALO and write to Salchert requesting a care package or support, and even if they’re in Florida or the loss happened 45 years ago, Salchert mails one, “because we’re there for everyone regardless of when it’s taken place.”

Salchert’s on-site help at St. Nicholas is something she hopes will spread throughout the country.

“At this point, we’re trying to get (HALO) down and get it good so we can tell (other hospitals) how to do it,” Salchert said, explaining that having HALO at a hospital involves finding someone who is passionate for life, who has passion for people who are suffering and is willing to step into that pain. “If you can find that, then you can have a HALO program.”

Dad’s original reaction was anger

Chris said he was angry that Salchert came to meet with them at first.

“In my mind, I was thinking, ‘Who are you to come in here and tell us any of this? Get out of this room. …’” he said. “I did not shift gears into ‘We’re going to lose Gabriel,’ until we lost Gabriel.”

When Chris asked Salchert what she was doing there, she answered “‘Well, I’m here if everything does not work out – I hope that you’re going to go home and come back and have a healthy baby.’”

It’s not about taking away someone’s hope, Salchert said, but learning to hope for different things.

“HALO allowed us to be able to look forward to his birth, rather than dread his death,” Laura said, adding that it allowed them to celebrate his existence. “It’s such uncharted territory – you don’t see yourself going there. … HALO helped us to navigate through this total unknown dark world and come out wanting to watch our DVD, because we see the love and the support, not just the death of our son, but we see the miracle of birth.”

‘You will not get back to normal’

Laura recalls asking Salchert when their lives would return to normal, “(Salchert) said, ‘You will not get back to normal. … You will need to find your new normal, and it really takes time to do that,’” said Laura, who gave birth to a healthy baby boy at the end of October.

Laura and Chris said that HALO, the HALO Support Group, Bible study called “Esther. It’s Tough Being a Woman,” and getting pregnant again after waiting a year helped them cope with the loss of Gabe and find a “new normal.”

After Gabe’s birth and funeral, Chris took a few days off from work, and Laura took six weeks of maternity leave to let her body heal physically and emotionally. She read books she received through HALO about the ways men and women grieve, and that explained what she was going through physically and emotionally. She took time in May 2009 to soul search, heal, get a jumpstart on planting her garden and enjoying the spring.

“Those six weeks were the healthiest thing I could have done,” she said.

In Gabe’s memory

Laura’s co-workers purchased a maple tree in memory of Gabe, which was planted in the backyard at the Rectors’ home. Chris’ co-workers gave them a gift certificate for dinner and provided much of the funding for another tree the Rectors planted in the yard.

“I was just amazed at the outpouring of support from everyone,” Laura said of the many members of their church, St. Mary Parish in Marytown, people in the neighborhood, co-workers, family and close friends who offered support.

The Rectors went away for the August 2009 weekend of the original due date, hoping to escape the pain of knowing Gabe was gone – and it worked.

“All the acute pain, we didn’t relive,” she said. “We had that pain in April. We still mourned the loss, but it wasn’t as acute.”

“Getting pregnant again, I think, made all the difference in the world,” Chris said. “It allowed you to shift gears and go to or look forward to the next stage of life.”

Laura said she still relived everything from her first pregnancy – remembering that a year ago on April 25, her water broke, and that they met Salchert on April 26.

“I completely relived that whole situation,” Laura said, “but I think instead of focusing on the pain, our eyes are drawn forward to the future.”

The Rectors didn’t sign up for any classes lest they would have to go through the pain of canceling if something went wrong during this pregnancy. They didn’t plan everything, but they did call family and friends to share the news when they were just four weeks pregnant.

“People might have thought we were crazy for putting ourselves out there, but we’re living in the moment and that’s all that we know that we have is today, and so that’s kind of what we learned from the last pregnancy,” Laura said, who had a healthy baby boy – Aiden Christopher Rector – Oct. 22.

Tragedy strengthened their faith

Laura and Chris, who were raised Catholic, said the tragedy has strengthened their faith. “It was like the first time that the prayers and psalms and everything, and the music, meant anything to me, was going through this when I really needed it,” Laura said.

The tragedy has given everything in their lives new meaning.

“I would say we’re both more tied to our faith now than we were,” Chris said. “Even just the concept of God has a plan and we may not understand it, but he has a plan and just faith that the plan is the right thing for you.”

Laura and Chris enjoyed every day of the second pregnancy and didn’t wait to live until the birth.

“There’s no guarantees,” Laura said, adding that they learned that lesson the hard way but appreciate things more now.

Their advice to anyone coping with a similar situation is to remember you’re not alone, focus on each other, wait a year before making life-changing decisions, be patient with yourself and give yourself time to find your new normal.

“What I’m learning through the Bible study,” Laura said during the interview in July, “is when you go through a life-changing event like this, it’s important to be transparent to allow other people to see it, to learn from it and just to take whatever they can from your situation because what’s the point of going through something like this if you can’t share it with other people and make a difference?”