Friday, April 17, 2015

San Diego

I just returned home from an emotional but wonderful trip from California. I want to create an amazing post to chronicle the most amazing experience I had, but real life won't let me do that. I have an almost one year old, a dirty house, and a husband who works nights...and I will soon return to a classroom that has been under a (fantastic) substitute for a week, but a substitute nonetheless. Let the Catch-Up Game begin!

As a compromise, I will do the best I can to fill you in on what this last week has been like for me, and I will hope it is enough.

The story of last week truly begins on February 25, 2013 when I learned the beautiful little girl I was getting ready to deliver had become entangled in her extra long umbilical cord. The actions of my doctors and nurses were caring and compassionate, but were not as informed as they could have been. No one told me to bathe her or to change her clothes. No one told me to take pictures of myself or Mike holding her or to call in a professional photographer. I only held her twice for less than half an hour each time. Since I had no idea what I was doing and no one told me what I should do, I missed out on valuable memory making experiences. I don't fault my hospital staff at all. Every single doctor and nurse I had treated me with such love and care. Our family was met with nothing but kindness. But, the reality is, the lack of information led to missing out on time with my little girl - time I can never get back. Because of this, and because so many other hospitals and staff are grossly unprepared to handle the delivery of a stillborn baby, I knew I wanted to do something to make a change. I didn't know what I could do until my sister asked me to write a letter to the second year med students at her Alma Mater. I thought, "This is it. This is my chance. I can make a difference in a few doctors' lives". I had no idea the reach of the letter would expand like capillaries across the country.

A few weeks after the letter first posted, my friend Carla called me to tell me a conference she was helping to put together in San Diego wanted me to open it with my letter. A cross-country trip to talk about my little girl? Sign me up! Carla is the mother of a beautiful little boy, Luca, who she lost just a week and a half after we lost Kenley, and an adorable Rainbow daughter Elia born a few months after Piper. Our journeys have been very similar in time and emotion. The difference is, Carla's hospital experience was not handled with the love and care that mine was. It's not my story to tell, but you can read about Luca and his family here

My week began bright and early on Sunday morning. Well, early at least. It's not very bright at 4:45am. I had said goodbye to Mike when he left for work the night before and my mom and I loaded a sleepy Piper into the car so she could drive me to the airport. Dropping off and picking up at any airport is a speedy endeavor, unless you want to be screamed at by someone in a bright yellow vest, so my goodbyes to my mom and Piper were quick. (I knew I would miss my little one so much - but I wasn't prepared for the next few days of not seeing her. That was hard!) I got through security fairly easily and arrived at my gate with time to spare and a latte that had involved waiting in a 50 foot line. (worth it) As I sat at the gate waiting to board a plane to California, the gravity of what was happening really began to sink in. Because my child had died, I wrote a letter. Because the letter struck a chord with people, I was on my way to San Diego to read it in front of a conference of doctors and nurses. Kenley's death had set off a chain of events I would have never imagined, and here I was, smack dab in the middle of them, in disbelief. It's hard to get excited about something that is the direct result of losing your baby. It's hard to celebrate something that came out of tragedy. I tried my hardest not to cry in the airport, but I was unsuccessful. I missed her so fiercely in those moments, it was almost tangible, and tears fell down my cheeks despite my best efforts to contain them.

The flight there was uneventful, despite being filled with a college cheer leading team who had just won 8th place at the Orlando Nationals. "Goooooooooo Tigers!" San Diego greeted me with a cloudless sky and a comfortable dry heat. I waited for Carla to pick me up under a giant "Balboa Park" walkway.

Outside the airport

When she pulled up with her wife, Gina, and her rainbow in the backseat, I loaded the suitcase, hopped in, and we immediately made our way to my first San Diego Farmer's Market. If you're wondering what that's like, I'll tell you. It's booths upon booths upon booths of delicious food. Ripe and juicy Pink Lady apples sitting in green cardboard bins. Sizzling saffron chicken slathered in tzatziki sauce and wrapped in soft, warm flatbread. Giant, homemade cookies with flavors like Peanut Butter and Jelly and Maple Bacon Pancake. Fresh squeezed strawberry basil lemonade. The Farmer's Market was my first step in eating my way through San Diego, and it was glorious.

Even though I had only met Carla in person once before and this was my first time meeting Gina and the little one, we fell quickly into an easy friendship. There's a bond that forms between people that have experienced the same trauma. The trick is expanding your bond past that trauma. I think we did quite nicely! After the farmer's market, we went back to their house and their two crazy dogs, who are adorable mutts and are so smart, they can get into the freezer by themselves. (I was just as impressed as you are) We talked about our lives both with and without our children. Like me, Gina is a teacher (a pretty awesome one, I might add), and we swapped war stories. Before heading over to Ocean Beach to witness my first San Diego sunset, I practiced reading my letter. Because there were three of us there - who were not only emotionally invested in our children, but in this conference as well - I had to go through it in stages with discussion in between. We only cried a few times and we all determined I was ready.


 As ready as I was going to be.

So, we headed over to the beach to see the sunset. We drew Luca's and Kenley's names in the sand and watched as the waves washed them away. We had dinner at a nearby Mexican place, which I thought was decent, but brought profuse apologies from Carla and Gina as being "not real Mexican food". ( I thought they were crazy until we ate at City Taco a few days later....holy guacamole, Batman!) As it approached 8pm (11 my time), I realized I needed to get some sleep, as it had been a long day, and tomorrow was going to be big.

The reasons behind this trip

Kenley's California Sunset

Me and Carla the night before the conference

7 am rolled around faster than I would have liked. I got up and put on my green flowy shirt I had bought especially for the conference. I applied make-up (foundation AND eyeliner!) and attempted to get all of my hair going in the same direction. I was mostly successful. I slid my letter, all typed up on index cards, into a canvas owl bag my friend Chrissy had given me, along with a framed picture of Kenley and her West Coast K for the parent panel. I slipped on my shoes and was good to go. When we arrived at the hospital and walked into the auditorium, I was greeted by several women who shook my hand and seemed so excited for me to be there. They thanked me for coming and were visibly happy I was going to share my letter with everyone. That is when it truly became real. I was here. In San Diego. At the UCSD Perinatal Bereavement Conference. About to read A Letter to My Doctor in front of a whole bunch of people. What is life?!

My new shirt and awesome owl bag!

I was first up. The opener. I was going to set the tone for the entire conference. No pressure, right? I walked to the podium amidst the sounds of shuffling papers and adjusting seats. I looked out into the audience and saw what one would expect to see at the beginning of a conference. A whole bunch of people, some paying attention, some not, but all there to learn about supporting families who experience the death of their baby. I prefaced my speech with a quick intro that even though it was addressed to a doctor, it really applied to any support staff. And then, I began. "Dear Doctor, I know this isn't what you expected today." My heart danced in my chest at first, beating fast and hard. But, as I read, a calm sense of purpose came over me, and it became effortless. I read without fear or anxiety. All of that washed away, and I shared my heart - and my little girl - with a group of strangers. Near the end, I noticed that not one person was looking at their agenda or scrolling through their phone. Every eye was on me - and every eye was wet. "With Sincere Thanks, the Heartbroken Mother" was met with warm applause. I did it!

I went back to my seat for the next part of the conference, and no sooner had I sat down than people were already coming up to me, thanking me for speaking. One woman told me she also lost her daughter, Sequoia, and that what I wrote touched her heart. The rest of the day was spent thanking people for thanking me. Several people even told me that what I said was going to make them better at their job. One woman talked to me for 15 minutes about how important my letter was for her. It was surreal. I felt such purpose, like I had truly made a difference.

The parent panel later was just as fulfilling. There were seven of us, all with different stories. Kenley was the only baby who had never taken a breath on the outside. Many of the other babies spent several days or weeks in the NICU. We all told our stories and talked about what was helpful and what was not. I emphasized the importance of memory making, since I missed out on so much of that. The question and answer period was very brief - as I can imagine no one really knew what they were supposed to ask. All in all, I think we gave them a pretty good idea about what families experience and need to experience when faced with their child's death.

Parent Panel.  If you look closely, you can see me up there in the green.

The end of the conference brought a sense of relief and accomplishment. I felt a huge weight lifted. I had done what I had come to do. I had shared Kenley and the letter and was a part of a catalyst for change. I have to mention here the amazing work both Carla and Gina had done for this conference as well. Both have been working diligently on a resource pamphlet for families, which includes both in and out of hospital support. It will be a valuable resource for any family experiencing the worst thing imaginable. Carla, being the awesome person that she is, even put One Pink Balloon on there! Change will happen - and it will be because of Luca and Kenley.

I spent the rest of my stay in San Diego hanging out with two great friends and their adorable baby girl. In true Rebecca fashion, we arranged our days around what we were going to eat! Breakfast at a place called Snooze where I had a Graceland Pancake (PB and banana) and the best greek yogurt and granolla you can expect to put in your mouth. Lunch at the infamous In and Out Burger, which was indeed delicious, but for all you jealous East Coasters, tasted very much like Steak N Shake. Dinner at City Taco, who makes their own tortillas from scratch and uses all local and fresh produce. I had a shrimp taco with cliantro and a chipotle pork belly taco - both delicioso! In being good hosts, Carla and Gina would always ask, "Do you like to eat ____?" to which I would reply, "I like to eat everything." (Except tomatoes in sandwiches and hardboiled eggs...blech!) We wandered around Balboa Park and I went to my first Trader Joe's.

The Botanical Gardens

An Owl in the courtyard at Balboa Park

Clearly, the best coffee shop ever

Pretty pink flowers everywhere in Balboa Park

Eating my way through San Diego involved this piece of wonderful

Our last night was spent in Ocean Beach, a very free-spirited place full of rainbow painted RVs and their dreadlocked, bare chested owners. As we walked to dinner, the sun set behind an acrobatic yoga class in which 10 couples pretty much performed moves straight out of Cirque de Soleil, and a mass of people taking advantage of a bunch of free hula hoops. THIS is California! I swear, if houses didn't cost half a million dollars, I'd move there in a second! We ate dinner at a burger joint called Hodads. I ordered a mini-cheeseburger basket. The mini turned out to be a bold faced lie and I had about three meals left over, which we ended up giving to a hungry homeless woman outside of the evening farmer's market.

The not-so-mini burger

It was a great trip, indeed, but the best part was that Kenley was everywhere. Everywhere. From the moment I left that conference, my Kenley radar must have been up because I saw her all over the place. Stores with owl necklaces and T-shirts. Ninja knee socks in a window. K's wherever I turned. I didn't spend more than one waking hour without seeing something. I felt connected to her like never before. For the first time in two years, I felt mostly whole again. I know that won't last. I know the emptiness will still creep in every once in a while. In reality, the emptiness is really always there, but doing what I did this past week helped me feel it less. It's hard to explain, but it's why most loss moms get involved with a charity or even start their own after the death of their child. Helping others helps us. Making a difference in the name of our child keeps the walls of our hearts from caving in - much like the inner poles of a tent. A Letter to My Doctor is my pole, keeping the walls of my heart in place.

Double dose of Kenley in the Photography Museum at Balboa Park

A mother's day card I found in my travels this week

Ideally, I will continue speaking to hospital staff. Ideally, the letter and the video will be used in an educational setting to help doctors, nurses, and support staff deal with the delivery of a stillborn baby in an informed way with grace and compassion. Honestly, I have no idea where I will go with this next or where it will take me. But, I hope this is just the beginning of great and wonderous things that can happen because of my Little Ninja.

Finally, I have to say thank you - to all of you. Without you, the post would never have gone viral. WIthout your love, support, and willingness to share my message, we would have stopped at the 50 or so med students for whom the letter was intended. You have made this happen - and I am so grateful -  from the bottom of my stretched out heart.

Mike took the top picture at sunrise and I took the bottom at sunset one day.  Kenley Coast to Coast!

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