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NICU nurses, parents share what it's really like when a baby dies

Bereaved parents refuse to let their horrific loss be turned into a political rally line.
/ Source: TODAY

At a recent rally President Donald Trump made a false claim about “late-term abortions,” telling supporters that after birth, "the doctor and the mother determine whether or not they will execute the baby.”

Nurses and parents who have actually lived through the horrific loss of a baby are pushing back and sharing their real-life experiences.

“I can understand why people are misinformed,” Rachel Whalen, 33, of Barre, Vermont, told TODAY Parents. “I don’t think people understand the birth experience.”

Whalen had two miscarriages before she became pregnant with her daughter, Dorothy, in 2016. But at 29 weeks, she experienced a placental abruption and preeclampsia. As Whalen’s blood pressure skyrocketed, doctors learned Dorothy had no heartbeat. They needed Whalen to deliver Dorothy to save her own life. After Dorothy's birth, the nurses gave a very sick Whalen time with Dorothy.

“I was very in and out of it. The one thing I ... remember very vividly is delivering her and spending time with her,” she said. “Everything that came before and after it was traumatic and awful. It is devastating but I cling to it.”

Neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) nurses have also jumped into the discussion. Julia Pulver, a former NICU nurse, shared a Twitter thread about her experience as part of a hospital’s bereavement team, which helps parents grapple with the deaths of their children. The nurses encourage the families to hold the babies for skin-to-skin contact while also singing songs, praying or hugging them. She stressed that these moments provided comfort “to families who are living through absolute Hell,” and added that the scenario shared at the rally is inaccurate.

“NO ONE ever, in any hospital, nor any mother who has just given birth, is conspiring with a doctor on whether or not to commit infanticide,” she wrote on Twitter.

Pulver felt she had share truth about what happens in such dire medical situations.

"It is our duty to shut down misinformation," the 36-year-old from West Bloomfield, Michigan, told TODAY.

While most of the time delivery and birth ended without problem, when something goes wrong it's a tragedy.

"No one chooses this. This is something that happens to parents who very much wanted to have this baby," she said. "It is something that went horribly horribly wrong they have no control over."

Stacey Skrysak lost two of her three triplets after she delivered them at 22 weeks. In a 2016 TODAY Parenting Team essay she described losing her son, Parker, in August 2013, two months after her daughter Abigail died only hours after her birth.

“We were once again faced with death; this time our son, Parker. Doctors removed his tubes and wires and gently handed him to me. As our family gathered around us in a hospital chair, I began to read him books and comfort him like any mother would do,” she wrote.

Skrysak and her husband struggled with the decision to take Parker — who had suffered serious brain damage — off life support.

“That was by far the hardest thing we ever had to do in our lives,” the 39-year-old from Springfield, Illinois, said. “We never wanted him to suffer.”

But with both losses, the nurses gave Skrysak and her husband time with their children, and that means so much six years later. Skrysak's surviving triplet, Peyton, is 6 now and thriving. They still visit the hospital where her two siblings died to drop off book donations and to give thanks.

“The nurses, the doctors, they made our experience more manageable,” Skrysak told TODAY. "I can’t thank the nurses and doctors enough. It was the nurses who get you through the day and made sure we had special memories.”