The Power of Spirit
“Most pregnant women who go to the hospital to deliver expect to leave carrying a baby,” says Katie Fabrizio, Ph.D., a neuropsychologist at the Birmingham VA Medical Center. “And of course that was our expectation, too, that we were going to leave carrying two babies.” But tragically, Katie and her husband, Fran, weren’t able to carry home twin daughters Claire and Sarah from UAB Hospital. Claire was stillborn, and Sarah died three days later.
“The care that we received,” Katie says, “both the actual medical care and the emotional care, was just amazing. It was excellent care.” Fran, a systems analyst at UAB, adds, “We knew we’d get top-notch medical care. That’s a given. But we were really surprised and thankful that they were so prepared to handle something at the other end of the spectrum so well.”
Although their hearts were broken, the Fabrizios turned their focus to helping others. Their friends and family members wanted to do something, but they and the Fabrizios weren’t sure what would be the best course of action under the circumstances. So while still in the hospital, Fran called the head of the bereavement team and started asking if there was a need for funds and if it would be helpful for them to ask friends and family to donate to the hospital. That’s when they learned about the comfort bears program, which provides stuffed bears to families during their time of loss.
“There is a phenomenon where parents’ arms physically hurt when their infant dies,” says Kristy Benefield, bereavement coordinator for women’s services at UAB. “The stuffed bear is for the family to hold, squeeze, or cry into. It is certainly not a replacement for a baby but hopefully offers some small comfort.”
The Fabrizios loved the idea. “We were having such close contact with the bereavement team every day, and they were treating us amazingly well, being so kind and sensitive to us,” Fran says. “So we wanted to directly affect their ability to do what they were doing. They were trying to get this program going and had hit dead end after dead end. That motivated us to find a way to do it.”
Because of the nature of his job at UAB, Fran was even able to help set up the fund. “I was happy that it happened to work out that I was familiar with the process and was able to streamline it a bit for them,” he says. “What the bereavement team did for us and being able to set this up really made us feel a lot less alone. It helped us to be able to spread the message that this happened and that there is such a need for the bereavement team. They’re the heroes here.”
Virginia Millet, chaplain at UAB Hospital, says when she first heard about the fund, her initial reaction “was an enormous sense of gratitude and admiration. To respond to their own loss by reaching out to other grieving families was such a compassionate thing for the Fabrizios to do. And it certainly spoke to the depth of love that Fran and Katie have for their daughters, Sarah and Claire. It was a way of truly honoring their girls.”
Although the fund isn’t large, it should support the bear program for the next three years. “I think that all it really takes is just a small amount of money, time, and effort to make a huge impact on people’s lives,” Katie adds. “If this can make the transition home just a little bit easier for a family, I think that’s really our goal. Also, it’s so nice to know that my daughters’ lives will have an impact and their memory will be kept alive. This has allowed other people a way to get to know them and participate in their very brief lives.”
“Parents who lose a baby experience a wide range of strong emotions,” says Wally Carlo, M.D., professor of pediatrics and director of the Division of Neonatology at UAB. “Although the overwhelming majority of the babies admitted to the Regional Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at UAB survive, some don’t. This program the Fabrizios have funded will provide comfort to parents after a neonatal death. Parents will feel more supported by our staff as well as by parents who have had similar experiences.”
Chaplain Millet adds, “Recently I presented one of the bears to a grieving mother who wrapped her arms around it and held it close to her heart. The grandmother sitting by her side expressed thanks for the bear and asked how her family might also reach out to other grieving families in this way. It was evident that the support they received had made a difference to them. And it was inspiring to see how the gift of the bear evoked a desire in them to reach out to other families who were hurting just like them.
The Fabrizios have been impressed with the communication they’ve continued to receive from the development staff and bereavement team about the fund. “I don’t think that happens very often when you donate money,” Katie says. “You don’t really know where it goes, what happens to it, how they’re using the money, or what effect it’s had. It’s been really helpful for us to get that constant feedback.”
Fran adds, “We’ve been mostly focused on healing and getting back on our feet, and in the meantime the fund has really taken off. And I would hope that people would be inspired to give on that scale to something that’s meaningful to them. It seems very daunting, but it’s really as simple as making a few phone calls, telling a story, and giving what you can. It’s helped us immeasurably with moving through this phase of our life and healing.”
“I was overwhelmed that a family who lost so much in a week could think about anything other than their own grief,” Benefield adds. “A family who loses an infant who has never been home from the hospital cherishes anything that is a memory of their child. That is the gift Sarah, Claire, and their loving parents have given. Those tiny babies were on earth such a short time and have already given immense comfort to other bereaved families through the bears.”