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Published January 19, 2013, 11:40 PM

Altru infant bereavement program helps parents cope

GRAND FORKS – Toni Betting’s office at Altru Health System isn’t much bigger than a closet. It takes her but one long reach to gather any number of trinkets and treasures, all of which tell the story of Betting’s life’s work: helping families who have lost an infant.

By: Mary Jo Hotzler, INFORUM

GRAND FORKS – Toni Betting’s office at Altru Health System isn’t much bigger than a closet. It takes her but one long reach to gather any number of trinkets and treasures, all of which tell the story of Betting’s life’s work: helping families who have lost an infant.

When explaining infant bereavement services at Altru, Betting first reaches for a small wooden container, about the size of a shoebox. Carefully, she draws back the lid to reveal a delicate ivory liner and miniature silk pillow. The box is a casket, specially designed for babies lost too soon – babies too small for a traditional infant casket.

When Betting came on as a chaplain nearly 20 years ago and began working with infant bereavement, one of the first things she did was have these caskets made. She felt it important to allow families to bury their babies, no matter how small. The caskets, made at Northland Community and Technical College in East Grand Forks, were the first of many personal touches Betting brought to the job.

For Betting, it’s a passion and a calling. Through the years, she’s seen many changes in medicine and technology, but there’s one constant.

“Grief hasn’t changed. It’s just the fact that we’re addressing it now,” she said.

And though Betting has been the rock behind Altru’s infant bereavement services for two decades, she was only named full-time coordinator Jan. 1. Before that, she was a chaplain at Altru, but most of what she did for infant bereavement was done as a volunteer.

Infant loss affects so many people, and Betting’s goal now is to reach out to the community and educate people about infant loss and how to give comfort to families when they need it most.

Remembering Samuel

Sadie Garder knows the difference this can make.

Her first-born son, Samuel, was stillborn at 37 weeks gestation.

It was March 2005, and Gardner was nearing the end of her pregnancy. One Sunday night, she noticed decreased movement in her baby. Something wasn’t right, so she went to the hospital, where after a check-up, all signs pointed to normal.

The next night, the same thing occurred.

Two days later, the Grand Forks woman went back and an ultrasound revealed no fetal heartbeat. Twenty-four hours later, on March 25, the baby boy was delivered. His umbilical cord had been wrapped around his neck and tied in a knot, depleting his oxygen.

At the time, Gardner lived in Iowa, where her husband attended medical school. In the days after Samuel’s birth and death, Gardner recalls there were things the medical staff did that were helpful. Things like providing a tiny knitted hat for the baby and taking hand and footprints to remember him by. One thing that particular hospital didn’t have, however, was a photographer to take family photos.

Luckily, Gardner says, there was an empathetic nurse, who on her own time, offered to take photos of Samuel.

“In those days after everything had happened, those pictures were all we had,” Gardner said.

Unfortunately, the photos were so raw, Gardner felt uncomfortable putting them on display. Instead, she commissioned a painting of Samuel – something tasteful to have in their home and something Gardner’s 6-year old son, Grant, born almost exactly one year after Samuel, and 5-year-old daughter, Ellory, can see and talk about.

At Altru, Betting said photos are an important part of the infant bereavement process. The staff is trained to take photos and put them on a CD, or when possible, a local photographer associated with the “Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep” organization – a nonprofit that provides families free professional portraits with their baby – will take photos.

Providing a connection

The Infant Bereavement Program deals with losses at all stages of pregnancy.

Betting said Altru sees more than 200 cases each year, most of which are considered miscarriages since they occur before 20 weeks gestation. Altru sees about 15 stillbirths in the birthing unit per year.

Nicole Fournier’s loss came right at that halfway point – 20 weeks.

She was going in for her routine ultrasound when the discovery came: She was carrying conjoined twin girls. Living in Fargo at the time, doctors sent Fournier to the Twin Cities to deliver the babies. To avoid a C-section, the delivery had to be expedited.

Fournier knew the twins wouldn’t live. They shared one set of organs and had a heart defect that couldn’t be overcome.

Within days, Fournier was admitted to the Minneapolis hospital, and on Nov. 28, she delivered her twins.

In the minute or two they were alive, the family had the babies baptized. “We held them together.”

Fournier, too, realized quickly the importance of the photos despite initially being a little uneasy about the idea.

“We were so glad we did it,” she said.

Through family connections, Fournier, who now lives in Grand Forks and has three children, connected with Betting. She helped the family become more aware of all the things they should and could do after this type of loss. That first year was most important, Fournier said.

“No one knew what to say; no one knew what to do,” she said.

The Infant Bereavement Program provided a connection to others who had lost a child, and it helped validate all of the feelings that went along with such a loss, Fournier said.

A mother’s arms

Funding for the Altru Infant Bereavement program comes from the Altru Alliance, a volunteer fundraising arm for the hospital.

Everything given to the families from the Infant Bereavement Program is at no cost to the family.

Some items are donated by the community, for example, tiny knit booties that can be worn by the infant or taken home as a keepsake. Other items given to families include informational packets, which can run $25 for all of the material, gold keepsake infant rings, and perhaps the most treasured item, according to Betting, is the plush teddy bear given to every family who loses an infant.

The teddy bear is a key item the program needs help to fund. Betting said she hears more about the teddy bears than anything else. The bear gives the parents something of comfort to hold on to. Betting said she’s seen a mother who held the bear during her entire hospital stay after losing a baby.

“A mother’s arms can actually ache” in that moment, she said. “No mom should ever leave the hospital with empty arms.”

Betting knows the truth of that statement.

In the late 1950s, she, too, lost a child. The baby made it to 24 weeks gestation, and Betting remembers the hospital staff quickly sweeping the baby away, telling her she didn’t want to see him.

The experience left Betting feeling empty, but, at the time, she didn’t know better. She didn’t even realize she could name the child.

Twenty-five years later – after beginning her work with mothers dealing with similar losses – Betting decided to give herself that closure.

She gave her son a name: Anthony Raymond.

Today, you’ll find a Christmas ornament bearing his name in Betting’s office.

Mary Jo Hotzler is editor of The Grand Forks Herald.