A Donegal mother opens up about the impossible decision she faced after discovering her baby had a fatal foetal abnormality.
Nicola Cavanagh’s second pregnancy turned into an unimaginable nightmare after her first scan.
The Inishowen woman and her husband were heartbroken when doctors told them that their baby was not going to live. Nicola was forced to endure the torment of this knowledge and carry the baby for another 39 days, when doctors could not touch her or her child until he died. This, she said, was because the Eighth Amendment would not allow her to get an induction, and she felt an overwhelming sense of abandonment.
Nicola has recounted her experience of the Eighth over the years for the TFMR Ireland organisation. As the referendum draws closer, she shared her story with Donegal Woman:
It was the 1st of November 2009 when I heard the news that my much wanted second child had fatal foetal abnormalities and would not survive. I was 19 weeks pregnant and this was my first scan. I had been waking up crying for about a month before I was told the news by anyone medical. I just had a feeling that something was wrong. I was told that basically my baby was going to die. It might live and go full term and die after birth, or it could die tomorrow! The only certainty was that my baby was going to die.
I was calm when I received the news. I was calm and strong while myself and my two year old son waited for my husband to arrive at the hospital. He had to work that day so I had gone alone to the scan along with my little son. I was calm when my husband arrived and the sonographer came into the room to talk to us. She told us our baby was very very sick. I simply said “Ok so, what next? If my wee baby is so sick, when will I be induced?”
That was the Tuesday and I was told that they would bring me in on the Thursday for induction. I went home and cried. I grieved. I hugged my son Jack and my husband and we all grieved together. I organised for my mum and dad to come up on the Thursday to mind Jack while I went into hospital. I felt so much sadness but I also felt calm and ready as my little family had had the couple of days to prepare.
When we arrived at the hospital the staff were fantastic and so considerate of myself and my husband’s feelings. It was all very calm and respectful. My baby boy Sam was born at 2am on Friday the 10th of December 2009. He was beautiful and very like his big brother. We got to hold our son.
It was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do but I got home the next day and had loads of support from family, friends and the medical team from the hospital. It would take time but we could start to move forward again.
Unfortunately, I would love if the above was true. However, I live in Ireland so let me tell you what really happened.
“Ok so, what next? If my wee baby is so sick, when will I be induced?” The sonographer’s response was, “I’m very sorry Nicola, we can’t do that, not in Ireland.” “What? Then what will happen? When will my baby be born? I can’t wait another 20 weeks knowing my baby is so sick. Oh my God, oh my God. You have to induce me. Why can’t you?”
To which I got the response, “That is classed as an abortion in Ireland, we can’t perform an induction while your baby is alive, it can only be done after your baby has died.” It was at this stage I stopped being calm. I lost control. I couldn’t comprehend this.
After the doctors had confirmed my babies diagnosis, they left the room. One of the female doctors gave me the name of a crisis pregnancy counsellor in town before she left. It was then left up to the sonographer to deal with me. I have to say she was amazing. She explained to me that some of her other parents in the same situation had travelled to the UK to avail of a termination. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.
I couldn’t fault her. She was so kind. She told me I could call up to her at any time for a scan to check on my baby.
‘Most women are getting scanned to make sure their babies are alive and thriving, yet I would be getting scanned to check if my baby had died’
The next morning I travelled to Holles Street from Donegal. The consultant there just confirmed what I already knew. We asked what we should do. He told us that we would have to continue with the pregnancy unless we travelled overseas for a termination. He said that if I lived in the UK or Europe I would be offered a termination.
On the Thursday, I visited the crisis counsellor. She was very good and helped me ring around the UK hospitals to find out a bit more about travelling for the procedure. What we found out was that because I was 19 weeks pregnant the procedure would probably be around £1600. Factor into that the travel and accommodation costs and we were taking well over £2000. Also, if I didn’t have the procedure before I was 21 weeks pregnant the cost would rise considerably again.
I felt under such pressure to make a quick decision as I could barely afford the fee as it was. Let me now add that both myself and my husband were looking for work after moving home to Donegal. The recession was just beginning. My husband was getting a few days with a friend but had nothing steady. We had spent our little bit of savings on our house. We could not afford this type of money.
This was the beginning of what was to be the most stressful few days of my life. Close friends were offering us money as a gift. Anyone who knew what we were going through wanted to help. I really wanted to travel so that we could start to get on with our lives again. However, the thought of leaving my two year old son behind nearly broke me. Also, the whole ordeal of travelling overseas and also putting my little family into debt nearly drove me insane. Couple that with feeling my little baby’s movements every few hours and you can only start to imagine how I felt.
‘I eventually felt I had no option but to stay in Ireland and wait for my little Sam to die’
And so began an agonising journey. I was functioning just for the sake of my husband and Jack. It was like a dream. I could feel Sam’s little movements. They were more like a flutter than a kick. He was obviously very weak.
I’d never had sleep problems before but now I used to wake up to the feeling of his slight movements and I would lie awake wondering was he suffering as much as his mum.
Once I let the sonographer know my decision, I agreed that I would visit her for a scan every Monday morning to see how Sam was getting on. My son Jack came with us to the scans.
I remember one day arriving and the sonographer told me sympathetically that she could hardly see Sam today. She said he was all curled up and seemed very unwell today.
Can you imagine how that feels? To think of your wee sick baby all curled up inside you? Wondering was he in pain? There were times after I heard this that I literally couldn’t stand up with grief. I couldn’t get that picture out of my head. I never will. I feel like curling up as I write this.
I stopped going out very much as I didn’t want people to ask me how far gone I was and when I was due. Two of my best friends were pregnant with their first babies and were due within weeks of me. I still tried to be upbeat and happy for them. I knew when I spoke to them that their hearts were breaking for me. I felt like I was tainting their first pregnancy with my awful situation.
On one of the few occasions that I went anywhere, my friends brought me for a spa treatment. The therapist asked me all upbeat about my pregnancy. I simply said “my baby is dying, please don’t ask me about it”. I’ll always remember the poor girl’s face.
“My baby is dying, please don’t ask me about it”.
I remember Sam dying inside of me! It was 5am on Saturday the 5th of December. I could hardly feel his movements that day. I would whisper to him, “Go baby, mammy allows you to go.”
I woke at 5am. I had broken out in a cold sweat. I felt sharp pains in my stomach. I knew he was gone. I waited for my next scan which was 3 days later. I spent the weekend coming to terms with the fact he was gone and at peace. I was 24 weeks pregnant. Before the sonographer turned on the ultrasound I told her he was gone. She confirmed it straight away.
Now let me tell you, I had not seen a doctor since they broke the news to me that Sam was dying. Once they had broken the news to me they had walked out of the room. Now the sonographer had to get a doctor to confirm that there was indeed no heartbeat. The doctor came and confirmed it. He then said, “We can take you in this evening to deliver your baby”. What? Just like that?
‘It was as if they had washed their hands of me until my baby had died. Now it was all hands on deck.’
What about the 5 weeks I was after going through? If it hadn’t of been for the sonographer I would have had no contact with the hospital at all. I told the doctor, no, I would not be in that evening. I had a two year old and I had to make arrangements for his care.
I came into hospital on Thursday 9th December and Sam was indeed born at 2.40am on the 10th. He was beautiful. Myself and my husband held him. I felt very peaceful.
I got out the next day. We had a wee service for Sam the following Thursday. I wasn’t feeling well and ended up back in hospital that evening. In fact, I ended up spending two weeks in hospital after his birth. I had to have two D&Cs and two blood transfusions, due to an infection from part of the placenta being left behind.
I got out for Christmas Day but ended up back in on St Stephen’s Day. For the final week I was there I was in a ward in the gynecological department. Every night several new women would be admitted to the ward with miscarriages, and I would have to lie there listening to them crying on their phones to family members or their mums. It was horrific.
I didn’t get a chance to grieve for my Sam. When I had to have my final blood transfusion two of the nurses had to hold me down to insert the needle, as I was so distraught. I got out on New Year’s Eve. My husband had to take me to our local NowDoc who prescribed valium. I was convinced I’d have to go back into hospital and was having panic attacks. My poor son didn’t know what was happening to his mum.
And so I started on the road to recovery. What could have been such a short ordeal turned into a 4 month ordeal. We had to wait until March 2010 to receive the results of genetic testing that was carried out on Sam. We were told to hold off trying for another baby until we received these results as we needed to make sure Sam’s condition wasn’t passed on through us.
‘As I slowly started to recover, I started becoming more and more angry.’
Throughout my whole ordeal I had felt an overwhelming sense of abandonment. We were very much alone. Our friends and family were brilliant but I felt like we had been let down by our medical system and by the government.
I am at peace now with my son’s illness and his death. However, I am not at peace with the fact that in our time of need this country turned its back on us. You can only imagine how I felt when it started coming to light that so many other 3 of 4 women had went through what I did. When I started hearing about the women who had travelled abroad and the ordeal they had to also go through, the anger and feeling of abandonment grew.
I was only starting to recover from depression at the time and constant stories on the TV and radio made it impossible for me to move forward. Making the decision to travel, or making the decision to stay because you feel you have no choice, it doesn’t matter. Either way you are alone and the country you call home abandons you during what can only be described as the hardest and most heartbreaking time of your life.
Speaking this week, Nicola said she is at peace with her baby boy’s illness. She has had two children following that pregnancy in 2009, a little boy and a girl.
Her experience still affects her terribly, she says: “It’s been fresh in my mind recently because of the fight that ladies are going through to get the Eighth amendment changed.”
“I’ve been to counselling, I can visit my child’s grave. What haunts me is the way that I was treated and the way that women are still being treated.
“Making the decision to travel or stay was nearly worse than the diagnosis. Some would have made the decision I made and some would have travelled. I stayed behind, but I don’t believe I received the care that should have received. Whether you stay in Ireland or travel to the UK, you are swept under the carpet.”
“This was 10 years ago, I don’t know if maybe things have changed, but between Holles Street and the last scan confirming his death I never saw a doctor.”
Nicola’s account has been used in an Oireachtas submission by the Abortion Rights Campaign to the Special Committee on the 8th Amendment. In the campaign, she has met other Irish women who are facing the same agonising decisions.
Nicola will be calling for a Repeal of the Eighth amendment on May 25th, so the law can allow women to have the option of ending their pregnancy early in Ireland after the diagnosis of a fatal foetal condition.
Nicola added: “This is going on every day. There other women going through what I’ve been through. It is women coming out with their stories that can change things.”
If you have been affected by this story, support is available with Leanbh Mo Chroi – a parent group for women and men who have experienced a fatal or severe diagnosis during pregnancy. Visit lmcsupport.ie for details.
Donegal Woman welcomes accounts and letters from both stances ahead of the referendum to repeal the Eighth Amendment. To get in contact, email firstname.lastname@example.org