The Story of Callan
A personal reflection on the stillbirth of my first child
Each year in the US, 1 in 160 births (0.6%) is a stillbirth. A stillbirth is the death of a baby in the womb at or after the 20th week of pregnancy, and in many cases the cause is unknown. Each person’s circumstance and path to recovery is unique, but I found that reading personal blogs helped me process my own grief and begin to heal. It is in this spirit that I share my experience of the stillbirth of my first child — Callan Huaien (懷恩) Doherty.
Please feel free to pass along Callan’s story to others. You probably know or will know over 160 children — and will likely encounter someone who has or will experience a stillbirth. If my words can help even one person, my goal in writing Callan’s story will be accomplished.
…They will say that you did not live, register you as still born. But you lived for me all that time in the dark chamber of my womb, and when I think of you now, perfect in your little death, I know that for me you are born still; I shall carry you with me forever, my child. You were always mine, you are mine now…
Callan Huaien (懷恩) Doherty was my first child. He was born on May 9, 2017. He died two days before on May 7, 2017. I didn’t realize how much I loved him until I lost him.
For most of my life I was unconvinced that I even wanted to have kids. It wasn’t until I met my husband Kyle that I began to want a future with children — our children. I knew he would be a wonderful father, and that we together could provide our kids a supportive and loving home.
On November 5, 2016, Kyle and I were overjoyed to learn that I was a few weeks pregnant. Much of the pregnancy passed in happy blur. We were fortunate — we hadn’t had any fertility challenges and the pregnancy was going really well. I had experienced some spotting in the first trimester but that was all it was, some spotting and not a miscarriage. At every appointment Callan’s heartbeat was strong and the 20-week ultrasound looked good as did an additional 30-week ultrasound. We passed all our tests with flying colors — from the standard bloodwork in the first & second trimester to the Counsyl genetic testing to the gestational diabetes test in week 27. And I felt great — lucky to have no morning sickness, able to continue my daily workouts, and sleeping like a rock through the night.
When I was ~7 months pregnant, Kyle and I went on a weekend getaway to Santa Cruz with friends. At dinner on Saturday, May 6, I remember commenting that Callan hadn’t been very active the last few hours, an anomaly given he was always moving — even while I slept soundly through the night. I often cuddle against Kyle when sleeping, and in the mornings Kyle would comment how Callan woke him up with repeated kicks to Kyle’s back. And during the day, Callan could get so active that I would get distracted in my meetings.
After dinner I fell straight to sleep, and in the morning, went to yoga. But after yoga I started getting worried — Callan wasn’t really moving and it just didn’t seem right. I didn’t want to overreact, but called my doctor’s cell (Dr. Sarah) and left her a message. On our way to brunch, I started googling and for the first time saw “stillbirth” and instances of women losing a baby in the third trimester. I felt my eyes tear up at the thought of this happening to me — but the pregnancy was going so well, and I hadn’t even heard of a stillbirth being a risk. I mean, google isn’t always right…
We had just sat down to brunch with our friends when Dr. Sarah called me back. She advised I go in just to check on the baby. I remember her saying “it could be nothing, but we take change in movement very seriously”. I took a deep breath and wouldn’t let myself think of the worst. While on the phone with me, Dr. Sarah found a local hospital and called them so that they would expedite my entry.
Within 15 minutes, Kyle and I were at the hospital and the nurse started listening for a heartbeat. She hooked my finger up to the machine, explaining “I want to be able to distinguish between your heartbeat and your baby’s heartbeat.” At each appointment I’d had, there was never any “looking for” the heartbeat; it was always there and beating strong. Here the nurse had to look. And then we heard something. I felt my heart lift. But it was a false alarm — it was my heartbeat. My heart sank. The nurse unhooked my finger and said she’d be right back.
As Kyle held my hand, we sat there waiting and making small talk. I don’t think either of us could process what was going on. The nurse returned with a doctor and an ultrasound machine. On the ultrasound, I could see Callan — his head, his spine (his spine was always my favorite to see on the ultrasound) and his legs. The doctor then started talking. “Here you see the spine. And just below it, here you see the heart. You can see the heart isn’t beating.”
Our tears started flowing. As I hugged Kyle, all I could think was “What do you mean his heart isn’t beating? This can’t be right.” Yet I knew it was right and I’d probably known for a while. I hadn’t needed the ultrasound machine to tell me — but with the proof it provided, I could no longer be in denial. Still, I wanted Callan. I wanted to love him and to raise him. Even now I still want to love him and to raise him. But wanting something isn’t enough to make it a reality.
Because Callan had been such a kicker in the womb, I hadn’t been keeping “kick counts” every day. His movement was just a way of life, a way of life that I had taken for granted. For fun, I would often gaze at my stomach and watch it move as Callan moved. I’m so sad to say that I don’t even know definitively when the kicking stopped. And in retrospect, I wonder why I hadn’t been more worried Saturday night. I know it wouldn’t have made a difference, but how could I have been so nonchalant?
The next few days were physically and emotionally some of the toughest I’ve ever experienced — and I was unprepared for the slew of decisions Kyle and I would need to make. The first of these decisions came when Dr. Sarah called me. The hospital had let her know what happened and like the amazing doctor she is, she called to give me first the support and then the guidance I needed. She advised I go back to San Francisco then talked me through my options. I thought, “My options? My options about what?” She said I could choose to induce labor or have a c-section. “Oh… baby Callan needs to come out.” It hadn’t even occurred to me.
Kyle and I decided we would spend some time together in the afternoon, get our affairs in order (e.g., drop our dog Brady off with my mom) and go to our hospital that evening to induce.
It’s funny the things one remembers in times like these. For me, there are three moments. First is when we got back to the car. Brady was there to greet us, loving as always. In his eyes I could tell he understood and he knew. He knew something was wrong and he wanted to make it right. Second is the overwhelming sadness my mom felt when I told her the news. I was unprepared for someone to react as strongly as Kyle and I had, and somehow it made the situation more real. I wanted to take my mom’s sadness away and it broke my heart that I couldn’t.
Third was a learning from when I let a few people at work know I was taking leave. Being 7 months pregnant, I clearly showed and everyone knew I was expecting— which means at some point I would need to let them know what happened. So I wrote an email explaining that the baby’s heartbeat had stopped and that I’d be inducing labor that night. I received several responses that wished Kyle, myself and the baby well — turns out I hadn’t clearly conveyed that Callan was already gone. Before that morning, it hadn’t ever occurred to me that I could go into labor with a baby that had already died — my guess is that others thought similarly to me.
Around 8p Sunday night, Kyle and I arrived at CPMC in San Francisco. We were given a private room with a rose taped to the door. The rose signified that the patient inside is experiencing a “demise.”
Although she didn’t say it, I know my mom really wanted to be there. But I asked that she stay home, watch Brady and text us pictures of him. Those pictures were the brightest points of those dreary hours. I still don’t really know why, but what I needed was to go through this just with Kyle, and to know that Brady was well cared for at home. That day, I gave myself permission to be selfish and do what I needed.
I was in labor for over 24 hours and got an epidural when I was ~8 cm dilated. A bit past 1am on Tuesday morning, I was fully dilated and Callan was ready to come out. Kyle moved his chair to face me, holding one of my hands between both of his. I looked into his eyes and I knew together we would be okay. After just a few pushes, Callan Huaien (懷恩) Doherty (3 lbs 14 ounces and 18 inches long) was born at 1:28am on Tuesday, May 9, 2017.
Even though I knew I wouldn’t hear him cry, there was still part of me that hoped modern medicine had gotten it wrong; that I would hear Callan wailing and be able to take him home with me. But all I heard was his silence and the sound of my own tears.
Next came two of those decisions that we were unprepared to make. Earlier in the day, the nurse had asked us if we wanted to hold the baby after he was born. Both Kyle and I said that we did not want to. My immediate internal, unspoken reaction was “What’s the point? And — it’s morbid. It’ll just be a dead body.” The nurse went on to empathize, saying that while many people did choose to spend time with the baby (at times as much as 24 hours or more), some thought that holding him would create too strong an attachment and make it more difficult to let go. I then kicked myself thinking about my reaction — what was wrong with me? The nurse also explained that we didn’t have to decide now. She would log our preference, and we could change our minds after the baby was born.
The second decision the nurse had us think about was whether we wanted to name the baby. During my first trimester, Kyle had shared the name Callan as a possibility — we both liked it immediately but wanted to keep our options open. We hadn’t talked about names since then, but it was clear we had both been thinking of this baby as Callan. We had no desire to save or re-use the name for a future baby; the name was his and his alone. We asked my mom to give him a Chinese middle name. His middle name is Huaien (懷恩), which means “to remember grace / embrace.”
After Callan Huaien (懷恩) was born, the nurse asked if we wanted to hold him. And at that moment I knew the answer was yes. They cleaned him off, and Kyle held him first. I watched. Kyle was a father holding our son — and they were beautiful together. So beautiful. When it was my turn, I was amazed at how warm and real Callan felt. He was 3 pounds 14 ounces and 18 inches long — a real baby in my arms. My baby. His face was adorable; his eyes were even a bit open and he had his father’s nose. These memories are both the happiest and the most painful I’ve ever known, and I’ll never have enough of them.
When the chaplain arrived, I held Callan as the chaplain blessed him. It was the perfect way to honor him and say goodbye.
Before we left the hospital, a social worker came to see us. She gave us some good materials to read, resources for grief, and one more decision to make. Earlier that day we had thought we had said our final goodbyes to Callan — but since Callan was stillborn, we had to decide if we wanted to bury or cremate Callan, and arrange for a funeral if we wanted one. We were given a list of mortuaries in SF so that we could decide which one we wanted to use.
About a week later Kyle and I talked about it for the first time, deciding to cremate Callan and spread his ashes at sea. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
Over a month after Callan was born, I finally opened his memory box. When we left the hospital, the nurse gave us a memory box with a photos of Callan, a lock of his hair, his footprints and his hospital tags. For the first few weeks, I avoided the box — perhaps I was still in denial. Although losing Callan still saddens me, I’m now grateful to have these memories of him.
The physical recovery is going well. Surprisingly, the most painful part was when my milk came in. For over 3 weeks I was constantly icing and using cabbage (yes, cabbage — there are enzymes in the veins that help stop milk production) and for the first 10 days I couldn’t go more than an hour without doing so. Then there was the sadness when the milk slowed and eventually stopped. This was the last thing my body would do for Callan, and even it was moving on.
The emotional healing is harder, and is something both Kyle and I need to give ourselves the time to do. The sadness comes in waves, sometime triggered by small moments and sometimes by nothing at all. The first night home I was cuddled up against Kyle, woke up in the middle of the night, then started crying because I remembered how Callan used to kick him while I slept. A few weeks later, I was ordering Japanese food and realized I could order sushi — and a wave sadness swept over me.
Kyle and I were told repeatedly that Callan’s passing was not our fault, but it was hard — if not impossible — to not think what if… What if I had spent less time working and more time sleeping? What if I had eaten better? What if I had further scaled back my workouts? What if I had noticed sooner?
Then one day Kyle shared with me, “I keep thinking, what if it was my genetics?” I paused. What?? How can Kyle think this was his fault? It’s not his genetics or anything he did… In my own effort not to blame myself, it hadn’t even occurred to me that Kyle might be blaming himself. I gave him a hug — we were in this together and together we would grow stronger.
The support and outreach we received from family and friends was both comforting and overwhelming. We learned quickly that people’s instinct was to send us flowers and gifts — so we quickly set-up a memorial fundraiser for Callan at http://www.justgive.org/callan, asking people to donate to a charity instead. In Callan’s memory, we’ve raised $4,500.
I asked my friends to forgive me when I screened their calls or took days to respond to emails and texts. I initially didn’t want to see anyone but Kyle, my mom & sister and my best friend; but later really needed and valued the 1-on-1 time with my close friends — many of whom took off time from work to spend time with me. I appreciated the simple texts people would send, just saying they were thinking of me and felt so supported by the care with which people at my company responded.
I know it must have been difficult for my family and friends to find the right words to console me. And sometimes the words didn’t come out perfectly but that didn’t matter; all I needed was their support.
But there were comments that helped me learn about myself: “At least it’s better than losing a child in his early years”, or “I’m sorry, I wish it had happened earlier and you could have had a miscarriage.” Perhaps a miscarriage would have been easier on my body, but I cherish the time I got to know Callan and his kicking. And perhaps I would have gotten more attached if Callan had lived outside the womb, but how wonderful would it have been to give him a chance at life, however short. It helped me realize that hardship is hardship — there is no better or worse, all situations of loss are tough in their own way and everyone grieves in their own way.
I appreciate that so many people have offered their own stories of hardship — whether of infertility, miscarriage or other difficulties about pregnancy. So much has to go right to have a healthy baby, and it’s a reminder of how incredible our human bodies are that most of the time, things do go right.
Callan’s cause of death is inconclusive, but the autopsy showed that he experienced a lack of oxygen. In a third to half of stillbirths[i], the cause is unknown and I had prepared myself that I may never know the reason for Callan’s death. Given the lack of oxygen, one of the most likely scenarios is that the cord had been temporarily pinched. Perhaps I should be thankful that it wasn’t genetic (so any future kids would not be at risk) and that it wasn’t anything I did, but it’s hard to be thankful when all I do is miss Callan. The safest place for Callan was supposed to be in my womb, yet in my womb was where he died. I try not to think about it, but sometimes I can’t help but think about him suddenly cut off from oxygen — in pain, struggling for help, with me oblivious to it all.
The loss of Callan Huaien (懷恩) has brought Kyle and I closer, and helped us be more thankful for how blessed we are. We’re lucky to have found each other, and live in the most beautiful city in the world with our adorable dog Brady, surrounded by amazing family and friends. We both have jobs we enjoy, bought our first home 18 months ago, and until Callan, neither of us had lost anyone in our closest circle.
Callan has given us so much — including our dog Brady. Kyle and I talked about adopting a rescue for years. In October 2016, I became laser focused on finding us the perfect dog and decided Brady was it. We arranged to pick him up on November 5. That morning, my pregnancy test told me I was several weeks pregnant with Callan. We were overjoyed — a baby and a new dog, all in one day. We’re convinced that it was the motherly instincts from carrying Callan that inspired us to finally adopt a dog. And it’s this dog that is helping me heal. In the days and weeks since we lost Callan, I’ve been taking Brady on daily hikes or trips to the beach, even starting an Instagram account for him (@bradythebordercollie). When I struggle to care about anything else, Brady gives me a caring purpose and provides me comfort.
Kyle and I are hopeful that we will have the opportunity to become parents one day. But Callan will always be our first born and will always hold a special place in our hearts. Thank you, Callan, for all you’ve given us and may you rest in peace.
Experiences of others: