I Reached Into My Pain and Pulled Out My Power
A personal account of an African American mom who was transformed after experiencing a traumatic perinatal loss
By: Dr. Chanda Nicole Holsey
Managing the bevy of emotions that comes with learning a pregnancy loss is imminent—from hope to heartache.
Her smile quickly turned into a look of concern. “Your son’s head circumference measurements are low,” she said. “Your baby is not progressing as he should. At 15 weeks, he is underdeveloped.”
I know it sounds cliché, but it seems like yesterday when I heard those words. I have such vivid memories of the most tragic period of my life. I gave birth to a child that was dead. I was heartbroken, crestfallen, and dejected. It was despairing and undeserving. I still ask why.
The day that I discovered something was wrong, the technician told me that the baby was not growing appropriately and that my blood pressure was elevated. She indicated that my placenta was not supplying him the nutrients needed and he was too small for his age. I entered a hazy fog. I remember being in disbelief and just not comprehending how this could be. I was not advanced maternal age. I adhered to all my obstetrician’s directives and I lived in a safe, peaceful environment. However, none of those factors mattered. On that day, I was referred to the maternal-fetal medicine specialist and there began the cascade of distressing events that inevitably ended in the death of my 28 week-old fetus.
I’ll go back…it was August of 2005 and I was 28 weeks pregnant. I remember when I first discovered I was pregnant with Kameron; I was somewhat anxious because I was not in an emotionally healthy relationship, but I loved the father deeply. The relationship was toxic and habitually one-sided. Fortunately, I had adequate support from family and friends leading me to eventually realize that, for me to mitigate stress, I needed to cease conversation with the father until after I gave birth. I did everything I knew to do physically and instinctively for the health and welfare of my unborn child. I immediately initiated prenatal care, did not drink, ate healthy, took my prenatal vitamins, thought positive thoughts, and planned for a healthy, stimulating environment for my son. I engaged my support network and fell in love with Kameron and the idea of having him in my life for the rest of my life.
I distinctly remember telling close friends and family that I had concerns that I was not getting the round pregnant belly that I was accustomed to seeing and associating with the growth and development of a big, fat, bouncing baby. Many minimized my concerns or told me it would be okay, or that my belly would get more round as I advanced in the pregnancy. It turns out that that level tummy I still had was indicative of a greater problem. It turns out that my instinct—my hunch, was valid.
I began to see the perinatologist at about 15 weeks. I literally entered a doctor’s office once a week after hearing the news from the tech. I tried to be optimistic, but the bad news came fast and furiously. Soon after, I was diagnosed with preeclampsia. I was so perplexed, as I had never had an issue with hypertension before. Overall, I was in good physical health. I was a little overweight, but not morbidly obese. I was not 35 yet. I was educated. I had a positive attitude and mindset, and I genuinely wanted my baby. I was scared and my heart was beginning to break.
One day I went to a regular OB appointment and my blood pressure measured in stroke zone! Maybe 200 and something over 140 and something so I was admitted. It was July 28th or 29th, 2005. I would be discharged from the hospital, forever changed. While in the hospital, I was hooked up to all these monitors, cords, and tubes. I had the worst headache from the intravenous medicines. I was so frightened. My mom lived three thousand miles away in LA, but she and my sister, Kim (which is why Kameron was spelled with a K–per her request, LOL) were making arrangements to fly to Atlanta. The father was there but not actually present. My friends had become my family and my co-workers even surrounded me. I was comforted when I heard Kameron’s heartbeat. I had to visit with the neonatologist and talk about options. It became clear that Kameron would likely be delivered preterm and would have associated sequelae, but I knew all about surfactant and advances in the field so I knew he had a chance. I was assured. I had earned medical leave. I was prepared to care for a child with special needs. I just wanted him to live. What was most notable was my growing motherly love; I strongly felt that if he had a potential chance, without question, I would happily exchange my life for his.
Regrettably, I would not have the opportunity to make that decision. While admitted, my preeclampsia advanced to something I had never heard of, and I was a doctorally prepared maternal and child health public health professional. I was diagnosed with something called HELLP Syndrome. That stands for: Hemolysis, Elevated Liver enzymes levels and Low Platelet count. Essentially the longer Kameron stayed in me, the sicker I became, but he needed to stay inside his mother longer to have an increased chance at survival. He was only 27 weeks. We wanted to at least get him to that third trimester. And he did. He turned 28 weeks during my hospital stay, but he would not get any older. I tried to hold on. I endured the intense pain to ensure he lived. I just slept and tried my best to ignore it. My headache was excruciating. My entire body was swollen. I ached. I was emotionally void. I was terrified. I had to undergo a platelet transfusion. I was literally dying, but I wanted to hold on to give him an optimal chance at life. My will for him to live failed, though. The morning of August 4th, 2005, I was scheduled to deliver Kameron and was aware that he would be immediately transferred to the NICU. My mommy and sister were scheduled to arrive later that day or the next, so I knew relief from the pain was coming because my mommy would give me that much-needed support that only your mother can provide.
I had a deep desire for motherhood. I was not raised by my birth mother so I desperately wanted this experience for myself and my child. Early in the morning on August 4th, the nurse came to do the usual check to locate his heartbeat which I had become so accustomed to hearing. It always made me feel at perfect peace, until she could not find it.
She rotated the belt, and made other adjustments, but…
She could not find it!
She had a panicked look and called for my OB/GYN, Dr. Garrett. There was silence. There was nothing. There was no heartbeat. Dr. Garrett pronounced him dead. I was crushed. I was bereaved. I was devastated.
She hollered. I screamed. She hugged me. I was crushed. I was deflated.
I was numb.
I wanted to die with him.
That was not the worst part. I had to still vaginally deliver my DEAD baby. I had to go through childbirth with a lifeless child. It was traumatic and so sad, but I did it.
Afterwards, I held him, kissed him, and hugged him. I took a picture with his tiny, beautiful, underdeveloped, lifeless body. He was beautiful. He was mine, but I failed him. Kameron, I am so sorry that my body was defective and failed you. Please accept my sincere apology. In that moment of staring at my beautiful baby, I thought about the all the dreams that would be unrealized. I was dejected and in mourning. There was a gaping hole. This was the worst. The hospital staff placed a picture on my door indicating that I suffered a pregnancy loss. It was a blue sky or something like that. I have gone on to discover that blue represents infant loss. I am one in four, but never did I imagine that I would experience a pregnancy loss.
Life after the worst experience of my life; accepting the pain and accessing power.
Once the news spread, my support system immediately engaged. One of my former Emory MPH professors, Dr. Essien, introduced me to the woman who literally saved my life. For over a year after losing Kameron, I received counseling in her home and put in the hard, necessary work I needed to do to heal from this loss, past losses, childhood disappointments, and opportunities lost. She was a trained counselor who was also a reverend. Rev. Adei helped me to realize that I did not let Kameron down. I did my part and he was proud of me. She helped me realize that the loss of Kameron birthed an opportunity for me to reach into my pain and pull out my power. In addition to my counseling, I never allowed the father to co-exist again in my orbit. I also took Wellbutrin for some time to combat my hopelessness. I had such a sense of despair. Clearly, there was a paradigm shift in my outlook on life. I became a little less sensitive, a little more cynical, a little more carefree, and not so organized. I let go of the need to be so structured and understood that some things may not go according to plan. I learned to apply the art of acceptance in all things.
As I reflect, it is important for me to share that, although, I experienced the most traumatic experience ever—I did make it through. After experiencing a stillbirth, I changed. My perspective on life was transformed. My philosophy is that we don’t know how long we have on this earth. We need to treat each other with respect, gratitude, care, and concern. I am more resilient. If the absolute worst thing that can happen has happened, then everything else is manageable. To me, there is nothing worse that I can experience in the future. Nothing in the past has been as devasting: not being abandoned by birth parents at age four due to their heroin addiction, not having poor self-esteem as a teen, which led to promiscuity and an attempted rape, not having the mom who raised you insult and crush your confidence, not feeling like you don’t belong, not experiencing rejection among groups as a young adult, not dealing with weight issues for much of your life, not still feeling like you have yet not achieved enough even though in the average person’s eyes, you are a success, and not having tried love before and lost.
However, as I think about things 13 years after losing Kameron, I believe the way I now approach life is directly correlated with his death. Not only his death, but the experience of the journey of his death. I reject all the negative noise and focus on reaching higher heights and deeper depths. I walk with wisdom. I try to always help. I live life with zeal. I try to stay connected with those who love me and who I love. I appreciate experiences. I work with my husband to impart into our two healthy girls’ (that I birthed in 2008 and 2013) lives. The passion you see. The life you observe. The happiness and the joy you witness is me accepting the fact that no matter how much you prepare or how much you desire something, life can be so incredibly unfair; but with deep faith, a support system, and hard work, you can harness power. People continue to ask when I am having a son. I have a son. His name is Kameron. He will always be a significant part of my history—a part of the tapestry of my adult development. Kameron, I wanted to give my life for yours. I wanted to be your mommy while both of us were on earth. Thank you for allowing me the privilege of knowing how passionately and deeply I could love someone before even meeting them. I still remember the faint flutters. I still remember the experience of hearing your heartbeat. I still remember holding and kissing your sweet face after you were delivered. I miss you. I thank you for helping me access my power. I love you.
Chanda Nicole Holsey, PhD is the founder and visionary of Healthy Aims for Little Ones and Families (HALOforFamilies.org), a public health organization where the ultimate goal is to provide parents and caregivers with relevant and effective high quality tools and resources to increase the confidence necessary to nurture, teach, and model healthy physical, mental, and social behaviors in children. She has earned a bachelors degree in psychology from San Diego State University, a Masters of Public Health in Behavioral Science/Health Education from Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University, and a Doctorate in Public Health, Maternal and Child Health, from the University of Alabama at Birmingham. She is a veteran public health professional with over 24 years of experience in public health program development, management, and implementation.
Most notable, Dr. Holsey was recently elected to her first political position. On November 20th, she became a first time elected official for her local Fleming Island Plantation (FIP) Community Development District (CDD). Her term of FIP CDD Board Seat 1 Supervisor will end in 2022.