Grieving mother honors son's life with gift to UNC Hospital

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (WTVD) -- "It's something you can't plan for and it's something you never expect, there's no script..."

That's how Debbi Clarke begins to explain the traumatic loss of her third child, Eason, who was delivered stillborn.

"My pregnancy had been completely normal. I was almost to 37 weeks and for a day or so just didn't feel him moving so much," she recalls.

Debbi went to her doctor to check it out only to learn the worst, that her baby was already gone. Doctors explained that she had a rare condition in her placenta called "perivillous fibrin deposition" which meant a thick band of fibrin was deposited along the maternal floor of her placenta, obstructing blood flow to the baby. Doctors don't know why this happens, and there's no treatment. And in Debbi's case, there hadn't been any warning signs.

"We were faced with this devastating news. So we got our kids out of school, and we told them. At the time they were 7 and 9, and they were devastated."

The family then made the trip to UNC Hospital where Debbi was in labor for 16 hours before Eason was finally born. But it wasn't the joyful moment they'd hoped for. Instead, it was much more somber. But, in the midst of the pain and the grief, Debbi recalls finding some small measure of comfort in the support UNC staff provided them.

"The care we received here was kind and compassionate, and it was very quiet and very peaceful."

In addition to UNC's Chaplain who is on hand in situations like this to comfort families, Debbi was surrounded by her loved ones, and together they spent time with Eason, holding him, taking imprints of his tiny feet, taking newborn pictures, doing all the things parents typically do when a child is born. They also invited their own Pastor there to pray with them and baptize Eason. For Debbi, these were precious moments, all too brief, and the only memories she will ever have of her youngest son. But, as is the case with families in these situations, savoring these bittersweet moments was a race against the clock.

Debbi Clarke's baby, Eason, was delivered stillborn

"Just in that time the physical changes with him were very noticeable, as they would be with any person that has passed. I do remember my daughter holding him, and I remember how his skin was changing, and I just wrapped the blanket around him so that she wouldn't be scared or think that she had done something."

And that's where the idea for the CuddleCots came into play, although that happened much later. About a year after Eason died, Debbi went on a healing retreat for grieving mothers who'd lost an infant. She describes it as a spiritual, moving experience, one that helped her to start healing. And while she was there, she learned about these "CuddleCots" being used in some hospitals in other parts of the world.

Retreat for mothers who have lost infants

"It's a way for parents who have an infant who has died to spend more time with their child. It's a bassinet and it has a cooling element underneath, it's very very quiet and peaceful," she explains.

So she took this knowledge home with her, and together she and her family decided to purchase and donate two CuddleCots to UNC Women's Hospital. It was a gesture that touched the very staff who'd once cared for them, including Rev. Darryl Owens, the Women's Services chaplain, who immediately realized the value of the gift.

"It helps to slow down the changes in the babies when parents are keeping the babies in the room with them after the babies have passed. That's the only time parents get to be with their babies, and here at UNC we like to offer that parents can have the baby with them as long as they're here in the hospital," Owens shares.

As a trained grief counselor, Owens knows this time can be crucial to families not just in the moment, but much further down the road.

It's something that's helped Debbi, her husband, and her two older children, as they have at least some tangible reminders of baby Eason and the brief time they spent with him.

"If you start that journey in a way that honors the life that you carried, it helps you deal with it as your grief continues," Debbi maintains.

And, in knowing that she's helping others and letting them know they're not alone, that, too, is helping Debbi and her family.

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