Q&A with Elijah’s Purpose founder Michelle Harris and VPFW’s Dr. Kristen Lawson shine a spotlight on the importance of prenatal care in preventing stillbirth and how families who are suffering can find support.
October is Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month, a time to acknowledge that in the United States, stillbirth affects about 1 in 160 births each year. One of those was Michelle Harris’ pregnancy with her twins back in 2014, when she was unable to get timely prenatal care. Michelle has since made it her mission to advocate for all women to receive the prenatal care they need – care that can help prevent stillbirth – and to help families who are suffering from such loss.
In this Q&A, Michelle shares her own story as well as insights from her new OB/GYN, VPFW’s Dr. Kristen Lawson, on how patients can work with their provider before and during pregnancy to decrease the chance of stillbirth. Michelle has also shared information on Elijah’s Purpose, the organization she founded to provide resources and support to other families who are suffering from pregnancy or infant loss. Read more to learn what moms-to-be should know about stillbirth, the many ways Elijah’s Purpose provides support, and how you can help!
Will you share the story of Elijah’s Purpose?
Michelle: In 2014, I was excited to find out that I was pregnant with twins. However, due to lack of insurance, it wasn’t until I was 28 weeks along that I was able to have my first pregnancy visit with an OB/GYN. It was at that point that I was finally able to activate my veterans benefits and use my new coverage for my first appointment and ultrasound. Unfortunately, that was too late for one of my twins. At the appointment, I was informed that Elijah had passed away 3 weeks prior.
I was put on bed rest early due to many complications, some of which may have stemmed from my lack of proper prenatal care. Instead of delivering early, I stayed pregnant for an additional 3 weeks so that my other baby, Elisha, would have a better chance of survival. That meant Elisha stayed beside his deceased brother Elijah in my womb for 3 weeks.
After I had an emergency c-section, I was focused on Elisha while he spent 6 weeks in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit (PICU). I didn’t have the money to bury Elijah, so I opted to have him placed in a group burial that the hospital offers once a month. For 3 years, I mourned my son’s passing alone because I felt no one would understand. I wasn’t given any resources to speak openly about him. I didn’t know there were support groups for this kind of thing.
Four years later, I decided to work on my healing journey, which led me to the idea of Elijah’s Purpose: a non-profit that would provide emotional and financial support to families experiencing pregnancy or infant loss. By 2020, Elijah’s Purpose was born. Since then we have helped families cover the cost of burying their unborn or infant children who passed away unexpectedly, offered free grief counseling services through our own programs and those of our resource partners, and assisted families who are experiencing a financial hardship.
What is Stillbirth?
Dr. Lawson: Stillbirth refers to the loss of a baby between 20 weeks of pregnancy and delivery. A miscarriage is also a loss of pregnancy, but one that occurs before 20 weeks.
What are the risk factors of stillbirth?
Dr. Lawson: When it comes to preventing stillbirth, we know that there are many risk factors that can’t be changed, like race, age, and carrying twins; but optimizing certain health conditions with your physician prior to conception and during your pregnancy can help to prevent stillbirth.
The biggest modifiable risk factor for stillbirth is obesity. Though obesity itself is associated with increased rates of stillbirth, it also increases the odds of developing other conditions known to increase the chance of stillbirth, including diabetes and high blood pressure. We also know that substance use can increase the risk of stillbirth, including cigarette smoking and heavy alcohol use.
Is there anything you can do to minimize risk of stillbirth before you become pregnant?
Dr. Lawson: Yes! Prior to conception, it is incredibly important to optimize your own health, making sure you are eating healthy meals and exercising regularly. For obese women, weight loss before conception can have a dramatic effect on decreasing the risk of stillbirth. At a preconception visit, your obstetrician can help you with these weight loss goals as well as other ways to prepare for pregnancy. (Please note that weight loss is not recommended during pregnancy and is not useful in preventing stillbirth once you are pregnant).
Additionally, at a preconception visit you can talk to your doctor about the medications you take to make sure they are adequately controlling your chronic health conditions and that they will be safe to continue during pregnancy. Before you become pregnant is the optimal time for your doctor to advise you on any medication adjustments you’ll need to make.
What is the most important thing you can do during your pregnancy to help prevent stillbirth?
Dr. Lawson: The best way to help decrease the risk of stillbirth while pregnant is to attend routine prenatal care visits with your provider throughout your pregnancy, beginning around 8 weeks. It is essential to the health and safety of your pregnancy to complete all recommended screenings during routine prenatal care. A diagnosis of gestational diabetes or hypertension will change your provider’s recommendations for care and for delivery, and are best if caught early and monitored closely throughout the latter half of your pregnancy.
In the third trimester, fetal kick counts can provide reassurance regarding fetal well-being. Decreased fetal movement should be addressed by your obstetrician and you should never hesitate to give us a call if you’re concerned! The best way to minimize the risk of stillbirth is by working with your healthcare provider – both prior to conception to optimize your own personal health as well as during your pregnancy to maintain the safety of the mother-infant dyad.
Who can benefit from Elijah’s Purpose?
Michelle: Elijah’s Purpose can help families in Central Virginia who have experienced a loss anytime throughout the pregnancy and postpartum period – it doesn’t matter if the loss was a miscarriage, stillbirth, or infant. We also help families who are experiencing financial hardship and need assistance with supplies to care for their newborn.
What services does Elijah’s Purpose offer?
Michelle: Here are the ways our organization helps families who are suffering from this unique kind of loss.
- Burial assistance (financial): We assist with the cost to cover an infant burial/funeral.
- Free grief counseling services: We offer counseling and support groups through our community partners.
- Baby supplies: We help provide baby and household supplies for families with children in the PICU or have a new baby/toddler in the household.
If you are in need of any of these services, feel free to reach out to Elijah’s Purpose through our website.
What are some ways to help or get involved with Elijah’s Purpose?
Michelle: We have several upcoming events and ways to contribute or get involved. Elijah’s Purpose board, staff, and volunteers consist of families that have experienced a miscarriage or infant loss sometime in their life. Some losses happened years ago while others are more recent. Our groups include moms and dad, aunts, uncles and grandparents in this community.
There are three upcoming events during Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month in October that we’d love to have you attend or volunteer to help out:
- Elijah’s Purpose’s 2nd Annual Fundraising Gala will be held at the Meadowbrook Country Club on Friday, Oct. 14th. This is an evening of joy and awareness while celebrating our newest partnerships. Tickets are $75, and registration is open through the end of September.
- Elijah’s Purpose will hold its 3rd Annual Infant Loss Remembrance Day on Saturday, Oct. 15th, 10:30am-1:30pm at Ettrick Park. Families can come out and enjoy arts and crafts, lunch, and our guest speaker, BabyBuns! Register ahead for this free event.
- The “Big Push” is an empty stroller march on Oct.15th in Washington DC to “push” for change that could reduce the incidence of stillbirth in the United States. (VPFW is proud to sponsor!)
You can also contribute to Elijah’s Purpose by making a monetary donation online or by donating baby supplies to help support our mission.
- We take online donations at elijahspurpose.com/donate. A monthly donation of $21 covers the cost for an infant casket.
- We accept (new) items that can be delivered or dropped off to our Hull Street office: diapers, wipes, clothes, bottles, hygiene, and household items.
What advice do you have for someone experiencing pregnancy or infant loss?
Dr. Lawson: Don’t hesitate to reach out for help. Elijah’s Purpose is a wonderful organization that is here to help you through this difficult time. The providers at VPFW are also more than happy to recommend resources for patients experiencing pregnancy loss, including this list of resources put together by one of our patients. We want you to feel comfortable talking to your OB/GYN if you are struggling with loss or perinatal mood disorders of any kind. We are here to guide you towards the help you need, when you need it.
Michelle: I would love for other families who are experiencing the heartache and/or financial hardship of losing a baby, either during pregnancy or after birth, to remember that you are not alone. There is no time limit on your grief. Don’t worry about what books or others tell you is the proper way to grieve or honor your baby. Do what makes you comfortable. Not everyone will get it – and that’s okay!