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Turning grief into gratefulness

By The Health News Team | October 13, 2023
Yvonne Rothermel and her daughter Sophie at Sharp Mary Birch Hospital for Women & Newborns

Yvonne Rothermel and her daughter, Sophie, pay tribute to Maya, who died in the womb.

The best day of Yvonne Rothermel’s life was also the worst.

After struggling to get pregnant for so long, going through in vitro fertilization, and hoping she and her husband, Gordon Renwick, could start a family, she was finally about to give birth to twins.

Yvonne wanted to name one of her daughters Sophie after her former college roommate, Anne Sophie, who was from Norway. She wanted to name her other daughter Maya.

When Yvonne was working as a social worker at Sharp Grossmont Hospital's Women's Center & Prenatal Clinic a few years prior, one of the moms told her she named her own daughter Maya because it meant “creative force in the universe.” That always stuck with Yvonne.

Yvonne was due for an induction on a Sunday evening, and on Friday, her OBGYN told her that everything was normal. However, that Saturday night, Yvonne felt frantic kicking. She felt around her stomach to find the babies and recognized what she thought was an infant’s limp arm.

“I just knew something wasn’t right,” Yvonne says.

Joy — clouded by devastating loss

Gordon drove Yvonne to Sharp Mary Birch Hospital for Women & Newborns, where she went into triage. Nurses put her on a monitor and told her they found Sophie’s heartbeat right away.

But they couldn’t find Maya’s.

Yvonne was in a state of shock, terrified and crying as she hurried doctors to perform a C-section. “I didn’t know if whatever took Maya was going to take Sophie,” Yvonne says.

At around 12:30 in the afternoon, Sophie Elise Renwick was born, weighing 5 pounds, 3 ounces. Shortly after, Yvonne delivered Maya, who had died in the womb. She was 3 pounds, 14 ounces.

“I wanted to keep Maya in me forever,” Yvonne says, knowing she would be going home as a family of three instead of four.

Tragically, about 21,000 similar stillbirths happen each year in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Each loss represents an unfathomable tragedy.

A shift like no other

Shari Abdalla, RN, distinctly remembers the shift when Sophie and Maya were born. In her 33 years as a nurse and advanced clinician with Sharp HealthCare, she’s flashed back to June 29, 2003, many times.

“It was the most profound day of my nursing career,” Abdalla says.

Working in maternity is normally joyous. How often does someone say the best day of their life is when their child is born?

But this was a shift unlike any other. The nurse in charge of leading the unit assigned Abdalla a room toward the front of the sixth floor. Seeing the patient’s report made her pause: The mother just birthed twins, but only one twin survived.

Usually, Abdalla can tell what kind of support her patients need, whether it’s teaching them something about newborns, helping them decrease their anxiety, or even getting them a little snack. She always wants to offer her patients a good experience, but how could she on this day, she wondered?

Abdalla paused, collected her thoughts, took a deep breath and walked in.

Shari Abdalla of Sharp Mary Birch Hospital for Women & Newborns

In her long nursing career, Shari Abdalla thinks of Yvonne, Sophie and Maya often.

Shared grief inspires compassionate care

Abdalla could empathize with Yvonne’s grief because two years before, she lost both her mother and her brother in a span of just a few months. Even though she had returned to work after a couple of days each time, she still carried them with her.

Their deaths made Abdalla more sensitive to grief. Being able to focus on other people helped her cope.

This wasn’t a time, she knew, to walk in and cheerily say, “Oh my gosh, congratulations!” She wasn’t going to walk in and somberly say, “Sorry for your loss,” either. Words, at that point, could not help.

Abdalla thought about what anyone would need in that moment — the two principles that have always guided her: compassion and love. She opened the door to see the parents laying in the hospital bed together, holding Sophie, and saw Maya in the crib next to them.

“What’s her name?” Abdalla asked.

“Maya,” Yvonne replied.

“Do you mind if I hold her?” Abdalla asked.

Abdalla picked Maya up and then sat down in a rocking chair, cradling her ever so gently. “She’s beautiful,” she told them.

“I think a lot of people tend to not know what to say or do, so they avoid the situation,” Yvonne says. “Having someone come toward you with that kind of compassion was really special.”

That touching moment went on to spark a connection between the two women some 20 years later, when Yvonne sent a text message to Abdalla. “Do you remember us?” it read.

According to Abdalla, she could never forget them — Yvonne, Sophie and, forever, Maya.

Shari, Yvonne and Sophie at Sharp Mary Birch Hospital for Women & Newborns

(Left to right) Sophie, Abdalla and Yvonne in a poignant reunion.

Read the full story of Yvonne and Abdalla and how their lives continued to intersect decades after Yvonne’s delivery day through the birth of another child; a new calling for Yvonne in honor of Maya; and the advanced education of Sophie, now a young adult, who has been inspired by it all. And learn how patients and their loved ones can recognize Sharp’s extraordinary caregivers like Abdalla through the Guardian Angel Program.

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