Mandie Badaloni recalls her first miscarriage as the most traumatic event of her life. When she saw a nurse carry her baby out of a hospital bathroom in a biohazard bag, the image was branded in her memory.
It was May 2011; she had been 19 weeks pregnant with a little girl. A few days earlier, during a routine prenatal exam, her doctor told her the baby had stopped growing. He didn’t know why. She started to bleed soon after.
“I walk in, and I tell them I’m having a miscarriage — like the baby is halfway out — and they go, ‘Oh, can you fill out this paperwork?’ ” Badaloni said.
Stretched out in a bed tucked away in an emergency room, Badaloni was left alone.
“I had the baby in the bathroom by myself,” she said.
An ER nurse came in and told her to go lie down. Fading in and out of consciousness, she saw through the bathroom door as her baby was scooped into a red plastic bag and carried away.
“That was the last time I saw her,” she said.
Things have changed.
Five years and another miscarriage later, in June of last year, Badaloni was pregnant for the third time.
Badaloni said she was hopeful about her pregnancy.
“He was fine,” she said. “The baby was fine … he had a regular heartbeat.”
But then, an infection sent Badaloni into labor 15 weeks early.
As they headed for the mother/baby unit of PeaceHealth Sacred Heart Medical Center at RiverBend in Springfield, Badaloni and the baby’s father, Joe Badaloni, knew it was far too soon. They knew that they wouldn’t be leaving the hospital holding their son.
The baby, whom they named Rocky, lived for 47 minutes.
Nothing makes losing a child easier, she said, but something was different about her memories of Rocky and his few minutes on Earth and the hours after he died.
When a delivery nurse placed the 11-ounce newborn in Badaloni’s arms, he was bundled in expensive linen that had been embroidered with flowers. A note tied to his fine wrapping with ribbon read, “This one-of-a-kind Angel Gown was especially made for your little angel from a donated wedding dress.”
In a day of grief, pain, dashed hopes and sorrow, it might seem like a small thing. But to Mandie and Joe Badaloni and others who have experienced late-term miscarriages, stillbirths and the loss of newborns soon after birth, it was a comfort. It was something tangible that they still could do for a child after all their hopes and plans for him were gone.
Karen Freeman began a mission to craft this kind of comfort two years ago. The result was Angel Gowns Oregon, an offshoot of the program that Michelle Matthews of Seattle started in 2011. Freeman brought Angel Gowns to Oregon four years later, and now it’s a volunteer group in Eugene that Freeman runs out of her Springfield home.
She and five or six volunteers sew miniature gowns out of donated wedding dresses. The gowns go to 22 hospitals, mainly throughout Oregon, but also Washington and California. The gowns become meticulously crafted clothing for babies who are stillborn or who die shortly after birth.
“Karen’s goal is for no baby to leave this world undressed,” Badaloni said.
On a recent Sunday afternoon, Freeman, 72, and volunteers Carol Terhes, 73, and Rebecca McAlexander, 59, stood around, excitedly removing the contents of a cardboard box. Someone had donated not just a wedding gown, but the dresses from an entire wedding party. The women passed around the cream and pale pink tulle and lace, each imagining how the donated finery would look when transformed for a baby.
Freeman said that each wedding dress usually makes 10 to 20 mini gowns, depending on the size. Since she started sewing the gowns, Freeman said she and her small group of seamstresses have made more than 1,000 gowns.
The gowns are donated by women, many of whom have known what it is to lose a newborn. All of them have a story.
“The email that they send me, or when they drop them off in person; I take a moment to listen,” Freeman said.
The project has grown without much fanfare, mostly through Facebook.
Women who end up donating a wedding dress usually happen upon the Facebook page, Angel Gowns by Karen, and find Freeman’s email address or send a message. Freeman sends them her mailing address, and they ship (or sometimes even hand-deliver) their dresses.
Once the wedding gowns have been carefully taken apart and remade into a dozen or more little gowns, Freeman sends the women who donated the wedding dresses photos of the finished product, so they can see what was created out of their gown.
Angel Gowns Oregon is funded entirely by donations. In May, Freeman set up a YouCaring account to cover costs related to remaking the dresses — ribbon, printing for the notes attached to each gown and the flannel she uses to line the inside of each gown.
Freeman distributes the gowns to RiverBend and McKenzie-Willamette Medical Center herself. She ships the rest of the gowns to 20 other hospitals on the West Coast. Freeman said she often sends 20 or 30 gowns at a time, sometimes more. She said hospitals run out of certain sizes and send her requests for more.
“The first time one of the hospitals called me and asked for more, I just felt this clutching in my stomach because I knew why they needed more,” Freeman said. “It’s very bittersweet.”
If she raises $25,000, she would like to move her Angel Gown headquarters out of her bedroom and living room, perhaps to a small shop somewhere in Springfield. As of Tuesday, Freeman had raised more than $2,500 toward her goal.
Freeman said she was drawn to the Angel Gown project at first because, as a professional seamstress and the owner of Imagine Custom Sewing and Designs in Eugene, she wanted to put her skills and love of design to good use. But the project has become far more to her now than a hobby, she said.
The seamstress ran Angel Gowns Oregon entirely on her own for about six months, but now she’s glad to have help.
Freeman, Carolyn Newson, Terhes and McAlexander were sitting around a small wooden table, wrapping tiny, handmade dresses in plastic for shipment. The women chatted and laughed as they worked.
But almost all of them knew exactly what the dresses they were packing would mean to their recipients.
Newson lost a son in childbirth nearly 50 years ago.
“When I lost my baby, no one talked about it,” she said.
After a cesarean section, Newson said she remembers looking at her son, hanging in the air in the hands of the doctor who had just delivered the lifeless little form.
“I can just remember the RN saying to me when I was crying, ‘You’re not the only one that this has happened to,’ ” she said. “You never forget something like that.”
McAlexander’s twin brother and sister died in childbirth when she was 10.
“We never got to see them,” McAlexander said. “We never … nothing. One of them doesn’t even have a grave.”
Terhes’ mother had a stillborn child before she was born. She also lost her husband recently. In helping other women with their grieving process, the women putting needle to thread on the gowns are on the road to healing as well.
“You either meet someone that knows someone who’s lost, or they have lost. But it’s not acknowledged,” Newson said. “It’s like, get over it. But every life — no matter how fragile or brief — changes the world.”
According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, 10 percent to 25 percent of all pregnancies end in a miscarriage. And stillbirth affects about 1 percent of all pregnancies, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Miscarriage is medically defined by the CDC as when a fetus dies before 20 weeks into a pregnancy. A death after 20 weeks is considered a stillbirth. According to the CDC, about 24,000 pregnancies end in stillbirths each year in the United States.
In 2015 — the most recent available statistics — Oregon’s infant mortality rate was 5.1 deaths per 1,000 live births, according to the CDC. That translated into 232 such deaths that year.
The national average is 5.9 infant deaths per 1,000 live births.
RiverBend delivery nurse Erin Grace said that about 40 neonatal deaths occur at the hospital each year.
Grace said most women who lose their infants enter the hospital’s delivery unit already knowing that their baby has died or is coming too soon to survive.
“It takes a really strong woman to come in knowing her dreams for her child have ended, and she’s going to have to deliver her baby not breathing,” Grace said.
Labor nurses and doctors spend most of their days helping families bring their newborns home. But when they know that is not going to be the outcome, medical personnel apply an extra level of sensitivity, Grace said.
RiverBend offers options to address the emotional needs of parents who are grieving a stillbirth. Professional photographers take a portrait of the family, holding their stillborn child, through a program called Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep. It is an independent program that serves any hospital by request. Parents can get imprints of the infant’s hands and feet. Prints of the imprints can be framed or used in miniature as templates for making jewelry.
One family raised funds for RiverBend to buy a “cuddle cot,” a device to keep a baby who recently has died cool enough to stay with the parents for at least 24 hours.
And because of Angel Gowns, even families with limited means can dress their baby in something elegant.
“Those are healing tears”
Freeman said dozens of women, upon learning of her involvement with Angel Gowns, have shared their stories after years or decades of silence.
“I was in a networking meeting just telling people what I do, and all of a sudden there are just tears running down this lady’s face,” Freeman said. “And she didn’t have to say a thing. Those are healing tears … because finally somebody is acknowledging this, and the tears can finally come.”
Mandie Badaloni said it is people like Freeman who made the difference between her first miscarriage and her most recent.
She and Rocky’s father stayed in the hospital with their son for nearly 48 hours. They read to him and sang to him. Joe Badaloni even took him outside.
“People would think that you would just get up and keep going, but we have his ashes at the foot of our bed in a little urn,” Joe Badaloni said. “No matter what, that’s our son. We’re never just going to let it go like that. He’s always going to be right there.”
Freeman understands why such ceremony is important.
“We need each other,” she said. “To support us through all these different times in our life. We’re really not meant to be alone. So this helps them not feel so alone. That’s why we have funerals. That’s why we do the ceremonies around death. That’s why we dress the body of our loved one in their finest clothes.”
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