HIBBING — For Talia and Dan Sandys of Side Lake, the weeks leading up to the birth of their daughter at Fairview Range Medical Center (FRMC) in Hibbing were a blur of worry, heartache and tears.
When Talia was 34 weeks pregnant, they learned their baby girl had Trisomy 18, a fatal chromosomal abnormality that affected the baby’s brain, heart, kidneys and overall development. Most babies with Trisomy are miscarried or stillborn. If babies with Trisomy make it to term, they do not survive for long.
“The doctors told us she was incompatible with life,” said Talia, wiping away tears. “It was devastating. People would see me around town and not know. They’d ask what I was having and when I was due. It was so hard to smile and say a baby girl in June.”
The Sandys family decided to have their baby at FRMC because it was close to home and they could be surrounded by family. With the help of Dr. Jan Baldwin, their doctor, they tried to plan for a variety of contingencies.
“Dr. Baldwin was amazing,” said Talia. “She helped us try to make plans for something you can’t plan for.”
They also set a goal to make their daughter’s short life as full as possible.
Gracie Rose Sandys was born at 8:53 p.m. on June 24, 2016. She weighed just 4 pounds, 11 ounces and was 16 inches long.
From the moment she was born, the Sandys family soaked up every moment with her.
“We didn’t sleep,” said Talia. “We didn’t know how long we would have with her. We didn’t want to miss a thing. We held her the whole time. We were so lucky to have five days with her.”
They celebrated each day of Gracie’s five days of life as a birthday. They took lots of photos, gave her a bath, fed her, read her books, sang to her and dressed her in different outfits. They made handprints and footprints of her tiny hands and feet.
“We celebrated every day,” said Talia. “Every moment.”
While the Sandys family reveled in every moment they had with Gracie, the nursing staff was also reeling from the gravity of the situation. Talia’s sister-in-law is a nurse in the Women’s Health & Birth Center and her mother is an ER nurse at Fairview. In a small town like Hibbing, the news hit hard.
“We were blessed in that we knew she was coming and we had a little bit of time to digest the news,” said Riana Damjanovich, patient care manager of Fairview Range’s Women’s Health and Birth Center. “We’re a tight-knit family and when things are sad, it’s really, really sad. We try to support each other as much as possible.”
The Sandys family was assigned just two nurses for their entire stay with the goal of providing them and Gracie with as much comfort and care as possible.
“The nurses were so respectful,” said Talia. “They gave us our space when we needed it. They would spend time talking with us late into the night.”
One of the nurses assigned to them was Ferechil Specht, who had been present at the birth of the Sandys’ first child, Evan, about two years earlier. Specht often works with grieving parents who are dealing with newborn losses.
“I follow the Golden Rule of ‘Do unto others as you would have done to you,’” said Specht. “I really focus on how I would want to be treated and just try to be empathetic and full of compassion. When I’m working with a family, they are the most important family to me at that time.”
When Specht first learned about the Sandys family, her mind went back to a program she had seen at a hospital where she had worked in Maple Grove, Minn. That program gave weighted teddy bears to grieving parents who experienced the loss of a child. She approached Damjanovich about doing something similar at Fairview Range, and the wheels were set in motion.
Specht knew Talia’s baby was coming soon and couldn’t wait for the program to officially launch.
“I wanted to do something for her, to let her know that we’re thinking of them and that we wanted to help in any way,” said Specht.
Specht bought a stuffed teddy bear and spent the quiet times on her midnight shift getting it ready. She opened the stuffed bear up, added polyfill for extra weight, and after weighing it on the baby scales several times to make sure it was just the right weight, carefully hand stitched the bear back up and attached a pink bow on it’s head.
“Nothing can replace the loss of a child,” said Specht. “It was so sad, and even though I knew I couldn’t do anything to replace her baby, I wanted her to be able to have something to hold in her arms. I didn’t want her to leave the hospital empty-handed. I hoped it would be therapeutic.”
She gave Talia the bear at the end of one of her shifts. Talia recalls holding the bear during those long nights at the hospital.
“There were nights I slept with it,” said Talia. “It weighs the same as Gracie. It is such a sweet and thoughtful memento to have.”
Specht made a few more bears — some with pink bows, some with blue — to have on hand in the Women’s Health & Birth Center. Soon, the Fairview Range Volunteer Service Organization took over the project of making more of the weighted teddy bears for mothers who had lost a baby.
Specht approached Talia about naming the project “Gracie’s Bears” in honor of Gracie. The Sandys family quickly agreed.
“We can’t speak on behalf of all grieving parents, but we want to do anything we can to keep her memory going,” said Talia. “We want people to talk about Gracie. There should be more conversations about infant loss so that parents going through this don’t feel alone.”
Talia said she’s grateful to Specht for taking the lead on Gracie’s Bears.
“I don’t think this kind of thing happens much in smaller hospitals,” she said. “She’s touched more lives than we know.”
Damjanovich said anyone wanting to help with the project can donate money to Gracie’s Bears through the Fairview Range Volunteer Service Organization. They can also help by volunteering to prepare the bears for families by contacting Volunteer Services Coordinator Bev Johnson-Moberg at 218-362-6112.