Autumn Cunningham

Mom to Gemma O’neilCunningham

October 21st 2010

San Diego, CA

After our first daughter was born, my husband and I were told we had passed along genetic birth defects. The chance of passing along similar birth defects was a 25% chance. We went into our second pregnancy knowing the chances but not having a full scope of what those genetic defects could be; even the Geneticist was shocked by the outcome.

I became pregnant with Gemma quickly and we were overjoyed to have another baby. As soon as we heard the heartbeat we told all of our friends and family the good news! We started organizing the house and making more room so we could start planning the nursery. I dreamed that this was the pregnancy that it was all going to go right and I would get my perfect birth story. I began to fantasize that I would get the chance to try for a VBAC, the baby would be born not needing surgery, would breastfeed and would be so healthy we could take him or her home the next day as so many of my other friends had.

Because of our genetic defects we were sent to a specialist to monitor the pregnancy instead of my regular OB/GYN, which we had expected.  The first appointment with the specialist was at about 12 weeks and included an ultrasound. The room was very quiet as the technician took numerous pictures and we stared in happy bliss at getting to see so much of our baby! At the time I didn’t think the quiet had anything to do with our baby. Ignorance is bliss.

When the technician had finished the ultrasound she brought the doctor in to do the ultrasound herself and that is when I began to get nervous.  As the doctor stared at the screen I could see she was focusing on our baby’s abdomen. She took picture after picture of the same spot. I tried to calm my fears by telling myself I was overreacting. However, when she spoke she told us that our baby’s kidneys did not look like they were developing properly but it was very early to tell for sure.  She asked us to come back in two weeks for another ultrasound.

We were in shock when we left the doctor’s office but we decided not to tell anyone until we were certain there was a problem. During those two weeks I would like to say I hoped for the best but in my heart I knew that there was a problem. I prepared myself for the worst but as it turned out there is no such thing as being prepared for the death of your baby.

We returned to the scheduled ultrasound at almost 15 weeks. What was confirmed that day took our world off its axis. The doctor informed us that our baby, a girl, had: cystic kidneys, a missing bladder, an anencephaly and possibly had extra fingers. There was a zero percent chance for her survival.  We were ushered into a Genetic Counselor’s office and as we made our way there I tried to hide my tears from the other expecting mothers. Having a baby should be a happy experience; and I didn’t want to shatter their innocence, as mine had been just moments before.

In the next few weeks that followed I had an amniocentesis performed and we discovered that while our daughter, Gemma, definitely had a genetic disorder her chromosomes were unaffected. We still had no answers. The Genetic Counselor suspected Meckel Gruber Syndrome but the testing for would require tissue from our daughter and almost $10,000 for a fifty percent chance of detection. We opted not to pursue the additional testing.  We were referred to Planned Parenthood, although no one would tell me why. At Planned Parenthood I discovered that my doctor wanted me to have a D & E performed. Once I was able to speak with a nurse about the details of the procedure I quickly decided that it was not an option for me.

I returned to my specialist’s office and told her I refused to have a D & E and that we would wait until the baby was able to be delivered. She said she understood my reasons but vaginal delivery would not be an option for me because I had full Placenta Previa. As it turned out I would have never gotten my VBAC because my placenta was blocking my cervix. I told her that I wanted a C-section instead. While she was hesitant she understood my convictions and that I was determined.

Gemma was delivered via C-section at 18 weeks to an operating room full of tears. Miraculously, she was alive for 11 minutes, a gift we never thought we would get. We were able to hold her and sing to her until she passed in the operating room. We kept her with us for most of that day. The mortuary was scheduled to come for her that evening and I didn’t know how I was going to let her go. I fell asleep with her in my lap and woke up to an empty room with just her and I. When I looked at her I could see and feel that her spirit was no longer with me. I thank God every day that he let me see that so I could lay her to rest.  We buried her remains a week later in a plot next to my Grandfather. It gives me peace to have a place to go to feel close to her.

There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think of my Gemma. Never has there been someone in my life who has changed it so profoundly. As a society we remember and acknowledge people who have passed by what they leave behind. Gemma only left us behind; she had no belongings but she did leave us changed. She gave so much to us; a more devoted marriage, closer friends and family, a deeper appreciation for life, a stronger faith and the realization that Heaven is real.

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  1. Autumn, I am so sorry for the loss of your precious Gemma. I love the comment you made about now knowing heaven is real. My son, stillborn 9/12/00, left that same amazing impact on my life. I have said a prayer for you that God would continue to comfort you and you would hold your daughter again in heaven one day.

  2. Bless you for sharing your story. I hurt for you. I know exactly what you mean about heaven being more real. That is something I have said often since I lost my identical twin girls, Emmerson Claire and Vivienne Catherine on June 30, 2011. I have always believed but its just different in an unexplainable way unless you’ve traveled this awful road. How has your grieving process been. It is still so fresh for me and its so hard! Does it ever get better? You will be in my thoughts and prayers and once again, thank you so much for sharing!

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