AHN Perinatal Palliative Care Program Recognizes October as National Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month

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Network Shares Top-Line Guidance on How to Support Bereaved Families

Dr. Marta Kolthoff, lead physician of Olivia's Angels Perinatal Palliative Care program at AHN, speak at summer memorial event

“It’s our hope that our work extends beyond the hospital to impact how our society culturally handles, supports and talks about infant loss," said Dr. Marta Kolthoff.

Allegheny Health Network’s (AHN) Perinatal Palliative Care program, “Olivia’s Angels,” will recognize this month as National Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month by sharing helpful guidance and resources for grieving parents as well as their friends, family and loved ones.

“This month is a special time where we as a clinical community must come together to better educate the public on statistics surrounding pregnancy and infant loss, promote local resources for bereaved families and designate a special time to remember babies who have passed,” said Marta Kolthoff, MD, AHN perinatologist and lead physician of Olivia’s Angels Perinatal Palliative Care Program. “As a society, we must do a better job at responding to and supporting families who are experiencing reproductive loss. These babies are no less important than any other baby and this grief must be acknowledged, recognized and supported at the highest level.”

In the United States, it's estimated that roughly 24,000 babies are stillborn (at 20 weeks of pregnancy or later) each year, and the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecologists (ACOG) estimates as many as 26% of all pregnancies end in miscarriage (before 20 weeks of pregnancy) making it the most common form of all pregnancy loss.

Olivia’s Angels is the most comprehensive perinatal hospice and miscarriage support program in the region. Through the program, a team of AHN physicians and caregivers support and care for patients who have experienced a sudden perinatal loss or receive a diagnosis that their child’s life will be limited. In certain instances, Olivia’s Angels can schedule elective c-sections so mom can spend more time with baby while still alive.

“Historically, it was common practice to swiftly remove stillborn babies from their mothers which often resulted in complicated grief due to limited time for maternal bonding,” explained Dr. Kolthoff. “The medical community at-large now views this practice as detrimental and has started to implement certain standards that allow for more time together. At AHN, we have established a strong national reputation for being at the forefront of perinatal palliative care by implementing standard protocols such as this that allow for increased time spent between mom and baby to help patients through their grief journey, among other measures.”

In addition to clinical guidance, the team provides extra palliative care, hospice and bereavement care for families. Dr. Kolthoff’s team discharges families with keepsakes to remember their children by, such as casted footprints and memory books, reinforces the importance of calling their children by name and hosts bi-annual events to bring families together and find solace in their community.

Founded in 2017, Olivia’s Angels is embedded in every AHN labor and delivery program and currently provides comprehensive training for caregivers, including first-hand accounts from parents who have lost a child during or shortly after pregnancy. The training is vital to the delivery of coordinated, high-level care for patients and families, tapping into the resources and specialized clinical expertise found at the AHN Women’s Behavioral Health Institute.

Most recently, the team launched a virtual support group series for the public to come together and share experiences with perinatal loss. The group meets in the evening monthly and those interested can visit ahn.org to register; participants do not have to be established AHN patients to attend.

“Miscarriage is not uncommon, but there remains an evident need for a standardized care approach that validates this loss and removes the enormous stigma and shame women can sometimes face,” continued Dr. Kolthoff. “It’s our hope that our work extends beyond the hospital to impact how our society culturally handles, supports and talks about infant loss.”

Dr. Kolthoff provides top-line guidance for those supporting others facing perinatal loss or miscarriage:

  • Acknowledge the loss: take the time to let them know you’re sorry for what has happened and that you’re willing to be there to talk if mom or dad feel isolated. In a culture that can sometimes promote “just putting on a good face,” recognition and gentleness go a very long way.
  • Refrain from cliches or minimizing the loss: the duration of the pregnancy doesn’t minimize its impact and saying things like ‘everything happens for a reason,’ or ‘you can try for another one,’ can be hurtful. Show your support by listening, calling the baby by his/her name and validating the expression of emotions like grief and pain.
  • Be mindful of your social media presence: for someone facing perinatal loss, it can seem that social media is inundated with pregnancy-related news. Be sensitive about what you post and how it could impact others who view it.
  • Support men & partners, too: fathers, and partners are also grieving, and that grief often goes unrecognized. Take time to specifically check in with significant others and show them you’re there if they need to talk about their loss.
  • Encourage professional help: if you think they may benefit from an added layer of support and guidance from a clinical counselor, therapist or psychologist, refer to the AHN Women’s Behavioral Health by visiting the website.

About the Allegheny Health Network:
Allegheny Health Network (AHN.org) is an integrated healthcare delivery system serving the greater Western Pennsylvania region. The Network is composed of 14 hospitals, ambulatory surgery centers, Health + Wellness Pavilions, multiple employed physician organizations, home and community based health services, a research institute, and a group purchasing organization. The Network provides patients with access to a complete spectrum of advanced medical services, including nationally recognized programs for primary and emergency care, trauma care, cardiovascular disease, organ transplantation, cancer care, orthopedic surgery, neurology and neurosurgery, women’s health, diabetes, autoimmune disease and more. AHN employs approximately 21,000 people, has more than 2,600 physicians on its medical staff and serves as a clinical campus for Drexel University College of Medicine and the Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine.

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