Breaking the Silence Around Infant Loss

A McLaren nurse leader’s pregnancy and loss journey

October forever holds significance to Taryn Gemalsky, patient care manager at McLaren Greater Lansing. It is the month she was due to give birth to her daughter Lilly. It is also Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month. An awareness month that, unfortunately, many women are familiar with. Each year roughly one in four pregnancies ends in a loss.

“Lilly Pad is the name our oldest daughter, Skylyr, came up with for the new baby before we even found out we were having a girl,” said Gemalsky. “Then it just kind of caught on, and pretty soon all of our family and friends were calling the baby Lilly.”

At Gemalsky’s 20-week anatomy scan, it was noted that she had placenta previa and that Lilly had two spots on her bowel that seemed whiter. Gemalsky was told this could be completely normal or could be a genetic or chromosomal abnormality called echogenic bowel.

“We decided together that we would do genetic testing at this point because we hadn’t done it earlier in the pregnancy,” said Gemalsky. “We wanted to ensure everything was OK, and a couple of days later, we received positive news that our genetic testing looked normal.”

Gemalsky’s oldest daughter had been born with a congenital heart defect, and because of this, Gemalsky was scheduled for a routine fetal echo to ensure that Lilly’s heart was developing correctly.

“I went to the appointment by myself because it was a routine appointment and up until this point, my pregnancy had been great,” said Gemalsky. “I work in health care, so I know that an adult echo takes roughly 30-45 minutes, and my older daughter’s took about an hour, so after 10 minutes when the echo tech told me that they were done and she was going to go talk to the doctor, I knew immediately that something was wrong.”

The pediatric cardiologist with the Helen DeVos’ Lansing Pediatric Specialty Center then came in to deliver heart breaking news that they were not able to find Lilly’s heartbeat. Since it was a cardiologist specialty office, it was important for Gemalsky to be seen by her OB-GYN to confirm if the cardiologist’s suspicions were correct.

“My husband met me at the doctor’s office and drove across the parking lot to the hospital,” said Gemalsky. “The OBGYN on call came into my room and performed another scan and confirmed that there were no heart tones. Her heart was not moving at all, and she was not moving at all. I remember it felt like someone pouring salt into a wound.”

The OBGYN then gave Gemalsky and her husband time to process what was the worst news of their lives before going over the next steps, which included delivering the baby as soon as possible to lower Germalsky’s risk of infection.

The options for birth included a c-section, which at 22 weeks would put Gemalsy at high risk of not being able to conceive again; a dilation and evacuation, a surgical removal under general anesthesia that would result in Gemalsky not being able to see their daughter after she was born; or an induced labor and delivery.

“We were in fertility treatments for two years before we conceived Lilly, and my husband and I agreed that the lowest-risk option would be the best, which was natural labor,” said Gemalsky. “But how do you labor and deliver a baby you can’t take home?”

During Gemalsky’s labor, she found out that of the 12 nurses who cared for her, all except one had experienced their own miscarriage or stillbirth. They helped Gemalsky not only with labor and birth, but also navigating things people would say, the autopsy, and the funeral home process.

“The third morning of my induction—and also Father’s Day­—I was mid-labor but really wanted Skylyr to be able to see her dad, who she had been away from for days at this point,” said Gemalsky. “The nurses all did an amazing job of making her feel included and helped with her grieving process. She was able to do hand molds so that when Lilly was born we could all have a hand mold together. The care team helped her pick out blankets, teddy bears, all sorts of stuff.”

After a three-day induction, Lilly Rose was born at 11:57 p.m. on June 18, Father’s Day.

“I am the one who has always helped people; that is my career. When I got home my employees from work set up a meal train, cards, gift cards, Door Dash, all the things I didn’t know I needed until I needed it,” said Gemalsky. “My doctor took me off work and told me I needed a full maternity leave because I had still delivered a baby.”

Therapy, a strong support system, and being allowed to not be OK are all things Gemalsky credits for helping her on her healing journey.

“Talking about Lilly and my story is the way I grieve. It was the same with infertility. I almost feel like I make people uncomfortable, but I want people to know they aren’t alone. These memories are all we are going to have for the rest of our lives.”

Unlike many women who experience a loss, Gemalsky did receive answers. Autopsies indicated the cytomegalovirus (CMV) virus was present in both Lilly and the placenta. CMV is a common virus for people of all ages, and while most people never know they have it, symptoms can be serious for people with weakened immune systems. The virus can pass through the placenta and to the baby during pregnancy and can result in loss. Babies born with CMV can experience major complications, like brain, liver, esophagus, stomach, and intestine abnormalities.

“There are some days that are really tough. National Daughters Day hit me like a brick wall, friends having babies, my milk coming in, October 19, 2023, which is my due date,” said Gemalsky. “I am not ever going to move on, forget, or be fully OK, but I had to learn to navigate the future waters to move forward with my life. We want Lilly, we wanted Lilly to be here. Having another child wouldn’t make up for the loss of Lilly. What does the next year look like? What does the next five minutes look like? I don’t know, but I do know that pregnancy isn’t always perfect, and women aren’t alone.”

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