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Celebrating the least of these


WORLD Radio - Celebrating the least of these

An infant hospice center in Asheville, NC, helps families celebrate the short lives of babies born with severe fetal abnormalities

The Thomas family remembers the life of their daughter's older sister, who passed away 14 hours after birth. Photo Credit to Kim Roberts

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Today is Wednesday, April 12th. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day.

Good morning. I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher.

Coming next on The World and Everything in It: Caring for the least of these.

Hospice care comes at the end of life, trying to ease a person’s pain as death comes. But what about the smallest of patients? Babies born with just hours or even minutes to live?

REICHARD: WJI mid-career graduate Kim Roberts visited an infant hospice center and captured this story. WORLD’s Anna Johansen Brown edited the story and narrates it.

SOUND: [Becky Hymel taking baby, cooing, she’s so cute, etc]

ANNA JOHANSEN BROWN: Gwenna Thomas is six weeks old, tiny, not much hair, making those iconic newborn sounds. Becky Hymel smiles as she takes the baby from her dad’s arms and gently pats her on the back.

Gwenna isn’t the first Thomas baby that Hymel has held. Three years ago, she was there to welcome baby Nora Thomas into the world, and then say goodbye. Nora was Gwenna’s older sister. She was born with no kidneys and lived only 14 hours.

Birth defects that lead to death occur in about two-tenths of a percent of all babies born in the U.S. in a given year. Becky Hymel saw an opportunity to support families as they walked that road. So she created a perinatal hospice program at Mountain Area Pregnancy Services—or MAPS—in Asheville, North Carolina.

The program offers palliative care for families whose babies can’t survive long outside the womb. Doctors often speak about these vulnerable babies as if they are a problem and urge their parents to abort them.

BECKY HYMEL: They see a diagnosis, but what they can't see is that not every woman sees it as a medical issue.

Hymel wants to offer something different—an opportunity to rejoice in each baby’s life.

HYMEL: This is their baby, right? And they don't give that encouragement like you could carry this baby to term and there are resources out there that will help you through this journey. I've had moms say “We dreaded our visits because it was just always bad news, bad news, bad news.” And when they made the choice to carry and started making plans, that's when they get to laugh and smile again.

Hymel personalizes the program for each family based on their unique needs and stage of grief.

Because the baby is not likely to live long after birth, the families can come in for repeated ultrasounds to hear their baby’s heartbeat.

Sometimes dads hold the ultrasound instrument called the transducer.

HYMEL: I always just give dad a chance to hold the transducer because these are the ways they can parent. And it’s, it’s just a part of caring for both their baby and the mother of their baby.

The heartbeat is recorded and uploaded to a speaker inside a stuffed animal of the family’s choice. The Thomas family chose a brown bear with a patchwork heart for Nora’s heartbeat recording.

Hymel often pairs a family with one who has walked a similar path before them. The Thomases received an example birth plan that helped them arrange every moment they spent with Nora while she was alive, including planning a birth celebration.

Nothing can ever take the place of the baby who died, but MAPS tries to find ways to ease the pain.

HYMEL: There is a very real phenomenon known as “aching arms”-- when you lose a baby– like a mother's arms will physically ache.

So in addition to the heartbeat stuffed bear, MAPS gives families a weighted bear. It’s sewn from an outfit provided by the family…and made to the exact length and weight of the baby who died.

It isn’t easy helping families navigate celebrating a baby while simultaneously preparing for his or her death.

HYMEL: That is probably the hardest conversation to have with them—balancing that “let's celebrate and be joyful and pray that God will perform a miracle,” balancing that with the reality of what is most likely going to happen. And prepare for that. So it's this awful oil and water mix of things to talk about.

Becky Hymel’s desire to help vulnerable babies and their families began years ago.

HYMEL: Part of the long story is my oldest sibling was Down syndrome. She was born in 1949. So back then they called her Mongoloid and told my parents to put her away, and she wasn't worth anything, and she's not going to live. And I can't imagine my life without her or my children having grown up with her, and how it shaped them. And when I worked at the hospital, there were terminations done just because the baby was Downs. Yeah. So it's a fire in my belly.

She heard about perinatal support programs. She realized that any pregnancy center with the necessary equipment and staff could add this service. So Hymel urged MAPS to develop one.

HYMEL: Why are we not doing it? We have ultrasound. We have a medical director. We have counselors, we have nurses. We have compassionate people who don't believe in abortion. So I went to the executive director at the time and I told her my story, the whole story. And she wept and said, these women facing abortion are right in front of us. And we didn't see it.

Hymel helped start the program in 2016. She credits the Lord for sustaining her through the seven years she’s been serving these families.

HYMEL: The honor has been mine, and the growth has been just indescribable, And I feel so blessed to walk alongside these families in such a sacred, sacred space.

Becky Hymel’s work had a huge impact on the Thomas family as they grieved Nora’s death. Timmy and Jessica Thomas keep Nora’s heartbeat bear by their bedside. They plan to raise baby Gwenna to know about her sister.

In March, Hymel made the hard decision to retire from the perinatal hospice program at MAPS. Her life has been forever changed by the families she has served. Their babies have left footprints on her heart. She hopes that other pregnancy centers will add perinatal hospice programs to the services they offer.

HYMEL: Because every footprint matters no matter how small. And no matter how long they walk the face of the earth. Every footprint matters.

For WORLD, I’m Anna Johansen Brown. This story was reported and written by Kim Roberts in Asheville, North Carolina.

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