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shining the light of hope
by Susan O'Connor

In times of tragedy, comfort comes most genuinely and effectively from those who have walked the same path. The ShareHope program applies this truth to families that have lost a baby, shining a light of hope into the darkest days.
Administered locally through NEA Clinic Charitable Foundation since January 2009, ShareHope is a chapter of the national Share Pregnancy and Infant Loss Support Inc. and seeks “to serve those whose lives are touched by the tragic death of a baby through pregnancy loss, stillbirth or in the first few months of life.” Founded in 1977 at St. John’s Hospital in Springfield, Ill., the national organization is supported primarily through donations and is recognized as a principal provider of bereavement materials and resources.

“Even with the best medical care, the best intentions, families leave the hospital brokenhearted,” said Stacey Orr, founder of ShareHope in Jonesboro and ShareHope program coordinator for the foundation, as well as a mother who lost her infant daughter, Conley Caroline, in 2005. “One in four pregnancies ends in loss. The sad truth is that babies do die and that is why there is such a need for ShareHope.”

Trained ShareHope volunteers, many of whom have lost babies themselves, not only provide emotional and spiritual support, but help parents through the difficult maze of immediate choices that must be made, such as funeral preparations, clothing and whether or not to photograph the baby.

“We never want someone to regret not photographing or holding their baby,” Stacey said. “Your mind is not clear at that time, and we try to be that clear mind that helps you to explore all the different avenues and consider all the possibilities so that there are no regrets. Research has shown that any mementos make the grief process easier.”

Stacey, along with Kim Childers and Amanda Grisham, are on call around the clock, answering the needs of grieving parents in Jonesboro. Orr also leads a monthly ShareHope support group on the third Thursday of each month at 7 p.m. at the HopeCircle Resource Center, located at 311 East Matthews.

Recently, both NEA Baptist Memorial Hospital and the NEA Women’s Clinic have sent key labor and delivery nurses to training seminars offered by the Share national program in order to better serve parents who experience the loss of a baby.

NEA Women’s Clinic obstetrician Dr. Charles Dunn is enthusiastic about the positive ramifications of ShareHope in the community.

“As an obstetrician, I can treat these patients medically and with empathy, however, ShareHope provides an additional compassionate service which guides these women and their families through a very difficult time and provides continuing support in the months to come,” he said. “These dedicated people come to the hospital any time of the day or night, weekday or weekend, to provide support and help these families with many decisions. From a personal perspective, my wife and I suffered four pregnancy losses and I know just how tough this can be.”

Hearing the personal stories of loss is the most compelling way to understand the importance of ShareHope in the lives of local families.

Conley Caroline Orr
As Kevin and Stacey Orr awaited the birth of their third child, it never occurred to them that heartache awaited.

In the seventh month of pregnancy, Stacey woke up and realized that she had not felt her baby move lately.

“We were about to take a family beach vacation to Florida that next weekend, so I thought I would go to the doctor that morning just to check and make sure the baby was doing okay. I had no reason to think otherwise.”

With her toddler daughter Maggie in tow, Stacey visited her obstetrician to “set her mind at ease.” The family’s worst nightmare unfolded. The nurse could not find a heartbeat, and an ultrasound confirmed that their daughter had died.

“We were sent to the hospital where Conley Caroline was born by c-section weighing less than two pounds. I will forever remember the silence of that operating room. It was not filled with the joy I had previously experienced with my other two children. It was an eerie silence filled with such heartache that I just knew my heart was physically broken.

“We had just painted her room pink and ordered her sweet little bunny curtains. Great nursery plans were in the works for this little one, but I did not have a tiny outfit to bury my baby in, or a hat, or a blanket, or a camera. Thoughts began to flood my mind about the ‘what nows.’ How do I tell my children that their much anticipated baby sister is in Heaven? Questions began to come at me like: Do you want your family to all get a chance to hold Conley Caroline? Do you want her to be baptized? What would she wear for final burial? What funeral home would you like us to call? Would you like a picture of her taken?”

At the time of Conley Caroline’s birth in 2005, no formal support system existed locally for families who had lost a baby. Although Stacey was fortunate to have an extremely supportive network of family and friends, she knew instinctively that was not the case for many bereaved parents.
“I remember sitting in the bookstore in the grief/self help section for what seemed like months. ShareHope is an outlet for people who are going through a similar loss. We have a lending library, monthly support group meetings, an annual Walk of Remembrance and Hope and a Christmas Candlelight service. Also, anniversary/birthday cards are sent to parents who have lost a baby. Someone from ShareHope is available 24-hours a day, seven days a week. Just knowing you are not alone is very comforting.”

Matthew Chase Childers
It was week 16 of Kim and Curtis Childer’s second pregnancy in 2007. A routine Alpha-Fetoprotein screening led to questions about their unborn son’s health. A level two ultrasound at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences confirmed the difficult news.

“The doctor came in and said that our son’s condition was not good – that his heart would stop beating in four to five weeks,” Childers said. “We were to go home and see our obstetrician and wait for his heart to stop.”

Their son, Matthew Chase Childers, had Trisomy 18, an extra number 18 chromosome, which occurs in approximately one in 6,000 live births and involves a defect of the heart in more than 90 percent of cases.

“My husband and I were very shocked at the news that we were going to lose our child. Several questions weighed heavy on my heart. What do we do while we are waiting? Who do I talk to about this? What do I say to people at church, or in the grocery story? I didn’t know anyone who had been through anything like this before.”

Kim learned through her mother about Debbie Brehmer, a nurse in Paragould and coordinator of a Share program there. Kim said Brehmer’s support was invaluable.

“She was wonderful,” Kim said. “She did everything from giving me clothes to bury him in to assisting with his delivery to grievance counseling. She had lost a child, too, and she just helped me in every way possible.”

Kim carried Matthew Chase to term and he lived for 25 minutes after birth, a true blessing for the family.

“God took care of us during this time,” Kim said, “and I knew this was what God wanted me to do – to take care of others. When I found out that Stacey was starting ShareHope, I just jumped at the chance to be involved somehow.
“I want these families to know, ‘We’ve been through this. We’re here to help you.’ It lets them know they are not alone.”

Ryce Hundley Grisham
At 28 weeks gestation in their second pregnancy, the unexpected unfolded in the lives of Amanda and Forrest Grisham and their daughter, Hadley Rose.
The pregnancy was progressing normally, but Amanda said she didn’t feel a lot of movement and began to worry. But every test was normal at her 24-week appointment.

“Everything checked out – the heart rate, measurement,” she said. “Everything was great.”

But, she continued to worry. The night before she went into labor, Amanda was not feeling well and spent the night with her mom and dad.
“My daughter woke up at four a.m. sobbing,” Amanda said. “She said, ‘I dreamed that Jesus came and took Ryce Hundley.”

That morning in the summer of 2008, the Grisham’s lost their son. A friend called Stacey to go visit with her and offer support.

“Because it happened so quickly, we had no planning,” Amanda said. “Decisions needed to be made in a very short time span. Stacey offered some very valuable, insightful advice. I’m so thankful she was there to help with the difficult decisions you don’t think about.

“I remember Stacey coming into my room and thinking, ‘She is a survivor. If she can survive this, I can survive this.”

The commitment of Stacey, Kim and Amanda is admirable, as is the support of the NEA Clinic Charitable Foundation in making ShareHope a reality in Jonesboro. ShareHope is true to its name, offering hope to bereaved families.
“I want people to realize this program is all about hope,” Amanda said. “There is hope at the end. It may not feel like it that day, or in two weeks or a year. But you get there. The pain gets better; it lessens.”
“It’s not me, it’s not Amanda, it’s not Kim,” Stacey said. “It is a higher power. God does mend broken hearts, and one way is through ShareHope.”

A Life Through the Lens of Courtney Fitzwater

Local photographer Courtney Fitzwater has given of her time and talents to ShareHope since the program was organized locally by the NEA Clinic Charitable Foundation in 2008.

But she takes it a generous step further. Parents that choose to have photographs of their infant and/or the family are given a keepsake book of professional photographs, courtesy of Fitzwater.

A former volunteer with the American Child Photographers Charity Guild, Fitzwater traveled to St. Jude’s in Memphis and Arkansas Children’s Hospital in Little Rock to serve those in need with her beautiful work. Often, calls came late at night and she had to race to the hospital from Jonesboro, trying to arrive before the baby’s demise.

But a meeting with Stacey Orr led to an opportunity to serve local families in this way.

“I see the families in town — it is more personal,” she said sincerely. “I’ve gotten thank you notes from them.”

Orr praised Fitzwater’s efforts with ShareHope.

“She really has a very warm spirit,” Orr said. “She just does what comes natural to her. She makes everyone feel really comfortable.”

Today, Fitzwater is part of ShareHope’s on-call team, ready to serve families who have experienced the loss of a child or know that they only have limited time with their newborn.

The first time you photographed an infant shortly before or after his or her death had to be very difficult. How have you learned to cope with the sorrow? Taking photos of these babies can be overwhelmingly sad, but I feel as if this is a very special, sacred moment I’m capturing. When parents have an unexpected death, there is this great sorrow where the joy of a new baby should be. Offering beautiful photography helps in the healing process and in honoring their child. I feel like this is validating a life. These parents want to celebrate the life and acknowledge that they had a baby and their baby’s life mattered. My life is so full and blessed that I’m honored to be part of this amazing organization.

You are obviously a truly giving person. Who in your life has influenced you most in this regard? There have been many people throughout my life who have influenced me. I tend to take pieces and parts from everyone I meet. Everyone has something to share and I have been blessed with meeting many wonderful and amazing people.