- Associated Press - Saturday, May 6, 2017

NORFOLK, Va. (AP) - Ann Prescott’s unusual work began with a medical advance.

Technology in the late 1970s meant babies who once would have died in the womb were often delivered early. Some survived, but some died within minutes or hours. The thinking of the time was that it would be too emotionally wrenching for mothers to hold these babies destined for death.

They were put in the hospital nursery, and Prescott, a nurse at Sentara Norfolk General Hospital, would pick them up as their last breaths were drawn.

“I would hold them and rock them and talk to them.”

Soon, hospital philosophies changed, and by the mid-1980s, a national movement was growing to ask mothers and fathers whether they wanted to see their babies.

It fell to Prescott to ask, and to bring the babies and counsel families through the grieving, starting around 1988.

Over the years, she brought warm water for parents to bathe their babies, and tiny gowns to dress them. She helped parents create mementos, such as their babies’ footprints, and gave them keepsake boxes. She told them about a support group to help them after they left the hospital, and offered bereavement counseling in the following months and even years.

She also reached out to mothers who had miscarriages and stillbirths, and eventually, she helped find a place at Woodlawn Memorial Gardens in Norfolk where cremated remains of those babies are buried during a ceremony every six weeks.

Prescott, now 67, never kept count of the babies, but even a conservative estimate is striking: Some 7,000 spanning a 28-year span that is about to end with Prescott’s retirement from Sentara Healthcare this week.

Prescott sits at the Circle of Love Garden one day in mid-April, contemplating the labor of love that has defined her career.

The cemetery donated the land for this garden, where people come for solace and to leave mementos. Today there are teddy bears, and pinwheels, tiny dinosaurs and even a little badminton set for children who never got to play. A plaque bears words Prescott crafted: “In loving memory of the precious little lives who were carried with hope, born in silence, and remembered with love, always.”

Some families arrange funerals for children who are stillborn or born too early. Others don’t, and especially for women who had miscarriages, this is the place to remember a child.

It’s a societal niche most look away from, but Prescott sat quietly with parents whose babies had so many deformities they died within hours. Cancer patients who faced the decision of whether to terminate a pregnancy or forgo chemotherapy treatments. Women who arrived in the ER after accidents that ended the lives of the babies in their wombs.

It seems like heartbreaking work, but she brings them out of the darkest of places, and that is where the satisfaction lies.

“What gives me joy is seeing families who were in the deepest hole they could be in continue to live and become happy again. They find a purpose for their loss that they can use to grow.”

Truth be told, not everyone wants to talk to Prescott.

“I wanted absolutely nothing to do with her,” remembers Julie Stoner, who did not say a word to Prescott the first time they met.

Stoner had gone to Norfolk General 38 weeks into a normal pregnancy because she couldn’t feel the baby move. A doctor determined the baby’s heart was no longer beating. Labor was induced and the baby emerged with umbilical cord wrapped twice around his neck.

It was Christmas Day, 2013. The baby’s name was Tripp.

Labor and delivery nurses at Norfolk General told her husband, Dan, about Prescott. He made an appointment and drove her from their Suffolk home to Prescott’s office.

Stoner can’t tell you anything about that appointment: what she wore, what she said, what she looked like, because she was in a grief so dark she couldn’t speak.

Second appointment, same thing.

By the third one, though, Stoner started to respond, but not until the end of the visit.

To follow was more than a year of counseling, first every week and then once a month.

She credits Prescott with carrying her through difficult milestones: Her first Mother’s Day. The anniversary of Tripp’s delivery. The pregnancy of a second child that brought fear of a recurrence.

Prescott visited Stoner in the hospital when Dylan was born in June 2015.

“I don’t think my second child would be here without her,” said Stoner, now 36. “I don’t think my marriage would be as strong. I think I would be a shell of a person without her. She has allowed me to take something that was the worst possible thing to go through and find a way to live with it.”

Out of thousands of babies, some stand out in Prescott’s mind:

A baby born to a mother who didn’t want to see her.

Nurses and a hospital chaplain took turns holding the baby until she died several days later - “It was a baby who was not wanted and needed to be held. That was good for all of us to do.”

The parents who couldn’t bear to tell their two small children their sister had died, and asked Prescott if she could. She sat with the stillborn baby on her lap and let the two children caress her cheek and ask questions.

“When is she going to eat? Why isn’t she crying? When will she wake up?”

The parents wanted Prescott to tell them she was in heaven, and she did: “Kids are very accepting. Death is normal, it’s not something we need to make children afraid of.”

The grandmother who told Prescott she had dreamed of singing lullabies to her grandbaby. Prescott stood outside the hospital chapel after the baby’s memorial service and kept others from going in while the grandmother sang Spanish lullabies to the baby for 20 minutes.

Now bereavement duties will be assigned to someone in each of the Sentara hospitals. Prescott’s daughter, Anisa Glowczak, a grief counselor based in Virginia Beach, will take over the support group component, which is called Good Mourning Counseling Pregnancy and Infant Loss Support Group.

James Hoy, manager of chaplain services at Norfolk General, said the annual memorials that Prescott created for families will continue apace.

“It gives people a way to acknowledge their loss in a way society doesn’t always welcome,” Hoy said.

No one can truly replace Prescott, said Hoy, who describes her way of listening and caring for people as pastoral. While most people avert their eyes from such situations and focus on parents moving on, having another child, getting back to work, Prescott urged them to acknowledge and celebrate their child and their parenthood.

“I did not choose this career,” Prescott said. “I did what God wanted me to do for 28 years.”

On her last day, she will go through the hospital, thanking the people in labor and delivery, in the ER, in the cancer unit, for leading her to people who needed her.

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC.

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