Disclaimer: Article includes what may be sensitive imagery for some. All photos courtesy of Kathryn McDonald.
On May 16, 2003, Kathryn Webb-Castro married Paul McDonald in Paradise Valley, Arizona. Most of Webb-Castro’s large, evangelical family — her parents, three sisters, brother, aunts and uncles — had flown in from California for the happy day.
The newly minted Mr. and Mrs. McDonald had another, secret reason to be joyful — Kathryn was pregnant. After meeting next to a baptismal font in a Catholic church, and a whirlwind romance and engagement, Kathryn discovered she was pregnant. Despite getting the order of things “ass-backwards” as she joked, she was thrilled to be expecting a baby.
Kathryn had always aspired to be a mother.
Her pregnancy was difficult from the beginning, with morning sickness so severe she had to take a disability leave from teaching. Then, at 20 weeks, the first ultrasound revealed a problem.
A Pregnancy Incompatible with Life
The baby had Potter Syndrome, a rare — and at that time always fatal — condition in which the baby does not develop kidneys in utero. Without kidneys, the baby cannot produce amniotic fluid, hindering fetal development.
Embedded within Kathryn’s memory of this sad day is the kindness of her ObGyn, Dr. Marlin Mills.
“Our doctor was so wonderful, so compassionate. He had to break the news to us that the pregnancy was incompatible with life. We just went out to the car and cried and cried,” Kathryn said.
This was the beginning, she said, of her and her husband’s odyssey of desperate sadness.
Kathryn related that she and Paul drove around aimlessly the Sunday after receiving the news, overcome with grief.
“I felt I needed to be prayed over. I was desperate, in shock — unbelievable shock. We stopped at St. Andrew’s Church. I remember the choir was practicing, and I went into the bathroom and I found a blue diaper pin,” she said.
Kathryn kept that pin as a symbol that she would take care of the baby for a little while, until he went to God’s care, like the rainbow God gave Noah “as a sign of the covenant I have established between me and all life on the earth.” (Genesis 9:17)
They named the baby Zaccheus, which means “pure”, after the Bible story in Luke, Chapter 19, what Kathryn referred to as "a story of redemption.”
There were subsequent ultrasounds when Kathryn hoped the original diagnosis would be contradicted. It wasn’t.
Sometimes well-meaning, sometimes insensitive, people asked her, “Aren’t you going to get it taken care of?”
Kathryn responded, “He’s alive now.”
“I thought, it’s my child alive in my womb. Terminating wasn’t going to lessen my grief. He was going to die anyway. Let him die when he’s good and ready,” she said.
Kathryn felt while he was alive inside her, she could still hold the baby and talk to him. She ate her favorite foods — especially bean burritos — as a way of feeding and connecting with him.
Kathryn described herself during those months as “bereft beyond her normal melancholy.” When strangers congratulated her on her pregnancy, Kathryn might nonchalantly mention her due date to avoid broaching the subject of her baby’s health. She revealed the whole truth judiciously.
Sometimes, sharing her impending loss created an opportunity for healing, such as an encounter Kathryn had at the post office. "I told a lady, ‘You know, he’s not going to live’. The woman sighed, ‘Oh, I had that happen to me.’”
Zaccheus Leaves this World
On October 24, 2003, eight months into her pregnancy, Kathryn went into labor.
Zaccheus had died in her womb. It was a loss within loss. “We had been hoping throughout the pregnancy the baby might live an hour or so, that we could hold him and get to know one another.”
Most babies with Potter syndrome are stillborn. Those that survive until birth may live a day or two, but often die within a few hours. There is only one recent case of a baby surviving the condition. That case may hold promise for babies in the future.
Kathryn offers high praise for the nurses at Banner Desert Hospital, who, when they learned Zaccheus' heartbeat had stopped, swiftly moved Kathryn to the delivery room with warmth and gentleness. “We’ve been expecting you,” they reassured her. The nurses made every effort to insure her comfort and ease her pain.
The nurses hung roses on the recovery room door to signal to any staff who might enter that the family had lost a baby.
Kathryn described holding Zaccheus after he was born. “He was a prophet, a perfectly formed, 8-month baby, perfectly healthy looking, a sweet prince. He was too good for this world. He went on.”
Kathryn, her husband Paul, and stillborn son, Zaccheus.
Only five months after the wedding, Kathryn’s mother and three of her sisters made the sad pilgrimage back to Arizona, to care for her and grieve Zaccheus, their grandson and nephew.
Her family stretched the McDonald’s 900-square foot house to capacity, but Kathryn described their visit, their cooking and cleaning and company, as “a cold drink in the desert.” Remembering their attention and care was the only time during the interview when Kathryn choked up.
One way she coped with her grief was by getting a dog, Che. It was a decision Paul thought was a bit rash, but Che was a lifeline. “She was so loving. I was having trouble functioning and that dog was healing for me,” Kathryn said.
Just getting out of bed in the morning was a struggle — taking a shower a small triumph. Before losing Zaccheus, Kathryn never understood when people said that they were angry at God. She had thought it ungrateful.
“That was not the way my mother had raised me. This was the first time I understood having that kind of anger. I would go into my closet with my dog, and I just wanted to die. I wanted to be with my son. I had to take life a minute at a time,” she said.
Kathryn found comfort searching the Internet for stories of survival. She drew strength from Holocaust survivors who lost entire families and survived to tell their stories.
The healing took years, Kathryn emphasized again and again. It was years, she said, before she could talk about Zaccheus and not crumble.
After Zaccheus' death, she suffered three miscarriages in the span of one year. “In my mother’s words, ‘We tied a knot and hung on.’”
The Road Back to Wholeness
As newlyweds trying to blend a family, which is difficult in the best of circumstances, Kathryn felt bad for Paul’s daughter, Lauren. Just seven years old when Kathryn and Paul married, Lauren had to adjust to a new stepmother in a family saturated with grief.
The strain on the marriage met a breaking point. “The off and on tension and hostility after the stillbirth and the miscarriages ... it was no honeymoon,” Kathryn shared.
In 2007, she and Paul made it to Retrouvaille, a program for hurting marriages that schools struggling couples in the art of active listening. Their healing started with a weekend retreat, and continued with the support of other married couples during workshops in the weeks following.
According to the NIH, approximately 26,000 stillbirths occur each year in the United States. Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Clinical Scholar, Katherine Gold, M.D., M.S.W., M.S., analyzed a study by National Survey of Family Growth. Results revealed that couples who experience a stillbirth have a divorce rate which is 40 percent higher than average.
“The word ‘divorce’ was thrown around lots and lots and lots of times,” Kathryn said. She would hearken back to their wedding day, when a formidable Irish Monsignor proclaimed during the ceremony, “This marriage is not about you. It’s about Jesus!”
During especially trying times, Kathryn reminded herself, “Our marriage is bigger than this loss.” She described her husband, Paul, as “the capable one” who devoted himself to her every need while she was pregnant and grieving.
Two of Paul’s brothers had suffered traumatic brain injuries that left them paraplegic. Paul drew on coping skills learned in childhood, caring for his brothers and enduring trauma, to hold his family together.
A Dream about a Little Girl
A few weeks after beginning Retrouvaille, Kathryn conceived again. After losing Zaccheus and the heartbreak of three miscarriages, I asked her if she worried during this, her fifth pregnancy.
She answered succinctly, “I didn’t worry.” This time was different. She had a feeling of peace.
“I had a dream about a little girl. I knew she was going to be okay. Paul told me I was presumptuous, but I just knew,” Kathryn said.
The pregnancy was not without its challenges — cervical cancer diagnosed during the pregnancy left Kathryn infertile. But her baby survived, and on May 30, 2007, she gave birth to a healthy baby girl, Sophia Maria.
Soon, Kathryn and Paul will celebrate their 13th wedding anniversary. They are a happy family of four, with Kathryn’s step-daughter Lauren, now in college, and Sophia, 7 years old.
“There are moments when Paul and I look at Sophia and we are just speechless. We are adoring her to fault,” Kathryn said.
Kathryn, Paul and their daughter Sophia during Christmastime.
The McDonalds are a small family, especially in Catholic circles where large families are prized, and many of her friends have five, six and seven children. But Kathryn is content and centered. Her family is complete.
She compares her situation to a birthday party. “If you brought me a gift, I would be grateful. I wouldn’t ask you where my second, third and fourth presents were,” Kathryn said. “I try to cement that in my mind so I’m not coveting, being greedy for other kids.”
I asked her what she would like to say to another woman facing the stillbirth of a child. Kathryn wouldn’t say a lot, she told me, but would rather offer practical, helpful things: to pray with her or bring her a meal or funny movies, to offer to accompany her, to be present with her, throughout her grief.
To loved ones of women who have experienced a stillbirth, Kathryn advised not to put the mother in the position of having to console you. “Ask if you can go to the grocery store or do the dishes. Don’t call to tell her how awful you feel,” she said.
McDonald is not a fan of the “prophet on the mountaintop” approach.
“I hated it when somebody said to me, ‘It must be God’s will.’ I needed to come to conclusions about God’s will. I wanted to do that on my own. Don’t try to say anything profound. Just be present.”
Sophia has known about the loss of her brother since she was about three. Sometimes she tears up at the thought of never meeting him. There are a couple of pictures of Zaccheus in the home. He’s still part of the family.
“I didn’t want Zaccheus to be forgotten,” Kathryn concluded. “I haven’t figured out how to live up to that.”
Like the survivors whose stories buoyed her when she didn’t know the path out of her suffering, Kathryn has survived to tell her story of loss and healing. She has lived up to remembering Zaccheus just fine.
Potter Syndrome. Medline Plus. Retrieved April 6, 2015. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/001268.htm
Banner Desert to open Comfort Room for parents who lose a child. BannerHealth.com. http://www.bannerhealth.com/About+Us/News+Center/Press+Releases/Press+Archive/2014/Banner+Desert+to+open+Comfort+Room+for+parents+who+lose+a+child.htm
Miscarriage or Stillbirth Increases Risk of Breakup or Divorce. RWJF.org. Retrieved April 10, 2015. http://www.rwjf.org/en/library/articles-and-news/2010/11/miscarriage-or-stillbirth-increases-risk-of-breakup-or-divorce.html
Placental, pregnancy conditions account for most stillbirths. NIH.gov. Retrieved April 28, 2015. http://www.nih.gov/news/health/dec2011/nichd-13.htm
Reviewed April 29, 2015
by Michele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Jody Smith