14 Oct 2021

RNZ podcast 'The Unthinkable' wins prestigious award

From Morning Report, 7:44 am on 14 October 2021

RNZ podcast 'The Unthinkable' has taken out gold at the prestigious New York Festivals Radio Awards at the same time the government promises to do more for families who lose a baby.

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Photo: RNZ/Jayne Joyce

Hosted by Morning Report's Susie Ferguson, the personal series covers the unthinkable subject of baby loss.

The unfolding stories highlight a lack of support for hundreds of families a year who find themselves in that position.

The award coincides with international baby loss awareness week and an announcement from the government promising better help.

Every year in New Zealand around 600 babies are stillborn or die within a month of birth.

Someone who experienced this unthinkable loss is Kate Gudsell - her daughter Wren lived for just six days, in the neonatal unit at Wellington Hospital.

"No one no one ever tells you; you know, they prepare you for the fact that you need a car seat and what you need for nappies and all that other stuff," she said.

"No one ever prepares you for what it might feel like to walk out the hospital without a baby."

Gudsell recalled standing outside the hospital after Wren's death "with stuff and people just like walking by, and we were just cuddling each other crying".

"It was just so surreal."

Where on earth do you go from there? There's nothing formal in place for bereaved parents.

Associate Minister for Health Ayesha Verrall wants to change that.

At the end of September she launched a Maternity Action Plan which will include a bereavement pathway.

"Everyone understands it's a really tough situation for a woman or family to be in, but there isn't an organised system there," Verrall said.

"One of the things that happens when the system isn't well constructed is that maybe people hold back in offering support and services because they don't know what to do. That's the gap we need to address."

Perinatal loss educator Vicki Culling has been banging on politicians' doors since 2006, making little headway.

Over the past ten years, records show 6602 babies died after 20 weeks of pregnancy or within the first 28 days after birth.

"For that same 10-year period, there were 3330 deaths on our New Zealand roads, and then for homicides, there were 686 people murdered," she said.

"It's not about comparing those stats and saying one is worse than the other. 

"When I talk about comparing the statistics, it's about 'how much do we know about the 3330 deaths on our roads?', 'how much do we know about the murders?'"

Culling said, right now, care for bereft parents is a bit like postcode lottery.

The government's first step is finding out what District Health Boards currently offer.

"I expect that some of those DHBs will say 'we have a bereavement pathway and we refer people on for support'," Culling said.

"That pathway, that referral system is referring parents to SANDS."

SANDS, a volunteer group with no funding, does the bulk of the work to ensure mothers and families don't feel alone.

Culling said it's wrong for a voluntary organisation to do all that mahi - and while it's fantastic news the government has decided to do something about it, she hopes it gets it right.

"This is going to sound really cynical of me ... but it's not just like a booklet that's provided and sent to all the DHBs saying 'here's what you do'.

"It needs to be a service - a programme - that provides support, that provides education."

Every parent should be helped to remember their lost child, Culling said.

"Depending on where you are in the country, you might get amazing memory-making items like hand and footprints, maybe a memory book, casting, a lock of hair, a ribbon for the length of your baby, some beautiful quilts, but you may be in a DHB where there isn't a local group that provides any of that."

Verrall said the government plans to release recommendations later in 2021, following its stocktake of maternal care at DHBs.

Bereaved parents would also be asked what needed to change.

Ferguson, the creator and host of The Unthinkable was blown away with the win.

Along with producer Liz Garton, Ferguson thanked and paid tribute to the family at the centre of the story - Kate, Sam and their first daughter Wren.

"The podcast wouldn't have been possible without their unflinching and generous sharing of their story."

Ferguson said she was enormously privileged to have been told the stories and allowed into such personal, painful and private times.