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Butterfly release aims to give solace to parents who lost a child

| Saturday, June 25, 2011

Nearly two years ago, Lauren McLean received the kind of call from her obstetrician that every pregnant woman dreads.

"They wanted to discuss the ultrasound," says McLean, 26, of Castle Shannon. "They said there could be a genetic issue."

There was. The boy McLean was carrying had autosomal recessive polycystic kidney disease. The disease affects babies' kidneys. McLean was told that most babies who have this disease pass away in utero or shortly after birth. At 34 weeks' gestation, she went into labor and delivered Emerson Gries McLean, who lived for a mere three hours on March 13, 2010, at West Penn Hospital.

After he died, members of the AngelHeart Team at West Penn let McLean and her husband stay in the birthing suite.

"We didn't have to move up to the maternity floor (and) hear the mothers with the babies," says husband, Jason McLean, 27.

Members of this special team paid close attention to the family and collected all the mementoes of Emerson's short life in a hand-painted memory box: his little knit hospital cap, his medical bracelet, blankets, cards and a bear with angel wings. They made a plaster of paris casting of his tiny feet and sent it to the McLeans a week later, after it hardened.

Since 2004, members of the AngelHeart Team have devoted themselves to parents of a stillborn child or a child who dies shortly after birth. The team holds two events annually, a candle lighting in December and a butterfly release that will take place at 2 p.m. Sunday in West Penn's Wintergarden.

The butterfly release is open to all who have lost a child, says Lorra Hess, West Penn manager of labor and delivery, no matter how old or at which hospital.

"We've had parents of teens killed in car accidents," Hess says. "It's not just the loss of babies. It's the remembrance of loss."

Seventeen years after she lost a baby, Hess remembers and grieves.

The attention members of the AngelHeart Team give the grieving parents is important, says Nicole Ferri, 35, of California, Washington County, who lost a son in January 2007. She had labor pains over a period of days, was admitted to West Penn on bed rest and then, on Jan. 4, her water broke.

"He lived for two hours," she says of Brantly Michael Gray. "The worst part was knowing I'd be going home to plan a funeral."

But the AngelHeart Team "treated him like the other babies," Ferri says. "The nurses for us were great -- they were wonderful."

"You see other people with their babies, and you know that's not going to happen," says Ferri's partner, Barry Gray. "It's not fair. ... You don't know if you'll ever have that opportunity again."

Sally Bowker, AngelHeart Team chairwoman, says the team endeavors to ensure the parents have seen and held the baby and had private time with the child, as well as a baptism if the parents request one.

Later, the team invites parents back for the annual events.

"After I went to the first candle lighting, I wanted to do something for other parents" facing the same kinds of loss, Ferri says.

Gray, who majored in art in college, has created ceramic butterflies on which is a passage Ferri wrote: "As a butterfly graces our lives with a moment of beauty, so too has your baby's presence for a day, a month, a year or a sweet, flickering moment. May you find peace and joy with each butterfly in the beautiful sky above, knowing your baby lives in the hearts of everyone they have touched." Ferri decorates the plaques with ribbons.

The McLeans gave bracelets with footprint charms to the AngelHeart Team on what would have been Emry's first birthday and continue to donate them.

"When people ask how many children I have, I tell them two; one in heaven and one here," says Lauren McLean. "I love to acknowledge my son."

Hess says the hospital sees about 50 stillbirths or short-lived newborns out of about 3,600 babies delivered each year at West Penn.

Ferri and McLean subsequently had successful pregnancies and deliveries. McLean delivered a daughter, Clara Jude McLean, four months ago. Ferri and Gray's daughter, Braylee Cole Gray, is 3.

The couples maintain their contact with the AngelHeart Team: Lauren McLean calls it "healing and remembering."

Additional Information:

West Penn Hospital AngelHeart Team Butterfly Release

What: An event to support grieving parents who have lost a child

When: 2 p.m. Sunday

Admission: Free

Where: The Wintergarden of West Penn Hospital, 4800 Friendship Ave., Bloomfield. Find free parking at the West Penn Hospital parking complex at Liberty and South Millvale avenues.

Details: 412-578-5763

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