When Frankie and Andy Aitchison’s first baby was stillborn, their world fell apart. But now Frankie is planning a half Ironman Triathalon to raise money in their daughter’s memory. She tells her story to KAREN WILSON
AS Frankie Aitchison gazes at her beautiful 11-month-old son Isaac, she’s clearly delighted to be a mum for the second time. But there’ll always be something (or someone) missing – their first daughter Ella, who was stillborn almost two years ago at 40 weeks.
“Ella is our daughter and is part of our family whether she is with us or not,” says Frankie from Heaton, Newcastle.
“She’s still part of our family, our first baby and Isaac’s sister. She’s part of our family tree.”
Frankie, 37, who’s a freelance administrator for arts organisations, including improvisation group The Suggestibles, and Andy, 34, who works for Hadrian Border Brewery, have been married for 10 years and were overjoyed when they found out they were expecting.
It was a completely normal pregnancy until a few days after Frankie’s due date.
“I’d been madly rushing around all day, then I sat down and I couldn’t feel her move,” she explains.
“They do have big rest times when they’re sleeping, but they normally resist when you push against them. It was like she wasn’t fighting back. So I knew something was wrong.”
Frankie phoned the RVI who suggested drinking cold water which can sometimes make the baby move, but it had no effect.
“We drove to the hospital in silence,” she remembers. “It was a very surreal process.
“Andy was totally optimistic as he didn’t want to believe the worst.”
However when scans revealed there was no heartbeat, their worst fears were realised.
“The moment you’re told that your baby has died is like nothing you have ever felt,” says Frankie.
“My stomach dropped, a little like when you’re on a roller coaster but without the excitement. It drops with fear.
“It was like a horrible blur – everything slows down. I don’t think that moment is something we will ever forget. Everything you thought life would be like changes in an instant and your world literally stops.
“We were supposed to be getting ready to start our life as a family but instead we would never bring her home from the hospital.
“You’re warned about disabilities and all sorts of things but you’re not warned about stillbirth. It’s not talked about. I never thought it would ever happen to me.”
That evening Frankie was induced and although Andy initially felt a C-section would be preferable to the ordeal of labour, Frankie felt giving birth to Ella naturally would be a safer process. “It was just something I had to do, so the emotion was on hold,” she says. “The midwives at the RVI were absolutely amazing. They gave us the option to go home first but there didn’t seem any point.
“It seemed weird going home when we had all the nursery ready. They gave us a special suite and all our family came in.”
After a 24-hour labour with forceps at the end, Ella Jacqueline Hodson Aitchison was born on September 14, 2010.
“We didn’t want to see her straight away as we were in surgery and it just seemed so clinical,” remembers Frankie. “But when we went back to the room, they’d dressed her and we held her. She was beautiful. She just looked like she was sleeping.
“They let us hold her for as long as we wanted and our family all met her. We kept her with us overnight but it felt like weeks.”
Back at home Frankie and Andy’s family and friends rallied round. Frankie’s sister Jo, who runs The Cumberland Arms in Byker, lives two minutes away and invited everyone round.
“It became the centre of operations,” says Frankie. “Although we felt very numb, everyone was talking about it and crying, which made a massive difference.
“Our family and friends are the reason we are still standing, their love and support has been so important. “No one has been scared to talk about her with us and that has been amazing. It’s not a taboo subject.”
In the days that followed the couple admit they hibernated. “We stayed in bed for days, talked and drank stupid amounts of tea. It was nice to have our own space too.”
Somehow they got through the funeral – which was provided free by the Co-op – and picked music, poems and a bedtime story for Ella.
Having a stillborn baby, Frankie was also entitled to nine months’ maternity leave. “You need time to grieve,” she says.
“People don’t always quite understand that you’ve lost a baby, because you didn’t get to know them. But we’d already bonded with her.”
Three months later Frankie became pregnant with Isaac but it was a worrying time.
A post mortem on Ella had revealed there’d been a small hole in the placenta so she hadn’t got enough blood. “It could’ve happened at any time,” says Frankie. “We had that awful feeling that if she’d been born a week early, she would still be here. But you can’t think like that as there was no indication whatsoever. It doesn’t stop you feeling guilty though.”
Although Frankie says the foetal medicine team and the bereavement midwife were amazingly supportive, she admits she was petrified throughout the whole pregnancy.
“I had four or five scans and I was adamant I would be induced early at 38 weeks,” she says. “I wasn’t taking any chances. I wanted to be monitored throughout.”
On August 16, last year, Isaac was born after a four-hour labour. “We’d never really let ourselves think it would be all right,” says Frankie.
“You protect yourself, so when he was born I couldn’t believe he was actually here. Even now I’m still expecting something to go wrong.”
Although Frankie and Andy have photos, hand and foot prints and a lock of Ella’s hair in a special keepsake wooden box, they don’t feel the need to have an annual memorial event.
“Because we talk about her a lot, it’s like we don’t have to have one thing a year that marks her birthday,” says Frankie.
“Last year we registered Isaac’s birth on Ella’s birthday, so the date will be on his birth certificate, which is quite a nice connection.”
Now Frankie wants to give something back and is planning a half Ironman Triathalon over three days in September to raise money for Sands, which supports bereaved parents.
Despite having done no exercise for years, Frankie will swim a mile on Ella’s birthday, cycle 56 miles the following day and then do the Great North Run on the final day.
Having started her training in April, she has a gruelling few months ahead of her.
“The bonus of the challenge for me is that I also get fitter and that’s important for me and for Isaac’s future,” she says. “I’d gone from one pregnancy to another and was really unfit. I’d done no exercise in four years and no cycling since I was a kid.
“So it’s time to get off the sofa and start living.”
Frankie reckons the Great North Run will be the toughest part – and is doing the GN10K this weekend to prepare – but doesn’t care how long it takes.
“I’m not out to prove anything,” she adds. “As long as I cross the finish line that’s fine.”
“The reason for doing the challenge is mainly to honour Ella. I want to raise £2,000 as Ella would’ve been two. I can’t do birthdays or Christmas but I can raise money that will hopefully make a difference to families going through the same thing as we did.
“We would definitely have used Sands if the Newcastle group had been around when we lost Ella.
“This type of support is really vital to families who have lost babies. They’re also there for grandparents and friends too.
“All baby loss, at whatever stage, is devastating and it is the support from family and friends and from organisations such as Sands that helps you begin to start slowly moving forward with your life.”
September 14 (Ella’s birthday): A one-mile swim (about 80 lengths) at DW Sports in Byker.
September 15: A 56-mile cycle from Quayside to Whitley Bay via Tynemouth and back again.
September 16: Great North Run.
To sponsor Frankie go to www.justgiving.com/FrankiesChallenge or you can donate by texting ELLA60 plus £1, £2, £3, £4, £5 or £10 to 70070.
For support following the loss of a baby go to www.newcastle-sands.org.
To take part in the Great North 10K visit www.greatrun.org.
It was like a horrible blur - everything slows down. I don't think that moment is something we will ever forget