A national nonprofit is now serving Birmingham families during a time of mourning. Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep (NILMDTS) provides free professional photography to parents suffering the loss of a baby to honor the legacy and life of that child. One of the founders of the organization, Cheryl Haggard, said this of her own experience after the death of her newborn: “That night was the worst night of my life. But when I look at the images, I am not reminded of my worst night. I’m reminded of the beauty and blessings he brought.” Rhonda Gehman, NILMDTS Southeast regional coordinator and volunteer photographer, spoke with Weld about the organization and its mission.
Weld: How did Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep begin?
Rhonda Gehman: Maddux Achilles Haggard was born on Feb. 4, 2005, with a condition called myotubular myopathy. It prevented him from breathing, swallowing or moving on his own. On the sixth day of his young life, his parents, Mike and Cheryl Haggard, had to make the excruciating decision to take him off life support. Before they did, they called photographer Sandy Puc’ to take black and white portraits of them cradling their son. Puc’ photographed the couple with Maddux at the hospital before he was removed from life support and after — when he was free from the tubes and the wires that had sustained him.
Those tender photographs documenting Maddux’s eternal connection with his parents inspired Cheryl Haggard and Sandy Puc’ to begin a nonprofit organization that has provided thousands of families of babies who are stillborn or are at risk of dying as newborns with free professional portraits with their baby. Sandy and Cheryl founded the organization in April 2005 and called it Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep (NILMDTS) after the children’s bedtime prayer.
Weld: What has been the response from the families?
RG: Families are forever grateful for the images that NILMDTS provide. The images help them through the grief process, but [they] also become images that they will forever hold special. … These families are an emotional wreck and perhaps do not even remember the specific details of their baby. These images not only help them remember — they actually validate that they actually had and held their child.
Many people want to know how we can do something like this. I often respond with, “How can I not do it? To have the God-given talent, and to know the need, how can I tell a family no?”
I could talk for hours on end and tell you of personal experiences that I have witnessed. I have witnessed unimaginable grief and have more than once felt the sweet, sweet spirit and presence of Jesus. Since Feb. 10, 2009, I have photographed more than 125 babies through NILMDTS. Each family holds a special place in my heart.
Weld: When can a family reach out to NILMDTS?
RG: A family can reach out to us as soon as they receive the painful news that their baby will not survive outside the womb. We receive the majority of our calls from hospital [labor and delivery] nurses. They call to advise that a mom is in delivery with no fetal heartbeat, and we are on standby for delivery. We also receive a large number of calls from babies who have been hospitalized since birth, and they will not be going home. We are there for the family either before, during or after life support is removed from their baby.
We are all volunteers…with only three or four photographers to service Birmingham, there are sessions that have to be turned down. We do not provide services for a NICU baby unless they have been hospitalized since birth. We provide for families who never had any opportunity to have their baby photographed. … Our mission is not to give a family the last opportunity, but the only opportunity.
Weld: Which hospitals do you work with in the area?
RG: UAB, UAB-Medwest, St. Vincent’s, St. Vincent’s-East, Brookwood, Children’s, Princeton Baptist and Shelby Baptist.
Weld: Who are the photographers that work with the organization? Do they receive special training before working with the families?
RG: [Myself]: Birminghan Area Coordinator and photographer and Regional Coordinator for Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Mississippi, South Carolina and Louisiana; Scherry Bryant: Birmingham Area Coordinator and photographer; Butch Oglesby: photographer; and Ashley Eiler: photographer.
Yes. All photographers must pass a photography skills grade before they are accepted as NILMDTS photographers. We also have many training opportunities to attend before we provide services to a family. Since some of the babies we photograph have died in utero, possibly for days or weeks before delivery — their skin may be tearing away. Our mission is to not retouch any birth defects (cleft lip, etc.), but we do retouch the skin tears and remove the presence of blood. Also, the lips and fingernails of a deceased baby can be very dark. We try to soften the skin tones and/or repair the skin tears to make the baby look natural. Most of the babies we photograph appear to be a sleeping baby. One of our signature poses [shows] the baby’s feet with the quote, “There is no footprint too small that it cannot leave an imprint on this world.”
If the retouching is ever more than we personally can do, we have access though headquarters with digital retouch artists, who are able to do the retouching for us. These sessions are not normal photographer retouching and sometimes help is needed.
Weld: Because of the nature of the work, and the grief the families are experiencing, do the hospitals or NILMDTS provide counseling for parents and the photographers?
RG: I know several of the hospitals have a bereavement coordinator that does follow up with the families. NILMDTS does offer a parent website forum at nowisleep.com. The NILMDTS photographers are able to network with other NILMDTS photographers to discuss issues that we have experienced. We also have an awesome staff at our headquarters in Denver.
Weld: Could you describe the process of working with NILMDTS? When does a photographer arrive? How long does he/she spend with the family? When does the family receive the images?
RG: The photographer arrives at the hospital and checks in at the nurse’s station. Usually a nurse walks with us to the patient’s room and introduces us to the family. We have a consent form that must be signed before we can begin taking any photographs. The consent form just basically says that the family acknowledges that we are volunteers and not hospital employees and that they are the legal guardian and give permission to photograph.
Each session is unique in its own way. Some sessions are as short as 20-30 minutes, and others can last an hour. Some families only want the baby photographed, whereas other families have a multitude of family, and everyone wants to be photographed with the baby. We are there to honor the parents’ request. I always tell a mom and dad before I start taking the pictures to let me know if it gets too intense, and we can take a break, or we can stop completely.
The family receives a CD from the photographer usually within four weeks. The family receives printing privileges, and they are able to take the CD to any photo developer of their choice — Walmart, Walgreens, CVS, Sam’s, Snapfish, etc. They never have to come back to their NILMDTS photographer to receive their prints. They are also allowed to share their CD images on Facebook or any other social media, if they choose.
Weld: How is the organization funded so that it may remain a free service?
RG: We are strictly nonprofit. We receive donations from families who we have serviced. We also have fundraisers. We just finished a major fundraiser with our National Charity Model Search. It is an annual event that usually takes place in February. Any monetary donation can be sent to Headquarters at NILMDTS, 2305 E. Arapahoe Road, Suite 220, Centennial, CO 80122.
Weld: Is NILMDTS involved in any other outreach services related to the families they serve? Is part of the organization’s mission to raise awareness for stillbirth?
RG: We need public awareness for photographers as well as families to know we exist.
Weld: How did you get involved with NILMDTS?
RG: Several years ago, while doing some internet searching, I accidentally stumbled across the NILMDTS website, and it forever changed my life. “Out of sight, out of mind” is the only way that I can describe how ignorant my mind was towards stillbirth and infant death.
Prior to my involvement with NILMDTS, I only had one personal encounter with a stillbirth. Back in the early ’90s, I gave my friend Holly a baby shower on a Saturday afternoon. The next Saturday, she was at the hospital delivering her stillborn little girl. The hospital staff never let her see or hold her baby girl. The only remembrance she has of her daughter is a lock of hair. They told her it was better that way. She will tell you differently — that was not the best way. She wishes she could have seen her and held her and wishes that she had a picture of her.
I have two perfectly healthy daughters. They have grown into two beautiful young ladies. My husband and I have been deeply blessed. NILMDTS has given me a deeper appreciation for the precious lives that God gave me. Perfect pregnancies do not always end with perfect labors — anything can change in a moment’s notice.
Birmingham needs not only photographers, we also need support members who can be call dispatchers to help the hospital locate a photographer.
Weld: Where can families go to learn more about the organization? Who should they contact?
RG: Families can go directly to our website. There is a “find a photographer” link that can help them locate a photographer. All active photographers and their contact information is listed on the website.