OGDEN — Preparing for a new baby is often an exciting time, but it can be especially challenging for families who learn their unborn baby is not expected to live. One Utah couple survived the heartbreaking loss of their daughter with the support of a program called Angel Watch designed just for them.
As first-time parents, Tim and Jaelyn Allen had never been so excited. Tim remembers the feeling well. He had just come home from a late-night hockey game when he found out his wife was pregnant.
“She had put the little pregnancy test out with a little note from the baby and it was really cute. I was thrilled, of course,” Tim said.
But at their 20-week check-up, the Allens received some devastating news. Their unborn baby was diagnosed with acrania, a rare congenital disorder resulting in a skull deformity.
Their doctor told them their baby would likely only live for a few hours after delivery.
Tim said after hearing the news he felt like his heart fell out of his chest. "It's your biggest nightmare and all of a sudden we were living it,” he described.
“This isn't something that actually happens to you and it's happening," Jaelyn said through tears. “Knowing I'd never bring my baby home — that was hard."
She said at first they just felt numb for a while, not quite understanding what to expect. “We didn't know what options we had. No one should have to be excited about having a baby and then have to think about how to bury your baby,” Jaelyn said.
Their doctor immediately connected the Allens with Angel Watch, a program designed to help parents prepare for the impending loss of their baby.
Amelia Hopkin, a licensed clinical social worker with Intermountain Healthcare, called the Allens and started meeting with them in their home regularly to offer support, counseling, and resources.
"The home is one that has a whole lot fewer triggers for a lot of families, than going into a hospital or a clinic where they got the diagnosis,” she explained.
The Angel Watch program is staffed by specially trained nurses, social workers, bereavement specialists, and chaplains who are available on-call to provide support to expectant parents. These caregivers help parents prepare for this difficult transition while the baby is still in utero.
Early on, the Allens made a decision. "We're gonna make the best out of these moments that we have, because we don’t know how long we’ll have them for,” Jaelyn said.
Jaelyn found ways to still enjoy the experience of being pregnant. “I just tried to stay positive and just enjoy every second. There was a kick, I was going to enjoy it,” she said.
If we only get her for an hour, we're going to make memories and so we did.
They dressed Jaelyn’s pregnant belly up as a pumpkin for Halloween and a turkey for Thanksgiving. She said it was healing to find ways to still have fun.
However, the pregnancy wasn’t always easy. Jaelyn said people with good intentions at the grocery store would often ask her when she was due and how the baby was doing. Jaelyn said she’d hold her breath not knowing what to say.
Hopkin helped the Allens make a plan before delivery, so Paetyn's birthday would be extra special.
Hopkin said her role is to help families make decisions so they don’t have regrets 20 years down the road. “They can look back and although we couldn't change the outcome for their baby, we can change the outcome for them so they don't have those regrets,” Hopkin said.
"If we only get her for an hour, we're going to make memories and so we did,” Tim Allen said.
Paetyn was born on Dec. 17, 2017!
“The day was just perfect. I mean we had everything planned. We had photographers arranged, a videographer arranged… we had hands and foot molds made," Tim Allen described.
It was important for the Allens to have their entire family with them the day of Paetyn’s birth. “We had our entire family at the hospital with us all day and they all got to see her and snuggle her and love on her,” Tim described.
Hopkin hoped by making those preparations, they would remember everything like how long her fingers and toes were.
Every hour they sang "Happy Birthday" to Paetyn, knowing they wouldn’t be able to in the future. “We were not going to get to sing happy first and second and third birthday, so we'd sing to her every hour and that was really fun,” Jaelyn explained.
Tim painted Paetyn’s nails, read her stories, and even took her on a little daddy-daughter date around the hospital.
"It was amazing! Best day of my life,” he said.
The Allens cherished 11 hours with their little girl before she passed.
"I forgot for 98% of the day that I was gonna lose her," Jaleyn Allen said. The Allens say thanks to Angel Watch, they were as prepared as they could have been.
"Being able to plan all those things made it all flawless in the end,” Jaelyn said. “We didn't have to worry about, ‘What's next?’ or ‘What do we need to do in this moment?’” she said. Instead, she said they could enjoy being with and celebrating their baby, which Jaelyn said was a huge blessing.”
“It's an honor to be involved with families and their angels,” Hopkin said through tears.
The Allens visit Paetyn’s grave on her birthday each year to remember their little girl. She is buried under a Colorado spruce tree, which they hang Christmas ornaments on every year.
“She's our daughter. She always will be and there’s no point in pretending she's not. She brings so much joy to us still and she brought so much joy into the world!” Tim Allen said.
The Allens have pictures of Paetyn hung all over their home with all of the mementos they saved from her birthday.
"The happiest days of our lives happened at the hardest times of our lives," Jaelyn Allen added.
Today the Allens collect newborn clothes to donate to other families who find themselves in the same situation.
After dealing with such immense loss, the Allens are thrilled to announce they are once again pregnant and this time they're having a baby boy! Although they admit they’re nervous something might happen again, their doctor reassured them that there is less than a 1% chance of something going wrong.
They say they couldn't have made it to this point without the Angel Watch program which is free to anyone in Utah, even if they are not a patient of Intermountain Healthcare.
"How do you prepare for something like that? There's no way we could have without Angel Watch,” Tim said.
Hopkin said the services Angel Watch provides depend on the personal circumstances of the family.
She’s helped people navigate various concerns like, “How do I help my family understand I need their support, but from a distance?” or “I’ve always done home births. I’m terrified to have a hospital birth now. How can I prepare?” or “I’m suffering from a perinatal mood disorder after my first pregnancy. I’m terrified to get pregnant again.”
Angel Watch offers resources like support groups, music therapy at Primary Children’s Hospital, referrals to professional counseling, and free mementos like hand and foot molds, music created from the baby’s heartbeat, or specialized photography services.
Hopkin said the Angel Watch staff stays in touch with their families for at least two years afterward through texts, emails, and in-home visits.
Each year in October, Intermountain Healthcare holds an Angel Watch memorial service for parents to attend, where they are invited to talk about their angel baby and share their experience with other parents who have gone through the same thing.
The program has expanded beyond the Salt Lake Valley to also include Utah County, Ogden, St. George and Logan.
The Allens also have a blog about Paetyn's story and advice for other parents to offer support to those going through a similar experience. They said reading the stories of other parents was helpful to them as they prepared for Paetyn and are anxious to pay it forward to others.