Crystal Rivera went to the delivery room last December expecting to give birth to a healthy, full-term baby, but instead found out that her daughter, Valentina, no longer had a heartbeat.
This was the last thing Rivera and her husband Cristian Ortiz expected, since they had gotten a sonogram every week during Rivera’s third trimester and were told that Valentina was healthy.
In the delivery room, the doctor said Valentina had died as a result of umbilical cord strangulation.
“It was traumatizing,” Rivera said. “I had to lay there for hours knowing that my daughter had passed away and she was in my stomach, and there was absolutely nothing I could do about it.”
Rivera had a stillbirth the next morning, and to Ortiz, Valentina looked too small for doctors not to have detected that something was wrong before.
“I was not able to get closure on my daughter’s demise without having somebody else look at the data,” Ortiz said.
Rivera and Ortiz visited a pathologist to get a second opinion and were told Valentina’s death had been caused by intrauterine growth restriction, also known as IUGR — a condition in which a baby doesn't grow to a normal weight during pregnancy.
“To know that there are so many other parents that don’t have the means to find out how their child really died and don't have the ability to have closure is unacceptable,” Ortiz said. He added that the pathologist visit and autopsy report cost him and Rivera thousands of dollars.
A “stillbirth” is defined as the loss of a pregnancy at or after 20 weeks. Before 20 weeks, the loss of a pregnancy is called a “miscarriage.” Stillbirths occur in about 1 in 175 births and are more common among Black women and those of low socioeconomic status, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Over 2,000 stillbirths occurred in New York state between 2018 and 2020, according to the CDC.
On Saturday, which was Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Day, Rivera and Ortiz traveled to Washington. They pushed empty strollers past the Capitol with other parents to raise awareness of preventable stillbirths and urge Congress to take action, including dedicating more funding to research on the cause of stillbirths and changing the standard care of pregnancies to focus on prevention.
Ortiz spoke in Washington on behalf of all fathers impacted by stillbirths. He called on Gov. Kathy Hochul and New York City Mayor Eric Adams to change New York’s paid family leave law to include stillbirths.
While New York allows parents to take up to 12 weeks of leave with 67% of an employee’s weekly wage to bond with their newborn or adopted child, this isn’t the case for parents affected by stillbirths. Instead, Rivera and Ortiz had to use their vacation and sick days or take unpaid leave to take time to grieve and recover.
“The system is broken,” Ortiz said to the crowd in Washington. “The toll it took on [my wife’s] body and the impact it had on my family was dire. By law, I was given three days to grieve before I had to go back to the office.”
Senate and Assembly lawmakers introduced bills that would ensure paid family leave to all New Yorkers following a pregnancy, including in cases of stillbirth, miscarriage, or abortion. But neither bill has moved out of committee.
“It shouldn’t be that if my daughter didn’t have a birth certificate I don’t get maternity leave,” Rivera said. “I still gave birth to her.”
“My body still needed time to recover, my mind needed time to grieve,” she continued.