Ashton Nell, 28, a nurse from Madison, WI, was almost 25 weeks pregnant when she experienced some back pain while out to dinner with friends. But like many pregnant women used to dealing with random aches and pains, she didn’t think anything of it.
Nell and her husband, Adam, a physical therapist, had just finished registering for their baby shower and were excited for the elephant-themed nursery that they had chosen for their son.
But the next morning, she woke up to some bleeding and went to the hospital to get evaluated, at the advice of her OB.
“The doctor said, ’19 out of 20 times it’s nothing to worry about,'” Nell tells Babble. “However, we were the 1 in 20, and she told me I was in pre-term labor and was dilated 5 centimeters.”
It was at that point, Nell explains, that “things got crazy, fast.” They were told that they would have to remain in the hospital until the baby was born, which could be at anytime. On Nell’s fourth day in the hospital, Adam returned to work, having begun a new job only four days before she went into labor.
Two days later, he stopped home to pick up a few items. He called at 5:01 PM to check on his wife, who was 25 weeks and 3 days pregnant, and she reported that she was “fine, no issues at all.” That changed by 5:13 PM when she called him back and told him to get to the hospital now. The shocked father barely made it to his son’s birth at 5:50 PM.
Deacon Rome Nell was immediately whisked off to the NICU, where he was stabilized. But on his 5th day in the hospital, he developed an infection that spread to his brain.
“The NICU did everything they could to treat the infection, but things continued to get worse,” Nell explains. “Eventually on July 22 we had a meeting with neurologist and neonatologist in which they told us there was nothing more that could be done, and we had to make the difficult decision to let our son go. He was taken off the ventilator at just after midnight on July 23 and passed away in our arms.”
Nell quickly discovered that the grief she would experience after her son’s death was swift and unpredictable.
“There was a quote a friend shared with me about grief being like waves and how in the beginning the wave is huge, knocks you down with no time to prepare and little time to recover but over time the waves become smaller and usually more predictable,” she says. “However, even though the waves are more manageable they never stop coming. The waves will come for the rest of your life. They become a part of you.”
After some time, Nell returned to work and taught fitness classes to fill up her days. She also began seeing a therapist who deals specifically with individuals dealing with pregnancy loss, infant loss, high-risk pregnancies or reproductive issues. Adam returned to work earlier and the couple spent a lot of time talking, leaning on each other to get through it.
“There were certain days that were rough for both of us, the monthly anniversary, Deacon’s due date, etc. But then the waves of grief hit us on other random days that didn’t coincide,” she says. “We did our best and got through it. It was challenging because neither one of us was sure of the ‘correct’ way to grieve. But, we were open and honest with one another, we had a wonderful support system of family and friends, and we made a promise that no matter how dark or difficult the days seemed we would get through it together.”
In February of 2016, Nell and Adam found out that they were pregnant again, a discovery that left them both excited but also incredibly scared. The couple worked with the same OB who had cared for them with Deacon and had a thorough monitoring plan in place along with weekly progesterone shots. Miles Deacon Nell was born on October 20, 2016 without any complications.
Having first contacted photographer Nicole Streeter of Nicole Streeter Photography about a birth photography session, Nell instead asked Streeter to take her son’s newborn pictures — with a special nod to big brother Deacon. Nell’s co-workers had gifted her with the beautiful rainbow wraps and she knew that she wanted to incorporate them into the photos. Streeter, who has a rainbow baby herself, was honored to take the photos for the family.
The day before the photo shoot, however, another gift arrived unexpectedly in the mail — a big, plush elephant. And that surprise gift proved to be the perfect way to honor Miles’ big brother Deacon, who will always be watching over him in a very special way.
To Nell, the pictures were the perfect tribute to both of her sons.
“I immediately started crying when I saw these pictures because they are so beautiful and they captured all of our emotions: joy, gratefulness, excitement, hopefulness, and also longing, sadness, and remembrance,” she says. “It was the perfect way to celebrate Miles and honor his big brother. To see Miles with his ‘big brother’ gives me peace and comfort. It shows the true size of our family, that our love is strong and equal for both of our boys, and that although Miles will never get to meet Deacon he will always be a part of his life.”
“Since his entire life was spent in the NICU, our pictures of him all include the ventilator, lines, and tubes, and we have minimal things that are ‘his’ to keep as memories,” Nell explains. “However, the elephant became a representation of Deacon and is a way that we can keep him with us always.”
Nell plans to incorporate Miles’ big brother elephant symbol throughout his life, taking his monthly baby pictures with his comforting sidekick and including the elephant on vacation and special trips. The reminders of their first son are with them always.
“I have an elephant necklace, my husband has an elephant charm on his key chain and we have a framed elephant photo in the nursery as well,” she explains. “We don’t need to be reminded of Deacon, we are always thinking of him, but having elephants scattered around gives us something tangible to feel his presence. We even have elephant coffee mugs!”
Nell believes that sharing her story is important and she expresses her gratitude to Streeter for her understanding and comforting presence throughout the emotional photo shoot.
“I never knew how many people around me had went into preterm labor and/or lost children through miscarriage, late pregnancy loss, or early infant loss until it happened to us,” she says. “It just isn’t a subject that is discussed often but what helps is talking about it. Telling Deacon’s story, saying his name, acknowledging his existence is what helps. Miles will know all about his big brother and tell others about him because even though his life was short, it mattered.”
Oh, and don’t worry. When big brother Deacon needs a break looking over his little brother, there’s an equally cuddly and protective stand-in big brother, the family’s dog Kona, who is more than willing to take over for a while. Miles is one loved little guy.