Child’s death inspires Sentara nurse to help families cope with miscarriages, stillbirths
Deborah Floyd’s baby boy died unexpectedly on an operating table. Twenty years later, she finds purpose in consoling parents in their darkest hour.
Colors looked different, time stood still and Deborah Floyd’s heart shattered in an instant, yet the world kept moving as the 41-year-old mother entered a state of shock that changed her life forever.
In October 2004, Floyd carried her 11-month-old son into the hospital for open heart surgery and walked out hours later empty handed.
“It was just amazing to me that people were actually going on with their day,” Floyd recalled. “They didn’t realize this amazing person just passed away. The world didn’t stop, and I thought it should because mine did.”
Tommy Dougherty was born with Down syndrome and a congenital heart defect on October 27, 2003. Floyd said he was high-functioning and learning to sit up and say ‘momma’ in the weeks before the procedure.
“He was amazing. He oozed love. He was a patient soul and always happy to see me,” Floyd said. “I had this sense with him that my life was complete.”
Nearly 20 years later, a picture of Tommy is proudly displayed in a frame to the right of Floyd’s computer inside her office at Sentara Norfolk General Hospital where she helps grief-stricken families navigate their own tragedies.
Floyd spent 26 years as a registered nurse in Labor and Delivery before joining Sentara Health in 2017 as a perinatal bereavement coordinator, a job that puts her face-to-face with mothers, fathers and loved ones impacted by miscarriages, stillbirths, and other perinatal losses.
Floyd leaves her phone in her office and enters the hospital room never knowing how she’ll be received by families who have been dealt devastating news from doctors. Rarely does she share her personal tragedy with patients, but she finds purpose in empathizing on a deeper level.
“It just makes me feel like I am closer to Tommy when I do this. People don’t really understand what it’s like to lose a baby unless you’ve lost a baby,” Floyd said. “We all have that innate need to protect our kids. There is a huge sense of guilt. It’s all about reassuring them that this didn’t happen because of anything they did or did not do.”
Floyd leans heavily on her faith and credits meditation, yoga, journaling, and a strong support system with giving her the mental and emotional fortitude to continue delivering high-quality care to patients in their darkest hour.
(Deborah Floyd, lying down, is joined by members of the antepartum nursing staff at Sentara Norfolk General Hospital.)
Employee wellness is also a priority, Floyd said. She invites doctors, nurses, and staff to use the Butterfly Room – a quiet space next to her office – to take a break, meditate or talk about their feelings.
“I truly believe she has the hardest job in the hospital,” said Angie Moore, clinical nurse manager of the Antepartum Unit at Sentara Norfolk General Hospital. “We are very lucky to have her.”
Moore leads a team of 37 nurses who provide long-term care for pregnant women across Hampton Roads with high-risk conditions. She says nurses develop connections with patients over weeks or months and it’s important for staff to have support when there is a negative outcome.
“Deb goes above and beyond and cares for our staff who are dealing with losses in the hospital and in their personal lives,” Moore said. “That takes a very special kind of person.”
Back at her desk, resting beside the picture of Tommy is another frame with a picture of her 20-year-old daughter who she adopted from an orphanage in Ukraine three years after her son’s death. Like Tommy, Anya Dougherty was born with Down syndrome. Floyd said Anya was destined to spend the rest of her life in a mental institution if not for adoption.
“We wanted to give her a family and a better life,” Floyd said. “People with disabilities tend to get overlooked. It was important to me and my family that we do that.”
Floyd says she thinks about Tommy every day, especially when she sees a cardinal.
“I think that is his way of telling me he is okay,” Floyd said.
Even though death is inevitable, the timing is unpredictable – and those realities do not make coping with a loss any easier.
Floyd considers it a “privilege” to support families when they lose a baby and she credits her 11-month-old son with giving her the power to help lift people out of darkness.
“Even in his short life, Tommy touched our family and made it so special,” Floyd said. “If I have to stay here on earth without my son, I want it to be meaningful.”
By: Joe Fisher