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Carleigh McKenna


Carleigh McKenna, baby with anencephaly

This is the story of my precious daughter, Carleigh McKenna, who was diagnosed with anencephaly in utero on December 15, 2008 and born still on March 28, 2009.

Carleigh's story actually begins before she was even conceived. It begins back when God was preparing me for her not long after her sister Kyndra's birth on January 10, 2008. During this time I came across stories of families who had received a fatal prenatal diagnosis and chose to carry to term. I poured over these stories. I read more about their diagnoses. I just felt drawn to them. I would've told you then that nothing like that would ever happen to me. Stuff like that always happens to other people. Boy, was I wrong.

Around the time we started trying for another baby I came across the book Waiting with Gabriel. I felt a desire to read this book, but I put it off. On August 10, 2008 I found out I was pregnant and my husband and I were so excited. It had only taken us a month to conceive. My pregnancy was much less symptomatic than it was with Kyndra but I thought nothing of it as they say that every pregnancy is different. I called our doctor and set up my first appointment. My doctor ordered an ultrasound to check dates and during that ultrasound my baby was measuring 6 weeks when the measurement should of been 7 weeks according to my LMP. No biggie. My ovulation just must've been off. So we changed my due date from April 17th to April 24th. (We found out later that my April 17th due date was the correct one.)

My doctor offered me the nuchal translucency test and the Quad screening and I declined them both. Both of these tests would've determined that something was wrong but I felt no need to get them as it wouldn't change anything and I wanted to save us from having to pay for the tests. I was positive that they would come back normal. They did for my daughter Kyndra, so why would it be any different this time?

The time came for my midway ultrasound. I was 22½ weeks along and totally oblivious. I remember my diagnosis day very clearly. My ultrasound was scheduled for 1pm, right before my shift ended at work. My best friend, Lindsey, went back to the room with me like she always does. Lindsey and I were both very cheerful during and after the exam. We both noticed that our coworker and friend wasn't as cheerful as us, but we just figured that it was 'one of those days'. Looking back I realize that things were a little off but I never suspected then. I finished my shift, picked up my daughter from the sitter, and went home assuming everything was perfect.

Carleigh McKenna, baby with anencephaly

I had just walked in the door at home when the phone rang. It was my doctor's office. My doctor said there was something concerning on the ultrasound and that she needed me to come into the office as soon as possible. I knew immediately that it wasn't good. It's never good to get a call like that. I started going over in my head everything that could be wrong. I called my husband, Anthony, to tell him and so that he could leave work to meet me at the office. I packed up some things for my daughter, Kyndra, and we left for the hospital where the office was at. I got there before Anthony and with time to spare I decided to look up my ultrasound report in the department I work in. I skimmed the report until I saw the word 'anencephalic'. I knew immediately what it meant-for me....my family.....my baby. I didn't want it to be true.

One of my coworkers was still there finishing up his shift. He saw that I was upset and asked what was wrong. I said, "My baby doesn't have a brain." I paused before I said, "I can't handle this." Then I walked out the door. The shock and devastation of it all was too much to handle. I didn't even cry.

I left and went to meet Anthony. I didn't tell him what I knew but wanted to wait in case there was a small chance that what I had read was wrong (even though I knew it wasn't). We waited in the office and they got my vitals. My blood pressure was the highest it had ever been before. They took us back into a room and we waited some more. I think they waited until all the patients were out of the office. That was prolly a good thing. Who wants to see someone else's dreams crushed in an instant?

My doctor soon confirmed my worst fear. Our daughter Carleigh had anencephaly and she would not live. This was when I finally cried. Anthony still had no clue what it meant. I couldn't tell him so I let our doctor do it. It was devastating to find out we wouldn't be able to keep our baby once she was born. I knew without a doubt in my mind that I would carry Carleigh to term. I had made my decision before this moment. I couldn't fathom ending her life. I wanted time with my daughter.

We met with the radiologist (who I also work with) and went over the scan. I thought maybe it would help Anthony. I made arrangements to be off work the rest of the week. I called my best friend to come drive me home since Anthony and I drove separately. I didn't think I could do it myself. Then we called our parents to let them know. I was still in shock of it all at this point. How could this be really happening?

Carleigh McKenna, baby with anencephaly

The next few days were a blur of tears and me looking up as much as I possibly could about anencephaly. I already knew a little about it but I needed to know everything about this condition that would steal my daughter from me. My mom came and stayed with us until we left for Hawaii just 4 days after the diagnosis. It was a trip we had been planning for 3 years. I resolved to enjoy this vacation and not to worry about anything until we got back from our trip. That week in Hawaii was exactly what I needed. I don't think it was coincidence that we got the diagnosis right before our trip. I came back feeling more confident and with a better outlook on our journey ahead.

We started planning for the future not long after we got back from our trip. This is when I began Carleigh's blog. I needed a space to keep family and friends updated and also a way to document our journey. I figured maybe one day it would help someone else like reading stories like mine helped me. We met with a funeral director and began making pre-arrangements. It was very difficult to plan for such things while Carleigh was still alive in me. Often she would kick and wiggle while we sat at the funeral home picking stuff out like her casket and her headstone. I tried to make everything as perfect as possible since this was the only thing we could really do for her.

I created a birth plan for when Carleigh would be born and it ended up being 3 pages long. I don't think I left a single detail out! We wanted to be prepared for any possible outcome. One of the things Anthony and I did was participate in a research study for anencephaly by Duke to help find out why this happens and to possibly find some prevention or cure. We also wanted to make memories so we got maternity photos, had a 3D/4D ultrasound, were thrown a prayer shower, and created a belly cast. I truly cherished every moment I carried my daughter because I didn't know how much time we would have together. Every kick and every hiccup was a blessing and something to get excited over. So many people prayed for us and sent us cards and gifts. We are so grateful for these things and for all the love we felt.

But the time with our daughter on this earth was coming to an end. I decided after my last ultrasound, with advice from my radiologist, to proceed with an induction. Carleigh's growth kept falling further behind and I worried for her. So on March 27, 2009, when I was 37 weeks, I went in to the hospital to give birth to my daughter. I remember driving to the hospital very early in the morning and Carleigh had the hiccups. It would be the last time that I felt those.

Carleigh McKenna, baby with anencephaly

The staff was prepared for us as I had given them our birth plan. We had a room right beside the nurse's station. Our door had a picture of a leaf with a little tear on it indicating we would be suffering a loss. We were well taken care of and so were our family and friends. The cafeteria provided them with complimentary breakfast and I was provided with internet access so that I could keep the many people following us up-to-date with what was happening.

Pitocin was started once all the initial blood work and such was done. It was a very long day without much progress (that's just how me and Pitocin seem to work). My friend, Ashley came around noon to take pictures for us during labor and delivery-something I will forever be grateful for. She captured so many beautiful moments for us. Everyone stuck with us the whole time.

We came to a point when I had to decide whether to stop the Pitocin and restart it the next day or have my water broken. It was such a hard decision to make and sometimes I wonder if it was the right one. I chose for my doctor to break my water and continue on to delivery. Things picked up after that and I finally started to make progress. I got an epidural and was able to take a small nap. The last time I heard Carleigh's heart beating was around 2am on March 28, 2009. It was around 3:30am when I started to feel some pressure and we realized it was time for our daughter to be born. There was a flurry of activity as everyone got prepared. It was time to push. It only took a few minutes and Carleigh was born at 3:49 am. Daddy cut the cord and she was placed on my chest. She was so beautiful and I fell even more in love with her.

Immediately my nurse used her small stethoscope to check to see if her heart was beating. It wasn't. Carleigh was born still. But at that moment it didn't matter to me at all. I was just so happy to finally meet my daughter. We spent time with her alone before we let anyone come back to meet her. Both Ashley and Lindsey were there the whole time taking pictures and video for us. We let our parents come back first and then everyone else. There were some very emotional moments but I still couldn't cry-not when I was so happy.

Our nurse weighed her and she was 3 lbs 15 oz. My small little bundle! She then gave Carleigh her first and only bath and put on her little diaper while everyone watched. Then I got to dress her in the outfit that I had picked out for her. She looked so cute in it. We got imprints of her hands and feet in clay and also got her hand and footprints in pink ink. Everyone who came was given an opportunity to hold her if they wanted to. Our pastor came and dedicated her and we prayed. After a couple hours we had our NILMDTS photographer come and take some pictures for us. Then we were moved to our postpartum room. Our little sign on our door followed us.

Once we got settled into our room we fell asleep. Carleigh was snuggled with me in my bed. Once we woke up we spent the day just being with her and holding her. We knew we'd never get these moments back. We had visits from family and friends. I even walked the hallways with her snuggled in my arms. The funeral home wanted to take Carleigh that evening but we refused. We weren't ready to give her up yet.

Carleigh McKenna, baby with anencephaly

The next day, March 29th, we were released from the hospital. We originally were going to have the funeral home come get her at the hospital but we changed our minds that day and wanted to take her to the funeral home ourselves. Our funeral home made all the arrangements and were so kind to us. This is when the hard moments began. I changed Carleigh's clothes and then I started crying, knowing that soon I would have to hand my precious daughter over. Then I would have empty arms.

So I walked out of the hospital with her snuggled in her blanket. It was a cold and windy day and even though she was gone I was still trying to protect her. My nurse and I cried as we hugged and said goodbye. I climbed into our van and we left for the funeral home. Once we were there we sat on one of their couches and spend some last moments with her. The most difficult thing I've ever had to do in my entire life was hand my daughter over to the funeral director and walk away. Words fail to describe that moment. I was truly broken.

What got me through the night was knowing I would be able to see Carleigh the next day to dress her in her burial outfit. We had her visitation and service the end of that week. It was a both beautiful celebration of her life and an emotional shipwreck. I held Carleigh for both her visitations and her service. I needed to physically hold her while I still could. We shared a slideshow of pictures during her service f rom the moments we had with her and we had some very touching things shared by those who loved us.

The moment came when I had finally had to put my daughter in her casket. It was difficult to do. I would have rather run out of the church and never looked back, but it had to be done. Anthony and I gave her our last kisses and I laid her in the casket and covered her up with a blanket made by Anthony's grandma just for her. Then I closed the casket, sealed it, and we walked away. Everyone gathered at the cemetery for a few words. We didn't stay to watch her be put in the ground. We went back to our church for a dinner and then it was all over.

And now here we are-trying to live this life without our daughter and finding joy again. I miss my daughter very much and wish she was still here with me, but I find that I can't be sad that she is in Heaven. Heaven is the best place she can be. She will never experience sorrow or pain-only happiness. I look forward to the day that I can see her again. That is the day I will never have to let her go.


Read more about Carleigh and contact Holly through her blog.



Last updated April 2, 2019