Lakeland Woman’s Invention Helps Families Deal With Grief of Stillbirths

Wendy Kowalski

Lakeland Regional Health now has a Caring Cradle, an invention by a Lakeland woman designed to assist families grieving over a stillbirth or the death of a newborn.

The family of the late Lakeland pediatrician, Dr. Miguel Angel Diaz, donated a Caring Cradle to the hospital’s Carol Jenkins Barnett Pavilion for Women and Children in his honor.

Wendy Kowalski, 52, of Lakeland, designed the Caring Cradle.

“Every placement is a success for families who will need a Caring Cradle in their future, but to know that (it’s in) the hospital where both of my children were born makes this an extra special placement,“ Kowalski said.

Caring Cradles are bassinets that have cooling capabilities, which allows for families who suffer infant loss to have more time to spend with their baby in the hospital room.

“The Caring Cradle has a base that is chilled, which in turn chills a removable gel mat. That gel mat is used to swaddle the baby. Keeping the gel mat cool keeps the baby cool and helps slow the changes that occur naturally after death,” Kowalski said. “The family vacillates between holding their baby and returning the baby to the Caring Cradle to keep the gel pad cool.”

Kowalski was inspired to create the cradles after a close friend suffered from infant loss and dealt with the trauma related to it for years.

“I have come to know the stories of hundreds of women, and those stories make us want to work harder to get this equipment into every birthing facility,” Kowalski said.

Lori Shea

Lori Shea, associate vice president of Women and Children’s Services at Lakeland Regional Health, said the hospital is grateful for the donation.

“The grief of losing a child is like none other. The hospital and team members are grateful for this donation because it allows families the time needed to be able to say goodbye,” Shea said. “This generous donation is another item to support our bereavement program we have in place for patients and families who may experience the loss of a baby.”

Lakeland Regional Health averages 3,400 births per year. In Polk, 43 fetal deaths were documented in 2019 by the Florida Department of Health Bureau of Vital Statistics, Shea said.

The hospital is considering buying more Caring Cradles, she said. “We are so grateful to have technology that was developed and manufactured in Polk County,”

Kowalski began making the cradles in 2017; she said they don’t have any attached tubes, allowing for the family to move freely about the hospital room.

“I designed the Caring Cradle using specific design requests from hospitals and nurses who work in labor and delivery. They requested a product that did not require training, maintenance, replacement parts, attached tubes, or an alarm,” Kowalski said.

Sarah Kerlin

Sarah Kerlin, a 32-year-old mom in Kettering, Ohio, hosts fundraisers annually to pay for Caring Cradles to be donated to hospitals. She said she’s grateful one was available when her baby died soon after birth. “It’s absolutely amazing. It just gave us time,” Kerlin said.

At 16 weeks pregnant, Kerlin learned her daughter, Harper, had complications with her bladder that were causing kidney failure, leaving her with a slim chance of living past a month. Kerlin gave birth to Harper at 34 weeks and got to spend an hour with her before she passed. After Harper took her last breath, the medical team brought in a Caring Cradle, so the family could spend more time with her.

“I didn’t realize how much I needed it until after the process. We were able to capture our only family pictures because of the Caring Cradle … we got to make molds and have our one and only night together which I think is something we’ll always cherish,” Kerlin said.

Often the cradles are donated to hospitals. A full-size Caring Cradle costs $5,895 and a mini cradle cost $3,495.

Kowalski said she has sold 212 Caring Cradles since 2018, including one shipped to Colombia, and two others to Canada.

With the help of a $10,000 Catapult Launch grant she received in November 2020, she was able to create a smaller cradle for babies stillborn around 20 weeks. She’s focused on growing the company.

“We are forecast to double our average annual sales this year. This is due in large part to families using the Caring Cradle and how loyal these families and donors are to Caring Cradle,” Kowalski said.

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