Expectant parents start their journey full of hope: to create loving memories, share family traditions, and experience decades of life and love together with their child. They hope to be there for their little one’s ups and downs, smiles and laughter, boo-boos and tears. They hope to watch their child learn and grow, and to make the world a better place.
What they hope never to endure is the pain of watching their baby take their last breath.
Susan and Dan Bevevino experienced such pain with the loss of their newborn daughter, Olivia. Born on October 2, 1999, Olivia died just a few short hours later.
“When you face tragedy, people often say ‘things happen for a reason,’” Dan says. “I don’t view it that way. You create that reason — it’s up to you to determine how something good can come from this experience.”
For the Bevevinos, providing philanthropic support to Allegheny Health Network (AHN)’s West Penn Hospital is their way of doing something good — helping other families cope with the traumatic loss of a newborn and honoring Olivia’s memory and legacy. The Bevevinos pledged a substantial gift to the NICU. Their gift names a program, now known in perpetuity as the Olivia’s Angels Perinatal Palliative Care Program.
Their story begins within a year of their son Frank’s first birthday. Susan and Dan were excited to give their firstborn a baby sister. Susan, then a nurse at AHN Allegheny General Hospital, understood that at age 38, her pregnancy was considered high risk. After having a pleasant pregnancy and delivery with Frank, the couple was hopeful that Frank would be an older brother to Olivia.
Susan’s pregnancy with Olivia was uneventful until her 35th week, when she came down with the flu and suffered severe abdominal pain. By week 37, Susan knew something wasn’t right.
Following her motherly instinct, Susan went to AHN Allegheny General Hospital for an ultrasound and was promptly rushed to the operating table. “I remember hearing the doctor say, ‘Your baby needs to come out right now,’” Susan says. Then, she fell asleep.
Susan woke up to the sound of the doctor and her husband saying, “Come on, Susan. We need you to wake up. Things are not good. We have a decision to make.”
“Lying in that bed was so surreal,” Susan shares, holding back tears.
When they saw their newborn daughter attached to a ventilator with multiple IVs, Susan and Dan knew the outlook was not good.
During the few short hours of Olivia’s life, the NICU staff moved the heartbroken family to a private room to grieve and say goodbye.
The Bevevinos prayed together, agreed that they wanted to take photos of Olivia, and requested she be baptized Catholic before her passing. The nurses were able to find a priest — a patient who was awaiting discharge — and purchased a disposable camera at the hospital gift shop. Thanks to the compassionate nurses in the NICU, the Bevevinos were able to find comfort in Olivia’s baptism and take photos of their darling daughter, which they still cherish to this day.
Susan and Dan struggled to navigate life after Olivia’s death. Everyone said navigating “all the firsts” would be the worst. The pain was palpable, and the Bevevinos did not know where to turn to find professional help to heal and recover. Grief, shock, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) set in, and they realized that more resources were needed to help grieving parents, siblings, and family members.
Reflecting on the kindness and compassion they received from the AHN West Penn NICU staff helped with their healing and inspired their first donation to AHN.
For the Bevevinos, keeping Olivia’s memory alive means sharing her story and supporting other parents grieving the loss of a young child. Beginning with Olivia’s first birthday, the Bevevinos donated cameras and photo equipment to the AHN West Penn Hospital NICU. They continued to do this on her birthday, every year for 15 years, so other grieving parents can document and have a comforting reminder of the family’s time together. By the 15th year, they decided they wanted to make an even greater impact.
“I wanted Olivia’s memory to live on,” says Susan. “I wanted the nurses there, a generation older, to know who Olivia was. That’s why we decided to fund the Perinatal Palliative Care Program.”
Led by Dr. Marta C. Kolthoff, a board-certified OB-GYN and reproductive geneticist, the program at West Penn Hospital offers family-centered care for patients carrying a baby that will not live after birth due to a life-limiting diagnosis or abnormality. From the prenatal diagnosis through their time of grief, the program affirms their parenthood, facilitates bonding, and supports the unique needs of the family.
Grieving families have access to emotional, spiritual, social, and symptom support. It’s a holistic approach that brings together professionals from all areas of medicine, reproductive genetics, neonatology, nursing, bereavement, and social work.
After Olivia’s death, Susan was on a mission to find out what happened. After learning she had a chromosomal abnormality coupled with a clotting disorder, she was able to take special health precautions and have two more healthy children.
“Olivia gave us a gift, at her expense,” Susan says. And now, the Bevevinos are graciously sharing their gifts with others.
Rooted in their faith, the belief they’ll meet Olivia again, and coupled with the love of their three now-grown children, the Bevevinos say they feel blessed. They’ll never forget AHN’s generosity in their time of need or their child who passed.
“We are very grateful to AHN for hanging in there with us until we found what we needed,” Susan says. “We want our daughter’s legacy to live on in this way. We want other people to benefit from her sacrifice.”