McGeady and Samantha Bushnell were living a dream script last November.
The Severna Park High School graduates had moved back to the area a couple of years prior and bought their first home. McGeady Bushnell was finishing his master’s degree and preparing to join the civilian workforce as the conclusion of his stint as a Naval officer was nearing an end. Samantha Bushnell was busy with her trifecta of roles as working business logistics for an international moving company, doing freelance American Sign Language interpretation, and coaching field hockey and lacrosse at Severn School.
Samantha Bushnell was also pregnant, and bloodwork in the first trimester revealed the couple’s son had complete Trisomy 18, a rare chromosomal abnormality with a high mortality rate. They were handed a card of somebody who could help them — Heather Silver, the founder and president of The Sweeney Center, based in Arnold.
“We were living in this, what to us felt like, a living nightmare, and we didn’t know how to navigate anything,” Samantha Bushnell said.
The Bushnell family kept hearing Silver’s name brought up in those first days following the diagnosis, and they went to The Sweeney Center, which is composed of SilverLeaf Counseling and SilverLeaf Kids. The center also operates the Bill Sweeney Perinatal Care Fund and is the only dedicated and specialized practice for perinatal palliative care in Maryland.
“We felt that we could ask her anything and not be judged,” Samantha Bushnell said of that initial meeting with Silver. “We felt like we had a little bit more clarity in what felt like we were stomping through a mud cloud daily, and Heather was there for us every step of everything that we went through.”
Silver’s motivations to help parents and kids are an example of a phrase that comes up often in her circle — gifts from grief.
“All of my children are rainbow babies, which means a baby born after a loss,” said Silver, who has had 11 pregnancies and three biological children, including her youngest son, who is a surviving twin, like his mother. “The weird, twisted mind bend that happens when you look at your family and think, if one of my prayers had been answered to keep one of those babies, I would not have my family.”
So, it’s no surprise that she decided not to pursue her thoughts of being an attorney but shifted gears to focus on social work instead. A choice that paid off as, among other recognitions, she was the 2021 recipient of the Innovation in Social Work Award from her alma mater, the University of Maryland.
“I wanted to make sure that every mom has the choices that I didn’t get the first time, because I hadn’t realized how much I had not grieved or even thought about them as babies,” Silver said. “They were called fetuses and tissue and things like that.”
An important father figure and mentor to Silver, and the namesake of the center that she founded, also had a part. After being laid off at the Hospice of the Chesapeake, Silver wasn’t sure her private practice could go ahead.
“This is something that you need to be doing; you have to do this for the community. They need you. They need us. We are their layers of support,” Silver recalled the late Dr. William “Bill” Sweeney, a former perinatologist at Luminis Health Anne Arundel Medical Center, telling her that same night.
Silver, who now has four perinatal specialists at The Sweeney Center, along with a diverse set of other staff, stresses that parents facing a difficult diagnosis should seek services right away.
“The human brain can only take so much, and when it receives traumatic news, your brain can’t function properly for two weeks,” said Silver, noting that those 14 days are often the timeframe patients have to make difficult decisions such as carrying to term or terminating a pregnancy.
Silver can not only guide patients through familiar ground in therapy but she’s also at the hospital with the patients, texting, coordinating proper nurse coverage and taking care of the bureaucratic side of health care that grieving or stressed patients may not be up for.
“As soon as you find out the diagnosis, that’s all you’re thinking about,” McGeady Bushnell said. “As a couple, you’re in this dark cloud, and then you’re in your own dark cloud, but I think what coming here does is Heather provided us with so many different resources that we didn’t have the mental capacity to even think about.”
McGeady Bushnell also revisited his past with Silver. The former surface warfare officer, one of 10 children in his family, lost a sister to sudden infant death syndrome in 2004. At the time, as the oldest son, he felt he had to put up a guard.
“I think probably a lot of husbands or fathers in situations, whether it’s a miscarriage, or a stillbirth, or you lose a child early on, you just put up blockers,” McGeady Bushnell said. “I think maybe those are some of the things that lead to issues personally or within a marriage.”
Silver equips patients with bumper sticker phrases that are ready responses to questions from others that can be awkward to respond to, such as not seeing somebody for five months and they ask about the baby.
“It’s a weird thing, so being able to navigate that, especially with Heather’s help, it’s huge,” McGeady Bushnell said.
Heather Silver’s daughter, Morgan, is a sophomore at Penn State University. She’s also a double rainbow baby.
“I think I mostly felt lucky,” Morgan Silver recalled. “I felt very blessed that I was the one who made it.”
Morgan Silver said her mother is the strongest person she knows and one of her future ambitions, serving with a mobile crisis team, reflects admiration for her.
“My mom worked in mobile crisis, and I want to do the same thing,” said Morgan Silver, who also has an interest in criminology.
Morgan Silver spoke at last year’s Bill Sweeney charity gala event where she informed the crowd, from a sibling’s perspective, on parents including kids in the bereavement process.
“It gives kids building blocks for healthy grief,” said Heather Silver.
Morgan Silver talked about her sister, Sloane.
“If she were alive, my brother would not be alive,” said the college student who stressed the ability to celebrate the siblings no longer physically here, while also acknowledging the gift they created.
Miles McGeady Bushnell was delivered on March 28, 2023, after five months of gestation. He was stillborn. Heather Silver’s advocacy and knowledge helped ensure the parents of top-notch care, and they got to hold and meet baby Miles.
“It made a little bit of lightness in all of the darkness we were living in,” Samantha Bushnell said.
A week after Miles was delivered, McGeady knew he had to do something and interned at a private equity firm for six months. But he couldn’t shake the knowledge he learned about the human heart from studying some of Miles’ ventricle complications, and he now serves as a cardiac ablation specialist with a medical device company where he has opportunities to serve alongside pediatric heart surgeons in the operating room.
“His job is his gift from grief,” Silver said.
Samantha Bushnell is not discounting a rainbow baby of their own.
“We’re hoping to grow our family,” she said.
October is Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month, and the Bushnell family will be speakers at this year’s annual Bill Sweeney charity gala on October 7 at the Blackwell Barn & Lodge in Gambrills.
Heather Silver stressed the need for community support for the Sweeney Center so they can add more personnel, among other things, to assist more parents and siblings, whether it’s by donations, sponsorships or through volunteering in various programs. The center does not turn anybody away for an inability to pay or being underinsured.
“When you lose your pregnancy, you’re losing your future, not your past,” Heather Silver said. “It’s such a different grief.”
More information on the charity and center is available at www.billsweeneycharity.org.
“It’s not a community you ever wish to be a part of, but we’re glad that we have the people that we have in our community that have gone through something similar,” Samantha Bushnell said.