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Life and Death Radio

by Ann Charles on May 3rd, 2013
Black radio, taken in black and white. Image by S Diddy

I shed a little tear at work today.

Not just because I was looking at a rather dull spreadsheet when it was sunny outside.  But because whilst I was wrestling with said spreadsheet, I was also listening to a story of the line between birth, life and death.

Step forward, RadioLab

I’ve mentioned before that as well as being a birth geek, I also have another love – radio.

RadioLab is a podcast which is also broadcast on NPR – America’s equivalent of BBC Radio.

RadioLab’s way of making audio is unlike anything you’ve heard before.  The best way I can describe it is like the audio version of a TED infographic.  They weave different voices and reactions together to tell a story that’s like an audio cartoon.  It doesn’t always work (sometimes I find myself getting confused about who is who if there are many speakers involved in the telling).  However, they are not afraid to interrogate a topic and the inclusion of the asides from a contributor that would normally get left out leave audio offerings that are addictive to the ears.

Powerful radio

The episode I’m about to wax lyrical to you about?

April 30th, 2013‘s.  The story of a couple who had a baby born at 23 weeks, and 6 days.

Life, death …and the space in between

I’ve often thought that you can tell a lot about how someone thinks about birth, by how they feel about death.

The two events are flip sides of the same coin.  An ending, a beginning.  Something people are frightened of, or trust completely.  An inevitable next step in the onwards march of evolution, or a continuation of the Circle of Life (complete with Simba and a Lion’s head in the clouds).

You know, all of that ‘deep’ stuff.

Whatever your take on all the ‘deep’ stuff, the life/death line is pretty compelling.

Hear people talking about it with raw honesty and it’s like a magnet attached to your ears.  Your brain is going to crackle as you focus in on hearing stories that sit right at the heart of the meaning of why we’re here.

Or maybe that’s just me after too many spreadsheets…

The story

Kelley and Tom had tried for a baby and ended up having IVF with the assistance of an egg donor.

Unfortunately, the baby started trying to be born early.

Much too early.

After being in hospital for a while, eventually Kelley ended up having her daughter at 23 weeks, and 6 days.


This raised all sorts of questions.  In America, 24 weeks is seen as a ‘cut off’ for a baby having a chance of making it.  The podcast looks into the history of this decision and examines how technology has changed since the issues were first examined in the 1970s.

Kelley and Tom had to decide whether to allow their baby to die gently in their arms, or if they should try to use medicine to intervene to save her.

They describe the agonising night when they were deciding whether to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to authorising an attempt to revive her.

It’s like a world of philosophical debate is being channelled through one set of parents in the space of a few sleepless hours.

Will v Science

The next section examines the significance of a baby’s grip on a finger.  Is it the child’s determination to live shining through?  Or just a reflex, biological action?

We hear from a NICU (Neonatal Intensive Care Unit) Director with his own perspective – there’s a twist in his tale.

“Was the Doctor in you surprised at the Father in you?”

…ask the presenters.

You’ll have to listen to find out why it wasn’t the other way around.

The story of one baby’s life is the story of all of our lives

NICU Nurses tell of their experiences of watching babies who get sick, and caring for the ones that don’t make it.

Kelley talks about the disorientation of being in the cheerful surroundings of a Maternity unit one day, and the despair of NICU a few days later.  The floors between the two areas of the hospital are a symbol for two different worlds.

Tom decides to start reading his daughter Harry Potter as a way to keep connected.  She appears to like it – but is that biology again?

“I don’t know a better way to describe being alive… you want to know what happens next,”

says Tom, as he explains why he found reading to his daughter so helpful.

The Nurses come back again to explain that Western society is just not very good at coping with the death of babies, any more.  The rest of the world is still used to it, they say.  It doesn’t make it fair.  Our Grandparents were also born in a time where not all the children would survive.  But technology has moved on for those in rich countries – and we aren’t sure how to manage when it fails us.

And in the end…?

From a radio point of view, the credits are done in an interesting way.  But that’s not what you want to know, is it?

All I’ll say is that if you have not cried during the rest of the programme, you will during the last ten minutes.  It’s powerful stuff.

But then, isn’t life itself?

You can hear RadioLab’s ‘23 Weeks 6 Days‘ on the RadioLab website, where it is also available to download.

It’s a rewarding, if challenging listen.  Congratulations to the programme team for making it and thank you to Kelley, Tom and the other contributors for sharing their story with such raw honesty.

Warning: The programme is a truly awesome (in the correct sense) listen, but it contains strong themes.  It covers IVF, abortion, miscarriage, neonatal death, prematurity, babies in Special Care/NICU, babies needing operations and related issues.  You may wish to consider this before choosing to listen.  If any of these are triggers for you, please see the ‘Help!‘ page.

If you liked the programme, please share this post with others so they can hear it, too. 

Disclosure: I have no connections with RadioLab other than hearing them speak at an industry conference once, and liking the podcasts that they produce.

Image: S. Diddy.

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