AKRON, Ohio — All it took was a blanket.
Before Meagen Gries returned back to her first day of work from maternity leave on May 4, 2015, she dropped off her toddler son, Owen, and 2-month-old daughter, Molly, at a baby sitter’s house. Of all things, it was an object of comfort that has prevented her from ever picking her little daughter back up again.
While Molly was napping in her Pack ’N Play that day, she suffocated on a blanket and died in her sleep.
The grief and guilt still follow Gries and her husband, Jeff, to this day. But instead of immersing themselves in grief, the Hudson couple has immersed themselves in activism.
The Grieses started the Molly Ann Gries Foundation last year to raise awareness about and distribute resources surrounding infant sleep safety.
The foundation’s newest partnership is with Akron Children’s Hospital. Beginning in January, every baby who visits one of the hospital’s 28 pediatric offices for their initial well-check will receive a copy of Sleep Baby, Safe and Snug, a small board book about safe sleep practices, along with a card of questions to ask potential childcare providers.
“She should still be here,” Meagen Gries said. “That’s all we can do is share our story.”
Meagen Gries was on her lunch break at Echo Hills Elementary School in Stow where she teaches first grade when she got the call from the baby sitter that Molly wasn’t breathing.
She hurried to Akron Children’s Hospital to meet Molly in the ambulance, but was greeted instead by a social worker and teary doctor.
“The worst part was leaving her there,” Meagen Gries said. “As a mom, it goes against every fiber of your being to hand over your baby and walk out the door.”
In the days following Molly’s death, Meagen Gries wasn’t thinking about sharing her story. She didn’t even want to be part of the story.
But that changed when the Grieses learned Molly’s cause of death. The family initially thought she died of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), an unpreventable death, until the medical examiner called Meagen Gries in August and told her Molly died of positional asphyxiation.
The first thing Meagen Gries did was call the baby sitter to let her know what happened — and let her know that she was just as guilty of making the same simple sleeping mistakes with Molly every day.
“It absolutely could’ve been me,” Meagen Gries said.
The second thing she did was write a post on Facebook about Molly’s death. Despite the tragic news, Meagen Gries couldn’t help but think of all the other new moms making the same vital mistakes as she and her baby sitter had.
“If I didn’t say that, somebody could have potentially walked upstairs and put their baby in the same situation,” Meagen Gries said.
The Grieses have since had another daughter named Emma, who is now 1, but Molly is still ever-present. Her name lives on through the foundation, its logo covering stickers, shirts and even the back of Meagen Gries’ sedan.
Sleep-related infant deaths are an issue Meagen Gries has made her personal mission to alleviate — and one that still needs attention.
Sleep-related deaths have been trending downward in Ohio in recent years thanks to intensive state and local initiatives, the Ohio Department of Health found in a recent report, but babies are still dying in preventable situations. Suffocation is the leading cause of injury-related deaths for babies before their first birthdays.
Dr. Susan Nofziger, a pediatric hospitalist and chair member of the Akron Children’s Hospital Safe Sleep Committee, said there are six to 10 infants under the age of 1 who die in the county every year from sleep-related deaths. A large part of that is due to lack of education, along with changes in safe-sleep guidelines in recent years.
“Most people just feel like it’s something that would never happen to them,” Nofziger said.
The hospital is undergoing several initiatives to alleviate the problem as well. Sherry Blair, the Akron Children’s Hospital Cribs for Kids coordinator, and Nofziger said the goal is to educate every parent in the system with a child under the age of 1 about safe practices and get them to develop a safe sleep routine.
“We just want to make it standardized, like a car seat,” Blair said.
The books donated by the Gries foundation could help accomplish that mission. They were written by Dr. John Hutton, a Cincinnati-based pediatrician who also lost a child to a sleep-related death.
The book is an illustrated board book, much like one that would be read to a child at bedtime, and it covers the do’s and don’ts of safe sleep.
The Grieses purchased 8,500 of them with money a friend raised for them on GoFundMe, and they’ll be given to new parents. The Gries plan to donate the same amount to the hospital each year.
In addition, the foundation also distributes movement monitors and breathable crib mattresses to families of infants at risk for SIDS, and it gives away two additional movement monitors every month.
“I have a love/hate relationship with the foundation. The only reason I’m here right now is because she’s not here right now,” Meagen Gries said. “But the thought that there are babies alive today because of Molly is really powerful. The idea that even though she’s not here, other babies are — it helps.”