When Meryl Ferraro was on bed rest for two months, awaiting the birth of her quintuplets in an Arizona hospital, the Olympics were on television almost constantly during the first three weeks of her stay. As her belly grew (somewhat lopsided, by the way), she said he began to see making her pregnancy last 34 weeks as her own sort of Olympic challenge.
"It's just determination," Ferraro said. "If you decide this is what you want, you've got to give it all you have."
Most quintuplets are born between 24 and 28 weeks into pregnancy, sometimes causing them to be born with underdeveloped lungs, cerebral palsy, and sight and hearing deficiencies. So it was crucial for Ferraro to keep her babies inside as long as possible to give their tiny bodies more time to grow. Full-term pregnancy is typically about 38 weeks.
Early on, doctors told her to reduce the number of fetuses she was carrying, but Ferraro and her husband, John, decided they couldn't bear to choose which babies would live and which would die. After John read a chapter in a book about multiple births written by Dr. John Elliott, they found out he lived 45 minutes from their California home and gave him a call.
Elliott specialized in high-risk pregnancies. He delivered his first quadruplets in 1984, and has delivered 99 sets in all. He'd also delivered 12 sets of quintuplets when Ferraro met him.
And this month, he delivered two more sets of quints: one to Meryl and one to Carmen Matthews, who met Meryl in July and gave birth a few weeks before Meryl did. Both families temporarily moved to Arizona to keep Elliott as their doctor when he relocated to Banner Desert Medical Center in July. (John actually took all the seats out of his van and put a mattress in back when Meryl was 23 weeks pregnant, so he could drive her from their home in Southern California to Mesa, Ariz.)
Both moms were nurses; both sought fertility treatment; and both gave birth to five babies with September birthdays.
Once Matthews gave birth, Meryl was even more uncomfortable -- both ready to hold her babies in her arms and desperate to keep them inside just a few weeks longer. Quoting her husband, Meryl said giving birth to quints at 32 weeks instead of 28 weeks was like the difference between a "fender-bender and a front-end collision." She'd take the fender-bender.
Her water broke at 5:15 a.m. Wednesday morning, when she was 32 weeks and five days pregnant. All five babies were born via Caesarean section between 11:01 and 11:04 a.m. There was a team of 24 people in the operating room and another 50 in recovery.
When she went into labor and knew she wouldn't make it to 34 weeks, Meryl said the first thing she felt was anger. In the Olympic challenge she dreamed up, 33 weeks was only worth a sliver metal, and she wanted to reach the 34-week mark she'd imagined as gold.
"I was so mad because I had this goal, and, to me, I didn't reach it," she said.
But in the days since delivering, she's gotten to know the three girls and two boys she felt nudge her from the inside for so long. She already knows Gabby can sleep through anything, Addy (the smallest) is a fighter, and Riley (the biggest) is kind of lazy, she said. She calls Riley "my chubber."
Meryl Ferraro, 39, and 5-day-old daughter Addy, a quintuplet.
Although Meryl says her stomach feels as sore as if she's done "1,000 crunches," and she's getting used to walking again after two months in bed, she can go home to her temporary apartment in Arizona today. The quints will stay in the NICU until they're ready to leave, too.
Always a step ahead, Carmen Matthews, who gave birth on Sept. 6, is waiting for just one more baby to leave the NICU before she and her family can go home to North Carolina.
"I'm definitely glad that we did what we did," Matthews said. "We couldn't have asked for better outcomes. It was a lot of sacrifice for all of us, but it was totally worth it."
As Matthews spoke into the phone, a few of her new babies cooed in the background.
Elliott said having a plan and keeping a positive attitude plays an important role in his patients' outcomes. For the Ferraros and the Matthews, it was a comfort to have each other.
"I think it helped both of these families to have somebody else going through the same thing, same fears, same questions," Elliot said. "It was special. It just doesn't happen."
Elliott said he's able to get his patients to carry their high risk pregnancies between four and six weeks longer than average because he uses magnesium sulfate to prolong pregnancies longer than most doctors. Once he puts the mother on the drug, she's often uncomfortable -- with chest pain, muscle weakness, blurred vision and headaches -- but those symptoms usually go away after about three days, and the medication can extend the gestation period for months.
"Most people don't know that because they're afraid to go three to four days," he said. "If you don't know how to treat it in an aggressive way, you're going to fail."
Although the babies are doing well, Dr. James Goldfarb, who directs the University Hospital's fertility center in Cleveland, said having more than one baby as a result of fertility treatments is something to be avoided because of the associated health risks. He said fertility specialists' goals should not just be to get their patients pregnant; it should be to help them have healthy families. He said even triplets are 20 times more likely to be born with cerebral palsy than single babies.
Goldfarb said doctors and patients need to be conservative about administering fertility shots. He recommended that they implant only one embryo at a time. He said doctors also need to be mindful that some patients can't reduce their number of embryos for moral or religious reasons.
"Patients come to us desperate t get pregnant, and the last thing they're concerned about is being too pregnant," Goldfarb said.