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When Parents Have to Choose: Heidi's Story

Most parents never have to make the decisions forced onto Heidi and Carl. Most can't imagine the pain and heartbreak that they endured. But they endured it.
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Heidi is one of those women who always knew she was going to be a mother. I first met her in elementary school when we were 8 years old. Back then she cared for her Cabbage Patch Kids as though they were made of skin, not cloth. During a high school health project, she dutifully attended to twin five-pound sacks of sugar, never letting a rip spoil their C&H packaging. Heidi was a mother long before she was ever pregnant.

We grew up together, in our small Oregon town where everyone knows everyone and news travels quickly. So, in 2005, when Heidi married Carl, the neighborhood knew they were trying to grow their family -- and that they were having trouble. The journey that followed, though unique in its particulars, is also universal. It is one that so many parents find themselves on in this medical moment where technology can do many things, but not everything."

Because Heidi had been diagnosed a few years earlier -- at the age of 25 -- with polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), the next step was months of taking Chlomid and intrauterine inseminations (IUI) without results. Even though this greatly depressed Heidi, she says that her faith and trust that God would provide her with the family she wanted helped keep going.

Later, she underwent IVF procedures that resulted in terrible abdominal bruising. Joyously, Heidi became pregnant on the first implantation.

Heidi and Carl went for the initial ultrasound and were delighted to discover two heartbeats. Soon after that, Heidi's sister announced that she was also pregnant with her second child -- Heidi's twins and her sister's new baby would be just like triplets!

Heidi experienced all the usual problems that accompany pregnancy -- morning sickness, water retention, swollen ankles -- but she told me she adored every minute of it. Even the vomiting, which occurred daily until the 20th week, didn't get her down.

The 19-week ultrasound showed two healthy babies. Baby A was slightly larger and a girl, while Baby B was a boy. The news could not have been better for Heidi and Carl -- one of each, just like her tweenage dreams.

Baby B, the boy, had a name: Blaise Winthrop, after a dear church friend. For baby A, Heidi and Carl settled on Blythe Adela, after Heidi's grandmother.

With their names set, Heidi began preparing her house and her life for the arrival of the little girl and boy. Heidi picked out the nursery theme (Jungle Babies), registered at Babies"R"Us and began converting her den into the twins' room. She also purchased their first matching outfits, beautiful long-sleeved, footed sweaters in chocolate brown. She sang to each and played games with them using a flashlight on her growing belly.

It was a regular Tuesday in the latter half of her second trimester, and Heidi went to work at the gym as usual. While on one of her frequent bathroom breaks, Heidi noticed blood staining her underwear. She called the doctor, but later told me she didn't expect anyone to be concerned. Instead, they told her to come in immediately.

Strangely, Heidi said she felt completely normal, relaxed even, when she arrived at the OB's office. Besides the small droplet of blood, nothing seemed out of the ordinary; her body felt strong. Even when the midwife became evasive and left her alone to consult with the doctor, Heidi didn't panic.

It wasn't until a vaginal ultrasound confirmed that Heidi's amniotic sack was protruding that she understood the severity of the situation. Heidi was rushed to St. Vincent's Hospital thirty minutes away in Portland, Oregon. She spent the ambulance ride texting her husband and mother and asking friends for prayers on Facebook.

By the time the ambulance pulled into St. Vincent's, Heidi's cervix was approximately 4-5 cm dilated. The perinatalogists arrived and immediately placed Heidi on numerous treatments for preterm labor. She was administered magnesium sulfate to stop the contractions and was restricted to ultimate bedrest with her head positioned lower than her heart (a catheter was inserted so that Heidi would not need to move to use the restroom).

Each day, the NICU doctors would report to Heidi and Carl the odds of survival for a single baby born at 23 weeks and 1 day, 23 weeks and 2 days, 23 weeks and 3 days... (There is little data about twins born this prematurely. What is known is that the odds of survival are worse.) On Friday they were told that a single baby now had approximately a 10% chance of survival with an 85% chance of severe brain and organ damage if she did.

Heidi resolved to lie with her feet in the air for the next thirteen weeks.

The hospital would not medically intervene, Heidi and Carl also learned, if the babies were born before the gestational age of 26 weeks unless instructed to by the parents. Heidi and Carl would have to make a decision when the babies arrived about whether to rush the babies to the NICU and begin a series of highly stressful and invasive procedures, or keep the babies with them to die, a choice that Heidi never imagined making.

Was it selfish to save them if that meant the babies would live life with severe disabilities? Was it selfish to want healthy babies? What would the babies want? Why would God force them to choose?

The night it happened, Carl left the hospital to sleep and Heidi's sister stayed with her. Around five in the morning, Heidi woke up lying in her own blood and fluid. She called Carl, her mother and her pastor.

Within an hour Heidi was experiencing contractions. The room filled with doctors administering numerous labor stopping/slowing drugs, but to no avail. Heidi's labor continued as blood flowed from her body. Soon the doctors began talking pain management and blood transfusions.

By midnight, Heidi had reluctantly accepted an epidural and was ready to push. The room was filled with family, close friends and doctors when Heidi delivered Blythe. The doctors rushed to tie off the umbilical cord and dispense magnesium to keep Blaise inside a few more days or weeks. But, Heidi had lost too much blood; she had to deliver the second baby in order to save her own life.

When Heidi first laid eyes on her tiny, yet perfect babies, she remembers being surprised by her reaction. The babies were so dark, a deep purple emanated from their translucent skin. Heidi says she felt sure the IVF clinic had implanted another couple's embryos in her uterus.

A half hour after their birth, Heidi and Carl's pastor arrived to baptize Blythe and Blaise. Even though this is not standard practice for their Baptist church, he helped Heidi and Carl create a memory with their children -- a memory that wasn't about death and sorrow, but about joy and love. As Heidi said, "If they couldn't go to church, the church was coming to them."

Blaise Winthrop died after only an hour and fourteen minutes of life. Blythe held on seven hours and thirty-three minutes before she, too, joined her brother.

For the next several months, Heidi was consumed by grief. She stayed with her parents while friends collected maternity clothing and baby gear from her house. Heidi dreaded leaving the house and running into friends, she says. Those that knew couldn't hide the pity in their eyes, and those that didn't asked questions Heidi wasn't prepared to answer.

That Spring, her niece was born. Heidi held the baby and cherished her. On nights when she was overwhelmed by insomnia and heartache, she would drive to her sister's house and rock the baby. Through her niece, Heidi says, she found her way back from desperation.

Nine months after their twins passed, Heidi and Carl went back to the fertility clinic. This time, they implanted one embryo, and this time, Heidi carried the baby to term. Holden was born the following April, almost seventeen months after his brother and sister.

Most parents never have to make the decisions forced onto Heidi and Carl. Most can't imagine the pain and heartbreak that they endured. But Heidi and Carl had to choose and they chose to hold their babies. They chose to be with them during what little life they had to share. They chose to sing, cuddle and love them for all they were at that moment.