Although groggy from the anesthetic, I clearly remember Dr. Coburn’s words: “Millie, there were six babies. Three died shortly after birth and we don’t expect the others to live. Their lungs are just too premature.” My doctor never gave us the expectation that any of the babies I had conceived would live but we never quit hoping. I cherished every little flutter of movement that signified life. We explored ways we could best care for them after they were born as a sign of our hope. Now my husband stood alone in the nursery as each of our little children, weighing less than a pound, lost their struggle. I felt empty and powerless.
We made national news on September 5, 1975: “Oregon Woman Has Sextuplets.” Since then, I’ve kept a notebook listing almost every newspaper article concerning multiple births that has appeared. Today, multiple births are almost common and don’t often make the news. Medical treatments for immature babies continue to improve. At times we hear about a baby, just as small and premature as ours were, surviving.
As I read about the burgeoning industry surrounding “baby-making,” I sense a change in what our society regards as morally sound practice. Concerning the environment, Pope Francis recently wrote: “As often occurs in periods of deep crisis which require bold decisions, we are tempted to think that what is happening is not entirely clear . . . Such evasiveness serves as a license to carrying on with our present lifestyles and models of production and consumption. This is the way human beings contrive to feed their self-destructive vices: trying not to see them, trying not to acknowledge them, delaying the important decisions and pretending that nothing will happen.”
One could easily use the Pope’s approach to the environment as an approach to the infertility crisis.
When I first consulted a doctor about possible infertility, he took my history, examined me, and then casually wrote a prescription for Clomid (Clomiphene Citrate), offering little explanation about what I could expect. In 1972, our healthy son arrived. In 1974, I saw another doctor regarding a disrupted menstrual cycle. After some testing, he suggested I take Clomid again, this time to induce ovulation to regulate my hormone imbalance. He told me I could get pregnant and, if I did, there was a risk of twins, but less than a 3% chance. “Actually,” he added, “one of my patients, Mrs. Anderson, had quintuplets after taking Clomid.” He assured me, however, that even twins would be rare. My husband and I felt ready for another baby, so I went on my way, confident in this doctor’s advice.
I became pregnant again. Due to my rapidly expanding belly, my doctor ordered an ultrasound when I was three months along. In 1975, ultrasounds were not as clear as they are now. I was told I was carrying four, possibly five babies. The doctor immediately placed me on bed rest. Periodically, I returned to the hospital for blood transfusions and anemia treatments.
I suffered from poor appetite, heartburn, constipation, persistent cough, leg swelling, and backache. My muscles became boggy and weak. I tired easily and yet had difficulty finding a comfortable position to sleep. I could no longer work as a nurse; caring for my son and keeping up my household were a challenge. People were generous with their help and brought me good things to eat but my husband and I felt overwhelmed. I dieted in the beginning of the pregnancy because I was gaining weight so fast. By the time I was aware of the need for good nutrition, eating gave me heartburn and my appetite waned.
My bag of waters broke at 24 weeks and I was hospitalized. The doctor on call suggested surgery to “evacuate the uterine contents.” Anger rose up in me. I protested his dismal regard for my babies. He insisted that if I got an infection, my immune system would be too weak to fight it, emphasizing that my life—not just the babies’—was in danger. Only when my own doctor arrived did my husband and I receive support for our decision to give the babies more time, if possible, to mature. I felt waiting was the only choice I had.
Eleven days passed. Mrs. Anderson came to visit me with words of encouragement. Friends prayed with me. But all medical attempts to stop the progression of labor failed on September 5th. When in active labor, delivery became inevitable. I was taken to surgery for a cesarean.
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Would I take fertility drugs again given what I know now? No, absolutely not. During their short lives, our tiny babies were poked and prodded with tubes and needles. They were gone in less than twelve hours. I never held them in my arms. My husband, who hadn’t slept for three nights, was full of grief.
I felt lonely and restless, and chose to withdraw from life. I wanted to talk about the babies but people didn’t want to listen. They just asked stupid questions or said things like, “Wow, you must have been huge!” One lady told me, “Honey, you should be glad they all died because they would have been retarded.” I wanted to hit her but lacked the physical strength. After forty years, I still mourn the death of my babies.
I sincerely recognize the frustration and anguish of infertile couples desiring to have a family. Just as I delayed facing the possibility of having a multiple pregnancy, pretending that nothing unexpected would happen taking fertility drugs, many parents today pursue infertility procedures without thinking about the “extra” fertilized embryos that will be discarded. Or that an excess of successfully implanted embryos might later be destroyed through “selective reduction” in the womb.
I am hoping my story of a multiple pregnancy will serve as a catalyst for helping others to consider all the babies who are lost in the course of infertility procedures. Physicians who perform such procedures need to give clear and complete information to their patients. A couple cannot just submit to the tyranny of chance, rejoicing in one live birth while destroying another infant’s life. My world has been permanently altered by the loss of my six babies, whose lives had supreme value. And I am alarmed and saddened by our culture’s growing callousness regarding the fate of these tiny lives—an attitude that undermines the dignity of all children.
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Millie Hynes, who is semi-retired, works as a nurse massage therapist in Spokane, Washington, where she lives with her husband.