Health

Clinging to life

The surviving octuplets’ chances are improving

MARK NICHOLS January 11 1999
Health

Clinging to life

The surviving octuplets’ chances are improving

MARK NICHOLS January 11 1999

Clinging to life

Health

The surviving octuplets’ chances are improving

Like almost any new parents, the father looked proud and the mother was radiant, despite the surgery she needed after giving birth to eight babies. During a news conference last week at St. Luke’s Episcopal Hospital in Houston, the beaming Nigerian-born mother, Nkem Chukwu, 27, said that when she first saw the octuplets, “I was amazed at what God had blessed us with.” Turning to her husband, Iyke Louis Udobi, she added, “I want them to be just like you.” All of the babies, born more than 10 weeks prematurely on Dec. 8 and Dec. 20, were dangerously small. Early last week, the tiniest—a girl who weighed only 10.3 ounces at birth—died as teams of doctors struggled to save her life. The surviving babies—five girls and two boys— were in critical but stable condition. They will remain indefinitely at the adjacent Texas Children’s Hospital. Chukwu, who was able to return home, said she was happy to have “as many babies as God wants to give me.” She added that when her obstetrician, Dr. Brian Kirshon, had suggested a “selective reduction” in which some of the fetuses would be aborted to give the others a better chance of survival, she flatly refused—“I wasn’t even going to give it a second thought.” The couple declined to address the touchy

question of who administered the powerful fertility drugs that led to Chukwu’s multiple pregnancy, or the ethics of a practice that has increased the incidence of multiple births of babies who often have a precarious hold on life. (Chukwu lost triplets after a miscarriage earlier in 1998.) “When you get up to these high-order pregnancies,” said Kirshon, “it’s so unusual to be able to keep the babies alive.” In the largest known multiple birth, an Australian woman had nine babies in 1971, but none survived. In 1996, a Spanish woman bore eight babies, of which six survived.

The outlook for the surviving Houston octuplets—three of whom required ventilators to help them with their breathing— appeared to be brightening. Hospital officials said that ultrasound tests showed no evidence of the brain abnormalities that often occur in undersized infants. “Now that the babies are more than a week old,” added Dr. Leonard Weisman, head of the children’s hospital Newborn Center, “we estimate their chances of survival at about 92 per cent. ”

During an earlier encounter with reporters, Udobi, 41, brushed off questions about assault charges laid in September when he was accused of striking and bit-

ing his mother-in-law, Janel Chukwu. Udobi is scheduled to appear in court on Feb. 8 “The family has a problem we have worked through,” he said. “The family is together.’ Udobi, who immigrated to the United States from Nigerk more than 20 years ago, is Í respiratory therapist at Hous ton’s St. Joseph’s Hospital where he operates the same kind of equipment that k keeping some of his childrer alive. Udobi said that he mar ried Chukwu five years age ^ after meeting her during c I visit to Nigeria. The couple I both devout Christians, are § naturalized U.S. citizens.

I The new mother left the 3 hospital in a wheelchair, weak " ened by the gruelling ordea that began when she entered St. Luke’s three months ago. The last six weeks of hei stay were spent in bed—and for two weeks Chukwu was positioned uncomfortably head-down on an incline to relieve pressure on her cervix. After the first of the babies— a 22-ounce girl—was born naturally or Dec. 8, doctors used drugs to close the moth er’s cervix to give the other fetuses more time to develop in the womb. They decider to deliver the remaining babies by caesare an section 12 days later after becoming con cerned that the smallest fetus might not sur vive in her mother’s crowded womb. Wher the babies were born, the largest—a boyweighed only 26 ounces.

As news of the Houston octuplets spread the babies were showered with gifts tha included some cash donations and pledges of free diapers, baby formula and groceries But Chido Nwangwu, publisher of the Houston-based newspaper USAfrica, saie that so far there did not appear to have been gifts on the scale of those received by Bobbi and Kenny McCaughey of Carlisle Iowa, after she gave birth to septuplets oi Nov. 19, 1997. Local officials in Carlisle organized the construction of a seven-bed room house for the family. Other gifts in eluded a Chevrolet van and a fund for the babies’ future education.

Udobi and Chukwu may need help on ; similar scale just to meet their medica bills—hospital officials estimated it will cos about $400,000 to care for each baby unti they go home. Noting that the couple’s sut urban townhouse and their family car an too small for their greatly expanded family Udobi told reporters, “We want to ask th world for help.” And, added Chukwu, “w still need prayers.”

MARK NICHOLS