“We were completely shocked at the news we were going to have twins. Never once in a million years did it ever enter our minds that we might have twins. We had no idea of the high risks associated with a twin pregnancy and how different it might be from having a singleton.”
Suzanne Henson tapped a finger on the baby book that lay on the coffee table before leaning back in her chair and arranging the ends of her scarf. Her eyes, when they found mine, were a striking shade of blue.
“Pretty much right away things were different for us than other people. We had issues even in the first trimester, and I almost miscarried at twelve weeks. We had tried to get pregnant for several months before we did, so just the fact that we were pregnant was wonderful, and then right away, it was like, ‘We could lose this. We could lose this.’
“Just as I entered third trimester, we had the boys. They were born at twenty-nine weeks.
“I had a baby shower the day before I turned twenty-nine weeks. I felt funny all day, but I didn’t know. I didn’t know anything. It was my first pregnancy. And people, older women, kept saying, ‘Oh, that just happens; Oh, yeah, you’ll get used to that.’ No one actually took the time to ask me about what I was feeling. It turns out that for a whole twenty-four hours I was in the start of labor, but I had no idea. Because on TV you always see people screaming, so I assumed that if I wasn’t in pain, everything was okay. And everything was not okay.
“I started opening—there was the internet, but nobody really used it—I started flipping through all my books to figure out what was going on. But by midnight I was just exhausted, so I went to bed. I didn’t know what this was, but I felt foolish and not informed enough to call somebody or go to the hospital in the middle of the night just to say, ‘I don’t know if this is okay or not.’
“But as soon as I lay down in bed, all of a sudden I realized that what I was feeling were contractions because they were coming and going, coming and going. I was emotionally connected to the babies because I was carrying them; my husband, who was not, was being more logical, and he said to me, ‘We are at twenty-nine weeks today. If you think you’re having contractions that we need to time, we need to get to the hospital because this is not normal.’
“Even when I got to the hospital, the staff were saying, ‘Oh, okay, this happens a lot, I’m sure it’s nothing,’ and they were taking their time. When they finally hooked me up in a room, the nurse said, ‘We’re just going to let you hang out in here for a while, and we’ll come back, we’ll check on you.’
“Within five minutes the door flung open, and the nurse rushed back into the room, saying, ‘Did you just have a contraction?’
“I said, ‘I don’t know, that’s why I’m here! I thought you should know!’ She closed the door. We both looked at each other. Next thing I know, people are coming in and out, they’re telling me they’ve called the doc—”
Her voice cut off mid-word. I looked up from fiddling with my voice recorder, and my heart jolted. Mrs. Henson was staring at her folded hands on her lap, lips pursed and eyes shining.
She glanced at me and tried for a watery smile.
“I’m sorry.” She sniffed and exhaled shakily. “Even though it’s been twenty-two years, it’s still hard. You feel so useless, so not in control. Up until that minute, we thought everything was fine, and all of a sudden, in an instant, you realize, ‘I have no control over what’s going to happen.’ You’re always afraid of hearing what the next thing could be. Every piece of news was like, ‘Are they okay, are they okay, are they going to live?’
“Next thing I knew, they were moving me to the operating room. The doctor’s on the way, they’re calling in extra nurses. We still didn’t really understand what was going on. They were saying things, but it’s not registering. The nurse said, ‘We’re going to move you to the OR,’ and I’m thinking, ‘Just give me the medicine to stop the labor if I’m having labor!’ Finally, the nurse just stopped, and she was like, ‘You’re going to have these kids tonight.’”
Mrs. Henson’s voice cracked around a sob. Her eyes were far away, like we were both hearing the nurse’s words for the first time. She took a deep breath, visibly steeling herself to go on.
“In an instant, we realized . . . this is it. That was the moment where they were either going to live, or they’re not going to live. And there was nothing we could do.
“I wasn’t on quite the rollercoaster my husband was on. I had been physically connected to them, and so I’d never felt like I was far from them. I felt like, when they were in my womb, I could protect them and take care of them, and now I knew they were going to come into the world, and I didn’t know what was going to happen to them. But my husband was freaking out because this was the first time, I think, it was really real for him. He had to make phone calls to my dad and his parents. His parents were like, ‘Okay, I’m sure this is not the day, just be calm, we’ll come to the hospital, but this happens all the time, people think they’re—’ And he’s like, ‘Mom, they took her in the OR. They’re taking the babies. I’ve gotta go.’
“They took the babies and moved me to a room. We didn’t really know what was happening. Later, we found out that when they’re born, they’re not breathing at all, they’re not moving, they’re not making any sounds.” Her voice choked off, but after a second she continued. “Thomas was purple, and Jake was ghost white.
“What we hadn’t known, because at the time they didn’t have the knowledge or the medical ability to recognize it in the womb, was that the boys had what’s called Twin-to-Twin Transfusion Syndrome (TTTS). With identical twins, if the zygote splits late, there are already things being formed. For instance, if it’s really late, that’s how you get conjoined twins. This was before that point, but the umbilical cord and the placenta were already being formed. The umbilical cord, instead of going from Mom to Baby A and from Mom to Baby B, goes from Mom to Baby A to Baby B and then back to mom, like a triangle. All your oxygen, your blood, your nutrients, all the things that travel in the umbilical cord, go to Baby A first and then to Baby B. The problem was that Thomas, who was Baby A, was getting more than he should have, and there wasn’t enough left over for Jake. My body went into labor because they were in distress. We found out later that if my body hadn’t gone into labor, Jake would have died because he wouldn’t have had enough oxygen, and his brain would have died. You would assume, then, that at least Thomas would be okay, but it’s just as fatal for Baby A because there’s too much blood for the tiny heart to pump, and Baby A ends up going into cardiac arrest.
“At the time, we had no idea this was happening. It wasn’t until they were born that the doctors recognized right away from their color that this is what had happened. Months later, when I did research, I found out that, at the time, 85 percent of babies with TTTS die in the womb.
“The boys were in the 15 percent that didn’t die, but right away the doctors realized something was wrong. Besides their being premature, there was something else wrong. We got little word in the hospital because they were just trying to keep the boys alive. Later, when everything’s calm, we heard stories and pieces of what happened. Later, the nurses said that because they didn’t have respirators, because it wasn’t a Level IV NICU, they were manually bagging them to get their lungs to breathe. They weren’t moving, weren’t breathing. Someone was breathing for them and keeping them alive.
“We were about half an hour away from Rady Children’s Hospital in San Diego. They called Children’s, and Children’s sent”—her voice wavered—“an ambulance. They sent two teams, one for each baby, in the ambulance from Children’s. Of course, I just gave birth, so I was not able to go anywhere, but my husband left with his dad while my mother-in-law, my stepmom, and my dad stayed with me.
“About thirty minutes after they arrived at Children’s, the doctor came out to talk with my husband and father-in-law. He said, ‘Listen, I don’t really have time to talk with you, but I wanted to give you a quick update. We’re going to be busy for the next four hours, we have all these things we need to do. You have two very small, very premature, very sick babies. I can’t make you any promises. What I can say is that we will do everything we can to save them. But you need to know up front that there’s no guarantees.’
“They ended up staying at Children’s for about two weeks. Babies come from all over to Children’s. They have babies fly in from Hawaii, from Wyoming, because it’s the closest Level IV NICU. These are all the babies that are worst-case scenario.
“Once Jacob was born, he was fairly stable. He made tiny progresses. The nurses called him “our fighter.” They said when you have a baby that’s sick or premature like this, they either fight, or they give up. Jake was our fighter.
“Thomas was just giving up. When you looked at him, you weren’t quite sure if he was alive or not. He didn’t move, he didn’t make sounds, he just lay there. Twice, when they tried to remove the breathing tube, Thomas’s lungs collapsed, and they had to re-intubate him. Jacob had already been off for two days, so on the third try, they said, ‘We’re holding Jacob here because his twin is here. If Thomas fails one more time, we’re going to have to move Jacob.’
“As a brand-new parent, when there’s nothing you can do for your kid, especially when they’re in a Level IV NICU, there’s some comfort in knowing that their twin is with them. Maybe it isn’t logical, because they’re another incubator away, and I don’t know that they even recognized each other—at least you know they’re not alone. Thankfully, on the third try, Thomas started breathing for himself.
“From the day they were born, everybody we knew, everybody we ran into, everybody that called, we asked to pray for them. One of the sweetest things was, when they were still at the hospital, we had the first medical bill person call. It was for the ambulance that had transported them, and she didn’t have enough information to do the billing.
“Our answering machine had a message that said, ‘The boys were born on this date, this is how much they weighed, they’re in the NICU. We’re not answering the phone right now, please leave a message.’” Her voice stuttered. “‘Please call one of the grandparents for more information,’ and then, ‘Please pray for them.’”
Mrs. Henson broke off, trying to keep her voice steady. Tears spilled down her cheeks.
“The billing lady from the ambulance left a message, saying, ‘I’m calling because I need more information to make the bill. I’m really sorry to have to leave this on your answering machine, but know I’ll be praying for your babies.’”
She swallowed down a sob.
“I remember just thinking, this person, who doesn’t even know us at all from anyone, who has never met us, is praying for them.
“In San Diego most of the people are not Christian. There’s a lot of atheists and agnostics. It’s often a hostile environment toward Christians. And we were fairly new Christians at the time the boys were born. But when it’s this important, you suddenly didn’t care what people said or if they laughed at you or made fun of you. You were going to ask them to pray anyway. Because it was the most powerful thing you could think of to help your babies.
“The NICU stay at the birth hospital was another four weeks. They were at the hospital a total of fifty days before they came home. And even once we came home, we were told not to leave the house if we didn’t have to, not to let people touch them or breathe on them. It was winter, RSV was going around, and the doctors said that if they got a cold, they could get RSV. They’d have to go back to the hospital, and this time they might not make it. So just because we were home, we didn’t feel relief quite yet. It was a long time before I actually felt like we could be safe, and I didn’t worry that they were going to die. They were probably ten months old the first time I was like, ‘I think we’re going to be okay, I think they’re going to make it, I think we’re going to have a one-year-old birthday party.’
“Even then, we didn’t know what the future was going to look like. Are we looking at kids that are going to grow up typically and do all the things you hope for when you have a baby? Walk and run, talk and sing, climb the jungle gym, go to school, go to prom, maybe one day get married and have kids? And nobody could really answer the question.
“The thing that I remember, very clear like it was yesterday, was my prayer after they were born. I said, ‘God, just let them live, just let me raise them. I’m not asking for anything else, I’m not asking for any promises, I’m not asking that they won’t have handicaps, that they won’t be disabled, just let them live so that I can raise them.’ I’m thankful for that prayer because I feel like it helped me let go of a lot of expectations that I originally had for being a mom and for having kids. We were actually able to enjoy our kids much more because I was released from all those typical expectations. Every milestone they achieved was the best day ever because I never took for granted that they were going to reach those things. Every single thing was celebrated.”
She met my eyes with a shaky smile, and I found myself wiping tears from my own eyes. I, too, was holding a memory, precious and never taken for granted:
Eighteen years after the events of Suzanne Henson’s story, a shy girl cleared her throat and fidgeted on the first day of freshman speech class.
“I guess that, um, a fun fact about me is . . . a fun fact is that I have a twin brother?”
Across the room a young man with red hair beamed a thousand-watt smile.
“You have a twin? I have a twin! That’s so cool! I’ll introduce you to him after class!”
His striking blue eyes crinkled with joy as, in that moment, he became my first friend at Bob Jones University.