In three minutes on the morning of May 21 in Orange, Calif., a high school English teacher named Patti Frustaci gave birth by cesarean section to seven babies. It was America's first septuplet birth in which any of the newborns survived for more than a few hours. Those 180 frenzied seconds irrevocably changed the lives of Patti and her husband, Sam.
One of the babies was stillborn, and the smallest of the surviving infants, who weighed from 1 lb. 1 oz. to 1 lb. 13 ozs., died three days later. In the days following the delivery the Frustacis experienced euphoria, sadness, excitement and anxiety. The couple found themselves the subject of national curiosity and at the center of 3 controversy about the use and dangers of fertility drugs, one of which Patti was taking when she conceived.
Sam, 32, and Patti, 30, were married four years ago. Both Mormons, they met at the temple on Santa Monica Boulevard in L.A. They exchanged phone numbers, but it was a year before they ran across each other again. When they did, Sam, a gregarious man who was working for an oil development company at the time, felt he had met the right woman. Patti, a strong-willed brunette with an open face and kind eyes, had similar feelings for him. Even before they had gone on their first date, they agreed to see each other exclusively. "We knew right away," says Sam. "No games were going to be played." They were engaged within a week.
Last September the Frustacis, who have a 14-month-old son, Joseph, bought a ranch house in Riverside, Calif. Sam, an industrial equipment salesman, supplemented their income by taking a paper route for five months. The new house has four bedrooms. "We had planned for four children," says Sam. "That was our goal. Little did we know that we would be overachievers."
Now the Frustacis are talking about breaking down walls to build additions to the house. They are faced with an uncertain future: It is unclear how many of the babies will survive, and the Frustacis have no idea where they will find the money to raise them. Last week the couple met with National Correspondent Lois Armstrong to discuss the events that led up to the historic birth, the joy and sorrow of those hectic first days and their hopes for the future. Here is their extraordinary story.
Sam: We wanted to have children, probably within a year of getting married. After a year of trying unsuccessfully, we started getting concerned. We were attending [the Mormon] church at Huntington Beach, and the Mormons are very family oriented. It's difficult for a woman who is trying to have children to go to a church where all you see is children.
It's easier for the husband because you say, "Well, there's no big hurry about having children. When the time comes, it will happen." Women feel their role is to be a mother. And if that doesn't happen, they think something is wrong with them. Patti continued going to church and being depressed, when it was supposed to be a happy time.
She started looking into infertility and found she had inactive ovaries. At first, it was hard for me to get emotionally involved in this because I felt she was putting a lot of effort into something that I didn't think was a problem. We would go out and have a good time at a show and the next thing she would say was, "Gee, I'm not getting pregnant." I told her there's more to life than just being pregnant. I remember it was difficult for her to see me holding other children. She told me, "Honey, it hurts my feelings. You should be holding our kid." At the time her younger sisters—she's the eldest—were getting pregnant, and that made it worse.
A gynecologist put Patti on Clomid [an oral medication to induce ovulation]. She was on it for two years and didn't have any success. I felt she was trying too hard and that it was becoming an obsession. I don't like to use that word, but the only thing she thought about was having kids. It started to affect our relationship—to the point where we wouldn't discuss anything else.
I pulled her aside one day and said, "Honey, you may not be the only one with a problem. Maybe I have one." And sure enough I did—low sperm count. The doctor told me we should consider adoption. So we put our names in with the church's adoption services and went through the screening process. They told us that in order to get an infant, we would probably have to wait about a year.
After trying everything, Patti started taking Pergonal [an intramuscular medication which also induces ovulation]. She was on it for about two months and nothing happened. Patti was having a hard time coping with that, so I suggested we go on a vacation and stop worrying about kids for a while. We were going to see her grandparents in Utah, stopping at Zion National Park and Bryce Canyon. On the way there we decided to spend a night in Las Vegas. And that's where she conceived. I hit the jackpot.
Joseph was born on March 16, 1984. He went full term and weighed 9 lbs. 6 ozs. When he was 6 months old, Patti began taking Pergonal again. I'll be very honest with you: I was content with Joseph. I felt very blessed that he turned out as good as he did. But Patti said he needed a playmate. I said, "You don't have to have playmates in your own house. You want playmates, go borrow one from down the street." But Patti thought it would be nice to have another baby.
We had an agreement that she would only take the drug for three months. It became a nightly chore. She would sit up with her little bottles and a little saw and take the tops off the containers. She would cut her fingers and have them all wrapped in Band-Aids. The glass on the bottles would pop off and cut her or the saw would. It was a crazy thing.
Patti: I found I was pregnant again at the end of November, and it was a completely different pregnancy. I got this terrible cold around Thanksgiving and didn't lose it until March. It was all I could do to get through the day—getting up at 5:30 a.m., teaching school, picking up Joseph, who was with a baby-sitter, and bringing him home. He would nap, and I would collapse until the next morning. On the weekends I would just stay in bed. I would shake a baby rattle if I needed Sam for something. I would put up a sign saying, "I love you" or "Thanks." I was really, really sick.
I found out there were going to be seven babies on Jan. 14. I was seeing my new obstetrician, Dr. [Martin] Feldman. He put me on the ultrasound machine and immediately found three heartbeats. He said, "You're going to have triplets." And then he said, "There's something more over here, but I don't know if I'm getting double images or what." He sent me across the street to St. Joseph's for another ultrasound. Meanwhile, I called Sam and told him to sit down because we were probably going to have triplets. Sam got to the hospital in record time. At St. Joseph's it was the first time they were using the hospital's new ultrasound equipment. As the technician began the test, Feldman walked in and asked, "Is it five or six?" That's when I realized there were more than three. The technician did the scan again and counted six. I asked her to tell me how they were arranged in the uterus, and she said, "Okay. A is here. B and C are here, and D, E and F are over here." Then she said, "Oh my gosh—there's another baby." I just couldn't believe this; it was a nightmare. At this point she and I were the only ones in the room. Earlier Sam had been making jokes about having a litter and buying Gravy Train and all that. When Sam came in, I~ told him there were seven, and he just couldn't believe it.
That afternoon I had left home to go to the doctor's office for a regular visit. It had turned into an eight-hour marathon. When we got home, I told my dad. He was furious about the risks involved in having so many kids. But we swore the family to secrecy. Not knowing what would happen with this pregnancy, we didn't want public attention.
The next day Feldman gave us three options. The first was to abort the fetuses. With our religious background and all we had gone through to have kids, that just wasn't an option. I just couldn't go in there and take seven lives away. The second option was that maybe some of the babies just wouldn't make it because of the weeding out process and survival of the fittest. That's the one that Sam kind of held on to, thinking that if we could get down to even quintuplets or something, it would be a much more manageable pregnancy.
The third option was to insert saline solution into some of the sacs in the uterus and take some of the babies. Can you imagine me lying there and saying, "Keep Baby A, but kill Baby C. Save Baby D, but kill Baby F." You can't do that. Plus, I'm no dummy—you inject saline into the uterus and the whole pregnancy could go. I said no, that wasn't a viable alternative. So we decided to proceed as we were.
We took things one step at a time. I had an ultrasound once every three weeks. The first time all seven were still there, and Dr. Feldman said that by next time they might weed themselves out, but the next time he said the same thing, and it just went on. Finally he realized these seven weren't going anywhere. I took a leave of absence from my job on March 1.
Sam really came forward and wouldn't let me do much of anything. He did the vacuuming, dusting, cooking. Our relationship has been good, but now there was strain and stress. My mother was a wreck. She said I was like a time bomb, and my husband and I were not able to have any time together, not able to do anything, because by the third month I was like an invalid.
On March 25, in my 20th week, I went into the hospital. The first month wasn't that bad. I brought three things to embroider; I got one of them made. It says, "Mama, Mother, Mom—any way you say it, it means love." I was working on one for Father's Day that said something like "Any man can be a father; it takes a special one to be a daddy." Then my strength started giving out. I didn't want to start working on one for the babies. I was too superstitious.
My room in the hospital was like a revolving door. You don't want to be a celebrity or have this many medical complications. I could not be on my back from the 18th week of pregnancy on. Because my enlarged uterus would press on the blood vessels, if I were on my back, even for 30 seconds, I might have passed out. It also might have cut the supply of oxygen to the babies.
On Mother's Day Sam wanted to get me a really nice gift. Normally I'm price conscious, and I know that my IV bottles alone cost $1,500. But I hadn't been outside the hospital to breathe fresh air since March 25. I said, "Okay, whatever you want to do."
Sam arrived that afternoon with Joseph, bringing me a package. For the next 45 minutes a succession of doctors, nurses, a therapist and an IV lady came in to work on me. By this time Sam was about ready to lose it. So he went up to a nurse and said, "I need a half hour alone with my wife." Sam came back and handed me the package. He helped do most of the unwrapping because I was weak. There were boxes inside boxes. I could tell when I got to the last one that it was a jewel box. I pulled off the wrapping and just then Joseph, who had been standing on a chair, fell full force on his face and bit his lip. Blood gushed from his mouth. Sam grabbed Joseph and took him to a nurse.
I hadn't noticed how Joseph had changed. Before all this, he had been a very independent child. He wanted to be his own person. Now he was screaming and crying, saying in his way, "I've had enough of different people watching me. I've had enough." He had become really insecure. Now his father is the only one who can calm him. He still knows me well enough, but I'm an invalid. We would put him on the bed, but it was scary, in case he kicked my stomach. Anyway, I finally opened the box and it was a really nice string of pearls. Sam said, "If any mother in this country deserves Mother's Day, it's you."
By the 26th week everything was going downhill. I was getting by on sheer willpower. Dr. Feldman told me that I had to get to 28 weeks for the babies to have a reasonable chance of surviving, so I made that my goal. Nothing could deter me. At 27 weeks some of the doctors were getting anxious, but if they had tried to get me in the delivery room before Monday of the 28th week, I would have been kicking and screaming and saying I could hang on.
I am not a huge person. I am 5'2" and normally weigh 115 pounds. By the time I gave birth, I weighed 187 pounds. I had edema [water retention], and I gained 25 of those pounds in the last two weeks. My legs swelled up like elephant legs. My feet also swelled up. Joseph came in one time and kind of slapped my legs, and it just about sent me through the wall.
The dietician was monitoring the amount of calories and protein I needed. I couldn't sit up and eat by this time. I had to lie here on my side like the Romans did. The babies were taking so much out of my body. Just drawing and drawing. Nobody can have that much reserve for that many. The dietician kept trying to feed me and feed me. In the morning she would order scrambled eggs with Jack and Cheddar cheese. For lunch I would have some quesadillas with cheese. In the afternoon I'd have a fruit plate. For dinner I would have fried shrimp, and then roast beef and more cheese for a late night snack.
Toward the end I was on oxygen most of the time because four of the babies were lying right along my diaphragm, and one was pushing up on the sternum. Pulmonary tests determined I was getting one-third of the air a normal person would get. I could have told them that. So I lived with this oxygen mask, and all phone calls had to be cut out except my mother and husband.
In my mind I could have gone to the end of the 28th week, but Dr. Feldman was worried because by this time my toxemia [elevated blood pressure and other complications] had gotten really bad. They decided I had reached the point where I was no longer helping the babies because they were in a hostile environment and were not getting enough nutrition. Besides, I was in danger too. So they got set to take the babies at 8 a.m. on Tuesday, May 21.
Sam: By that day Patti's body had completely changed. It was sad. I couldn't handle it—to see the way she was suffering. She just got so big. I put on my greens, scrubbed up and went into the delivery room. Patti was just lying there like a statue [she was under a general anesthetic]. They made the incision and started pulling the babies out. It was a very, very quick experience. You didn't have time to think about what was going on. They got the babies out in three minutes.
Maybe I shouldn't say this, but lightheaded as I was [from lack of sleep], the scene struck me as somewhat humorous. Picture a bunch of doctors running around with their arms stretched out, saying, "Okay, I've got Baby A." Then they run out and put Baby A in the warmer. They run back in and someone says, "Here's Baby B." "I'm over here," says one. "I'm on the other side," says another. And I'm saying, "Make sure you get all of them; don't sew her up until they're all out." Finally, they had them all out.
I tried to find out how many were boys and how many were girls. The responses were very, very loud—about six of the babies. "Well, what about the seventh?" I asked, and there was a little commotion. They got kind of sidetracked, and I didn't get a response on Baby G. They started to sew Patti back up, and they don't like the husband to be in the room when that's taking place. So I went outside and checked on the babies. As I was getting ready to walk back in to see how Patti was doing, a nurse came over to me and said, "Did you know that you lost Baby G?" She said Baby G was stillborn. That hurt. It hurt a lot. Not that we were out in any way to make history, but we knew that if the baby had gotten this far it might have a chance to come into the world and be a part of it. I started to cry.
One of the nurses asked me if I wanted to hold Baby G [she has since been named Christina Elizabeth], and I said yes. Baby G weighed 15½ ozs. and was 10 inches long. She had all the normal features of the other babies—five fingers on each hand and five toes on each foot. I had some very precious moments with her, where I was able to let her know how much she was loved and tell her that we knew she would return to her heavenly place with a smile on her face. It was very hard, and I don't think one ever gets over that—one will always remember.
Patti: I woke up in the recovery room and still thought I was in delivery. Sam was there. My parents were there. And then, before I knew it, I was in the intensive care unit. They brought Baby G to me. I was still very groggy, but it was good to see Baby G. She was swaddled in a towel, and there was blood on the towel, but I could see she was a perfectly formed baby. I was able to see her and hold her and kiss her and love her and let her go.
Sam: After I knew that Patti's condition had stabilized, I went to a press conference with Dr. Worcester. It isn't an understatement to say that we were bombarded by the media. The hospital expected a few cameras and there were 200 people in the room. After I answered questions for 20 or 25 minutes, I thought, "This is great; I can be excused and go back to leading a normal life." I couldn't have been more wrong. From that moment forward, my life hasn't been the same, and it probably never will be.
I tried to be as modest as possible, but I couldn't help being excited about the births. I'd be driving to the hospital on the freeway, and look at the guy in the next car and say to myself, "I wonder if he knows." One time I rolled down my window and held up six fingers. The guy yelled back, "Are you listening to the game?" He thought I meant the score.
I visited the nursery several times on Wednesday and Thursday. On Thursday night Baby F [nicknamed 'Peanut' by the staff] took a drastic turn for the worse. One of the doctors present told me his lungs had collapsed and that he was having trouble breathing. "Sam," he said, "I'm not counting him out but it doesn't look good." I went back to the intensive care unit to tell Patti.
Patti: Sam came in about 7:30 p.m. He was in tears and said we had a decision to make. The baby probably wouldn't live through the night. But then again he might. The doctors wanted to know whether Sam and I wanted the baby to be with us, so we could hold him and have him die in our arms or should they continue to work on him as long as possible. He was such a fighter we didn't want to take that away from him.
Sam: Once the decision was made, Patti asked me to let her know what happened. I told her that rather than sleep at the hospital, I would drive home to Riverside. If at any time during the night I learned that he had died, I would wear a suit when I came to the hospital. I received a phone call at 12:35 Friday morning saying that Peanut had passed away.
Patti: I woke up sometime after midnight, as the nurses were taking my vital signs. At 12:30 I had a strong feeling and asked the nurse to call CHOC [Childrens Hospital of Orange County] and see how Baby F was doing. She called over and was told that they were working on him and that they would call back. I thought this was kind of strange because normally we got information immediately. Not long afterward, Sam walked in wearing a suit. I looked at him and said, "He died." And Sam just broke down. It was hard on him because he had really gotten to know Peanut. I had never seen the baby in the 64 hours he lived except on TV, but Sam had a special relationship with him, and he really needed to be comforted. It was hard because I had such pains that night, but I comforted him.
In February I had a dream, the only one I had about the pregnancy, but it was extremely vivid. I was in the delivery room, awake for the whole thing. Five healthy babies were born, and two were stillborn. So when Dr. Feldman said that my condition was getting worse and it might result in stillborn babies, it was like a light went on in my head. I told him about my dream, and he said he wasn't into premonitions. Nevertheless, we didn't wait, and that's why I think Baby F lived as long as he did. The doctor said he'd have been stillborn if we had waited just one more day—just like the dream.
After he died we got Baby F from CHOC, and I held him for over an hour. Sam told me not to unwrap him, but I told him I had to see this baby. I unwrapped the blankets and saw where they put all the tubes in. We held a family prayer and dedicated him back to the Lord, where he came from. We could see that he was at peace. He had tried so hard to live that his body had just worn down. We are very proud. His name is going to be David Anthony. David means beloved, and Anthony means inestimable, priceless treasure. And that's what he was.
I wanted to look good when I finally saw my other babies—which was four days after they were born. I had looked like death warmed over for weeks now. My mother and sisters came in and helped me wash my hair and then I put on makeup. My mother brought me a real nice pink-and-white robe.
I was taken down to the nursery and I went from baby to baby. The nurses in charge of each would tell me what the child was like.
Baby A [Patricia Ann] loves to sleep on her stomach. When they try to put her on her back, she goes wild. I went over to Baby B [James Martin], who was very sick. As soon as Baby C [Stephen Earl] heard my voice, he opened his eyes and he urinated. The doctor said, "He's really putting on a show for you." These babies are so active that the doctors have had to put them on sedation to better regulate their breathing.
Now we are on a constant roller coaster. One day Baby A is doing well, B is not. C is hanging in there, D [Bonnie Marie] is not. E [Richard Charles] is doing okay. Then the next day it changes. You get over one crisis, and then there's another one.
Sam: Looking to the future, I don't like to dwell on the financial responsibility and say how much money it's going to take to raise the kids, because there really isn't an answer. The insurance from my job will cover the majority of the babies' hospital bill [estimated to be $1 million]. Having one income and so many mouths to feed is a pretty big responsibility—not even thinking about schooling, clothes, food, cars, insurance, weddings. There is no question it is going to take a lot of money to raise these kids in a comfortable fashion. They have no right to be in poverty. The only way I will probably be able to raise them properly is to sell my house, sell my cars...but basically, we will just have to take it one day at a time. One can always hope to get endorsements from the diaper companies, the baby food companies and the Handi-Wipe companies. I haven't seen it happen yet, and I think that the reason might be that they are not sure the babies will survive.
We will be able to take the babies when they reach four and a half to five pounds, but right now there is no guarantee we're going to take any of them home. I would hate to think that we have to go through another death. But Patti and I know that with the beliefs we share, the babies will be ours forever, no matter what.
- Lois Armstrong.