It had been 4½ months since Patti Frustaci had stunned the world by giving birth to septuplets. Today the third and final surviving baby was coming home. As the high school English teacher prepared to leave Childrens Hospital of Orange County, Calif. for the last time, Patti and husband Sam took one final tour around the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. It was a highly charged moment for Patti, and the weight of her memories caused her to break down. For it was there that three of her babies had died (another was stillborn), and it was there that three had fought for life.

Their fight is far from over. Three bassinets stand side by side in the 10'-by-10' nursery in the Frustacis' four-bedroom Riverside house. Each bassinet is draped in blue-and-white-checked cotton and is backed by a dresser on which stands a cardiorespiratory monitor. At 6 pounds 9 ounces, Patricia Ann is the healthiest of the infants. Her brothers, Richard Charles and Stephen Earl, weigh just under 6 pounds. Both are still hooked up to oxygen and may require that help for another year. Stephen, the last septuplet to come home, will take food only while lying on his stomach (feeding him is a tedious process that takes almost an hour). He also has a hernia that will have to be operated on later.

As the babies struggle to stay alive, their parents struggle to make ends meet. The medical costs are overwhelming (see box, page 32). Last week the couple filed a medical malpractice lawsuit against the Tyler Medical Clinic. The suit charges that the clinic, which administered Patti's fertility drug, Pergonal, failed to monitor her condition during treatment. The sudden celebrity and constant care the children require has put a strain on Sam and Patti's marriage of four and a half years, while the septutlets' elder sibling, Joseph, 19 months, is understandably bewildered by the hubbub in the household.

Sam, 32, and Patti, 30, have responded to the pressure in different ways. An industrial equipment salesman, Sam falls back on his natural ebullience and sense of humor. Patti is a coiled spring, a taut package of nervous energy, constantly on the alert. Amid squalling infants, a constant stream of volunteer workers and nurses changing shifts, the Frustacis sat down with National Correspondent Lois Armstrong to discuss the joys and sorrows that followed the historic births, the long, tiring summer and the challenges they now face.

Patti: I got out of the hospital on a Wednesday, and Friday we buried two kids, David [nicknamed Peanut when he was alive] and Christina [the stillborn child]. The next week two more were dying, and I stayed at the hospital and slept on a cot.

Sam: We're in a lot better spirits now than we were after the kids were first born. I was really affected by Peanut's death, and I don't think I've fully recovered from that. I did well until the actual funeral for James and Bonnie [who died on June 6 and June 9 after living 16 and 19 days respectively], when I broke down. Since then, there have been times when I'm alone that I just sit and cry.

Patti: When we took Stephen home, I took one last walk around the nursery where each of my kids had been, the living and the dead. When I looked at the isolette where James had been, I broke up. There's another baby in it now, but I didn't see that other baby. I thought, "That's where one of my sons died."

Then I went over to where Bonnie had been and I stood there for a minute or two and reflected on all the hours I'd spent in that corner, winding up her music box and talking to her. I have a hard time accepting Bonnie's death. The Sunday morning she died, she looked the best she ever had. A nurse gave me a poem by Wordsworth called "We Are Seven," about a little girl who believed that her two dead siblings are as much alive as the living ones. I had used that poem when I prepared for my master's degree, but it didn't have the same significance for me then. Then Bonnie's heart rate started dropping fast, and so the medical team went into emergency lifesaving procedures, but they didn't work. The doctors unhooked all of her life-support tubes and handed her to me. I carried her past Patti's isolette and showed her to Patti. I realized then that they would never grow up together.

Suddenly, from the direction of the nursery, comes the high-pitched sound of the monitor alarm. Patti bolts from her seat and races from the room. Down the hallway comes Patti's voice. "Breathe!" she commands. "Breathe!" After a few minutes she returns and resumes her seat.

Patti: Richard just stopped breathing. See, that's why I'm a house prisoner. A friend came in to cut my hair the other day because I can't go to the hairdresser. I can't even go out to the mailbox or put a load of wash in without carrying the remote-control box.

It never ends around here. With three tiny babies, I'm up all through the night for feeding and medication so I sleep only a couple of hours at a time. I don't even have time to cook. I eat sandwiches and grab a soda. We make up 40 or so bottles of formula a day. The babies have to eat every four hours. I feed Richard and by the time I feed Patti, Richard's hungry again. When it's time to bathe Patti and Richard, Stephen needs to eat.

It's not like I can go to the mall or back to work tomorrow. It seems that if I have to worry about one more thing, I'm going to crack. I'm tight as a drum.

Sam: The situation has been detrimental to our relationship. When you first fall in love, it's exciting to look forward to having children. But you don't expect them in multiples of seven.

Patti: During the summer, Sam worked all day, and I stayed with Joseph because I'd missed all that time with him. Sam would get home about 7, and I'd leave around 7:30 to go to the hospital. We hardly saw each other. We barely had enough time to say, "Hi, how are you?" When all three kids were in intensive care, I had to spend a couple of hours with each one. I'd have to feed them and dress them and do their laundry.

Sam: Sometimes she wouldn't come home until 1 or 2 in the morning. Then Joseph would get up around 6, and I would have to go to work. Patti was exhausted.

Patti: Not long ago, a neighbor gave us a trip to Las Vegas. We were under so much strain we decided to go. The morning we were supposed to leave, I called the hospital and found out that Stephen had another infection. So I said I couldn't go. Sam said, "We gotta go." We stopped in Barstow on the way, and I called to find out how he was, then I called again in Baker. As soon as we got to our room in Las Vegas, I called again.

Sam: Yeah, she was really a lot of fun. She'd say, "Let's go down to the pool. I'll meet you there." So I'd go to the pool, wait for a while, then come back to the room and, of course, she would be on the phone.

Patti: I couldn't get the kids out of my mind. I would wait until Sam was in the shower to call because he was saying, "You're not calling anymore."

Sam: Having the kids come home one at a time has helped. When little Patti first came home [September 6], it wasn't that difficult. When Richard came home [September 19], he was on the monitor and on the oxygen, so it was harder. Sometimes when Patti was with Stephen at the hospital and I was alone with the children, I felt like I was about to explode. With Stephen home, it's really going to be a zoo.

I'm worried about Joseph too. I don't want to say he's shell-shocked, but he's not used to all these new faces. He wonders why nobody can take him places, so, whenever I can, I take him for a ride in his little red wagon.

Patti: These are high-risk infants. Their problems include optic nerve damage, chronic lung disease, hernias. And they're susceptible to other ailments we can't even predict. Patti is very alert, though, and, in terms of the central nervous system, she's a couple of weeks ahead of Richard. He is still very jittery. So is his brother. But Stephen's got good coloring, don't you think? Look at his Paul Newman blue eyes. It's a good thing that he's cute because he's going to be a lot of work.

But even with all the problems, there are moments of joy as well. When we see the babies resting comfortably in their bassinets, we realize what a beautiful family we have.

Sam: Getting Stephen home is the end of a long, drawn-out story. I was concerned about Patti coming out of recovery, and by the time she did, we had already lost two children.

Looking back, my emotions have gone from enthusiasm and excitement to trying to get by from day to day. Now, with everybody home, we can attempt to get back to some kind of normal life.

Patti: If anybody thinks they can do a better job than we're doing, they should spend a day in our shoes.