It began with a second marriage, a new love and, eventually, a powerful desire to see that love fulfilled in a child. When they married in May 1986, Michele and Raymond L'Esperance knew they would not be able to have children together, but it did not seem to matter. Both brought to the relationship a joyful bounty of children—Michele's boys, Larry, 7, and Christopher, 5, and Raymond's son, Brian, 2½. The L'Esperances moved to a duplex apartment in the Detroit suburb where Raymond, now 27, is a $26,000-a-year corrections officer with the Macomb County Sheriff's Department and Michele, 34, a former fashion model, worked at a shelter for abused women. It was only after a year of marriage that they felt there was something missing—a child of their own. Michele's diseased fallopian tubes had been removed after her second child was born, but the couple had heard about the in vitro fertilization program at nearby William Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, Mich. Ten years after the world's first in vitro birth, the procedure is still far from foolproof: The average woman's chances of delivering an in vitro child are no better than one in four, and for some the technique may result in unintended multiple births. Michele and Raymond L'Esperance took the gamble and lived through 7½ months of pain and anguish that put a heavy strain on their marriage. But in the end they found fulfillment beyond their wildest dreams when Michele gave birth to America's first test-tube quintuplets. They shared their story with PEOPLE'S Julie Greenwalt:
Raymond: We had three boys between us. So when we decided to do the in vitro, we were hoping for a little girl. I was a bit concerned about the cost, which is $4,000 per attempt. We agreed that we would try it two times. If we didn't conceive, then that would be it. Fortunately we got lucky on the first go-round.
Michele: At the in vitro clinic they started me on hormones to make my ovaries grow several eggs at once.
R: And, boy, did she have a reaction to those hormones! The emotional upset she went through almost got us divorced, and they had to give her those hormones all through the pregnancy. She'd cry over nothing, get mad over any little thing. She was almost impossible to live with. It was definitely a strain on our marriage.
M: The last few days, they make you come down to the hospital three times a day so they know when your hormones are high enough to harvest the eggs. The doctors used a needle directed by ultrasound to harvest 15 eggs from me and mixed them with Ray's sperm.
R: They cultivated the embryos for 72 hours, watching them under the microscope. They actually took pictures of them and showed us the cells and reported, "This cell looks good, this embryo looks good." So when it came down to the day of the transfer, there were actually seven that were good.
M: Yes, we wound up with seven. The doctors had asked me how many I wanted. I said, "Well, there's seven, then put seven in." To me an embryo is a baby. If God wants me to have it, I'll have it." The way I found out I was pregnant was, 10 days after I missed my period the doctor at the clinic called and said, "This is the genius who got you pregnant." I said, "Ray?" He said, "No, Dr. Behrman." I said, "Good. Now I know who to sue for paternity."
R: Our biggest surprise was yet to come. But we had a clue.
M: When I went to the clinic for a blood test, they were pretty sure that I had more than one baby, because my hormone levels were so high. They were thinking triplets, so I was prepared for at least three. The ultrasound was scheduled after that.
R: I looked over, and they were writing down on a piece of paper, "Five." I'm thinking, "Does that mean five babies'? No, this can't be true." But it was.
M: When they said, "Five," Ray walks out with his chest all puffed up, and I'm in tears. He thinks he did something real special, and all I could think was, "Oh my God, now what?"
R: She was very upset and very worried about carrying five babies. But I had confidence in her.
M: Sure, why not? It wasn't your stomach.
R: When we found out there were five, then I thought, "Uh-oh, I've got to really work some overtime." I didn't see how we were going to work it out financially. All along I kept thinking, "We just have to take this one day at a time." I changed to the midnight shift at work because Michele wound up in bed after the second month and I had to take care of the kids during the day.
M: Our lease was up, so we had to move out of our apartment—plus I had to have bed rest and needed my mother's help. My parents took us in to their house in Warren, Mich. God love them—they had to go through the hormones too.
R: So did the boys, who didn't understand they were going to have five new siblings until I showed them the ultrasound pictures. They were rather blasé about it all.
M: One night at the beginning of my fourth month the kids were going crazy. I had to run downstairs to quiet them down. I went back to bed with a backache, but then I had—well, it felt like my water broke. I turned on the light, saw the blood and went off the deep end. I was screaming, crying, literally hysterical. My poor husband, who was lying next to me...he took it from there, called an ambulance.
R: She immediately started hollering for her mother. Thank God her mother was there, because I couldn't calm her down at all. All she said was, "I'm losing my babies!" I kept telling her, "You don't know that yet. Hang on!" But I was afraid she was losing them all.
M: Ray told me he was close to tears as he drove to the hospital behind the ambulance. The doctors put me on an intravenous drip to stop the contractions. They decided I would have to stay in the hospital for the rest of my pregnancy—another three or four months.
R: In a way, it was easier when she went into the hospital.
M: The truth is, I wasn't much fun to be around. I was so uncomfortable. Four of the babies were lying on one side, and two of them had their heads on my diaphragm, so it was hard to breathe. I had one baby on my left side, and I thought she was going to be the first one out. Then there was Alexandria, who was in the birth canal the last three months, and, finally, my little Raymond, who was crammed in between everybody. As time went on and they ran out of room, they got more active. It felt like I had aliens inside me.
I knew who was who and exactly where they were, but I wouldn't give them names. I called them A, B, C, D and E. I didn't want to think about names. In fact our marriage nearly came to grief over it. We had horrible fights because Ray was convinced I just didn't care about them, didn't really want them. Actually, what I was doing was protecting my feelings. You see, I was terrified of losing them. What it boiled down to was that I thought, "Well, if I don't give them names, if I act like I don't care about them, then it's not going to hurt as much when I lose them." Which wasn't true at all. I would have been devastated.
At five months they started getting real active and they were little people, and there would be feet, especially Erica's, sticking up out of my stomach. I could watch my stomach move like they were playing basketball inside. It was truly wonderful. You could pat their little butts, and they would respond and flatten out. I would play with them. I'd talk to them all the time and play my radio on my stomach. We'd watch the soap operas together. If they weren't moving as much as I thought they should, I'd poke them and wake them up. Then I would want them to go back to sleep and, naturally, they wouldn't.
The bad thing was, the older and bigger and more active they got, the more pain there was for me. My stretch marks were real bad—I had a tummy tuck after my first pregnancy, so I didn't have any extra skin. The pain, it got so heavy, well, we started with regular Tylenol. Then the doctor switched me to Tylenol with codeine. Then one day when the activity level was real high and my scars were beginning to tear, they moved me up to Demerol, which made me throw up. In the end, during the last two weeks, they put me on morphine. The doctors assured me that the dosages were so low that I didn't have to worry about the drugs harming the babies.
I was getting real ornery at this point. I told my doctor that they weren't treating me as a person, but as a stomach with babies in it. I kept telling all of them, "You're not listening to me! I can't take any more!" I threw a pillow at my obstetrician, Dr. Lenny Hutton, because he just didn't understand. You see, he was going to make me continue taking this medicine to stop the contractions, and I wanted the contractions and the babies to come! They were amazed at how big I was. They said, "Nobody's uterus can stretch that much." But they kept letting the pregnancy go on and on in order to give the babies every chance of surviving. Deep down I knew what they were doing. But at the time, I wasn't thinking real rationally. I wanted it to be over. I'd had it.
R: During the time she was mad at her doctors—I have to admit—it was great, because she wasn't mad at me anymore. For once I could be on her side. I took the attitude of, "Yeah, I don't understand why they won't let you have these babies."
M: I was miserable. By the end of my pregnancy I had gained 60 pounds. I had string-bean arms and string-bean legs and this humongous stomach. When I stood, if I wasn't on balance I would fall forward. I couldn't sit up. I couldn't lie down because Veronica and Danielle had their heads on my diaphragm. The doctors wanted me to lie on my left side. But Erica was on the left side and she wasn't real thrilled about it. She would get violent. It hurt when she kicked. I'd get sick, actually throw up, from her hitting me. One baby was underneath my bladder and had my cervix pushed way back to where I couldn't even be examined anymore. I went from having to get up and urinate every hour to not being able go at all because the babies had my bladder so out of kilter. I couldn't walk. The last few days I could hardly move. There's no such thing as sleep during that kind of pregnancy. Somebody was always up, and I'd just lie there watching the clock all night long. They would give me Nembutal to sleep, but it didn't affect me. The only reason I took it was it knocked the babies out. Once they got quiet the pain would go away.
R: The last month I lived by the phone—I was so worried I'd miss the babies' birth. But I got lucky. I was there, visiting, on Jan. 11, the night they arrived.
M: I'd been contracting again. They were every 10 minutes, but these contractions were different. I could feel them from the bottom up. Dr. Hutton had gotten together a 24-hour on-call team. They took me right down to the operating room in my regular bed. The nurses already had the elevator doors open, so we didn't have to stop for anything.
R: They wouldn't allow me in until she was fully under the anesthesia. Then they put me in a chair next to her head, and Dr. Brinton, who was standing next to me, gave a running commentary. I didn't actually see Michele being cut for the cesarean section. But I stood up when they were lifting the first baby out, and I got a little bit scared because the baby had a bluish tinge. I asked Dr. Brinton about it and he said that was normal, it takes a minute for them to go from being in the fluid state to actually breathing in the air and taking on a pinkish color from the oxygen. Here's the order they were born in and their weights: Alexandria, 3 lbs. 3 oz.; Veronica, 2 lbs. 12 oz.; Raymond, 1 lb. 15 oz.; Danielle, 3 lbs. 1 oz.; Erica, 2 lbs. 11 oz.
Afterward I went up to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, where all five babies were in the same room. I looked at each individually and felt they were gorgeous. They were just so small and delicate, much more active than I'd anticipated. Basically I just looked at them in amazement.
M: I wanted to get out of the recovery room and see them, but they wouldn't let me. It wasn't until 13½ hours later that I finally got to see my babies. The first thing I did was check all the fingers and all the toes. I touched them very softly because they were so little. I'd never seen anything like it, and I never imagined I would. A 1-lb. baby like little Raymond can fit in the palm of your hand. At first they were all placed in incubators for warmth and oxygen. Then came the part about, "Oh, my God, now what am I going to do? Am I going to be a good mother? Am I going to be good enough?"
R: Michele saw the babies for the first time right before the hospital's news conference. We were late, so they grabbed me. Michele stayed upstairs, but she wasn't too happy about it. She was definitely suffering from postpartum depression.
M: Ray would come up to see me and they would drag him off to be on television. It was supposed to be me and him, our time together. But he kept running off. So I told him if he kept it up, I'd blow up the TV. Then I sat and cried for three days.
R: Actually, every time they dragged me off for a conference it was like a vacation because she was so miserable to be around.
M: Then there were the finances. I had plenty of time to stay in bed and think about them. I've always had one or two jobs. I thought, "Well, I can go back to work." But the more I think about it, the more I realize there's no way I'm going to be able to go anywhere for probably the first year or two. We're just going to have to make do—do it on what Ray makes as a corrections officer.
R: A lot of people ask me that question: "How are you going to handle the financial aspect?" The truth is, I don't know. I'm building a new house in the country north of Detroit, and I hope to have it fit to live in when the babies come home next month. I'm hoping we can get enough help around the house so that I can get free and work some overtime. Let me put it this way: The boat's for sale. So is the '84 Cadillac and pretty much everything else. The little extras that we had are all going, that's for sure—out of necessity.
M: Listen, I'm sure I could sit here and think of all the fears that I should probably have about the future. But at this point I'm just looking forward to taking my babies home with me. The munchkins are getting used to the idea. Larry can't wait to help with the babies, but Chris is not hot about sharing his mom. Brian thought they were still in my stomach. I have hopes for the future. Despite everything, despite the long hours of baby care and the financial hardship, what I see for us is a lot of fun.
Nobody in their right mind asks for quintuplets. But I'll tell you this: I feel real special because I feel that whoever is running things upstairs doesn't give anyone anything more than they can handle. And if He thinks I can handle this special job, then I must be special. There must be a reason for these babies. Either that or He has a grim sense of humor.
Doctors say the quints are doing well. If they continue to gain weight and are no longer reliant on the incubators for body warmth, they will be sent home with their parents next month. At this time offers of financial support are limited to two baby food manufacturers who have promised food and toys free of charge for as long as the five new L'Esperances need them.