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ON A WARM AND SUNNY DAY EARLY LAST JUNE, Kathy Addleman drove from her home in Mason City, Iowa, 130 miles south to the town of Carlisle to check on the pregnancy of her daughter-in-law Bobbi McCaughey. "I asked her if everything was fine and if she was still pregnant," says Addleman, recalling how very ordinary things seemed back then. "And she said, 'Yeah...more than one.'

"I looked at her and asked, 'Two?'

"She said, 'More.'

" 'Three?'

" 'More.'

"I kept going, my eyes getting bigger. She said, 'Seven.' I said, 'No way.'

"Then she said, 'Way' "

Way, indeed. According to the best scientific estimates, 29-year-old Bobbi McCaughey stood a greater chance of being struck dead by an asteroid than accomplishing what she did in six minutes on Nov. 19 at the Iowa Methodist Medical Center in Des Moines—giving birth by cesarean section to 3-lb. 4-oz. Kenneth Robert, 2-lb. 11-oz. Alexis May, 2-lb. 10-oz. Natalie Sue, 2-lb. 5-oz. Kelsey Ann, 3-lb. 3-oz. Brandon James, 2-lb. 14-oz. Nathan Roy and 2-lb. 15-oz. Joel Steven McCaughey.

That McCaughey and her husband, Kenny, 27, a billing clerk at a local Chevy dealership, were able to produce the world's only thriving set of septuplets seems truly miraculous even now, given the odds. To begin with, an estimated 40 percent of higher-order multiple pregnancies end in miscarriage, and a woman who manages to carry even triplets risks a 50-50 chance that at least one will be physically or neurologically impaired. In short, says Dr. Geoffrey Sher, medical director of the Pacific Fertility Medical Center in L.A., "once a woman gets pregnant with seven babies, her chances of carrying them to term are virtually zero."

Make that were. Almost equally astonishing was the fact that just four days after delivering her brood, Bobbi McCaughey walked, unaided, across the threshold of her tiny three-bedroom home, secure in the knowledge that each of her babies seems to have survived the trauma of birth whole and undamaged. "I know that it's extraordinary or whatever to have this many babies and go this far," the soft-spoken former seamstress told CBS's Des Moines affiliate KCCI-TV "It's something I just did. They're my children, and I wanted them."

In the midst of the hoopla and media coverage—including a congratulatory telephone call from President Clinton ("You know, when those kids all go off to school," he said, "you'll be able to get a job running any major corporation in America.") and an unprecedented bounty of gift offers, ranging from a lifetime supply of diapers (from the Pampers people) to a new house (from local businesses) and free college education (from St. Ambrose University in Davenport, Iowa) for the lucky seven—Bobbi herself projected a sense of uncanny calm. "You're thinking, 'Wow. How can this be?' It boggles the mind," says mother-in-law Addleman, 46, recalling her own first reaction to the news of Bobbi's pregnancy. "But then the peace comes. You remember that God's in control."

If so, he obviously had a game plan that began at least as far back as 1991, the year Bobbi, the oldest of six children of a Baptist minister and his wife, a saleswoman, met Kenny on a blind date. "The first night, he came home from a date with Bobbi and he said, 'I really like her,' " says Val McCaughey, 41, Kenny's stepmother, a kindergarten teacher. "And that was it." On Dec. 5, 1992, he and Bobbi married.

Unable to conceive at first, the couple consulted an infertility specialist, who put Bobbi on the fertility drug Metrodin. Less than a year later daughter Mikayla was born, and during services at the Missionary Baptist Church in Carlisle, her parents began praying that she would have a brother or sister. "They were wanting a baby so bad," says fellow church member Jo McLain.

Bobbi understood that the fertility drugs she was taking gave her a 15 percent greater chance of a multiple birth. But in her mind, that meant twins, possibly even triplets—but certainly not what an ultrasound showed. "She called me and I said, 'Did they find the baby?' " says Val. "She said, 'Yeah.' But something in her voice told me there was more. I said, 'How many?' And she said, 'Seven.' "

Bobbi next broke the news to Kenny, who, on his lunch hour from Wright Chevrolet, was "just flabbergasted by the whole thing," says his father, a mechanic at the dealership. "Seven? What is the Lord doing here?" Kenny asked. "I said, 'It's his will. You've got them,' " Ken Sr. replied. From that time forward the expectant parents "questioned how they were going to provide for the babies but never questioned having them," says Ken. Soon the whole town was in on the news. "We didn't want to jinx it," says LaVena Owens, manager of Four Seasons Floral and Gifts, who, like everyone else in Carlisle (pop. 3,240), was determined to keep the secret from the outside world. "I know it sounds fake, but we have a lot of respect for each other."

Six weeks into Bobbi's pregnancy, the McCaugheys' doctor contacted Dr. Paula Mahone, 39, a perinatologist at Iowa Methodist Medical Center. A specialist in high-risk pregnancies, even Mahone was stunned to hear about what Bobbi was expecting. "I was like, 'You've got to be joking,' " she says. Mahone and her fellow perinatologist Dr. Karen Drake did a study of medical precedents, which confirmed what they had suspected. "There had been no recorded successful delivery of septuplets," says Mahone.

Both doctors at first assumed that the McCaugheys would opt for "fetal reduction," the medical term for selective abortion to enhance the remaining babies' chances of survival. But, says Drake, "when I learned about how Bobbi was as a person, especially her religious background, I knew she wasn't going to do it. I guess in her mind she would just suffer losing them all, rather than selectively reduce."

At that point the two doctors focused on possible medical complications—and on making sure that Bobbi had plenty of rest and a healthy diet. They also helped assemble the medical team that would assist in the delivery. Rather than be far from friends and family, Bobbi opted to schedule it at the medical center just 10 miles from Carlisle. "There was not any other center that could offer her more than we've done here," says Mahone.

By June, fellow members with the McCaugheys of the Missionary Baptist Church were taking turns cooking meals for the family. In August, Bobbi's younger sister Michele, 20, put her college plans on hold to move in with the family and help care for Mikayla. By September, Bobbi's parents moved from Des Moines to Carlisle to be closer to their daughter.

As Bobbi's pregnancy lengthened, it remained blessedly problem-free. "Every time we saw her she was looking great, doing fine, and the babies were growing well," says Mahone. So much so that the first time Bobbi had heartburn, says Mahone, the reaction was "Oh, my gosh, what's happening? What does this mean?"

And yet as the pregnancy progressed, doctors were aware that the odds did not favor a happy outcome. "Emotionally for us it was very draining," says Dr. Robert Shaw, 48, head of the neonatology unit at Blank Children's Hospital, adjacent to the Medical Center. "We really felt like there was a dark cloud hanging over our heads.... And part of our anxiety was that we knew the world would be watching."

Drake, too, felt the pressure. "I personally never believed Bobbi would get this far," she says. "But in the middle of one night I woke up and said, 'She's going to do it.' I told Bobbi about it, and she looked at me as if to say, 'Did you have any doubt?' "

Inevitably, word of the McCaughey septuplets began to spread. One McCaughey neighbor began knitting seven Christmas stockings for the family, others made seven baby quilts plus a tiny blanket for Mikayla's doll, and the local Red Cross would later hold babysitting lessons for any high school students who wanted to volunteer down the road. Kenny McCaughey once hid in the bathroom at Wright Chevrolet to escape a TV crew, even as Bobbi, who was ordered into the hospital during her 26th week for bed rest, whiled away the time with crossword puzzles, sewing and TV. During his twice-weekly visits, says her pastor Robert Brown, "Bobbi was always very strong in her conviction to have the babies, but she did become more and more tired the longer into her pregnancy."

In the hospital doctors prescribed drugs to ward off labor, but by mid-November, 30 weeks and four days into her pregnancy, Bobbi, says Brown, "was reaching her physical limitations."

On Tuesday, Nov. 18, Kenny telephoned relatives to say that the birth was imminent. By 10 the next morning some 18 of them had assembled at Iowa Methodist Medical Center, where, in the operating suite, 40 respiratory therapists, nurses, perinatologists, neonatalogists, anesthesiologists and special transport teams (which would whisk the babies to Blank Children's Hospital next door) took their positions. At noon, Bobbi was wheeled into surgery. "I made sure she was positioned properly on the table and everything was in order, and that Bobbi was as comfortable as she could be," says Mahone. "I knew our plan was together. We'd planned forever."

Bobbi, conscious and alert, was tilted to face Drake, who was on the left side of the operating table, with Mahone on the right near Bobbi's hips. After an epidural was administered to numb Bobbi, doctors made a vertical, 15-inch bikini-line incision. Then, as Kenny McCaughey documented the proceedings with a video camera, Mahone began her remarkable task. "You deliver the first baby that presents itself to you," she says, "and keep going until you're done."

The babies, identified by the first seven letters of the alphabet, were arranged in an inverted pyramid in Bobbi's uterus, with baby A closest to the cervix and babies E, F and G fanned out at the top. First to be lifted out was Kenneth Robert, nicknamed Hercules because of his supporting role in utero. As soon as he was handed off to a member of his transport team, doctors delivered Alexis May, then Natalie Sue and all four of their perfectly formed siblings. "The first baby that cried, everyone in the room kind of ... it wasn't really a cheer," says Mahone. "It was something different. An 'a-h-h-h.' "

After the delivery, Mahone told Bobbi her babies were all doing well. "She was fine and [for] that we thanked God," she says. "She gave kind of a weak smile. She was really wiped out." Meanwhile euphoric friends and family began their own impromptu party in a private room. The new father walked in "just beaming with that ear-to-ear grin he's got," says Kathy Addleman. "And then the pastor started singing the doxology, and we all joined in. It was beautiful—the harmony and everything. The spirit of God was there."

Still, doctors had to grapple with some worrisome developments. All the babies were put on ventilators, and Joel, whose placenta had begun to separate from the uterine wall, required a blood transfusion. But those relatively minor complications were only a shadow of what they might have been—and might be yet. "Bobbi McCaughey is incredibly lucky," says Dr. Mark Evans, professor and vice chairman of obstetrics and gynecology at Wayne State University in Detroit. "For a mother to carry 20 pounds of babies is essentially unheard-of, and we won't know for a long time if they are going to come out of this unscathed."

Evans and other experts speak of the dangers of cerebral palsy and learning disabilities. "The great risk period is in the next couple of weeks," says Evans. "The biggest concern is that the blood vessels in the brain are very fragile and you have hemorrhaging." In any case, warns University of Pennsylvania medical ethicist Arthur Caplan, "no one should come away with the idea that it is safe to try to deliver seven babies." Says Dr. Drake: "When those babies are toddling in my office, that's when I'll know it's okay."

Despite continuing concerns in the medical community, cautious doctors predicted that all seven new McCaugheys should be home within 10 weeks. For now, in their beds at the Blank Hospital's neonatal unit, they are already showing the first hints of individual personalities. "Like all little patients in the hospital," says Dr. Robert Shaw, "the babies find certain positions more comfortable, probably related to whatever their position was in utero. Nathan, for example, really likes to be on his tummy, so he looks like he's mooning the rest of the nursery. But we don't take it personally."

Meanwhile, the nation's goodwill is made tangible by the abundance of letters, stuffed animals, pacifiers and layettes that have inundated the McCaugheys in celebration of a single incontrovertible fact: that on the week before Thanksgiving, in the year 1997, seven small lives began in an uncertain world—and were cause for rejoicing.

SUSAN SCHINDEHETTE
JOANNE FOWLER in Carlisle, LORNA GRISBY in Des Moines and GIOVANNA BREU in Chicago

  • Contributors:
  • Joanne Fowler,
  • Lorna Grisby,
  • Giovanna Breu.