Seven babies, and then one more for good luck

Anahad O’Connor

Dr. Harold Henry and his colleagues had followed their patient for 10 weeks, and knew just what to expect. The woman was carrying seven babies. Multiple ultrasounds confirmed it every time: Seven heads, seven spines and 28 limbs, all packed into a space typically only several centimetres in diameter.

“Each time, we thought we were validating that there were in fact seven babies,” said Dr. Henry, the chief of maternal and fetal medicine at Kaiser Permanente Bellflower Medical Centre in southern California.

But when the time for delivery came on Monday morning, there was one wrinkle. After the seventh baby was plucked from the womb, an assistant announced that he felt another foot.

“Quit joking,” Dr. Henry shot back.

When the assistant insisted this was no joke, Dr. Henry reached in and confirmed it.

“That’s when the room all of a sudden became quiet,” Dr. Henry said in an interview. “Everyone was in shock, including mom herself. She just couldn’t believe it.”

Baby No. 8 marked a small miracle. For only the second time in recorded American history, a woman had given birth to live octuplets. The odds of being struck by lightning are better.

Multiple births

Because high-multiple babies are typically delivered prematurely, it is rare for all of the children to survive. But if all eight make it home, as doctors expect, they will set a record. Septuplets are the largest set of multiple babies delivered in the United States who survived, the last of which were delivered in Iowa in 1997. A year later, a 27-year-old mother, Nkem Chukwu, delivered eight babies in Houston — including six girls and two boys — but the smallest, a girl weighing only about 283 grams, died a week after birth.

According to experts, at least two factors are known to increase the odds of a multiple birth. One is age: The older a woman is, the more likely she is to naturally give birth to multiple babies, though scientists are not exactly sure why. The second factor is modern medicine. Women who undergo techniques like in-vitro fertilization are more likely to have multiple babies because doctors typically implant multiple embryos in the uterus at once, knowing that some are unlikely to survive.

Dr. Henry and his colleagues have declined to say whether the mother in Bellflower used fertility drugs. But studies suggest there is a great likelihood of it.

On Monday morning, the procedure flowed perfectly, with most of the children quickly stabilized, Dr. Henry said. The eighth baby, a boy weighing about 907 grams, was also removed quickly once he was discovered. How he went unnoticed was unclear, but it is believed he was tucked into one of the horns of the uterus, far from his siblings.

“You have to consider that all those heads and extremities were packed into a space that’s designed for at most two babies, so you can see that it’s conceivable that one would be caught in the midst of that and not be seen,” said Dr. Henry.

For now, the babies are being referred to with the letters A through H. It is not known yet if any are identical. Altogether their deliveries took about five minutes, after which they were whisked away. By 9 a.m. on Tuesday, their mother still had not held them, but Dr. Henry said that was about to change. — New York Times News Service

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